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Trevor Neal

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Me, Greggs and Dead Man's Shoes

Posted: 2/03/2012 23:00

I've always found shoes a bit stressful. Buying them. Wearing them. Cleaning them. Finding a perfectly comfortable, hard wearing, stylish pair of shoes is a rare and wonderful thing. It's probably a hangover from my childhood.

Growing up in the 1970s, the only option for me as far as my mum was concerned was sensible school shoes, measured to fit and all leather. No plastic. No argument. At the time I hated them - until they started to bring out ones with daft gimmicks; like those with a compass in the heel just in case you got lost crossing a mountain range on the way to school.

Not something that really concerned me, living in Southampton, but I appreciated the thought and felt safer for it. I hadn't a clue how it worked but in the event that I did get lost I knew at least I could always take one shoe off, look at the compass and hop in a vague northerly direction.

Another brand which made boring black school shoes more bearable were Clarks 'Commandos' - given this name by the way because they were like British Army Commando shoes, not because you wore them without underpants. Other gimmicks included shoes with animal tracks of woodland creatures on the soles. Maybe the British Army wore them too. That would certainly confuse the enemy...

WW2 German Soldier 1: "Achtung! Foot prints!"

WW2 German Soldier 2: "Britisher?"

WW2 German Soldier 1: "Nein - just a deer wearing sensible size three black leather lace-ups."

Arriving home from school these shoes offered the additional bonus of leaving animal prints across the living room carpet after I'd stepped in dog poo.

By the time I reached the age of about 12 the rules were starting to relax. Outside of school I was allowed to wear 'fashion' shoes. This was the age of glam rock. At weekends my footwear of choice was a pair of green and red, square toe shoes with chunky platform soles and stack heels. These went with my extra wide, flared trousers, knitted tank top and pink paisley shirt, with matching kipper tie. From Clarks Commando to circus clown.

Later, Clarks brought out a very different type of fashion shoe. A 'sensible' fashion shoe which we called Nature Treks. These were made from soft, natural leather with a bouncy crepe or rubber sole which famously featured a leather upper folded asymmetrically across the front.

The general opinion was that they looked like Cornish pasties. Clearly years of Clarks conditioning had messed with my mind because I actually chose to have a pair. Replacing multi-coloured clown shoes with Cornish pasties was another strange style choice, but as comfort goes they were great. I think subconsciously they've been my benchmark for shoe comfort ever since. This causes confusion in Greggs the Bakers when I still can't decide whether to eat my lunch or stick my feet into it.

My search for decent, comfortable shoes still continues, but being a family man with four kids I can neither afford nor justify spending huge amounts of cash on expensive footwear for myself.

Buying good shoes on a budget is almost impossible unless you are prepared to camp out in the shoe department of TK Maxx like a wayward member of Occupy who's been tempted to the dark side by the lure of cut price Loakes.

Thankfully until recently, the need for quality shoes didn't seem to bother my teenage daughters who actually relished buying cheap rubbishy ones. I say shoes but really they were nothing more than cardboard slippers. They only cost something like two pounds but then again they only lasted about two days. Fashions have changed and recently they have discovered the joys of Doc Martens (probably the second most comfortable footwear I have ever owned). The era of them being satisfied with cheap shoes is at an end.

To satisfy my own needs I have turned to second hand shoes or 'vintage' as I prefer to call them. Either title is better than dead man's shoes, which is another name for them and a reason why some choose not to tread the path of vintage clothing at all.

And if you knew an old student mate of mine - it's a very good reason. He once bought a second hand suit from a charity shop only to find some unpleasant remainder of the previous owner still encrusted in the bottom area of the trousers. Undeterred, legend has it that he merely proceeded to clean the trousers with a tooth brush and then wore the suit. And then continued to use the toothbrush.

Fortunately my own experiences with charity shops and vintage clothing have been less disturbing but it's still not easy finding the ideal pair of shoes, with or without shit on them.

Not so long ago, I thought I'd found a good pair on eBay. Definitely no shit. Good quality, clean, vintage tan brogues. Size nine. I don't know if a size nine shoe was smaller 40 years ago.

Apparently clothing sizes have increased in recent years, so maybe shoe sizes have too. Anyway when mine arrived in the post they felt like they were a size too small and particularly narrow as well. I really liked them. I'd been after a pair of decent old brogues for some time and these looked good, so I wore them anyway. They hurt my feet but I was determined not to give up on them.

One day wearing them about town in the rain, I suddenly noticed how comfortable my feet were feeling. I was very pleased. My persistence had paid off. I had finally worn them in and stretched them to fit; a tribute to the craftsmanship and quality of good, old fashioned, leather shoes.

Except I hadn't and it wasn't. The minute I stepped in a puddle, I realised my mistake. My wrong sized feet had in fact forced the shoes to stretch sideways and outwards, finally exploding the stitching between the leather uppers and the soles. Gaping holes appeared along the sides and cold puddle water was soaking into my socks.

As the knackered, old brogues continued to deteriorate, I spent the rest of the day with cold wet feet flapping about like a cartoon tramp. They needed binding with gaffer tape just to stay on. I could feel the eyes of others staring at me. I could sense children pointing and giggling. "Look at that man's stupid shoes!" I half expected someone to give me the price of a cup of coffee.

It was then I spied a branch of Greggs. A lightning bolt of realisation told me that the answer to all my problems was waiting for me inside, between the pizza baguettes and the steak bakes.

Minutes later, I'd binned the old brogues and emerged from the bakers shop with my feet inside two large Cornish pasties, grinning like a circus clown. To top it all, I had also removed my underpants, commando style.

And so, with my head held high and warm toes wiggling in a hot stew of meat and vegetables, clutching a tiny compass in my hand, I headed north along the street with a degree of comfort like never before.

 

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