In praise of sole music

The author Sue Townsend on a lifelong obsession


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19 July 2002

Outside the natural world there is nothing quite so aesthetically pleasing as the sight of a pair of virgin shoes swaddled in tissue paper lying together heel to toe in a shoe box. Oh, the smell and burnish of the leather and the rich softness of the suede, the exquisite engineering of sole, heel, instep and upper, the delicacy of the stitches that bring these components together to support the human foot. Shoemaking, of the highest quality, is not a craft, it is an art.

I am 56 years old. This is an age when many women disappear. Not mysteriously disappear, having been abducted and flown to Marrakech; but we tend not to be noticed as we plod about in our comfortable extra wide, midi-heeled sensible shoes. Many of my contemporaries have terrible feet, deformed by bunions, permanent corns and layers of dead skin like rock strata.

Yet for many of us – as a new exhibition opening tomorrow at the City Gallery, Leicester, proves – shoes provide some of life's most vivid and enduring memories. Indeed, with the help of a few such memories, I can tell my life story through shoes...

X-ray feet

In my young girlhood, Clarks shoe shop in Leicester looked like an NHS outpatients' clinic. It had mahogany panelling, rows of wooden chairs and a frightening measuring machine in which you placed your feet while they were X -rayed. These machines have been banned for many years – ever since somebody realised that allowing untrained shoe-shop assistants to deliver radioactive material to the delicate bones of children's feet was probably not a good idea. I remember only two types of shoe sold in Clarks: the flat sandal with buckle strap and crepe sole, as worn by Enid Blyton’s Famous Five; and the black patent-leather Mary Janes, which Princess Anne wore – you were required to bend down and polish them with your fingers every two minutes.

I have a vivid memory of admiring my five-year-old feet encased in yellow rubber paddling shoes as I shivered with my family next to a sewage pipe on the desolate beach at Skegness. It was some time before the smell of sewage was identified. My yellow shoes were easily the most cheerful part of the day out.

Wellington boots

I seemed to spend my childhood winters in tall black shiny wellingtons. They were essential wear for damming streams and exploring virgin snowscapes. For some mad reason, girls in the 1950s couldn’t wear long socks, woolly tights or trousers, so the damp tops of the boots chafed our upper calves painfully. I was once sent out in a snowstorm to buy wellingtons for my bootless family. The shop was only a mile and a half away, but the heavy snow disorientated me and I wandered on to a building site and fell down a deep trench. It took many attempts to climb out, and when I did it was dark and my wellingtons were full of cold meltwater.

Sensible shoes

For the first term at secondary school I wore the regulation lace-ups, otherwise known as “sensible shoes”. Our headmistress wore a spectacularly ugly version of these; I was utterly contemptuous of them. They were flat, made of tan punched leather and tied up with brown laces. They had a sense of righteousness about them – they spoke of secret drinking, musty church rooms and the smell of chrysanthemums.

Cautious concubines

The first shoe fashion to inflame my schoolgirl world was for what we called “ballerina shoes”. These were flat and cut so low at the front that the cleavage of our toes was exposed; a little leather string bow was the only decoration. However, they had one major disadvantage – they were impossible to walk in. The heels, though flat, were heavy and with no strap or lacing they simply fell off. The only way to keep them on was to scrunch up our toes. We went from being carefree athletic girls in our lace-ups to being cautious slow-moving concubines. I walked two painful miles to school and two agonising miles back, but I still loved those shoes and didn’t wear “sensible shoes” again until I bought my first pair of Birkenstocks in Cannes. I had foolishly worn a toe ring to celebrate my first visit to the Film Festival. It cut into my toe, which bled into my fabulous Prada slingbacks.

First time in heels

I was 14 when I wore my first high heels. They were white leather and had pointed toes and were three inches high. I wore them with American tan (orange) stockings. Incredibly I walked three miles to the church youth club in these torture instruments, jived all night with gormless boys, then hobbled home on bleeding feet.

In Vogue

I had a glamorous aunt in the 1960s who subscribed to Vogue and I came under the influence of the House of Chanel, though my income (wages from a paper round) was more suited to the House of Woolworth. Chanel’s signature shoe was the black pump with the white toecap and vice versa. With the insouciance of youth I used Airfix white model-aircraft paint to customise a pair of cheap black pumps. I doubt that many people were fooled into thinking that the working-class girl in the collarless C&A two-piece was wearing Chanel shoes, or that the many gilt lavatory chains hung around my neck were gold.

Bohemianism overtook me after I left school and I took to wearing all black, including stack-heeled pointed-toed cowboy boots. The heels wore down as I moped from jazz club to coffee bar. I couldn’t afford to repair them so the toes ended up curled and pointing to the sky, like Arabian slippers.

My wedding-day blues

On my first wedding day I astonished my bohemian friends by wearing a Norman Hartnell suit, big white hat and Kurt Geiger navy court shoes. My mother had to take out a loan. Perhaps, 38 years later, she’s still paying it off. I must ask her.

My second wedding-day shoes were Hobbs yellow suede flatties with ruched bows. I loved these so much I bought two pairs; wise, because on my honeymoon in Rome a raspberry fell off my spoon and stained the yellow suede of one of my shoes.


New and unexpected riches bought me access to that magical kingdom of shoedom, Prada. I enter their shop on Upper Bond Street with a beating heart and sweating palms, as if I were about to embark on an affair with a secret, sinister lover. Will it all end in tears? Or will I find something that fits my ageing, spreading feet?

On a mantelpiece

One of the annoying things about being a diabetic is that I have to protect my feet from wounds and infections, so I am forced to wear sensible shoes. However, one of the blessings of being blind is that I can’t actually see the damned things. I can imagine I am wearing something delicate and gorgeous and worthy of displaying on a mantelpiece. I can’t be the only woman to have displayed a pair of shoes (Bruno Magli, red and pink, peep toe, four-inch heels) on my mantelpiece. Whenever the telly was rubbish I would gaze at them.

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