When I was a small boy I watched my father while he did things. He was competent with his hands as well as with his head (he was a maths teacher), steady, methodical and confident. He repaired all our shoes, on a heavy steel last that had platforms for men’s soles, women’s soles and heels. I had a go at repairing soles and heel on one of my pairs of shoes while my parents lived close. It was not as easy as Dad’s competence suggested to me it was.
I learned a lot from him through observing and listening. ‘Shoes are valuable, and you need to look after them,’ he would say to this eight-year-old. ‘You should always buy good ones. Give them six coats of polish at once, one after the other, and keep the polish into them!’ I did that too. I did it at once with my army boots when I went into national service. ‘Shoes come to take the shape of your foot,’ he would say if I protested at the tightness of a new pair of school shoes. ‘Look after them, and they’ll look after you.’
I had two pairs of boots in the army, and by the end of my 77-day initial period of service they were almost my best friends. They did a lot of marching. We had a mad major who thought marching was good for our soul, and he would lead us on long route marches, ourselves with rifle and full pack, he with nothing more than a stick. I liked those marches (I like bushwalks still), and it was the boots that made the marches enjoyable.
Following my father’s advice, I have gone for a small number of good shoes. Shoes were expensive in the 1950s and 1960s, and you shopped around for them. In Oxford in 1964 I paid an enormous amount for a pair of veldtschoen from Ducker’s in the Turl. I use to eye them in the shop window as I walked past, and finally swallowed hard and went in to buy them. They lasted 35 years, and finished as gardening shoes. In the 1980s I discovered Church shoes, again in England. They were expensive, too, but you could get a pair that fitted perfectly, because Church’s made many versions of the same shoe size; if your right foot was slightly different to your left foot, no matter — they would find the correct fit for each foot.
All that is by way of introduction. A few weeks ago, I noticed that the heels on one of my Church shoes needed repair. I go to a bloke who does all this very well. I took them in, and said ‘Heels, only’. He turned them over, and said, ‘I’d do the soles too, if I were you.’ He showed me little cracks in the soles, and told me about water damage. I know about water damage, shrugged, and said OK. The cost was $59.95, and a fine piece of work he did, too. I bought a pair of Italian shoes in Sicily nearly twenty years ago. They are elegant, light, made of leather, and take a great polish. But the soles are thin, and wear out quite quickly. That is the cost of elegance, I think, and pay another $60.
I think I’m in the last generation that has shoes repaired. My children and their friends seem to see shoes as disposable. If the heels wear down, they throw the shoes out and buy another pair. And you can buy excellent shoes for $60. Most of them are lightweight, have rubber soles, cushiony insoles, with the uppers made of combinations of leather, cloth of some kind, rubber and plastic. They don’t last 35 years, but they are well made. I have some of them, too.
The old-fashioned shoe-repairer has largely been replaced by Mr Minit and his counterparts, who cut keys and do other useful things as well. What we will do, I wonder, when the old generation of shoe craftsmen have gone? You can see men wearing sneakers with clothing that (to me) demands good leather shoes. Is that our future, we good-shoe-lovers? I hope not.