I am not like most men, in that I have a very un-manlike obsession: I like buying shoes.
Not to extremes, I should add. Not to the sort of extremes you see exhibited by some fashion magazines or ridiculous pop stars. Not whole-rooms-full-of-shoes. Not even a cupboard’s worth.
Perhaps I should re-phrase my confession, then: I buy quite a lot of shoes, probably more than some other men. Most other men.
Much of my interest in shoes is driven by my desire for extreme foot comfort. I can’t stand wearing uncomfortable shoes. Literally: I can’t stand, wearing uncomfortable shoes. The problem with buying shoes, though, is that they can do something few other items of clothing can manage: They adjust their size and shape in the time it takes you to get home from the shops with them.
Oh yes they do.
The result of this willful shape-shifting is that the pair that were perfectly comfortable when I tried them on and flounced around the shoe shop, admiring myself and my feet in the mirror as I went and waving hello to the staff with whom I was now almost certainly on first-name terms, end up causing agonizing pain (or at very least, annoying discomfort) once I put them on and actually go out somewhere.
My new sneakers (they’re usually sneakers, although we call them trainers over here) always have that new-shoe shine. They have that sleekness of look, that slipperiness of fit, that tautness of laces that you only get with a brand new shoe.
It’s only when you’ve walked properly in them—a decent distance, a mile or more—that you realize they’re horribly uncomfortable. Sleek, slip, and tension be damned.
I have fallen into a pattern of buying expensive shoes and repeatedly finding them lacking. “These shoes,” I will say to myself a few days after buying, “are not quite up to the job.”
“So take them back to the shop, you moron,” you might consider crying. But you can’t do that with shoes, can you? A shoe, once taken on a small hike around the Cotswolds hillsides, cannot be returned to the shop it was purchased from and simply exchanged. It is now a used shoe. Used, and now useful only to you. The person who bought it. Me.
Consequently, I have fallen into a pattern of buying expensive shoes (we’ll get on to the money bit in a minute) and repeatedly finding them lacking. “These shoes,” I will say to myself a few days after buying, “are not quite up to the job.”
Shortly afterwards, I will probably add a heartfelt English suffix, such as “Dammit.” Or “Bugger.”
There follows a period during which I shall persevere with the offending footwear, enduring the pain and/or annoying discomfort, until it becomes unbearable and I return to the shoe emporiums of the nearest town to find a new pair.
Now, note that my interest in shoes is not driven by a desire to own many pairs. (As my wife will explain, rolling her eyes heavenwards as she does so, I’m not a hoarder. I will take any and every opportunity to cleanse our household of stuff I consider insufficiently “in use,” and that includes my own shoes. If they’ve not been upon my feet for a suitable length of time, they’ll be out on their soles, and good luck to them.)
I have no interest in amassing a collection of shoes, either to fill a purpose-made shoe cabinet or to own as many pairs as I have outfits. As a slovenly freelance writer, I have only one outfit: a pair of jeans, T-shirt, and one of a small selection of hoodies, fleeces, and sweaters. To smarten up for a special occasion, I shave. There’s no connection between the shoes and my clothes.
When a new pair of shoes comes in, an old pair goes out. In rare circumstances, old shoes might be kept for a special purpose. I like to have a pair of gardening shoes, for example. A pair I needn’t worry about getting muddy.
Don’t let that fool you into thinking that my normal, day-to-day shoes are particularly smart. Until very recently, they have all fallen into a very narrow range of footwear, the range I call “middle-aged dad trainers.”
Middle-aged dad trainers are not trainers that kids wear. They have nothing to do with current trends and fashions, and everything to do with going for country walks. They are usually found in, and purchased from, hiking equipment shops. They have sturdy soles, breathable uppers, chunky stripy laces, and an air of unbreakableness about them. They are the modern “sensible shoe.” You see them on middle-aged men who are just wearing them because they’re good shoes. Younger people wear them too, but only when they’re actually going hiking and climbing and doing the outdoorsy stuff these shoes were designed for. They tend to cost anything from £60 (in the sale) to £120. When they do fit, and they stay fitting even after purchase, they are worth every penny.
The sensation you get when sliding your foot inside your shoe should be almost the same as the one you get on a freezing winter night, when you’ve had a nightmare of a day at work, and you’ve just about summoned the energy for a small glass of wine and a bath before collapsing between the sheets.
Why spend so much money on shoes? (Some fashion-conscious people will be reading that and laughing, because for them £120 is flip-flops money.) Because shoes, like mattresses, breakfast cereals, office chairs, and laptops, are one of those consumer products you will always regret scrimping on.
Consider how many hours your feet must spend in your shoes. Consider how many miles they must tread. Your shoes are a bed for your feet. The shoe must wrap around the foot the same way your duvet wraps around your body. The soles must feel like the finest, most expensive mattress. If you want a good night’s sleep, you spend money on a good mattress and a good duvet. The sensation you get when sliding your foot inside your shoe should be almost the same as the one you get on a freezing winter night, when you’ve had a nightmare of a day at work and you’re croaking with fatigue, and you’ve just about summoned the energy for a small glass of wine and a bath before collapsing between the sheets. And as you do so, the loveliness of your bed makes you utter an involuntary “Ahhhhhh!” You settle down on your back, turn out the light, and smile contentedly, knowing that sleep will be in charge very soon, and your body will magically recharge overnight.
That’s what good shoes should feel like. It’s a feeling worth paying for. It makes sense to do it this way. That’s why they’re called “sensible shoes.”
The best shoes I ever owned were a moderately expensive pair of Salomon hiking boots. Wide-fitting for my wide feet, they had a good couple of years of day-to-day service before being relegated to the “gardening shoes” rack. Even then, they were still my favorite pair. Then one day, unloading the car, I dropped a tin of gloss paint on my foot and it exploded all over my shoes, my jeans, and my jacket. All of them were ruined, but I was most upset about the shoes. I’ve been searching for a replacement pair ever since. That was about a decade ago.
For all those years since, I’ve been hunting for a pair that was similarly comfortable. Similarly sensible.
Finally, a couple of weeks ago, I found them. To my surprise, they were not middle-aged dad trainers, but a pair of rather plain black leather shoes from that holy place for all English middle-aged dads, Marks & Spencer. They tick all the boxes:
- Duvet-like levels of comfort? CHECK
- Priced to ensure quality? CHECK
- Bring back memories of those much-missed Salomons? CHECK
- Spousal eye-rolling on being told I’d bought another pair? CHECK
My 10-year-long quest is over.
That’s why I’ve been buying so many shoes.