I am a believer in the zeitgeist, and the zeit I am geisting right now is the mid 20th century. I have become obsessed by the work of Bernard Buffet, the anguished and angular French painter who became the darling of the art world in the 1950s, and then there is the book I have been writing about the jet set, so I am still half living in the years before I was born – which probably accounts for my reconnection with my inner snaffled Gucci shoe wearer.
During the 1980s, I accumulated a collection of Gucci horsebit shoes in suedes ranging from black to cherry, via brown, blue and violet. The patterns of obsession are familiar enough; after a while my magpie-like mind was attracted by another glinting gewgaw, and for the majority of the past 20 years I have left them in a cupboard neatly tied up in their period shoe bags.
However, given that the Gucci loafer is now celebrating its 60th birthday, I decided to get them out and look at them again. It was a moment of Stendhal-like intensity. I could see the old pre-Tom Ford, pre-Kering (the new name for PPR) Gucci shop with its glittering interior, which I seem to remember as combining baronial dignity with the agreeable decadence of a discotheque. And, indeed, this disco-baronial quality was distilled into a pair of shoes that managed to combine comfort with a casual ostentation – something I found irresistible when, as an undergraduate, I saw my first pair on a fellow student in Mr Kiteley’s Anglo-Saxon tutorials 30 years ago.
I decided to take a pair to the Basel watch fair and, in one of those chance encounters that life uses to keep us on our toes, upon arrival at Basel airport at about 11pm I bumped into my colleague Tom “The Sharpener” Stubbs. He was also wearing a pair of Guccis of rather newer vintage, of which I became insanely jealous; for some reason I had restricted myself only to suede, and his were of a burnished calfskin. He was complimentary about the state of preservation of my 1980s shoes, which in turn got me thinking about a pair that my wife’s stepfather has knocking around from the 1970s, which feature – if memory serves – the unusual bonus of a chain set into the heel.
We fell to talking about what on earth could have inspired Guccio Gucci (clearly a member of the Irish branch of the family) to stick horsebits on the front of a pair of shoes, and we could not decide whether it was very strong mind-expanding drugs, a sophisticated sense of humour or just the farsightedness of genuine genius.
There is something strange and unsettling about having a generation-old obsession reignited. Rather like those middle-aged married men and women who look up their first loves on Her Majesty’s internet and then abandon their respective families to run off with each other and live guiltily ever after (or at least until they realise that they are not teenagers any more), I find myself smitten again with a youthful infatuation – and it is not an entirely disagreeable experience.