None of the dictionaries which I own record the donkey jacket at all, which is fitting somehow for a garment which signs absence, lowliness, invisibility. All the dictionaries agree that donkey figuratively signifies humble persistence: the auxiliary steam-engine, the hardworking, middle-ranking footballer.
For me, the magical thing about the donkey jacket is that it is a cloak of invisibility in some places, which also paradoxically admits me to being visible in other regions. It can be bought over the counter for about twenty pounds in almost any market town of England. It is a jacket of dark-blue cloth. There are two patch pockets on the front (very good for putting your hands in to draw the jacket around you against the cold) and a collar that will turn up against the weather as, somehow, a scarf worn with a donkey jacket looks faintly incongruous. The yoke across the shoulders is double-thickness and is interlined with something waterproof like waxed paper or polythene which rustles as you put the jacket on. In spring and early autumn you can wear the jacket hanging open; in winter, buttoned up. Once I wore it over a suit to go to the opera.
I bought my jacket in a moment of anger with the universal assumption that any man who lives in the country must own a waxed jacket and wear it in towns in order to demonstrate the fact. Some of my friends at the university where I work wear donkey jackets, and I have always thought them plain, well-designed, and therefore admirable. The other, subtler aspects of the garment began to dawn on me but slowly. The first hint came when I was walking through a midland town on a freezing Saturday afternoon with my friend Andrew. We were dressed in what I thought unobtrusive, unremarkable clothes: black jeans, quotidian shirts, donkey jackets. Andrew caught sight of our reflections in a shop window and said something about our looking a right pair of yobs, a remark which I put down to irony. At that point, to my eyes, were simply dressed as inconspicuously as anyone can be dressed.
My wife was the next to alert me. I was about to go out one winter evening with another friend, and I was casting about looking for an overcoat of some sort. Rough-boy coat, she remarked, having found my donkey jacket. Again, I assumed levels of irony that were beyond me and continued to wear my donkey jacket as - often as I needed a warm overcoat.
The Victoria & Albert Museum and a horrible little restaurant near the Public Record Office finally made me realise the talismanic qualities of my donkey jacket. I was hanging around the back door of the V&A waiting for someone to fetch me for an appointment, when a delivery boy with a pile of catalogues on a barrow came up to me. Get the door for me, mate, would you? he asked. Unsurprised, I held the door and helped the barrow over the doorsill. But the restaurant was the clincher. On this particular occasion, it was midwinter and, through the mirk of one of those days when the sun never really rises, we made our way to a possible-looking place for lunch, a place addressing itself on the whole to the goat's cheese and salad consumers of upriver London. There the striking-force of the donkey jacket really became clear to me, when I attempted to order us some lunch. We behaved quietly and politely, yet we were resented and given appalling service, downright rudeness. As service dragged, as we were pointedly ignored, as the time for coffee passed with all the staff apparently unable to see us, it began to dawn on me that the problem was simply my jacket, by then draped over the back of my chair.
And one night, waiting in the workshop for my car to be ready, I found myself rendered unexpectedly visible by the donkey jacket when a passing mechanic from a welding-shop somewhere else on the site paused to talk to me at leisure about the length of the winter and the price of beer and the inequity of life. Visible or invisible? I'm not sure: the donkey jacket seems to admit me to conversations in shops, workshops and garages, from which another coat would exclude me. Yet, for the majority of the people I meet in my everyday life, it makes me invisible, silenced despite my accent, and thus I move unhampered between worlds as long as my tough, £20 jacket lasts.