Richard Smith: My boots – an obituary

Richard SmithMy boots died last week as I walked the Cornish coastal path from St Just to St Ives. One comfort was that they died together. The sole of one boot detached five miles out of St Just, and the sole of the second detached just a few miles later. After taking me a thousand miles together I liked that like an elderly couple they died together.

I loved my boots. Usually they lived under my bed, but they were always ready to embrace my feet and take me to wild and wonderful places. Together, the three of us, we walked the Coast to Coast, the Cumberland Way, the Dalesway, Offa’s Dyke, and the Cornish Coast. They travelled with me twice to the South Island of New Zealand, enjoying (or perhaps suffering) the cleaning of their lives at the hands of the immigration officers terrified that the soil on their soles might harbour vermin that could damage New Zealand’s pristine agriculture.

My boots were freedom to me. Sometimes as I sat at my computer, also in my bedroom, I’d hear them calling to me. “Come, let’s go. We don’t want to be here under your bed. We want to be in the hills, feeling rock, mud, and peat.” Sometimes I’d respond, and we’d go.

But my boots were neglected. I always meant to clean and Dubbin them, but I never did. They were in a dreadful condition. If there was a Society for the Protection of Boots, as there should be, they would have been taken into care. With more attention (they couldn’t have had more love) they might have managed another 500 miles. I felt guilty as I just Dubbined my new boots, creatures I’ve not yet learnt to love like my old boots. It’s the death of my old boots that has prompted me to do better my new boots, rather as guilt over the abuse of a first wife may lead to greater care of the second.

I wasn’t sure how to dispose of my dead boots. They seemed to call for something heroic—perhaps being put to sea in a burning longboat like a dead Viking chieftan. I wondered about hurling them into St Ives’ harbour, but that seemed environmentally unfriendly. I was told that there was a place in the Tesco car park to recycle boots, but it was very much out of the way. In the end I left them with the receptionist in the hotel who rather angrily dumped them in a bin. I wasn’t too sad. Once I’m dead I’m happy for anything to happen to my body—even indecencies. It won’t be me.

Boots have a great symbolism for many people. I’ve always been attached to Van Gogh’s magnificent picture of old and empty boots. It hung for a while in the National Gallery and sold for £25m. Empty boots are, of course, symbolic of death, and as I look at my new, rather superior boots I think that they may well “see me out.” Should they be cremated with me? I’d rather that somebody else wore them, but it’s hard to wear other people’s boots, perhaps one of the reasons we become so attached to our own boots.

Full of sorrow at the death of my boots, I took a picture of them and put it onto Facebook accompanied by lamentations. Then a new world opened up. My friend Nicholas Christakis pointed me towards an article from Harper’s that described how Van Gogh’s picture of his boots has played a central role in modern philosophy. Half a dozen philosophers have opined on the painting, beginning with Martin Heidegger, whose last words were famously “Only one person ever understood me.” So if you think I’m over the top with my boots try this:

From the dark opening of the worn insides of the shoes the toilsome tread of the worker stares forth. In the stiffly rugged heaviness of the shoes there is the accumulated tenacity of her slow trudge through the far-spreading and ever-uniform furrows of the field swept by a raw wind. On the leather lie the dampness and richness of the soil. Under the soles slides the loneliness of the field-path as evening falls. In the shoes vibrates the silent call of the earth, its quiet gift of the ripening grain and its unexplained self-refusal in the fallow desolation of the wintry field. This equipment is pervaded by uncomplaining anxiety as to the certainty of bread, the wordless joy of having once more withstood want, the trembling before the impending childbed and shivering at the surrounding menace of death. This equipment belongs to the earth, and it is protected in the world of the peasant woman. From out of this protected belonging the equipment itself rises to its resting-within-itself.

Richard Smith
was the editor of the BMJ until 2004 and is director of the United Health Group’s chronic disease initiative.