said Archie Workman on Saturday Live yesterday. Archie is a lengthsman and through his work maintaining verges and ditches he discovered that drain covers are often worth a second or third look – and he’s not the only one who thinks so.
Yesterday was a grey day, one of those days when the cloud cover is a pretty much uniform blanket of grey, and there is no nuance to the light, so that even naked trees cast no interesting shadows, and puddles provide only flat reflections. Looking up wasn’t very inspiring, so I was glad to have Archie’s words ringing in my ears.
First I noticed the many different types of pavement surface on my route from the flat to the station. The smooth, oily-black tarmac of the landscaped path down the edge of the estate to the ring road roundabout meanders like a river alongside and slightly lower than the main road, and I felt a little protected from the traffic rushing by – it gives a gentler introduction to the city centre. The dull grey standard town pavement surfaces I walked on most of the rest of the way have been made both messy and interesting by flecks of chewing gum now so deeply embedded in the pavement they look like stains. The cost of removing chewing gum from pavements is apparently a huge problem for councils, but I think once it’s stopped being sticky it’s not only not a bad thing, it has creative potential – realised sweetly by Paula Morison, who saw constellations below her feet during the daytime to mirror the ones in the sky at night.
In Sheffield you can find stars in the pavement outside the town hall – sons and daughters of the city who have gone on to shine in some way. (Jessica Ennis gets her own gold postbox as well.) Then in the part-pedestrianised street between the Winter Gardens and the forecourt of the Crucible-Lyceum-City Library area are the cobbles-that-don’t-hobble, but instead lie neatly tessellated and flat. They are inviting to walk on (unlike old cobbles which, though pretty, are a treacherous and painful prospect for some of us), they suggest this is a place for perambulation, a place to take your time, a place to be social, where people have priority over vehicles.
The more I looked down the more things I found to be fascinated by. At the station I started to notice people’s shoes. It was Saturday and the platform for the Manchester train was crowded with people dressed up for a day out, some headed for the airport with suitcases and dressed to travel. The variety of footwear was amazing. Everybody’s shoes looked clean, fresh, carefully chosen and new. The contrast with the muddy grime of the platform surface was slightly shocking, like those part-animated films you used to get before CGI, with bright cartoon characters drawn onto dull, real backgrounds. As if only one could be ‘true’. The train was so crowded many people couldn’t get seats and I ended up sitting on my bag to save standing for an hour. This afforded me an excellent view of shoes interacting with each other, servants of their owners up above. When you look at shoes and not at their owners, you start to see how feet have their own life and how restrained they are from living it by the demands of the person in charge. A foot lifts – and then drops in a hesitant half-step forward and then back again. A foot inches closer to the foot of another – and is rebuffed when the other’s foot turns away; while their owners appear to be talking quite pleasantly a dance of rejection is played out at ground level.
In Manchester outside the Central Library a group of young women, possibly a hen party, were playing a game that involved freezing in place (I mean stopping suddenly, though it was a nippy day and they all had bare legs so unless they were wearing beer-tights they were probably feeling pretty chilly). Each woman wore a different pair of glamourous platform stilettos – the kind that are so teeteringly high that they confer a tendency to walk with a bend at the knee, bottom sticking out, arms slightly akimbo for balance; when the group froze and held the posture they produced an almost abstract fashion-plate, tribute-to-modernism image of a tangle of angles, of pink legs and many-coloured shoes parrot-bright against the grey, rainy city streets.
Shoes can tell stories – such as what it might be like to flee to safety, or how important you are, but as with all stories they are given meaning by the teller. Imelda Marcos’ shoes were seen as evidence of her Marie-Antoinette attitudes to the people, but perhaps she was just a hoarder?* I wonder what story you would tell about my shoes, and whether it would be the same as the story I would tell?
If you’re in Oxford, check out Cowley Road’s ‘pavement jewellery’. My favourite is the bee.