Magic Shoes

1920s ladies evening shoes, shoe ornaments, heels, dress.

1920s ladies evening shoes, shoe ornaments, heels, dress.                                                                (Postcard from The Shoe Museum, Street, Somerset.)

My nephew has a pair of new trainers that flash red lights in the soles when he stamps.  It turns out they’re too big, so his mother tells him she’ll put them away for a month or two, until he’s grown a bit.  Sam’s four.  He gets them back out to show us.  ‘Look,’ he says, turning them over to display a large red silhouette stamped in the treads. ‘They’re dinosaur shoes.’ His eyes are big and shiny, and his mum laughs.  They were the only ones in the sale, ‘Which is lucky, because he’s tried them out so much I could never take them back and ask for a smaller size now.’

I remember the first pair of special shoes I owned.  They were patent black leather, with a narrow buckled bar across the front and broad three inch heels.  I was about thirteen, and they were hand-downs from a more sophisticated cousin, but unlike the spiky court shoes I’d played dress-up in before, these matched the styles I had seen in my Jacky magazines, and they fitted.

My sensible, carefully chosen, flat shoes were cast aside along with all the warnings about broken and twisted ankles. I had a new view of the world, towering over my younger brother and measuring myself against mum.  I could be banned from wearing them to school, or ‘as best’, but nothing could stop me clomping around the house and garden in them.  The fact that nothing else in my wardrobe was suitable to wear with them didn’t matter.  In those shoes, anything might happen.

And lots of other things did.  I was still a child, not a fully fledged teenager, and heels do not suit tree climbing, long country walks or bike-rides.  One day, I was cleaning out the cupboard in my bedroom, and I pulled them from the bottom of it without being able to remember when I’d last seen them.  For a moment I felt the old excitement.  I polished them up with my sleeve, took off my shoes and socks and put them on.

They pinched.  There’s no give in patent leather, after a few minutes I had cramped toes and had to take them off.

As I threw them into the dressing-up box I pulled out some of those old pointy toed shoes I’d shuffled through my younger childhood in.  There were several pairs that fitted, but none that I could imagine myself in.

Soon after that I saved up enough pocket money to choose my own special shoes.  Perched on my wooden platform sandals I regained that view of the world from a different height, and I loved those shoes too, but not in quite the same way that those first, shiny black shoes mattered.

Sometimes important moments happen by accident.  Sometimes the importance of the moment fades within hours and we’ve moved on.  By this time next year, Sam might have forgotten all about the dinosaur trainers.

I don’t think Sam’s mum or my cousin could have guessed how much pleasure we would get from their gift.  Shoes, after all, are pretty much a staple item of clothing in the Western world.  Some of us might go barefoot for the summer, but it would take a hardened sole to survive our colder months, though I’ve seen pictures that suggest in times past they did.

We choose our footwear.  It is part of the outer-expression of our ideas about style, whether we claim to follow fashion or believe ourselves immune to its dictates. These are the basis of first impressions.  If it’s so in real life, how much more in fiction, where characters tend to have more extremes?

There are some lovely shoe obsessed characters, from Fairy tales, such as Cinderella, and The Red Shoes, to modern fiction, such as the stories of  V.I. Warshawski, bySara Paretsky and Carrie Bradshaw (Sex and the City), by Candace Bushnell.  Okay, so you don’t want to create a character-copy.  I didn’t think you would.

I’m just wondering, if I asked you about the first memorable pair of shoes your character had, would you be able to give me an answer?

Beyond Words.

My reading group and I have just been discussing  ‘An Indiscreet Journey’ by Katherine Mansfield.  It’s a bright, breezily narrated tale describing the journey a young woman makes across France to visit her lover, just behind the front-line.

WWI postcardLike so much of Mansfield’s fiction, the story is a pen-portrait of an actual event, and in this case, written soon after the visit took place, in 1915.  But why should we need to know that?  A story, surely, stands alone.  That the word world created should convince, as well as engage us, whether it is contemporarily familiar, or set in an environment distanced by space or time, isn’t that the real test?

This one passed.  We agreed unanimously.  We don’t always agree, of course.  I wouldn’t expect us too.  In this case though, there seemed to be something in the writing for every taste.  Comic character studies, poetic descriptions and a clever digression from the apparent plot all combined to provide a comprehensive entertainment and some enjoyable discussion.

Several of the group had not come across Mansfield before, and so we discussed a little of her background – mostly the more sensational aspects, of course.  Pooling our knowledge on the author and the era, brought me back to the text.

In it, there is a description of an old woman reading a letter from her soldier son, the first one she’d received in months.  When I was putting my ideas together at home, I had spent some time wondering about it.  The only detail Mansfield gives us out of the letter is a request for string and handkerchiefs.  What could it mean?  I came up with two possibilities, neither strong, but there seemed nothing more to go on.  There was so much more to investigate in the text that I moved on.

It was at the class, while we were discussing the soldier with weeping eyes, from later in the story, that the solution came.  Mansfield never directly states it, but we concluded that this soldier has been caught in a gas attack. When she was writing this story, Mansfield was staying at a flat in Paris, near to a hospital treating injured soldiers, many of whom had been caught in gas attacks.

When chemical weapons were first deployed, the armies were not prepared, and soldiers improvised gas masks with pads of urine soaked linen. ‘Yes,’ said one of the group, ‘they tied string to each corner of the material and looped it around their ears.’

For me, it was a eureka moment.  I saw beyond the words, to the implications of the way the mother reads her letter:

‘Slowly, slowly she sipped a sentence, and then looked up and out of the window, her lips trembling a little, and then another sentence, and again the old face turned to the light, tasting it…’

The story opened out again, as if Mansfield’s words were only a window onto a much bigger and more complex view of the war.  How terrible a letter it must have been for a mother to receive, and how discreetly Mansfield has conveyed this contrast between our narrator and the landscape she travels through.

I think I’ve mentioned before, that I don’t think of Mansfield as an easy read.  In some ways, this is one of her more accessible pieces.  The narrator’s journey provides structure.  The cameo portraits flesh it out and provide colour, and we could skip past the references that don’t have apparent meaning.  This was, after all, written ninety-eight years ago. On some level, isn’t story always a piece of social history, directly or indirectly, that we can choose to explore or ignore?

I think yes, and certainly not every story is worth digging into.  But to spend a little time on this one is to see what was happening in the wider world at that moment.  Once I started to find the patterns, even the title, An Indiscreet Journey began to acquire additional implications.

WWI postcardSo if you’re looking for a story to re-read, pick this one.  If you’re looking for a story to read with a reading group, ditto.  If any story can demonstrate the merits of what a reading group achieves, this is it.  As we head for the hundred year anniversary of the start of The Great War, there is certain to be a lot of re-discovery going on with literature.  Here’s a suggestion for an early start you might make.

Trade Report Only.

Trade Report Only, that’s the title of a cracking little story that I’m looking forward to sharing with the reading group later on today.  I’d never come across C.E. Montague until I opened up the Penguin Book of First World War Stories.  That’s not so surprising, since it seems that he’s primarily remembered for his autobiography, Disenchantment.  I won’t need to repeat the reviews on that, since apparently the title sums it up neatly, and you can easily find summaries of it on the internet.

However, on the grounds of the short story I’ve just read, I may have to add Montague to my list of authors to look out for.  I’m not going to sum up the story plot here.  That would definately be a spoiler, and I’m hoping you might decide to get hold of a copy of this to read for yourself.

Trees in the Fog,by Yann Richard, on wikimedia.org

Trees in the Fog,
by Yann Richard, on wikimedia.org

Why?  Well first, because as we head for the centenary of the outbreak of the war, why not try a prose account of it as well as, or even instead of, the more usual poetry.  But secondly, there are lots of literary reasons to look at this particular one, too.

It’s a first person narrative that was originally published in 1923.  Our narrator, the sergeant of a mining unit who have been posted to an orchard at the edges of the battle (no, this is not a story of the trenches) is an educated man, he is both sympathetic and poetic. Atmosphere, imagery, symbolism and classical and biblical allusions all come into play.

It begins:

No one has said what was wrong with The Garden, not even why it was called that name: whether because it had apples in it, and also a devil, like Eden…

Is it dated? Well, in the sense that the characters speak differently to the way we would today, yes.  Call me a purist if you like, but I prefer that.  I can never quite settle into historical fiction or faction where the characters have twenty-first century voices.  And in case you are wary of coloquial writing, don’t let that put you off, the dialogue, like the prose, is concise and  to the point, and is used sparingly.

‘Gawd a’mighty!’ Looker shrilled at the entry of Toomey, ‘if Fritz ain’t sold ‘im a pup!’

You can read this story for the plot, or like one of the war poems, you can reread and follow the treasure hunt. I promise you that’s well worth the effort.  I’m looking forward to discovering if the reading group share my enthusiasm.

If you never were in the line there before the smash came and made it like everywhere else, you could not know how it would work on the nerves…

The power of …

We were telling jokes around the tea-table, my nieces, nephews and I.  They were the old standards, mostly knock, knock jokes: Annabel.  Annabel who?  Annabel is needed on a bicycle;  Lettuce.  Lettuce who?  Lettuce in, it’s freezing out here.

The three oldest children all own joke books, and had memorised a good repertoire.   The youngest, who is just four, joined in with the chorus of cheers as we took turns.

Inevitably the pace quickened as we raced to get our chance at the easily remembered ones.  The noise-level increasing after each punch-line.

Then, amongst the cries of ‘Me, I’m next.’ And, ‘I’ve got one.’ Sam’s voice broke in.  He had been listening carefully. ‘Knock knock,’ he said.

He repeated his chorus several times before we managed to call a hush and respond, ‘Who’s there?’

‘Tractor.’

‘Tractor who’

‘A tractor and a trailer go out in the field,’ said Sam, looking round proudly as we began to laugh.

Encouraged, he made up another, and another, delighted with our delight.

When we moved onto the, ‘black and white and red all over’ ones, Sam quickly picked up the formula. Forget our blushing penguins and read newspapers, he took his turns and gave us first, ‘an orange’, then, ‘Postman Pat’s cat’ and ‘Scoop’ as his solutions.

There were no barriers to his inventions.  Although his sister and cousins are only a few years older, they had already forgotten going through that same process and made an enthusiastic audience.

I suppose you are wondering what it is I am writing about here?

I’ve been thinking about that as I put it together, and wondering how to draw this piece to a close neatly.  I suppose, as it stands it could be an anecdote, or perhaps a sketch…

It lacks a lot of the standard constructs we use to create story.  I’ve given no description, though I can see, hear and smell the scene clearly: the way the september sunset slanted in through a side-window to light up the serving dishes and bowls shouldered together on the large table; the emptied plates with their smears of ketchup, pickle-vinegar and chewed crusts and the noise as six adults and four children competed for attention.

It had movement too.  We fidgeted on chairs that were crammed too close.  Our feet tangled beneath the table as above it we passed dishes and cups.  Only Sam was small enough to roam, finding spaces to squeeze in between elbows and drive his Lego boat between the debris on the shiny table-cloth.

Do these details matter?

Depends on the writer, surely?

Why have I told you this?

Perhaps because I am in the process of working something out, and the best way I can think of to tell you is not by creating a fully worked out and rounded situation, it is by showing you some of the steps I have taken.  I’m not sure I’ve reached a neat conclusion, so I cannot sum anything up.

Should I have written it?

How could I not?

I suppose the more relevent question is, ‘Should I have posted it?’