Sunday, 24 October 2010


I hate buying new shoes. I have small, wide feet that won't cram comfortably into any leather shoe with a bit of structure, and the first month after purchase is always a period of pain and discomfort, alleviated with sticking plasters and extra socks. I rarely have more than one pair, and I wear them to destruction before replacing them.

A few years ago I made the mistake of buying a pair of those "lifetime purchase" shoes which rubbed my heels so badly that the fancy yellow leather lining was soaked with my blood. I eventually threw the expensive bastards in the bin. Right now I'm wearing a new pair of Josef Seibel lace-ups ("the European comfort shoe"), extra wide and made of supple leather, and my left little toe is rubbing and both insteps are aching. A large part of my consciousness has currently located itself in my feet. It'll get better, eventually.

So I have reason to remember comfortable footwear, the way some people remember cars. I have always found boots a better match to my feet than shoes. My grandfather passed on to me a pair of American army boots when I was 14, and from then on I habitually wore boots at school -- usually Dr. Marten's Airwairs. But the best pair I ever had were my Dutch work boots.

Boot boy

In 1973 I went to Amsterdam with a friend for a few weeks, where we stayed in a dormitory over a bar run by an American in the Nieuwmarkt district (which turned out to be the base for a massive car-and-dope-smuggling operation, but that's another story). If you never went hitchhiking round Europe in the 70s, you probably won't know about sleep-ins.

There were two types. First, there were the cheap dormitories with bunks and basic facilities, not unlike youth hostels, and plentiful in popular destinations like Amsterdam. These were oriented to youth culture, and usually had a few very basic rules like "no dealing on the premises; no tripping in the dormitory". Then there were the emergency municipal sleeping spaces, often a school hall, aimed at getting the young summer backpackers off the streets as they passed through town. You could spend the night in a sleeping bag on a hard floor alongside maybe 50 or more other pilgrims. This was European civic-mindedness at its tolerant best; hitchhiking was mostly good fun, but the less streetwise kids were very vulnerable.

After we had got over the novelty of Amsterdam's coffee bars, where many fancy varieties of hash could be bought legally, laid out on trays in glass cabinets like patisserie, we explored the surrounding area, which was very lively in those days. Apart from the nearby Red-Light District, the area was a hotbed of political activism, full of squats and communes and covered with inventive grafitti. At the time, people were gearing up for full-on opposition to the proposal to bulldoze the area to make way for a metro and motorway. In those days, this was very much my kind of scene. In 1975, riotous violence exploded in Nieuwmarkt (but it was bulldozed, nonetheless, and the metro still got built).

In the main square was a market, and one of the stalls sold nothing but hand-made clogs and work boots. When I pulled on a pair of the boots -- rawhide calf-length loose jackboots, with leather soles and reinforced toecaps -- I found, to my amazement, it was like wearing slippers. Rather robust, hyper-butch slippers, it's true, but I had rarely felt so immediately at one with footwear. They instilled a sense of well-being and confidence -- not least, I have to admit, because the substantial heels added somewhat to my height.

Boot boy's best boots

I wore them for the following decade. Their hand-made construction meant they could be repaired eternally. Cobblers' eyes would brighten with pleasure when I handed them over the counter for a new heel or sole. The good ones would comment on the distinctive German style of the sole construction.

But, one day after I'd started a "proper" nine-to-five job, someone wondered whether my habitual footwear didn't seem a little OTT for office work. At the time I was alternating the Dutch boots with a pair of equally comfortable German paratrooper's boots. I found I could see their point, and I experienced that rush of self-awareness -- not quite shame, not quite wisdom -- that is the onset of growing up. You begin to see yourself as you really are, and the realisation comes that your days of wearing items from the dressing-up box are coming to an end.

I had been trying to combine a fairly wild social life with a job that required early rising and sober concentration, and it seemed a choice had to be made; I was, after all, not far off 30 years old. For everyone there comes a point where -- unless you are a supremely talented and motivated individual -- self-invention starts to shade into self-delusion. For me, I decided that point had arrived, and I chose to accept the walk-on part in the world I had been offered, rather than imagine I was ever going to give it the good kicking it deserved.

Twenty five years on, though, I find I miss my old boots. Perhaps it is an indicator of impending mid-life crisis that I find myself wondering whether the discomfort of new shoes is still a price worth paying. I never quite pulled off respectability, anyway. And, if anything, the world is more in need of a kicking now than it ever was. But, I promise, no ponytail and no motorbike.


Poetry24 said...

"..impending mid-life crisis.."? Nah!

Mike C. said...

You don't think? I was sort of looking forward to it... Shame to miss out on a solid psycho-biological excuse to behave badly... I may well *pretend* to have one, anyway. If not now, when,after all?


Poetry24 said...

If you wait a few more years, you'll need no excuse to behave badly. It goes with the territory.

Come to think of it, though, why not seize the moment and have some fun?