Ian McMillan: Fighting the corner of the humble balaclava

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As I remember it, the winter of 1979/80 was bitingly cold. I was employed as a general labourer on a building site near Sheffield and as I trudged across the rock-hard ground, carrying heavy objects or trying to make an impression on the uninterested landscape with a shovel that had my name on the handle, I wore so many layers that I resembled a cross between a garden gnome and a barrage balloon. On my head I sported a red woolly hat that, no matter how hard I tugged at it, always rode away from my ears at great speed so that they remained exposed all day to the chomping wind’s relentless argument. They became as red as Mars.

You might ask why I’m writing about winter in August. All will be revealed, just like my ears were by that flipping red cap.

My mate Arthur had a solution to my temperature-based misery. “Tha wants to get one of these, kid,” he said to me, fishing a balaclava out of his jacket and putting it on. For a moment he looked comic, like somebody going to a fancy-dress party as a mime artist; then he looked tragic, like an elderly Russian grandma making her way across the Siberian wastes. Then, to be honest, he looked warm. I couldn’t resist a chortle but Arthur couldn’t care less. “Tha can laugh if tha wants, kid, but I’ll tell thi what: my lugs are warmer than thine!” And I’ll tell thi what: he was right.

So that weekend I braved the icy bus-stop and went into Barnsley and bought a balaclava. A black one, like Arthur’s. “Are you going to rob a bank?” the bloke in the shop asked; “No, I’m going to keep my ears warm,” I replied. “That’s what they all said,” he replied, mysteriously. The mystery was solved on Monday morning, as the sleet made a mockery of the weather forecast. Everybody was wearing balaclavas: Cyril, Crackerjack, Vinny and the bloke who drove the fork-lift truck, all balaclava’d up and ready for the day. As we strolled out of the cabin we looked like the SAS about to go on a secret mission. Arthur was triumphant, vindicated. “Everybody listens to Arthur, kid,” he said. “I can’t hear thi for mi balaclava,” Crackerjack replied, but nobody laughed because, in truth, nobody could actually hear what anybody was saying.

And the reason I’m writing about balaclavas in August is that the summer following that freezing winter I fished it out of the drawer I’d chucked the garment into and announced to my wife that I was going to reclaim the balaclava for the summer. She was used to me making ridiculous remarks and went back to drinking her tea but I was determined to make a statement. The balaclava revolution starts here, I said to myself. I stood by the door. The sun blazed and people walked by in vests and summer frocks. I put the balaclava on. The world went fuzzy. My wife might have been saying something but it just sounded like slippers on a carpet.

I admit it. I didn’t go out of the door that August morning in my balaclava. But maybe this month I will. Maybe.

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