Apple Tree Cottage
1 May, 1977
Today is May Day. We don’t celebrate it here, but we enjoy it. May is a welcome step forward from the uncertainties of April when you can leave home in bright sunshine and return an hour later soaked by a sudden shower of rain. On May Day dancing around the maypole is popular in some villages and Morris dancing with bells and sticks in others. At Oxford the choristers sing at 6 o’clock on May morning on Magdalen Tower. Here, for some reason, we have never celebrated in this way. We do, though, enjoy the month May. The gardens have never been so beautiful for in May all England is a garden.
‘Oh to be in England now that April’s there’ said Browning. He’s right, of course, and April is fine, but May is even finer.
But to the point. A couple of letters ago I mentioned Henry, the shoemaker. I have just collected an old pair of brogues that he has stitched up for me. They will, he says, ‘go on a little bit longer’. Henry is a shoe repairer really, but everyone here calls him a shoemaker. This is fair enough. After all, he makes new shoes out of old.
I said goodbye to Henry and closed the shop door with its little bell on a spring over the door that rings you in and rings you out. As I left, it struck me that all shoemakers look the same. There is something, a glance, a smile and a stoop, that all shoemakers seem to share. They all have greying hair and a leather apron, and they all wear glasses, short-sighted from years of bending over upturned soles in a corner of their shop. When the door opens and the little bell rings, they get up, straighten their back slowly and blink at the visitor, a fresh arrival from the sunlight, and they rub the world of gnomery from their eyes. They are a rare breed today and they are becoming rarer. They hang on in the ‘heel bar’ hidden away on the top floor of the department store, which with its plastic and chrome is the poor best that this age can manage. There, despite the plastic, you can still enjoy watching a man at his trade, hands moulding and cutting, as you sit on your swivelling stool. But it cannot compare to the old shoemaker’s shop with pieces of leather on the tables and a row of repaired shoes on the shelf, waiting to go into action again.
People’s trades wear into them. This is not just that confidence of being master of a trade, the possessor of a skill, whose hands fly over what the rest of us would make a terrible mess of. All men without a trade secretly envy that ability. The plasterer is always speckled with flecks of his plaster. What I would give though, to be able to transform a wall of blocks as he does! One minute it is a building site, and the next it is a room waiting to be furnished. With the shoemaker, though, it is not just the way he looks. It is his character too. He is always it seems, a benevolent person, a retailer of good news, and a user of old proverbs and sayings as well-worn as the boots that are brought to him. Have you ever heard of a vicious shoemaker?
It must be something to do with their trade. Perhaps it is because they belong to that great fraternity of those who make things do, who help things go a little further, who patch up, glue, nail and tie, so that something old can grow older and still be useful. In these days of buy, use and throw away, that is no bad thing. Out here we take this making do to extremes. Last Friday, when the sun came out just after lunch, I was chatting to old George, who has been old to us for as long as I can remember. To me he looks the same now as he did when I was a child. He was brushing the stone path that leads from his garden gate, covered with nasturtiums, to his front door. ‘This brush’, he said, ‘is over fifty years old. Of course, I’ve changed the head a couple of times and the handle once or twice but look how it’s gone on! It’s fifty years old if it’s a day!’ And this, I suppose, is the secret of eternal youth: you just change all the parts.
Anyway, here, in passing, is a toast to the repairers of the world, to those who spend time making things last a little longer and who keep the open jaws of the garbage bin waiting a little longer. They age usefully, as I hope I will.
And, when you come to think of it, in the odd sober moment, aren’t we all thrown out on the scrap heap a little early? We spend more and more years in training in youth, and in age we retire earlier and earlier. Our useful working life is too short. Perhaps this will change. I don’t know.
Henry, the shoemaker does not fit into this scheme. He will, he told me, be repairing soles when he is 80. I hope he will, and so here’s to him, and to all like him, the menders and the patchers up, the makers do and the carriers on.