I read a bit out loud each morning to inspire me. Ivan Illich is my new guru: ‘Vehicles have created more distances than they helped to bridge.’ He wrote that in Tools for Conviviality. If I’m still down I roll myself a one-skinner, always does the trick.
Traffic pounds above my head. And the Big-Brother helicopter is always in the sky, charting the street life of Hackney. ‘Down the stairs and down the years,’ that’s how I feel as I step into my basement shoemaker’s workshop. The world is going mad but I feel safe down here – this house was built at the time of the Napoleonic Wars.
The green revolution could be here now if people made their own shoes and if we travelled only as far as our shoe leather would allow – it would bring us back to our roots. The quality of life would return, we should have time for things. Illich put it well: ‘Development must be in terms of low and not high energy use’.
I like sitting at my bench, working at this gentle art of last and awl, threading and stitching. I make handmade shoes for the wealthy – these Oxford brogues are for an old customer. Those rich buggers don’t deserve such perfection, but some of them really appreciate it, I have to say.
Mind you, it’s just as bad that most of Hackney is walking around in mass-produced trainers, all that sweatiness and petrochemicals. Then they chuck them away, never nurtured, never loved. Of course, everyone recycles tins and bottles with evangelical fervour, we all eat our organic carrots and stuff our faces with muesli. That’s fine, but it’s only scratching the surface.
Don’t they realise! If they made their own shoes, and saw the limits of their walking potential as the limits of their world, then a real sense of community would begin. There’s a lot of bollocks in Green politics these days, it’s run by politically-correct boy scouts and girl guides.I made a poster for my wall, yes you guessed it, a slogan from my guru:
TRANSPORTATION BEYOND BICYCLE SPEEDS DEMANDS POWER INPUTS FROM THE ENVIRONMENT
You’ve got it, Ivan! Those speeds are destroying our planet and the pleasure of our life. Okay, I’m going on, my sister is always telling me that, but when you live in a world that’s crazy but pretends it’s sane, the way to be truly sane is not to be afraid to be crazy. I was trying to get that across to an attractive woman at a party last week. Well, I can see it wasn’t the best chat-up line. Didn’t get anywhere. Pity, she was very fit, as they say.
A good shoe should last for fifteen years. Making a shoe is like a history lesson, but all the kids seem to live in a vacuum of designer logos and fast food. They connect to nothing.
Jesus, I sound sad. But here’s another example. At the party last week, they held it at the top of the Samuel Pepys, the pub attached to the Hackney Empire. Well, there was really crappy music coming out of the crap Big Screens. Then they showed a baseball match, then some twenty-twenty cricket where none of the players look like cricketers. There was no English draught beer on tap, it was mostly lagers from America and Poland and Holland, all with silly names and prices. There should have been a local band playing in the corner.
Buses, cars, motorbikes, all those planes scarring the sky. The planet is dying from our hysteria of movement. Tapping away at the shoes on my bench, turning, kneading, reading the stresses and strains of the leather makes me still. Shoes are like my prayer books, my litany of living. If I believed in God I should be a shoe-making monk. We should all give up our obsessions with goods and with speed. As always, Ivan has a phrase for it: ‘Joyful Renunciation’. What is the worst thing the modern world has done?: taken away people’s power to dream, to use their own imaginations…Getting carried away again. I love the history of footwear: ‘Wellington’, now that was a good boot, though there were some awful ones around in those days – the poor old soldiers suffered from their job-lot boots.
I was born in this house, Dad was a factory inspector, Mum was a district nurse. I went to an old-fashioned grammar school, then did the hippy thing, and after that a degree in philosophy at Swansea, then Cordwainer’s for shoemaking. If you were born in Hackney everyone thinks you must be a yob. Actually, I taught in a secondary school before getting into shoes.
Both my parents are dead now, buried near Worthing, where they had a bungalow. My sister and me, Lucy, we split up the house, she’s in the top, I’ve got the bottom two floors.
Life’s all right. Used to be in a local rock group, used to be married too, but I think I was more in love with my shoes. Anyway, my wife went off with her acupuncturist. We got married too young. They’re living in Bristol now.
The smell of good leather matures, becomes alive under the touch of a finger. Connecting the shoe together – the welt and throat and top edge, the waist and the sole – until you have made something almost as complete as a person, and far less quarrelsome. The trainer-footed world has turned its back on this inheritance that could save it.
Must put on a jumper. Hackney begins to feels cleaner in November, and the basement colder. The ghosts in this house prefer the softness of autumn, as if summer bleaches them out of existence…
I love the beauty of boots most. I collect them. Those Nazi Jackboots are always at the top of the stairs, they’re authentic. When I imagine them pounding down on their heavy soles I am reminded of the fascist state just under the surface of things. Today, the shoes may be softer, and the surveillance more subtle, but it means the same thing: the state can get you when it wants to.
Anyway, consider marching boots, well, it’s a whole way of telling history: all the places those boots have trod, the routes they took, the importance of the army cobblers who kept the footwear together. In the First World War it was the ordinary soldier who suffered from trench foot, the water and mud squelching through the lace holes. Of course the British army boot came out of the Blucher boot. The officers had their top boots, much better.
Cavalry boots are the most beautiful, with their bucket tops, I made a pair in college, still got them, half way up the stairs. Cromwell’s people knew a thing or two about boots, so do the Americans, credit where credit is due – those cowboy boots at the bottom of the stairs, amazing tooling, superb leather, got those from a bootmaker in Texas ten years ago.
If people wore proper leather shoes and boots, the level of consciousness, I mean that in the Marxist sense, would rise dramatically. Ban superstores, ban trainers, stop fast movement, and people will reconnect. You think that’s mad? Not as mad as what goes on up there, is it? Anyway, I’m off to Budapest on a cheap flight for a long weekend with an old mate. Don’t look at me like that, you can’t help a few contradictions.