Striding towards the bus, I can feel a shoelace coming undone again. It is a quiet thing, a sort of mute reproach. It starts an argument. No, I won’t stop to retie it; it’s the fault of those flat laces, they always do this. The lace retorts, it’s your fault; you didn’t do the job properly. An aglet begins to drag, menacingly.
A decision has to be made. To do up laces in the street is embarrassing: stopping, half-kneeling, handbag swivelling round, long skirt a nuisance as I try, half-blind, to retie the things. Yet if I go on the lace will increasingly shout to be attended to. To trip over would be the worst of all. So I bend in defeat.
Such quotidian run-ins with my laces take me back to my first struggles, sitting on the bottom step of the stairs as a child, to fasten my stiff brown leather shoes. I knew that this was a rite of passage. And it was hard. The first half-knot was easy enough, but then came the second, done as a big loop, and while you shaped the big loop the first half-knot would slip apart unless you kept a finger pressed firmly down on it; or the loop would get too big, the whole thing would unravel and you had to start again.
These frustrations have been going on for as long as humans have bound their shoes this way. There seems to be an enduring fascination with the crossing of one lace over another, the charm of aglets (whether copper, silver or brass) and the pleasing finial of bows. Romans and Greeks sometimes wore cross-lacing up to the knees, and cobblers have been punching eyelets into leather shoes since the early Middle Ages. Even Otzi the Iceman trekked through the Tyrolean snow 5,000 years ago with eyelet holes in his shoes and a cat’s cradle of lime-bark laces lined with warming straw. Perhaps his fate was sealed when one came undone.
There have always been simpler ways to wear shoes. The most obvious is not to fasten them at all, just pull them on and off, like summer sandals. Unlaced shoes can do the stoutest service, and every member of China’s great Terracotta Army wears his square-toed slippers with pride. Court shoes and loafers stay on perfectly well. Yet those very names, slippers and loafers, also suggest laziness, domesticity and lack of serious purpose. They seem unprepared for life out of doors.
And preparation is the heart of the matter. A shoelace exemplifies it. In my backpack, alongside a penknife, a pencil and safety pins, there is always a spare lace for my walking boots, just in case. In fact those laces have never snapped, they are probably too gummed up with mud for that. But the spare lace has held on a hat in a gale, and kept the sole attached to a cheapskate sandal for some miles. I would not be without it.
Nor would I be without that preparatory ritual, still at the bottom of the stairs, of tugging the laces tight, making the first half-knot, looping the second, taking the next coil through, briskly pulling them tight. A double knot will make them double sure, and then I will straighten up, always with a feeling of satisfaction verging on triumph, as if I am still a child who has met this challenge and gained another piece of independence. And in a sense, I am. I can step out into the world now. I’m ready.•