Being at home gives you time to take stock. Literally. It may seem decadent, unnecessary and maybe even a little gross but I’ve just done a count and determined that I own nearly 50 pairs of shoes. And that’s just in London. In Milan, where I normally spend much of my time, I’ve limited myself to a modest 15. Shoe-wise, you could say that I’m promiscuous. I have friends who aren’t, like Danny, a drummer based in Sydney, who has worn the same style of New Balance, the 574, since I first met him in 1997 (he buys a new pair every two years). To me that seems like a life unlived. Because shoes take you places.
Shoes are to me what madeleines were to Proust: the perfect evocation of times past, my sole food. A few summers ago I bought a pair of Dunlop Volleys, a plimsoll I wore as a young child, and the vision of that quaintly enlarged, vulcanised-rubber toe-cap roused forgotten memories of the time I was messing about in a creek in Australia and freaked out when a large snake swam splashlessly by. My menu of memory-stirring footwear also includes the Vans Madrid Fly shoes, which I ordered aged 14 via Thrasher magazine and wore to death on long trips down the District line to Romford skatepark. There were the Jordan 5s that my stepdad brought back from New York when I was 15, which were gold at school – trophies from a hopelessly glamorous and distant world. Best of all were the greasy six-hole Doc Martens I scuffed moodily during a long teenage phase listening to The Cure and mooching around Camden Market in London. I bet that if you spend five minutes trying to recall the shoes you wore as an adolescent, you will find yourself on a revelatory walk down memory lane.
Why does footwear jog so many memories? Perhaps because shoes are worn on a part of our bodies that we see so often – they’re at the fringe of reminiscences, acting like timestamps on a photograph.
Even today, my shoe collection is an album of memories. My summer options, for instance, run from huaraches I bought in a market in Mexico City (jet-lagged tango, Frida Kahlo’s house) to Italian rattan slip-ons (cruising a rickety boat around Sicily) via rubber clogs (failed but fun north London allotment experiments with my kids).
The aroma of madeleines is fleeting. Shoes last longer, yet they’re also impermanent. But there are exceptions. Bench-made welted shoes – many still manufactured in Northampton, home of the British shoe industry – are so sturdy you can keep putting new soles on them. These items bring back not just a moment, but the long journeys I’ve taken since I first bought them. My Church’s cordovan brogues and black oxfords, both resoled twice, are mementoes of my office years. These days I dig them out only occasionally, for funerals or functions. They remain a symbol of the choices I’ve made in life. For the moment, though, I’ve gone back to boots. Earlier this year, after about five years of happy work wear, I took my battered Trickers ox-blood monkey boots to a Vibram Academy shop to revive them. Three weeks later, they were returned to me: now those formerly leather-soled monkeys bounce like trainers under foot but look as tough as ever. They’ve got years more wear in them now – and years more to serve as timestamps for many more memories yet.•