The last thing you need on your feet in a rain drenched northern town in winter is a pair of suede boots. As the freezing droplets blow in over the Mersey and sting your face you can feel the gradual seep of water into your socks. As your feet begin to freeze, you pull the hood of your parka further over your face as if it will make a difference to the temperature of the rest of your body. Off you go, past the high rises, along the main street and in to the council estates beyond. The mid tan of your boots has grown in to slick black when you reach home. You wrench them off in the hall and quietly climb the midnight stairs, desperately trying to avoid awakening your parents. Your door is slightly ajar and you enter the warm room, the clicks and creaks of the fading central heating can be heard. The cooling pipes contract beneath the floor boards as you stuff the toes of the boots behind the radiator, haul off your drenched coat and Levis. You climb beneath the blankets just as the wet dog aroma of your cooking boots fills the air and an uneasy sleep engulfs you.
The boots are still damp the next morning, the black now an unpleasant grey, giving way to the original colour, clawing its way back across the instep with white salt stains delineating the frontier. You put your loafers on instead. They don’t really cover enough of your foot to be truly effective if it’s another deluge. But the oxblood glow inspires you to greater things and you slip on your pair of Prince of Wales, half mast enough to display a couple of inches of white sock. Then after a bowl of cornflakes and slice of Wonderloaf toast, you are back out on the streets amongst the Airwear, monkey boots and basket weaves.
You miss your desert boots and you hope the stitching won’t have dissolved. The insoles always peel away, even when it’s dry, but you pray they hold together. They are comfortable and if you wire brush them hard enough they are the wild buckskin shoes The Who sing about. Yours are from the town market, they were made in Poland. It’s not quite Italy, but it’s still exotic. You wonder if there are Mods in the Eastern-Bloc? As you pass Clarks near the post office, you look through the window at the rows of anonymous footwear. At the back of the shop are the desert boots, just like your own, but twice, maybe three times the price. It starts to spit and you realise the Harrington’s not enough so you duck in to the library. You go to the music section and leaf through the acres of 12” vinyl, as you do so the world around your starts to dissolve. The edges of reality fading fast into a spinning vortex about the centre of the LP you are holding. The deep red background of the Polydor logo stretches in to a crimson cloud as the vortex of time hurls you forward. With a sudden jolt you find yourself standing there with the same LP in your hand, but it’s on a CD. It doesn’t have the same feeling of quality the vinyl had. You worry that its flimsiness indicates the content now lacks merit. Over thirty years have disappeared. You look down and there’s a pair of desert boots on your feet. Clarks. Well over fifty quid, perfect in every detail.
I’m not the only one that thinks some things never change, just the price of things. Any Mod from seventy nine onward will have owned a cheap pair of dessert boots, imported from abroad and purchased for cash over the counter in the precinct or a market stall. They will have sat in the wardrobe alongside a pair of loafers, a monkey boot or two, maybe even a pair of Docs if you edged along the rude-boy look. If not they will have taken their rightful place next to a pair of Jam or bowling shoes, deck pumps or basket weaves. Without doubt it’s the item of Mod footwear that brings us all together, like the intersecting middle portion of a Venn diagram that nobody really understood in CSE maths. They are stylish and rugged as long as they are dry, and like us they improve with age. There’s nothing close to a battered desert boot when it comes to imparting an air of authority on the wearer, and to be fair to Clark’s, the original manufacturer, a good pair will last you for a long time if you wear them sensibly.
Officially the Desert Boot was designed in the late 1940’s by Nathan Clark. It made its first official appearance during 1950 at the Chicago Shoe Fair. Clark can’t take all the credit for it though, as he borrowed some of the design having seen something similar when serving in Egypt during the Second World War. He noticed a crepe-soled boot made from suede in the famous Bazaar in Cairo. Officers of the British Eighth Army, the legendary desert rats wore them during their off duty hours instead of the heavy military issue boots. The simple construction and instant comfort were a hit with the veterans of desert combat and they were pleased to shed their leather footwear in favour of these casual wonders. After duty in Burma, Nathan sent his ideas to Street, Somerset, where his brother, Bancroft, was chairman of the famous British shoe manufacturer and retailer. Nathan had already worked on a design for a brown suede boot and his Egyptian experiences had galvanised his ideas to a point where he sent sketches and rough patterns back to Bancroft. Surprisingly enough nothing happened, a typical British reaction to a good idea. Perhaps the war had made people fear change; they’d had enough of that. Clark’s would have need to take a bit of a chance on the boot and with materials rationed and shoes being expensive perhaps they felt it was too much of a step to take with precious resources .
The stock committee superintendent at the time, Arthur Martin, was adamant that the boots wouldn’t sell. Nathan disagreed vehemently and when he returned to work after his duties and began cutting the patterns himself. He then used his capacity as Overseas Development Manager, to show his prototype boots to Oscar Schoeffler, the fashion editor of Esquire magazine. The magazine ran an illustrated story and Clark’s had an instant bestseller on its hands. Clarks themselves have sold over 12 million pairs, which is a conservative figure, and other companies have offered similar patterns ever since. Clark’s have outlets in over a hundred countries so their shoe is well travelled to say the least. My first hand experience of this was in Venice last year. I stood still with nationalistic pride as I saw there was a Clark’s not far from St Mark’s square. Taking pride of place in the window was whole range of desert boots and around me hundreds of very stylish Italians wearing them. Sadly I had a pair of Italian loafer on at the time, but I could see the irony.
The boot has a range of admirers. Robert Plant, Pete Townsend and Bob Dylan regularly slip a pair on. My personal favourite is Crusty the Clown, sorry I mean Cabinet minister Kenneth Clarke. I mean there is a dark horse. As much as I hate any acolyte of Thatcher, putting on a pair of suede’s has certainly made me think there’s more to him than a grovelling crony. The original boot is also an enduring design. Even Liam Gallagher couldn't ruin its reputation by trying to re-style it as part of his Pretty Green clothing label. Leave it Liam, it doesn't need re-inventing especially by somebody whose stock in trade is pastiche tunes riding on the backs of the greats. Tony Blair was seen wearing a pair in 1999 during a vain attempt to align himself with Cool Britannia, perhaps they were a pair of Liam’s cast off's left at NO.10 after one of Tony’s many tea parties? Either way, even Blair couldn't undermine their cool.Nathan was 94 when he died in New York, where he had lived for many years. His boots live on and are perhaps most recently treasured in Jamaica where they are prized, sung about and their progress charted in a book called ‘Clarks in Jamaica’ by Al Newman. It tells the story of how the Somerset firm became shoemakers to the reggae industry. Its hardly surprising that a Commonwealth country which has had such a massive artistic influence on the UK should, in turn, be influenced by something quintessentially ’Mother Country’.
Time moves on again, its vortex picking up speed. Once again you become intangible and the disc you are holding fades. The holographic cover becomes something projected from the small disc glued on your palm and the music is transmitted directly to the implant in your ear. The sounds fill your head at a perfect volume. You could be in the studio. You step forward on to the tram, its carriages levitating on a magnetic field above the single rail below, so it moves away without a jolt. You look down at the floor, its litter free. The toes of your desert boots come in to view, they are a little worn and maybe need a work over with suede brush. You remember when they only cost sixty quid. Those were the days eh?