• Paul Rutherford


Updated: Jun 10

There is no greater pleasure, no greater sense of achievement, no more obvious evidence of a job well done than cleaning a pair of shoes. Done properly, it is the source of true contentment. Today presented a double duty; my walking boots that needed recovery after our Christmas Day walk and a pair of black brogues that - to my shame - had been neglected since late November. (When I say neglected, they weren't dirty as such, just dull. A cursory brush or a wipe with a cloth in the desk drawer will make shoes presentable-enough for a meeting. But really clean - a deep, rich inner shine - takes care, attention and, yes, love). The boots first. They had been consigned to a plastic bag on returning from the walk, then into an under-stair cupboard, then into the loft as the stream of festive visitors came and went, and the boots became an 'after New Year' task. The mud was thick and encrusted. It called for a scrape. I have an old knife, from a very early cutlery set - a single piece of cast metal, rounded tip, very worn serrated edge, totally blunt. It's perfect for the job. Starting on the left instep, the knife scudded along the edge of the sole, sparks of earth skipping into the air and onto the newspaper. (Did you know that Herbert Chapman, manager of Hull and Arsenal in the 1930s, created the WM formation - 3-2-2-3 - and is now regarded as the greatest innovator in football management? Accidental learning is a joyous supplementary benefit of a session with your shoes.) As the dirt flew, so the boots revealed another reminder of Christmas afternoon. We had walked through a field next to a river, so it was wet and very muddy, and the footpath running alongside the fence was awash with sheep manure. It didn't matter at the time; we were wearing our boots, and by the time we got back to the car, we'd wiped most of it on thick grass and hedgerow. Evidently not all of it, and even dried, two-week old sheep dung smells of sheep dung. Pressing on, I turned the boot over and began on the sole itself, a maze of channels and crevices. Working the knife, sometimes like a chisel, sometimes like a cut-throat razor (little finger raised for balance) the earth snapped away and the true pattern began to show. It was like archeology, uncovering something clean and whole beneath a carapace of crud. The next ten minutes were spent chipping and scraping, knapping and scratching to return both boots to a pared state ready for polish. And those minutes were the most focused, most vivid of my weekend. All thought subsided, all distraction evaporated. Just me, an old knife, and a pair of boots. Perfect calm. To the brogues next, and the ritual I have performed for the past 25 years, ever since I started wearing 'proper' shoes, and realised just how expensive they are if not well cared-for. Remove the laces. Wipe any dirt or detritus with a wet cloth. Open the tin of polish, and spray water onto the wax (I'm not a camel, so never have enough spit). Apply copious amounts of the black stuff onto both shoes. Take up another cloth, wrap it around your index and middle finger, and wet it. And the polish and the shoes. Pick up polish with your two fingers, then work it into the leather. And work it. And work it some more. The toe cap, the vamp, the punch holes (these are brogues). The quarter, the counter, the cuff. Soon, the shine begins to appear, a dark sun coming through a wiped window. Keep moving those two fingers in circles over the surface until there are no more smears: it is ready to buff. While the application brush is stiff and wiry, the buff brush is soft and giving - much softer than a shaving brush. And the bigger the better. Jerky little scrubbing movements just remove the goodness of the clean; longer, more elegant strokes bring the deep shine to the surface. It's that 'inner' quality which is so satisfying at the end of the work, as it was today. A sense of bringing the life back to something. A task well done. I remember it from cleaning the brass candlesticks at Granny's, from helping my mother clean the windows with newspaper, and from earning pocket money from cleaning my father's car. Perhaps my sense of well-being at the end of the work is a nostalgia for childhood experiences. But I think it goes beyond that. There are quicker, easier, 'spray-and-shine' ways of cleaning shoes, just as there are people who'll offer to polish them for you. That's true for virtually any outcome you need to achieve; you can buy a short-cut, a quick-fix or a ready-made answer. However, for the real pleasure of cleaning shoes isn't the outcome; it's the act itself. It combines duty, cleanliness, creation, art, discipline, labour and a total suspension of all worries, concerns and distractions. All the benefits of a meditative retreat - for the price of a tin of polish.

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