Confessions of a Boot Boy

While cleaning my wife’s little boots yesterday I began thinking of how much I’ve always loved the task. It’s a satisfying process to scrape off mud and detritus, to brush vigorously before applying polish, waiting for it to soak in for a few minutes, then buffing to a high shine with a soft brush and cloth. I sometimes indulge myself further by applying a layer of Dubbin, a greasy salve that helps waterproof and further shine and protect the shoe.

When my four children were little it was my Sunday afternoon job to polish their school shoes in readiness for the week ahead. I loved the whole process and the reason for doing it. It was a tangible symbol of my love for them and a demonstration of it to the world I was sending them out into. It had a value akin to that of clothing them in a warm, waterproof coat in winter, evidence that I was doing my job as a dad. Something that would have made my dad proud.

It also connected me somehow to their experience of the previous week. Putting my hand inside the shoe to check for holes or a folded insole, examining the way the heels wore down and checking for any defects that might make their wearing of them uncomfortable, was all part of the routine. There was a mindfulness to the deliberate process. I relished the dream-like state I found, staring out of the utility room window at the trees in the garden as I polished over the stainless steel sink.

My dad taught me to clean shoes, it’s a dad thing I guess. To his generation a pair of shiny shoes were a statement of pride. It was a visual confirmation of their standing in society, or at least of their aspiration to it. They were suspicious of trainers, canvas shoes had no gravitas in their opinion, and even suede shoes, for a man, were suspect. I only remember him owning one pair of shoes that he couldn’t polish — corduroy casual summer shoes he dismissively labelled ‘sgitie dala adar’ — bird catching shoes. My mum bought them for him in a vain hope that he might relax when wearing them.

He cleaned my shoes alongside his own and my mother’s every Sunday morning. If it was dry he’d do them outside the back door, balancing the brushes and little tins of polish on the wall of the elevated rockery. If it was wet, he’d put a piece of the recently read Sunday People on the floor to catch any stray bits of dirt and polish. My Clark’s Commandos or Nature Treks didn’t take long but he would take an age over my mother’s delicate kitten heels.

I was in my teens when I got a pair of black, nine hole Doctor Marten’s boots, to replace the school shoes my parents had bought me, that I deemed too unfashionable to even consider wearing. My ‘Docs’ came with a proviso that I pay for them myself and also learn to polish them, and that I would do so regularly. Fine by me, as I immediately got into cherishing the new boots I had saved up for. I lingered over them, and enjoyed the process so much that I would polish them every evening after school. It became a meditative exercise, one of those muscle memory tasks that allow your mind to wander as you work. I didn’t just reserve them for school though. With a high sheen, they contrasted well with the torn jeans or army surplus combat trousers I habitually wore at weekends. I probably didn’t realise that they were a nod to the values instilled in me, that were not apparent in my otherwise punky clothing.

When I met my wife I took on the task of cleaning her shoes. I just assumed that it was my job and I was more than happy to do it. She has tiny, size three feet, so none of her shoes take long but they are invariably more challenging due to the variety of colours and finishes I’d not encountered before. I had to buy ‘neutral’ polish and special cream for patent leather for goodness sake!

I inherited my father’s shoe cleaning tools after he died and added them to those of my deceased father-in-law’s, that my wife already had. Consequently I have a variety of brushes for different colour polishes, scrapers, cloths and suede cleaning items. My favourite brush, a black polish one, has a wooden oval back with an over-the-knuckles handle the like of which I can’t find a replacement for anywhere. It’s a little threadbare now so I only use it for buffing.

When the kids came along my Sunday afternoon job began to take a lot longer and it was my own shoes that suffered for it, becoming somewhat neglected in comparison. No matter. The satisfaction I got lining up a row of eight little shoes in descending size order made up for any dereliction in the care of my own appearance.

In addition to their school shoes I also became the family boot boy, cleaning innumerable pairs of rugby boots over the years. The process involved beating the boots together to remove the mud and grass over the flower bed next to the shed. This has become a repository for all of the various soils from across South Wales rugby fields and a couple in England too. Then I’d sluice out the remaining mud — even from inside the boots on wetter days. When they were dry from this process I slathered them in dubbin to shine and protect them for the next game. Cleaning three boys’ boots would have been enough but my daughter also played for a while!

This Sunday chore petered out a couple of years ago and I still miss it. My pile of shoes to clean is down to one or two pairs a month now. The gradual eroding of these supposedly onerous tasks should be a bonus of growing older but, I confess, I feel it just confirms my (self presumed) reducing value.

All this, and Welsh too.

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