Mr Smith goes to . . . The Heel Bar

Surgeons of the sole

In this golden jubilee year, historians have naturally been carrying out research into what someone from the original Elizabethan era would make of the way we live now. As I understand it, if Tudor man roamed the high street, he would flee in terror from the mobile phone outlets and cappuccino chains, before finding a kind of peace in the heel bar.

With its arbitrary combination of two wholly uncomplementary services, namely repairing shoes and cutting keys, this unassuming concern would remind our visitor of the barbershops familiar from the gamy strands of Good Queen Bess's day. When Sweeney Todd still had the striped pole up outside the business, the barber's was not only the place where you went for a short back and sides, but where the man holding a looking-glass up to your crown would tempt you to a leech for the weekend.

The man at my local heel bar is in the olde English tradition of the backstreet sawbones. As he addresses himself to his unresting lathe, he nudges his protective goggles into place like a surgeon adjusting his scrubs. Waiting in line with your buggered brogues, you may overhear the sigh of a man who has seen things that no man should have to see. I don't know if there is an equivalent of the Hippocratic oath for the retreading profession, but I do know that no exotic flowering of the footwear industry, no heeled boot or kittenish mule, nor for that matter the fetching owners of the same, can put a smile on this man's face. The only thing that gives him a kind of liverish pleasure is telling anxious patrons of Jimmy Choo that fashion shoes fall to pieces, practically with their first steps, unless prophylactically shod in a second sole.

Of course, it is bad news like this that ties us to our tradesmen with bonds of trust and fear. At a cobbler's in one of our ancient university towns, amid a tack-room pong, you are invited to fondle stitching and to join in a deprecating the disappearance of workmanship and the lost faculty of discernment. The middle-aged man who attends to you favours an earring and a comb-over. These would be Batemanesque solecisms on the part of you, the customer. In his case, however, you indulgently attribute them to the warp and weft of a close-knit family firm. You choose to dwell instead on the reassuring gloominess of his burr, and the honest shop coat, which places him as an artisan, an adept.

You were seduced by the window display of hand-tooled oxbloods, with detail as fancy as the pattern on a doily, as well as by the handwritten note, which conceded that a sale was on. But after listening to a disquisition on wear and tear from the manager that was positively stoic for taking the long view, you find yourself at the counter with a pair of thornproof walking boots designed by Afrikaners, and with looks to match. As you hesitate, the manager grumbles: "I'll be glad when the sale ends this afternoon. It's more trouble than it's worth." It's a masterstroke of inverted salesmanship.

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