I have given up handbags. Men may think this a trifling thing. Women will understand it was not a painless decision. In my adult life I had rarely left home without a bag. Sometimes just a small clutch bag, but more likely a bucket bag which hung, with the weight of a Yorkshire terrier, from my shoulder. I have a dent in my collarbone to prove it. Then came COVID.
You may remember that obsessive hand-washing was the first thing asked of us. It preceded social distancing, mandatory masks and the proscription of everything that makes life enjoyable, and though I’m not a herd animal I did give some thought to my normally relaxed attitude to germs. For one thing, I use public transport a lot.
Wherever I went, my bag went with me. It sat on bus seats, stood on train carriage floors, rode on airport security conveyor belts. I began to see it through a different optic. No longer a boon companion, filled with essential items. More an adventure playground for death-dealing bugs. Dispensing with it might reduce my infection footprint. But could I possibly live without it?
What is it with women and bags? Men have their man bags and laptop cases, but they can lay them aside without twitching. See them go, walking down the street, whistling, hands free. Enviable.
For many women, the bag imperative kicks in with motherhood. Human infants now travel with vast amounts of stuff. The woman who used to cycle to work carrying nothing more than a cross-body pouch becomes, overnight, a beast of burden, ramming into a Cath Kidston tote everything her child might possibly need between its first breath and freshers’ week. The dial is set. She is for evermore wedded to a bag loaded with things that might come in handy.
I upended the contents of my own bag onto the kitchen table, and a sorry inventory it made. Probably pretty typical, though. A wallet, for a start, made fat with plastic, not wads of cash. Why was I carrying an expired EU health card? Why so many defunct pens and nub-end lipsticks? And two torches? One of the weightier items was a packet of Brazil nuts stashed in case of a starvation emergency. Such as? The hijacking of a No. 11 bus and the authorities refusing to pay a ransom or even send in pizza?
All of this superfluous junk lay cushioned on a bed of till receipts, small, worthless coins, and linty Tic Tacs. Oh, and an enigmatic note to myself. PSC to H, Mon. No idea.
I suspected there might be a genetic element to my condition. My mother never went anywhere without a plastic rain hood and a tube of heartburn tablets, but sometimes we need to rise above our DNA. I took stock and decided to go cold turkey.
We brought nothing into this world and it is certain we can carry nothing out. So said St Paul, but he likely had the use of a donkey with panniers.
The first time I went bagless, I felt naked. There were also moments of panic. Where was my…? I experienced a flashback to the occasion I rashly agreed to swap plane seats and sit in the emergency exit row. We all know what that means. Every bag stowed. It’s only for takeoff and landing, they say, never allowing that due to heavy traffic your plane may be noodling along the runway for an hour waiting for its slot. Talk about separation anxiety.
That experience should have taught me that I had an unhealthy relationship with my handbag, but no. It took COVID-19.
After a couple of bag-free outings I found my anxiety levels dropping. All I really needed were my keys, travel pass, phone and bank card. Quite often I didn’t even bother with the phone. The less you carry, the less you want to carry. Am I ahead of the curve here? The Birkin collectibles lobby may disagree, but I see handbags — filthy, unnecessary things — going the way of whalebone corsets and snuff boxes. Is this evangelical zeal?
I’ve been clean now for four and a half months. My gait has changed. I step out with (literally) a lighter step. My hands are free. I no longer have one shoulder hunched higher than the other. Agreed, I suffer from slight pocket bulge but sure, isn’t life now full of trade-offs? Currently, I can get a tattoo but I may not gather all seven of my grandchildren under one roof. If charged and found guilty of singing in a public place and hugging with reckless disregard for life, I would like it mentioned, in mitigation, that I haven’t inflicted a handbag on the world since May 28.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s UK magazine. Subscribe to the US edition here.