How long has this been going on? By which I mean: how long have I been obsessed by Clarks Rockie Lo shoes? I used to think I was cool – and so I wore Chelsea boots, specifically RM Williams ones, which are all-leather, and wear well. But the harsh truth of the matter is that the RM Williams are saddle boots, made for encountering the Australian outback on horseback, while I seldom venture further afield… than nearby fields. And that’s where the Clarks came in: because I was growing older, and facing the fact that I wasn’t cool any longer, while I desired a shoe that was comfortable, versatile and – most of all – utterly inconspicuous.
Yes, yes, I concede this much – for me to wear Clarks shoes is also a form of ironising, English people’s favourite exercising; because whatever else I may be, I’m definitely the sort of person who’d like to imagine that the last thing anyone would suspect him of doing is to wear such footwear devotedly. And yet I do – and it feels perfectly natural. After all, as with any superannuated punk, Clarks are encrypted in my fashion DNA as what-not-to-wear: the most normcore of shoes, for those at the very core of respectable English normality – but then perhaps that’s where what little patriotism I have resides: in the Gore-Tex soles of my Rockie Los.
Because I walk a lot, the leather soles of my Chelsea boots gave me blisters – and on occasion I had to ply the corn-shaver to produce cheesy little bits of me. I resolved to shift to properly comfortable footwear that I could adopt in every context I found myself in, whether formal or farouche. I wanted shoes I could wear to the ambassador’s reception at the British Embassy in Vienna – then walk out in, before heading straight on for a long tramp in the Vienna Woods. (I’ve actually done this.) The Rockie Los are absolutely perfect from this point of view: the leather uppers give them the superficial appearance of being standard brogues or Oxfords, but the Gore-Tex soles are deeply ridged for off-road grip – while also rendering the shoes 100 per cent waterproof.
There’s something tremendously liberating about knowing I possess this ability: to stand easy in the salon – and to pace easily, whether traversing urban jungles or bucolic woods. I do understand, of course, that this is a privilege I need to check, for it comes courtesy of my performative masculinity, quite as much as any other. Let’s face it: no one gives a toss what a middle-aged man affects at the end of his legs unless it’s so egregious that it’s actually noticed. For the most part, a middle-aged man’s feet are invisible – so why spend any time at all worrying about how they’re shod? I remember years ago seeing David Cronenberg’s film The Fly and grooving to the way the increasingly maddened scientist – played by the inimitable Jeff Goldblum – hung onto sanity, in part, because he always wore exactly the same clothes. There’s a scene in which his wardrobe is opened to scrutiny, and there they are: normcore outfit upon outfit, and all exactly the same.
Sadly, such sartorial uniformity doesn’t stop Goldblum’s character from turning himself into a grotesque fly-human hybrid. Indeed, recent neuroscientific research would suggest that his ability to even conceive of such a transmogrification may have been aided by his restricted wardrobe options. Yes, that’s right, not having to choose what you’re going to wear really does diminish your cognitive load – because, apparently, all decisions involve the same expenditure of mental energy, whether they’re about creating bizarre mammal-insect chimeras or what shoes you should wear. I like to think that my ability to make bold – some might say reckless – creative decisions rests, at least in part, on my own quotidian shoe certainty.
Although, having said that, I feel prey to a terrible anxiety – one which will be familiar to anyone who gets hung up on a single, essential artefact or tool: what happens if the swine stop making them? In this case, the Quaker swine, the Clarks – because 200 years since its foundation, the business is still owned by the Clark family and still has its headquarters in the sleepy Somerset town of Street. Should I stock up on the things in a Goldblumian fashion, so that were anyone to open my wardrobe door they’d see serried ranks of Rockie Los, or should I carry on with my current policy, which is to wear each pair into the ground, then walk into a branch of Clarks, buy another pair and ask the sales assistant to discard the old ones?
There’s purity in this latter mode of being, I think – purity, and almost a certain asceticism. Listen, I’m not claiming that Clarks Rockie Los are propelling me towards enlightenment, but when I do the switcheroo, it makes me feel light and unburdened – as if I were a sanyasin, who’s abandoned all worldly things in order to wander afield armed only with a staff and begging bowl. Frankly, if Clarks made staffs and begging bowls as well – I’d be off.
Will by Will Self is published by Viking