How We Met: Fred Harris & George Dyer

‘When we’d chat, we’d exhaust the subject of shoes and clothing, and we’d move on to birds’


Fred 'The Shoe' Harris, 62, runs Men's Traditional Shoes in Camberwell, south London. A 1960s Mod from New Cross, south London, he left school at 15 to become a printer, but lost his right hand in an accident. He then bought his shoe shop. He has two sons and lives with his wife in Camberwell

I got involved with shoes nearly 30 years ago. I was working in Fleet Street, in the machine room at The Economist and at The Daily Express, when I had an accident: I slipped and fell in the machine while we was washing it, done me hand in. But they looked after me, and I had a bit of dough. A fella said this shoe shop was going, and I went, "Yeah, I'll have that." I've always had a thing about shoes; I'm selling something I like. This shop's got a lot of history, been here since 1861. There were booths for women to change their shoes in, so you couldn't see their ankles.

When George first used to come in the shop, it seemed like he'd just left school. He's more Cockney than I am and from the first day I met him I never looked at him in terms of colour. He was a quiet lad but he knew as much about shoes as I did and I'd always search through the catalogues for what he wanted because he had some funny requests. His feet are a bit wide; he likes a Bass Weejun or a Desert boot, but he's not happy with a lace-up.

When he started as a tailor, people would make snide remarks, "Have you got a Nigger Brown?" He struggled, because George went into a trade which didn't have many black people in it. But he has a natural ability. I see a nice bit of material in his shop, he'll say, "I'll run you a pair of strides up." That's him. Same time, when he comes down here, if he sees a pair of shoes, I'll just say, "Go on, take them."

We drink in a south London pub called The Flying Dutchman and we're part of a group known as the Jolly Boys. The original Jolly Boys, all old men now, would meet of a Sunday in different pubs, have a drink and sing a few songs. Some of them were good singers. And there was no rows; they wouldn't stand a nonce in the company.

George is a funny sod, but he's good to me and sends a lot of people to me. I try to send as many as I can to him, but more people buy shoes than go into a tailor's and have a suit made to measure.

He's always been a grafter for his family; his daughter's in university and he pays towards that. I've seen a lot of his stuff because the customers bring them in to buy a pair of shoes to match.

A guy come down the other day with a grey suit, he looked the bollocks. He's a bit of an artist in his way, George; things come out of his head, not out of a book. He likes to have little covered buttons, things like that.

I see him yesterday and we had a saucer of tea. He has these funny little sayings: "It's not a drama" or "Spondoolers": "When I've got some spondoolers, I'll buy a pair of shoes, Fred." He's got that turn of phrase.

George Dyer, 55, is a bespoke tailor in the same south London street as Harris. He trained at Dombey & Sons and then London College of Fashion; his clients include the boxing champion David Haye. He has a daughter and lives in Brockley, south London, with his wife

My first acquaintance with Fred was nearly 30 years ago. He was known as Fred the Shoe. I was a soul boy and we had a way of dressing in those days, so I used to go to his shop to buy my brogues, my loafers, my smooths.

Fred's a lovely fellow who knows his trade inside-out. If you asked for a particular make of shoe, it weren't a trouble for him to scour the place or see if he could acquire the make you asked for. He was an original Mod and very fashion-conscious himself. And he's a very funny man, very dry in his delivery.

We meet frequently at a pub called the Flying Dutchman, where Fred likes a light ale. It's never a dull moment because of the circle of friends we're in, the Jolly Boys. It's a happy environment, a little social club; we've had our days out in Brighton. We're there for each other if there's any dramas.

You grow up in south London and it becomes a part of you and you become a part of it. But a lot of the faces you used to see aren't around any more; there are new faces in the manor and you're frightened to say hello in case you get the wrong reply. There's a new thinking now. I can walk into a place where everybody is casually dressed, and you can almost hear the whispers: "Who's the suit, who's the suit?"

When I first met Fred, I'd go and see him in the shop every two or three weeks for a chat and a cup of coffee and once we'd exhausted the subject of shoes, we'd be talking about clothing and then we'd move on to birds. We were both from the old-school mentality, brought up with a respect for the senior person; we knew that in the presence of women you don't eff and blind. Even though my parents came over from Jamaica in the late 1950s, we come from a similar train of thought.

Fred's establishment isn't a high-street shop – it has an old, traditional look about it, as has my shop. Being on the same road, it's obvious to both of us that people who come into the area to purchase our goods need to be aware there's a bespoke tailor's and a gentleman's shoe shop at either end of the road. That's handy, the clients will say. Fred and I recommend our clients to one another because we're similar trades and we come from the same era.

threadneedlemantailors.co.uk

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