Howard Jacobson: A passion for trainers that amounts to a threat


For the Chinese, 2011 was the Year of Rabbit.

So what was it for the British? The Year of the Banker? The Year of Kate Middleton? The Year of the WikiLeak? Let's call an end to this: 2011 was the Year of the Trainer. Before Foot Locker gets too excited and splashes "Year of the trainer – The Independent" across its high street windows, let me make it clear that it's an icon for moral squalor I'm proposing, not for physical prowess. The riots of the summer showed us the limits of the material ambitions not only of the underprivileged young, but of many who just happened to be passing. Behold, the barriers are down, the police are nowhere to be seen, God is dead, the palaces of material delight gape open to fulfil our every wish – and what is it we plunder? Trainers.

So did Ben Jonson's Volpone miss a trick when he attempted to seduce Celia with a rope of pearls each more orient than any Cleopatra caroused in, a single earring equal to the entire Venetian exchequer, a bath fragranced with the juice of July flowers, "Spirits of rose and of violets,/ The milk of unicorns, and panthers' breath". Would he have had his way sooner had he offered her the run of Adidas? And would Faustus willingly have forfeited his immortal soul had he said no to searching all the corners of the new-found world for pleasant fruits and princely delicates, no to flying to India for gold, no to a kiss from Helen for whose matchless beauty the topless towers of Ilium burned, but had, instead, whispered in Mephistopheles's goatish ear that all he hankered for was a pair of Jordan Retro 14 (limited to two pairs per customer, but perhaps, in the circumstances, they might run to three)?

It seemed proper to ask, at the times of the riots, where this passion for the trainer originated. A trainer is not our mothers' milk. We are not born needing it. If a trainer has become the sine qua non of a respected inner-city life, the proof that a man's a man and will take no shit from anyone, then that just shows what suckers for the seductions of capitalism the rebellious young are. Go barefoot, boys, and your message of defiance might resound louder and longer.

Which said, we cannot close our ears to their angry confusion as though we bear no responsibility for it. We cannot dangle every day the must-have images of the good life before those unable to afford them, or even before those who can afford them but don't feel any better about themselves when they have got them, and be surprised, or play the innocent, when violence erupts. It might be a long chain that links the fatal Boxing Day knifing in Foot Locker to our chosen political system and economy, but it's a chain nonetheless.

The cult of the trainer baffles me for a thousand reasons. Let's leave the aesthetics out of it. I don't doubt that those who sleep in Nike Hyperfuse would find my taste for a Church's Grafton brogue made of North American buffalo, weighing in at more than the Ryanair allowance for a small family flying to Ibiza, as inexplicable as I find theirs. But will someone tell me how the word gets out, so quickly among the like-minded, not only that such and such a trainer is the one to have, but that such and such a place is where you get it. One minute the premises are vacant and the next there are a hundred boys with their jeans round their ankles queuing to get in. My wife wonders why I always take a detour rather than come within a hundred yards of one of these kid-consumer crushes. "Because it's dangerous," I say, pointing to the wire prison racks on which the trainers are displayed. "Because the iconography is violent and because group mindsets are ipso facto threatening."

When we walked out briefly into the Boxing Day sales and saw gangs gathering outside the trainer shops, I walked us quickly back home again. "Those aren't gangs," my wife laughed. "Those are just boys out shopping."

Just boys out shopping! Since when did boys shop at the sales? The question dates me, I accept. Central London that day was full of groups of young men, whether they were gangs or not, waiting for shops selling trainers to let them in. Sales used to be for women. While they pulled out one another's hair over bed linen, the men gathered in the pub for a ruminative game of darts. But then in those days we didn't call trainers trainers, we called them plimsolls. Language makes a difference. You don't feel violently about something called a plimsoll. You go quiet in a plimsoll. You respect the space of the other guy wearing a plimsoll. Which means you don't stab him in broad daylight in Foot Locker.

So on this occasion I was right. Those were gangs. Or at least some were. And violence does attach to trainers and to the environment in which they're marketed and sold.

It is hard to define the nexus between capitalism and popular culture, but we'd be fools not to accept it's sometimes lethal. We need to be more serious about that which seems not to be serious at all. Nothing is just harmless fun. If there can be murder in a joke, there can be terror in a trainer.