For my graduation ceremony last week, I went full-formal. Male students, we were advised, should wear a white bow tie with a dark suit. Well, the specificity of the neckwear notwithstanding, a “dark suit” covers a multitude of garments.
But you know, graduation comes but seldom, and for a doctorate, is indeed the celebration of a significant achievement and investment of time. And since I am in possession of a tuxedo and since it was with me in Edinburgh, why not wear it? (The tux was first acquired for a gala I went to as an undergraduate in the company of my uncle, aunt, and not-yet-fiancé. It was a decommissioned rental job, and we determined that if I wore it three times, it covered the cost of the separate rentals, so why not? That one of those “times” was not yet specified but kind of hanging in the air like a descending hot air balloon makes the tux most significant for my now-wife.) (And how did it come to Edinburgh? We had been invited to dinner with a certain Lady So-and-So at the kirk, and the high-bond invitation indicated that gentlemen should wear a dinner jacket. My lexicon is not fully Britishised, so I had to check with my supervisor as to whether this really meant a tux; he said yes it did. Mine was senselessly squatting in a closet in Ottawa, so I hit the charity shops and got a 48-chest British-wool dinner jacket for seven mighty quid. That it was impossibly large for me was tempered by its obvious quality and inviting price, so I bought it and wore it, convinced that the low light of dinner would obscure its ill fit. The next time I was over in Canada, I made a point of returning with the tux, just on the off-chance another high-bond invitation should slip through the door-slot. Still waiting.)
Okay, asides aside, I had a tux to accompany my Standard Issue White Bow Tie. And a gorgeous quilted waistcoat made for me by my mother before I left home lo these many years ago. (Still fits.) But what about the shoes? My daily shoes are a pair of oxblood Doc Martens vegan leather shoes, which are sturdy for walking Edinburgh’s cobbled stones, though I think I may yet have missed a cultural cue. The day after I bought them, I met another dad at the school pick up who immediately expressed his jealousy. He now worked as a supply teacher and needed, I guess, to look somewhat respectable, but my Docs reminded him of earlier, more oppositional days. I thought they looked rather proper, but maybe these still fling me to the margins of society or something. At any rate, for their colour alone, not the right finish for the white tie and dark suit kit.
Which brings me to the story I really want to tell here. The shoes pictured above had been gathering dust atop my wardrobe, last pressed into service at a friend’s wedding a year ago, and rarely trodden in the couple of preceding years. They are, if you’ll pardon my language, a shitty pair of shoes altogether, but in the right circumstances they brush up well. At least, they’re black, look like leather, shine up okay with a bit of Cherry Blossom Black, and come to some kind of point at the toe.
I bought them in a moment of impecunious desperation whilst taking my MA in London in 2010. I’d been out of work for more than a year, and we had just drained the tank of our bank account with visas, flights, and the ridiculous London rents. Then, in the Saturday Guardian, my wife saw a “special reader offer” of two-for-one shoes. Mine were falling apart, except the Blundstones which actually were also falling apart but nonetheless holding together because that’s how Blundstones work. We could get two pairs for £35 – that’s £17.50 for a pair of brown Chelsea boots which worked kind of like the Blunnies but looked like they were holding together and the same for a pair of black shoes . . . for more formal occasions, you know, like church, or dinner with Lady So-and-So, or that invitation to the Royal Wedding which never came, not that I feel gutted or anything. (Still gutted.)
I was leery anyway of buying shoes by mail order. Trying them on before buying just makes sense to me, not only for the fit but also for the opportunity to see the thing – hold it, consider it. And my suspicion was that, had I done so, I would not have wanted to spend any money on these shoes. The price was too good to be good. But for economic reasons, I had no bulletproof counterargument, so we sent away for them.
The Chelsea boots were uncomfortable but snazzy enough at a glance. People made nice comments when they saw them on my feet, but they never felt good on me – pinching a bit, rubbing at the Achilles tendon. And when I quickly walked through the “genuine leather sole” and took it to our local and trustworthy cobbler, he laughed at me. “These shoes are plastic,” he told me (not, I mean, really, but the implication of cheapness was there). “I could put something on the bottom of them, but it’s just taking your money. These shoes are not worth fixing.”
I thanked him for his honesty, dumped the Chelseas in the bin outside, wore the black ones as sparingly as I could (and since I wasn’t getting many dinner invitations, that wasn’t terribly hard to do), and endured with the Blunnies until I secured a scholarship for the PhD and could buy something just a little better and more hard-wearing. Still, as it turns out, not fixable, but I at least got a year out of them before I discovered this fact. Then the Docs. We caught up, now?
The black shoes feel like plastic, and the thin scraping of leather on the sole has already been worn away at the key spots. But if you stand straight, they look pretty enough, and for graduation, that was what I needed. Now that is passed, and I am walking into a new job in a new city. So it is time to ceremonially bin the bad old shoes. I got them at the start of this postgraduate journey, and with light use and a lot of neglect, they have survived to the end of it. That is all that is required. Well done, thou cheap and faithless servants.