Seven hours to Salisbury, for shoe-shopping with the Welsh Enchantress

Queen Elizabeth Gardens, known locally as Lizzie Gardens, is still cordoned off, for Novichok reasons.

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The night before my visit to Salisbury, to see the Welsh Enchantress, she asks me: “Have you packed yet?” Have I what yet? And I thought she had begun to get the measure of me.

“No,” I say. The thing is, that although I do not exist like Shostakovitch, or many other Soviet citizens living under Stalin, with a packed suitcase by my side in the stairwell by the lift, should the secret services come charging in for a friendly chat, I do exist in what we shall call a state of readiness should I need to move at short order. It is not so much about what I should pack, then, as what I should unpack from the cricket bag that serves as my suitcase. So in the morning out go the hip-flask, several books, a portable DVD player and a surprising number of disposable razors. These in themselves do not add much to the weight but every little helps and also they are not good for one’s eco-credentials.

The trip to Salisbury is itself unremarkable, although I have to stun myself with four of those tiny bottles of barely acceptable Shiraz/Cabernet that get sold on Virgin trains. (This one is an LNER train, and the only difference from Virgin is that it doesn’t have aggressive and idiotic branding all over the place, or a picture of a hot-air balloon in the bog over which someone, often me, has scrawled, “Richard Branson is a twat.” Its wi-fi is as inaccessible as Virgin’s, so I settle down with a book to review: about Soho in the 1980s, a period that could well be one of my specialist subjects on Mastermind. I spend a happy five hours scribbling lacunae on the title verso.

And then the final leg, from Waterloo to Salisbury. This is punishing. The man sitting opposite me has biceps larger than my cranium, on one set of which has been tattooed the legend, “Only God can judge me.” Giddy with exhaustion and the after-effects of 75cl of wine during the afternoon, it is all I can do not to lean over, tap his rubric and say: “but what if you appear on Strictly...?” Or, as is perhaps more likely, especially after hearing his very loud phone conversation, “what if you’re up in court?” I’m not sure it’s a legally binding defence. At one point a somewhat weedier-looking commuter asks Mr OGCJM to pipe down. Seeing as Mr God could probably have popped the commuter’s head like a zit, using only his thumbs, this strikes me as unusually brave or foolish. I have been giving the WE frequent updates about the situation, and send her the latest development. 

“Are you bored there, Lezard?” she asks.

“How can I be,” I reply, “with all this human drama unfolding?”

Mr OGCJM raises his voice, a little, to let everyone know that he cannot be cowed. We learn now about his plastic surgery, which involves taking a bit from some part of him and putting it somewhere else. I actually find this fascinating, after the genteel hush of the Middle-Class Coach – sorry, I mean the Quiet Coach. But Mr Biceps goes off, and concludes his conversation in the bit between the carriages. I feel he has been sorely ill-judged (and not, ironically, by God).

And so to Salisbury. I’ve never been here before. Good Lord, it’s beautiful. (Although Queen Elizabeth Gardens, known locally as Lizzie Gardens, is still cordoned off, for Novichok reasons.) I have a specific mission here: to buy a new pair of shoes. As I have mentioned before, my ancient pair of second- or possibly third-hand brogues finally exploded, leaving them unfit for purpose. A Mystery Benefactor Who Shall Remain Nameless had promised to buy me a new pair, expense not to be a consideration. Well it is for me. He or She (see how good I am at protecting an identity?) had pointed to a pair of Loakes which cost over £300, but I baulk at accepting such charity; £200, that I can handle.

So the WE and I go into the Posh Shoe Shop in Salisbury, and the young assistant, whose beard and glasses suggest that he can switch from being a young fogey to a hipster between work and leisure with minimum effort, takes one look at the burst banana skins on my feet and – from what I can see of the movement of his beard – curls his lip.

“Actually, we don’t really care for Loakes any more,” he says, “now that they’ve outsourced much of their manufacture to India.”

“Not the Loakes 1880s,” says the WE, who knows a bit about this kind of thing.

The assistant shows me a succession of what, with their over-developed soles and too stark a contrast between hole and shoe-leather, may be categorised as Clown Shoes for the Aristocracy. Also, the price tags are staggering. But in the end I manage to find a pair that do not break the bank. I put the old shoes in a box, to serve as slippers.

“How you had the nerve to walk in there with those on,” says the WE, “amazes me.” 

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 25 August 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Will Labour split?