Neigh bother: an Indian blacksmith changes a horse's shoe in Delhi, 2013. Photo: Getty
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A day spent sole-searching affords me an unlikely victory

My motto, when it comes to buying shoes, is “as rarely as possible”. A shoe will have to be hanging off my foot and making flapping noises as I walk before I buy another one. 

Meanwhile, because I am a good person deep down, I accompany someone shopping. And not just shopping but shoe shopping.

My motto, when it comes to buying shoes, is “as rarely as possible”. A shoe will have to be hanging, exploded, off my foot and making flapping noises as I walk before I buy another one – even the desert boots I get from that shop on the Uxbridge Road for £20. The last ones I bought there are still going, just. Over the years, I’ve had to spend £15 at the local menders, at £5 a pop, getting the soles glued back on, but I still think that’s good value. Although, for some reason, this time it’s the laces that have exploded. I didn’t realise shoelaces had intestines. Who’d have thought?

Anyway, here I am in the Covent Garden branch of —, while my companion chooses a pair of flatties. I sit down on a comfy bench, the only man in the shop apart from a postman who pops in to deliver the mail, and I contemplate the music being played and the staff. They are all . . . of a type. The music is the kind in which the voices have been compressed or stretched to fit the synthesised tune. Not my cup of tea but I can understand the appeal. The manager, her face a triumphant copper mask of the tanner’s art, rules over all she surveys. At one point, my companion shows me a pair of shoes that she has just tried on. “One’s bigger than the other,” I say. She goes off and tries the next size down.

I am smiled at from time to time, faintly contemptuously but with a touch of sympathy, by the staff and the manager. Something brings her over. Perhaps it’s that I am still holding the shoes.

“Look,” I say. “One of these is bigger than the other.” She takes them from me.

“No, it’s not,” she says.

I weigh up my options and the wisdom of standing up for the truth. Now, I quickly decide, is not the time to go all eppur si muove on her.

“You’re the boss,” I say.

“I certainly am,” she confirms.

Next, to the — in Holborn. It is a shop that sells running shoes. Call it the Foot Monster, or the Running Shack, or whatever you like. For some reason, I have forgotten its name. But I have not forgotten the names of some of the shoes that stared back at me from the shelves as I gazed upon them from the (much less comfy) bench that I’d parked myself on. Pegasus 31. Ghost 6. LunarGlide+ 5. What happened, I wonder, to Pegasuses 1-30, Ghosts 1-5 and LunarGlides+ 1-4?

My companion comes over to me while an assistant – having asked her several questions about her running and her gait and got her to have a go on the running machine in the shop, which she is not used to, but there is a man who has been pounding away on it like a twat for the past half an hour who would make anyone feel like a novice – gets her shoes.

“I’m mesmerised by the names,” I say. (You realise, of course, that this is the first time I have been in such a shop and I am boggled by the novelty of the experience.) She, with the keen eyesight of youth, has noticed an even better one and points silently to it: Vomero. Vomero 9, to be precise. And silently – well, after a brief but loud snort of laughter – I applaud the mischievous genius of the mind that came up with this. Short of calling it Blister 500, Ankle-Buster 60 or CardiacFailure 12, they couldn’t have thought of anything better to capture the experience of running.

The assistant returns. I point out that my friend is going to be running on quite hilly terrain, not on paved roads or tracks.

“Hmm, good point,” says the assistant, stroking his chin, which is odd, because what I was expecting him to say, after a quick appraisal of my build, gait and obvious bemusement, like someone from a 1960s episode of Doctor Who who had stumbled into the Tardis, was something along the lines of: “What the f*** do you know about it, you silly tool?”

I count this, I suddenly realise, as one of my life’s quiet victories.

So here are today’s lessons. Never turn down an invitation to go shoe shopping, for every day is a school day – and, yes, it’s true, you can fool some people some of the time. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 04 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, 100 days to save Great Britain

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.