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Swellboy on… methylated spirits

The secret elixir that returns the lustre to a special pair of shoes

Swellboy on… methylated spirits

Image: Brijesh Patel

March 01 2011
Nick Foulkes

One of my favourite jokes concerns an alcoholic who goes into the hardware shop in his neighbourhood, where his wife has instructed all the retailers not to serve her husband anything with even a remote hint of an alcohol content. After a few months’ sobriety, he seems to have put it all behind him and decides to do up the house, hence the visit to the hardware shop, where, among the nails and “two by fours” (whatever they are), he asks for a bottle of meths.

“I’m terribly sorry sir, but your wife has asked that we do not sell you any alcohol.”

Cue pained look on the face of the alcoholic-turned-bricoleur. “Honestly, do I really look like someone who would drink meths?”

Suitably shamed, the hardware store proprietor plonks a bottle of the purple elixir on the counter.

The DIY enthusiast clutches it in his hand and then frowns. “You haven’t got a cold one have you?”

I too have recently developed a fondness for methylated spirits, not as the basis for a brisk and invigorating pre-prandial cocktail or soothing nightcap. Instead I prize it for its shoe-cleaning properties – a discovery for which I must thank the great shoemaker, Eric Cook. A few years ago Eric made me a pair of shoes from the fabled Russian “calf”, a heavily grained reindeer hide exhumed from a sunken ship and tanned according to a process lost in the Revolution… or some such engrossing tale.

And then, after some years of wear, one of the shoes inexplicably lost its gloss. Strange, as the other one remained as lambent as a bit of museum-quality Louis XIV furniture. I tried endless applications of polish and water, even polish and champagne, I handed it over to one of the Berluti-trained patineurs des chaussures at the Plaza Athenée, and yet it seemed a hopeless case, reproaching me every time I put it on with its dull, lifeless surface.

Eventually I asked Eric if he could do anything. He came, collected the shoes, and returned them a few weeks later, gleaming like Phoebus having just taken the family sun-chariot for a spin. I asked him the secret and at first he was reluctant to tell me, but eventually he relented and informed me that he moistened a clean cloth with a touch of meths in between applications of polish.

Following experimentation, I have determined that for the purposes of shoe cleaning meths is best decanted into a shallow salver and allowed to “breathe” before being served, as my oenophile French friends would put it, chambré.

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