I was on the tube the other day, and since I find the proximity of my face to the faces of strangers a rather undesirable experience, I had my gaze directed firmly to the floor. It was then that I observed a pair of shoes that I found both alarmingly ugly, and, quite frankly, unsettling. These shoes, I believe, go by the name of 'winkle pickers'. I don't know what it is about them that disturbs me so much, but I think my feelings of intense disdain must be rooted that characteristically long, tapered out bit.
Human feet resemble an oblong shape, right? And our toes seem to cry out for a curved or rounded shape in the structure of our shoes, which most shoes do indeed happily comply with. Not winkle pickers, though, oh no. Winkle pickers are inordinately pointy. It's as if they stared hundreds of thousands of years evolution in the face, and said 'I defy you, human anatomy; I shall be weird and excessively pointed.'
Since my encounter with a stranger's winkle pickers on public transport, I have discovered why these godforsaken shoes are called as such: apparently the long point resembles the pin or pointed tool used to extract winkles from their shells. Quite an interesting fact, I thought. And then I realised that the nomenclature itself contributes to the troubling effect that 'winkle pickers' have on me. The name conjures images of someone, or something, stealthily harvesting winkles and procuring the little molluscs from their shells. This image is compounded by the fact that winkles are, well, somewhat niche. I can't recall the last time I ate a winkle; whether, in fact, I ever have eaten a winkle. Mussels, yes; scallops, yes; clams, yes; winkles, no.
The web of associative imagery that winkle pickers inspire, whether that be through their name or their appearance or otherwise, produces in me a frisson of terror. As I mouthed the words 'winkle pickers' on my walk home from the tube, I was suddenly reminded of 'Wee Willie Winkie', an imaginary character who has perturbed me of old. Who are you Wee Willie Winkie, and why have you taken it upon yourself to run around the town in pyjamas, checking on whether all the children are in bed?! He is of course only an innocent and benevolent figure in a nursery rhyme, but ever since it was read to me as a child, I have never been able to shake off the image of a decrepit old man wearing a nightgown and an extremely pointy night-cap, peering into unknown children's bedrooms.
Another potent image that these shoes cause to reverberate in my mind is that of a travelling minstrel, in Chaucerian England, circa 1350. I believe that aggressively pointy shoes were the footwear of choice about seven hundred years ago. Note to all winkle picker wearers: you are almost a millennium out of date and off trend; let it go; wear some trainers, some loafers, some brogues, anything else!
It is an indissociable connection I think, between the minstrel, that peripatetic musician of medieval times, and the footwear in question that I was so abruptly confronted with on the district line. Perhaps this is the underlying cause of the profound creepiness I experience with winklepickers. They suggest the anterior; they belong to an epoch that is shrouded in a sense of the unknown; that is strangely opaque and unrecorded; when England was even colder than it is now, and certainly darker and more dangerous; when minstrels would turn up at your castle unannounced, rudely interrupting you from parading down your long gallery, wanting to bring their point-ily clad feet into your deliciously warm banqueting hall, then proceed to bore you by strumming a lyre. They were buskers of the very worst kind!
So...Maybe winklepickers are but a mere a embodiment of a latent fear I have about minstrels?! Perhaps something happened to me as a child on one of those school trips to Hampton court; you know, when there are all those actors around the place dressed up in 'ye olde' style garb, and they're enjoying being in character just a little bit too much?
I'm certain that this is the explanation Freud would give if I went to consult him about my phobia. However, something tells me that I would be better off taking tips from his ex-acolyte Jung, whose theory of archetypes seems to explain my irrational fear of pointy shoes. If I'm to follow Jung's psychology; that is, the notion that we all have a 'collective unconscious' wherein reside certain archetypes that we instinctively perceive in the world around us; then I could interpret Winklepickers as a symbolic manifestation of Jung's archetypal 'trickster'. This archetype represents the hidden, deviousness, and duplicity. Like all Jungian archetypes it has old and mysterious origins, often arising in the form of an image or character, with the capacity to profoundly affect us.
It is true that the shoes in question (I am slightly bored of repeating their name over and over) do seem, well, they seem sketchy. They're a bit shifty; a bit creeps-ville. But why? I don't necessarily give credence to Jung's hypothesis, but I do think it raises interesting ideas about how humans respond to symbols; how we unconsciously respond to people, icons, or images in adverts, for example. And how we like to categorise and demarcate; how, in fact, we transform things into symbols in the first place.
In a nanosecond, when I glanced down at the tube floor and I perceived the winklepickers that have haunted me so, in that very nanosecond was contained all the embedded conceptual layers that I have explored in this article. Layers and layers of accumulated culture, lived feeling, remembered images, remembered texts, all imbibed by my brain throughout the course of my life thus far, and often without my even knowing it,
David Foster Wallace once wrote how one could never truly render in words the experience of thought, of consciousness; such was its infinitely complex and expansive nature. He was right, because synaptic connections occur faster and in more directions than I could possibly capture, but that doesn't mean one shouldn't try. Winklepickers may have been the object of my unbridled aversion, but I enjoyed thinking about them; I enjoyed being repulsed by them. Just don't wear them.