Alexander McCall Smith: Not a lockdown diary, but a tale about simplicity and shoes

The story of what happens to our shoes can be an uplifting one, writes Alexander McCall Smith.

Imelda Marcos points to one of the 3,000 pairs of shoes she used to own and which are now on display in a museum (Picture: Pat Roque/AP)
Imelda Marcos points to one of the 3,000 pairs of shoes she used to own and which are now on display in a museum (Picture: Pat Roque/AP)

You will be relieved to know that this column is not a lockdown diary. Ever since the current period of isolation began, people have been breaking into print with their lockdown diaries, telling us, sometimes in considerable detail, what they have not been doing.

The result has been the emergence of a new literary genre, as common as prison camp diaries were after the War. Some of these diaries have been revealing – it’s interesting to see what people don’t do when they are faced with days in which there is nothing to do – but the form, in general, has become a bit predictable.

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It was the same with generic composition in Greek and Roman poetry – there were certain themes that everybody seized upon and wrote upon time after time. Chinese poetry is the same: the fact that there are hundreds of ancient poems about the joys of opening a new jar of wine when the apricot has begun to blossom in the courtyard is explained by the fact that Imperial civil service exams required candidates to compose a poem on a specified subject – such as the joys of opening a new jar of wine when the apricot has begun to blossom in the courtyard.

Broadly speaking, you get what you ask for, and the Imperial authorities got just that. As a result, there are many poems of such similarity of theme that subsequent scholars have wondered about the limitations of the ancient Chinese imagination. The answer is, as we now know, quite simple: generic composition and civil service ambitions.

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Of course we can always learn from the Tang Dynasty, and it might be an idea for the contemporary civil service to require candidates for appointment to write a poem. That would certainly separate the wheat from the chaff. Like all good ideas, of course, that will almost certainly be ignored. It is significant, though, that senior civil servants used to be referred to as Mandarins.

But this is not about lockdown diaries and civil servants: this is about shoes, a topic of perennial interest, but particularly so at a time when many of us, having written our lockdown diary, are looking about the house to find things to tidy. Our houses are undoubtedly much tidier than they were five weeks ago.

Oor Wullie annuals

In the new monasticism, people have discovered just how many superfluous possessions they have and there has been a flurry of sorting out. In the spirit of the Japanese tidiness-guru, Marie Kondo, the patron saint of the new stripped-back asceticism, people have been rummaging through their attics and cupboards, creating piles of items destined for the charity shop the day that these reopen. The police have already made plans to be in attendance, forming cordons around these shops to protect them from being completely inundated with unwanted goods.

Long queues are expected of people groaning under the weight of books they are planning to discard (mostly political memoirs and Oor Wullie annuals) or staggering under the burden of unfashionable clothes (trousers with turn-ups, ankle-length dresses, imitation-fur capes).

The managers of these charity shops are hoping, however, that those who enter with their superfluous possessions will leave having bought a selection of superfluous possessions of others. This is the economy of the charity shop system, and, by and large, it works fairly efficiently and should solve the imminent wave of abandonments.

In this process of weeding-out of possessions, we should not forget to look at our shoes. I suspect that a lot of us have too many pairs of shoes and that, for a variety of reasons, we are less willing to part with them than we should be. Shoes are indeed available in charity shops, and must therefore have been parted with by somebody, but those shoes tend to be special shoes.

They are ‘deceased shoes’ – in other words, they have been passed on by executors who have been tidying up deceased estates. Charity shops do not like to advertise the fact: there may be a common metaphor ‘dead men’s shoes’, but this is not a metaphorical situation – these really are dead men’s shoes. That is why nobody buys the shoes displayed in the windows of charity shops: they remain unsold for years out of our reluctance to use so intimate an item of such provenance.

I have just counted my shoes

But in the spirit of the new monastic simplicity that is about to sweep the land, we should take a hard look at our shoes and get rid of those that are simply taking up space that could otherwise be unoccupied. How many pairs of shoes do we really need?

I know some people who have only two or three pairs, but most of us, in our sated society, have more than that. Some have an indecently large number of shoes, and while not actually suffering from Imelda Marcos Syndrome – she being famous for her thousands of pairs of fashionable shoes – these over-shod ones still have too many.

I have just counted the shoes under my side of our bed, and have discovered that there are 12 pairs. That is shameful, and I shall act. I shall not throw away my Belgian shoes – these being very light and slipper-like, with soles that are not suitable for outside wear: the Belgians, it seems, do not get out very much. But I shall be getting rid of the blue suede shoes I bought in Dublin, on impulse, and that have only been worn once – and in private at that. Old, shabby, faithful shoes – my black brogues and my red Church’s slippers (of a hue worn by the Pope) will have to remain. I should, I hope, achieve an attrition rate of 50 per cent.

And here is an edifying – and true – story of a friend in New York who, when sorting out her late mother’s apartment, came across 27 pairs of Salvatore Ferragamo shoes in a very narrow fitting. She and her sister decided that there must be somebody in the entire United States who would love to have these, and so, in a spirit of admirable charity, they advertised these shoes on-line, not really expecting a response to such an unusual offering.

But no: they were contacted by a woman in San Diego who had very narrow feet in that exact size, and who loved Salvatore Ferragamo shoes. She was, it transpired, a rocket scientist – a real, rather than a metaphorical one. They sent her the shoes in exchange for the postage.

There are many such stories about shoes – stories with happy, uplifting endings. The world is not a complete vale of tears – it has moments of delight, even at shoe level. Remember that.

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