Wednesday, May 20, 2009
Like most women, I love shoes. I have more pairs than I care to admit and yet always seem to need more.
This morning's Woman's Hour on Radio 4 featured artist Alice Instone talking about her latest exhibition Interview with a Shoe. The shoes in question are described as belonging to some of the most influential individuals in London and each pair tells a story, revealing something about the owner.
If you are lucky enough to be in the Bethnal Green area of London in the next two weeks, there are lots of reasons to visit the exhibition: love of contemporary art, curiosity about celebrities, interest in the role of shoes in literature or the history of fashion or in the ethics of the present day fashion industry. The charity Dress for Success, which helps promote the independence of disadvantaged women, will benefit from the proceeds of the exhibition.
The interview with Alice Instone reminded me of the significance of shoes in our lives. What woman can forget her first pair of high heels or the first pair of shoes she bought for her baby? Who can escape the impact of the image of the thousands of shoes confiscated from the victims of the Holocaust?
While out walking last week, I met an elderly lady from my church; she looked distressed so I stopped while she poured out her shoe story, a memory triggered by something she had just overheard. Maria is eighty years old, Austrian by birth but having lived in England since 1947. She was not quite fifteen when the Russian army invaded her village in Austria in April 1945. Already on the point of starvation, they had the added terror of stories of rape and violence as the soldiers advanced. Maria and her two older sisters fled with nothing but the clothes they were wearing and a little food. Maria was wearing an old pair of boots, passed down from her sisters.
The girls spent many weeks on the road, sleeping under hedges and eating whatever they could get. They eventually reached Bavaria, where they hoped to find the family of a German soldier they had met. By this time it was summer and Maria's feet were really suffering from the long journey and the heavy boots. The sisters found the family they were looking for and were taken in, although the lack of food and clothes was as bad as in their own village. There were no shoes to spare but the grandfather took his knife and cut Maria's boots to make her a pair of rough sandals: "The most beautiful shoes I have ever owned."
My own shoe story is far less noble but it taught me a salutary lesson.
I had an unfashionably happy childhood. We were not at all well-off but my mother contrived to dress us well and always took us to have our feet measured for our sturdy leather brogues and sandals, polished every night before we were allowed our cocoa. How she managed to keep four of us in the required outdoor shoes, indoor shoes, gym shoes, hockey or soccer boots, as well as wellingtons, slippers and play shoes I cannot imagine. But, when you are a stroppy teenager, such thoughts do not enter your selfish head.
I wanted a pair of fashionable slip-on shoes instead of the Clark's indoor shoes I was supposed to have for school. I was thirteen and "all my friends' mothers let them have fashion shoes." I must have worn my mother out, because I got a pair of cheap and rather nasty shoes with very pointed toes. They were very uncomfortable, more slip-off than slip-on but I strutted around in them and insisted on wearing them when we went to visit my Aunt Margaret in Cheshire, where everyone looks down upon their Lancashire neighbours.
We all went out for a walk after lunch but I couldn't keep up in the wretched shoes, which were really hurting by this time, pinching my toes and rubbing my heels. We had been joined on the walk by my aunt's friend and I heard them talking about my awful footwear. My aunt said, "Poor Winnie, she does her best but I expect they were all she could afford with four children to look after." I don't think I have ever quite forgiven myself for bringing such shame on my mother. I certainly never argued with her again when we went to buy our "sensible" shoes.
I suppose I deserved to have a daughter who insisted on choosing to wear her father's shoes to a party!