For as long as I can remember, I've carried a lot of Things. I'm not sure when it started exactly, but as far back as 1993, documented in faded photo albums at my grandma's, there stands a bowl-headed imp clutching the usual detritus of toddlerdom: an Action Man, a Barbie (very liberal household!), yo-yos, sweets, a slinky and a lemon juicer (yeah, not sure really) – all barely stuffed between chubby fingers empurpled by the sheer strain.
This behaviour has continued. I only carry Barbie dolls on birthdays now. But in lieu of my previous cargo, I've always an inventory that includes, but is not limited to: headphones, keys, phone, dead portable phone charger(s), inhalers, cigarettes (the contradictions of NHS guidelines aren't lost on me), hand sanitiser and train tickets up North that expired five years ago. My friends, minimalists to the core, stuff the bare essentials in the pockets. For my precious cargo, that will just not do. The quest for a functional vessel has been a long one.
It is now over. After much experimentation, in which canvas totes gave no order to the chaos of my belongings, and in which rucksacks moved Niagara Falls to the small of my back, I've found what my be the best bag thus far: the Explorer Utility Tote by The North Face. Yes, that is the word 'tote' you see. But unlike the Rough Trade freebie of my varsity years, there is structure; a large scale Filofax of a bag made of the brand's robust 'Base Camp' fabric. There are pockets and pouches everywhere. Outside, there's a happy home for a sunglasses case, and overpriced garish trinkets bought abroad. Inside, interior zip-ups bestow a false sense of security to the stuff of middling value. There is a place for everything.
This level of functionality is no accident. The Extreme offshoot, first marketed in 1988 to big mountain skiers with a death wish, melds the sensibleness of a train spotter in February with something a little less, well, sensible. Cold-beating anoraks pop in shades of bubblegum, and the colour I loathe to refer to as 'Gen Z yellow'. Branding is present, but not brash. It's all stuff you've worn before, but a bit brighter. It's fun.
That, too, seems intentional, and the tote's clear-cut patchwork of velcro and ballistic nylon has been liked by people who I really didn't think would like such a thing. And even if technicolour isn't your palette, The North Face offers a monochrome alternative.
Prior to meeting friends down the pub who were hypnotised by Fulham's ascent to the Premier League, the burly golem of a bouncer did the routine spot check. "Can I check your bag, mate?" I nodded, fully in the throes of momentary pang of adolescent panic that these exchanges still trigger. "And it's a nice bag, too!" I blinked a couple of times, smiling through a shaken stammer of, "oh er, yes, thanks, it is," like I'd just been rescued from the island on Lost. A mate (one of the many with absolutely zero interest in menswear) began screaming an unnecessary expletive at the televised referee, only to be distracted by The North Face trophy: "Ey, Murray, I quite like that."
And, of course, the golden fleece of praise from my Esquire brother-in-arms, Finlay Renwick: "A very nice piece!" He's an exception, writing, like I do, about these such matters for a living. But a compliment is a compliment and I will take it, honest reader.
I'll also be taking my usual stuff with me. Though this time around, I've a much better-looking way to carry around my lemon juicer with a pack of Camel Blues – and that's not just because I'm sans bowl cut in 2020.
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