Today is Towel Day so my mind went to shoes, naturally. This is a small homage to the man who inspired so much in my writing esp. the shorter fiction and whose oeuvre is celebrated on this most wholly of days.
I have had a few influences in my writing career but one stands out, and shoes are at the heart of the art. As any one reading my work here, they will know I love taking a well known setting and subverting it, adding more and more surreal yet internally consistent twists to it.
The late, great St Douglas of Adams reached his apogee in the promulgation of the economic theory that is shortly known as the Shoe Event Horizon.
Simply stated, explaining the correlation between the level of economic (and emotional) depression of a society and the number of shoe shops the society has, this states:
as a society sinks into depression, the people of the society need to cheer themselves up by buying themselves gifts, often shoes. It is also linked to the fact that when you are depressed you look down at your shoes and decide they aren’t good enough quality so buy more expensive replacements. As more money is spent on shoes, more shoe shops are built, and the quality of the shoes begins to diminish as the demand for different types of shoes increases. This makes people buy more shoes.
The above turns into a vicious cycle, causing other industries to decline.
Eventually the titular Shoe Event Horizon is reached, where the only type of store economically viable to build is a shoe shop. At this point, society ceases to function, and the economy collapses, sending a world spiralling into ruin. In some cases, the population forsake shoes and evolved into birds.
Genius. But shoes have always been there, front and centre of my existence, setting the pace, showing me the way.
At primary school we had a strict code. Black lace ups in the first two terms and brown sandals in the third. I wore mine out at an expensive rate – I was one of life’s instinctive scuffers – so much so that when a new make appeared claiming that if the shoes wore out in less than six months they would be replaced with a brand new pair, no questions asked, my mother was all over the local supplier like a homing duvet.
Tuff shoes had no idea what circle of hell they had entered. A veritable crucible of experimentation. When, to the incredulity and incipient depression of the store owner, this particular eight year old came back for the fifth time inside six months he offered my mother any pair of shoes in the shop at his expense just for me to go away. The advertised promise was quietly dropped.
My father’s views on shoes were from a very different perspective. Shoes, like hats spoke to a man’s character and class. Not only had they to be clean but also highly polished, a skill he insisted my brother and I had to learn. There were six brushes in the special box we had: two black, two brown and two that seemed just a bit mucky and never had much use (but you had to have them). Each pair comprised one for putting the polish one, and one from polishing it off when it had dried. A rag was then used to buff the toe cap. The highly polished army boot, where the polish is heated with a little water was understandably for young boys, probably a risk too far.
While mum would get the rest of our uniform’s ready, washing and ironing shirts, chipping school lunches off ties and using steamy damp cloths to try and eradicate stubborn and inexplicable stains from shorts and jackets, my father would use Sunday afternoons to cajole us into the act of shoe cleaning. Often he would do his alongside us, a co-conspirator in manliness training.
Later he explained the strict rules of City wear explaining how brown shoes were absolutely not to be seen Monday to Friday and only at weekends, if wearing a sports jacket and cavalry twills. This was as important as wearing the right hat (bowler during the week, trilby at the weekend and never a cap unless attending a sporting event) and furling your umbrella correctly. He was sorely disappointed to find, when I started work in London in 1979 that none of these rules applied anymore.
There was a lot that happened around shoes. Laces broke and had to be replaced by the correct length. The threading pattern was crucial to a gentleman’s sense of place. However, there was nothing throw away about your shoes. If a sole wore out a new one was commissioned to be stitched in place. Latterly rubber heels and soles would be added and Dad had a last, a three footed contraption which he used to affix said rubber accoutrements when needed. If, as I did you walked with a pronation or in-turned toes so that the heel wore unevenly, blakeys might be added providing a satisfying clippety-clip on hard surfaces but, for the unwary, adding a knife like edge when pulling off a reluctant shoe – many is the finger I’ve sliced with a concrete-sharpened blakey.
I had a Geography master at my senior school – also my form teacher in the fifth form – year 11. Mr Meredith was of military bearing with the sort of smudged moustache that might have been the consequence of poor shaving or a secret addiction to sniffing marker pens. He stood at the front of the class, hands behind his back, rocking too and fro on the balls of his feet and berating us for not knowing the annual production of soya beans in the Cameroons or the capital of Tristan Del Fuego. I found his footwear utterly fascinating, the toes of his shoes curling upwards at an unfeasibly angle. Each rock back exposed the bottom of his shoes and there always seemed to be something stick there – chewing gun, a label, maybe something written. I may have failed dismally at Geography but I developed the ability of staring at people’s feet into an art form.
These days shoes are for comfort, not fashion or speed. Boots more than shoes in truth. But with a wedding in the offing for August I will have train my insteps and heels to be ready for the proper shoes I will be expected to share. I already feel a hobble coming on. Time perhaps to learn to fly as anticipated by Douglas….