Wanted: A Seasoned Shoe Stitcher (Or Canine Feet)

By

THERE'S a cobbler in the West End of Glasgow (this is a sort of commercial) who is in urgent need of a stitcher. ``They are few and far between,'' he told me.

So, for that matter, are good cobblers like him. The ancient art of shoe-mending - which one might define as extending the life of a decent pair of shoes to the length it warrants - does seem to hang on by a tenuous thread in our throwaway period. And yet his shop - with its masculine aromatics - is always busy. The need for him, and more of his ilk, can scarcely be doubted. Why, then, are cobblers - and stitchers - in such short supply?

He's been advertising for a man (or woman?) to do his stitching - clearly a specialized craft - for some months now. I know this because I took my pair of shoes to him the other day and he had to resort to glue rather than thread. He had been unable to sew up my overstuffed Filofax six weeks earlier for the same reason. His glue is OK, but stitching is a higher form of repair, and these shoes I have deserve the best. Definitely. The best.

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They - both of them - are the first shoes I've had, in quite a number of shoe-wearing decades, that I find truly likable. Indeed, I might go so far as to say - were I inclined to be extravagant about anything below the ankles - that I'm fond of these shoes. Profoundly fond.

Which is odd because by-and-large I reckon that dogs, alligators, penguins, and indeed the animal kingdom on the whole - have a much better time of it, shoe-wise, than we humans. They simply don't need the wretched things. I watch admiringly as our dog charges with reckless and ecstatic disregard through urban grasslands fraught with smashed bottles, discarded barbed-wire fencing, and the remains of defunct transistor radios (not to mention more naturally spiked and thorny hazards like sharp stones, broken ice, thistles, and gorse). His pads remain as pristine and insensible as a fakir's on hot coals. What on earth is it that canine feet are made of that mine aren't. I'd like to know, and why? Why do I keep having to shop for shoes?

Well, I'm glad to say that I think these two shoes I've found could be the final answer to the shoe question. I've worn this pair every day for a good year now, and we get along remarkably well. So well that I find a sympathetic resonance in a reported ``table-talk'' observation of the eminent 17th-century lawyer John Selden. He said: ``Old friends are best. King James used to call for his old shoes; they were easiest for his feet.'' That's it in a nutshell. If we have to wear shoes, then above all they should be friendly and old, but particularly old.

New ones are no help at all. They tend to be user-unfriendly, unaccommodating, narrow, and rigid. They wage a deliberate war of unreasonable conformity on toes and heels. They seem to think their purpose is not to please but to challenge the wearer: ``Yeah,'' they seems to say, grinning grimly down there, ``if you can get through an entire morning wearing us, you deserve a medal. But you won't be getting one! You'll kick us off when no one's looking!''

New shoes make walking an agony of pinch and stab and crush, and more often than not they make a terribly noticeable metallic thud every time they hit the ground. If they don't do that, they do something worse. They squeak. Nothing in the sound world is so miserably unfeeling as the squeak of a new shoe.

So the ideal is to discover a way of making shoes that, although at some point in their career they may be technically ``new,'' are in spirit and character so ancient and archaic, so hoary and Methuselan, that they and you can only be in instant accord.

Someone once said of Englishwomen's shoes ``they look as if they have been made by someone who had often heard shoes described but had never seen any.'' It's a nice, clever remark, but I'm not entirely certain that Englishwomen's shoes today are much different from those of any other Western nation. I do think, however, that most shoes in my own experience - from cadet-corps army boots of iron-hard inflexibility to summer sandals of minimal structure and dubious morals, from thin-skinned, pointed ``dress'' shoes, polite but wilting in the lightest moisture to sneakers of wonderful springiness - most shoes I've been shod with have been designed by someone who hasn't seen feet. And not only that; they haven't even heard them described.

So now for the second commercial. My wonderful pair of shoes goes by the name of ``Walker'' - made, says the slogan, ``for all round walking.'' They come in a special tin box. They are provided with their own drawstring cloth bag.

Remember Albrecht D"urer's remarkable and inventive drawing of a rhinoceros? I believe the design of my shoes has much in common with that pieced-together creature, whose strange hide is an amalgam of separate pieces that seem to overlap each other so that the animal's bulk might articulate itself freely within. The overlaps of my Walkers are stitched together, quite openly and unashamedly. These seams and ridges, secured by rigorous stitching, pay little attention to the sleek, the polished, or the suave, but give maximum attention to the surprising fact that inside this ingenious structure are often to be found feet - feet, moreover, that are generally foot-shaped rather than shoe-shaped.

I could sing the praises of these marvelous shoes at length, but sometimes one man's overenthusiasm can be another's boredom. Suffice to say that everything about them is ample, shock-absorbent, long-wearing, generous, and noble. They're ugly perhaps. Yes, they're ugly. There is this slight dichotomy between form and function. But then many good things put usefulness before beauty and achieve a new kind of beauty-in-usefulness as a result.

The gentleman who sold me this pair of shoes told me two things. First - which I can witness to - is that whoever buys a pair of these shoes always comes back eventually for another pair.

And second, that the soles - which are made of some weatherproof, rubbery substance and look like scaled-down, rugged ocean cliffs - will never need repairing because the uppers will wear out before they do. Think of that! It's true - and bottoms are as good as ever. And it was only a minute piece of stitching that had gone. Meanwhile, the cobbler's glue is holding up well. But if you happen to be a stitcher, please apply.

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