The leather shoes that turned out to be not-leather lasted less than a fortnight on Waiheke Island rock. The red-brown aggregate made from ground-up island and used for paving shredded the shoes’ not-durable soles.

Not-leather boots 2

There are no men’s shoe shops on the island; I was a step away from bootlessness – a human condition defined as useless, pointless or meaningless.

A step lower and strangeness creeps in, says existential philosopher Albert Camus.

I found a pair of 18 year old Doc Martens in the boot of the car. I’d thrown them in there a while back meaning to get them resoled. They had served me in London for a year and tramped dusty roads in South India.

Goat. South India. Picture by Russell Walsh

As a teacher I’d worn them daily as work boots and in 2008 I reprised them for my down-at heel character, Estragon, in a production of Samuel Beckett’s tragicomedy Waiting for Godot.

Godot - bootless 2
Estragon and Vladmir (Joe Martin). Waiting for Godot. Picture by Paul Rickard.

Occasional massages with wheatgerm oil, bees-wax and Dubbin have kept them in decent nick. They were still useful, meaningful and possibly had a point.

I freshened them up with new laces and a paraffin-based nugget. I lined them with petrol-smelling insoles and pimped them out with thick inserts that feel like human lard but mould themselves to the undersides of your feet.

My feet were dry, they were happy, they took the Rock’s tyre-grinding roads in their stride.

In Waiting for Godot, my tramp, Estragon, was forever a step away from bootlessness.

button up -bootless

The play opens with him struggling to remove one of his boots because it hurts his foot.

“Nothing to be done,” he says as wayfarer companion Vladmir enters.


The humour is of an absurd sort. The play is language-driven and the plot amounts to no more than Estragon and Vladmir waiting by a tree on a country road for a man called Godot who never shows. Vladmir and Estragon anchor themselves to this place with language because, apart from waiting, they have nothing else to keep them going.

Estragon - bootless

When Estragon succeeds in taking off his boot, he carries it around for the rest of the first act. By end of Act 1, his other foot hurts too, so he takes that boot off too and leaves the pair of them at the front of the stage.

Godot - boots

Vladmir is horrified by the prospect of bootlessness.

“But you can’t go barefoot!”

By the beginning of Act 2, Estragon is estranged from his boots. He claims not to recognise them; he says they are a different colour from his.

Vladmir says someone must have taken Estragon’s boots and left his because they were too tight for him.

Estragon struggles to work this out.

In the Unity Theatre production, I had him put the boots on and high-step like they were strange to him. As a character, Estragon played his part as well. He reinvented himself moment by moment, he was clownish. Clownishness kept him going.

Strangeness had already crept in for two bootless squatters I met in London in 1976.

Vic was a skinny and shoeless junkie who lived across the hall from my room on the bottom floor of the Swiss Cottage squat. He needed shoes for a court appearance.

I had a pair of over-sized suede desert boots (desert boots was a style then) I had been given.

suede desert boots

They looked like clown shoes on me. Perhaps they had been too tight for someone else.

I gave Vic the boots.

When he returned them he gave me a lump of blonde Lebanese hash. I had never tried hash before. I smoked it and was comatose when a small camp-fire lit by lunatics in the back bedroom gutted the bottom-floor kitchen. Firemen evacuated the house but residents forgot I had just moved in so I slept through it.

A seven-foot, broke, bootless (or barefooted – there’s a difference) Canadian called Taxi moved into the squat. He painted his windowless room with a big upside-down black cross in the style of American abstract-expressionist Franz Klein on each wall.

Franz Kline %22Le Gros%22 1961
Franz Kline, Le Gros, 1961

He was a good guy but his feet got him into trouble.

In Kilburn High Street one day, an elderly woman dropped her bus money. Taxi stooped to catch it to but his foot was ahead of him and accidentally booted the pound coin into a drain.

The woman was angry. She insisted Taxi recompense her, which he did. But then he couldn’t buy anything to eat. He kicked a can laying on the pavement into the road. It hit a little police car known as a Panda. The Panda police arrested him. Taxi had to go to court so I gave my over-sized desert boots. They fitted him well so I told him to keep them.

The day the Woodchurch Road squat was shut down I turned yellow and was admitted into hospital for hepatitis B .

Taxi kept a room for me at a new squat in Kilburn. Junkies from the old place moved into the flat across the hall. Taxi found a heater and some carpet in a skip and installed them in my new room. The deal was he and two other Woodchurch Road refugees slept (cross ways) on the one mattress in the front room. I had no mattress but I had a room of my own with a heater and I kept my virus to myself.

Hepatitis B virus through an electron microscope. Picture by EGEETomo

It was time to move on.

Taxi was a good guy but I treated him badly and I regret that.

One good thing happened to him before I flew out.

I was waiting for a cab to take me to the airport when he got back to the squat with a big grin on his face. He had got hold of a shilling so he bought a portion of hot chips and sat on a bench in the cemetery to eat them. A sparrow landed on his arm and tugged a fry out of the packet. A tourist saw it and was so chuffed he gave Taxi a shilling.

Taxi used that shilling to buy some more chips.

My cab arrived. As it crawled up Kilburn High Street, I saw Vic, half-naked and bootless, helping police with inquires outside Bliss’s Chemist.

The policemen opened the van’s back doors and Vic climbed in.

I’ll never know if he found footwear to wear to court.

Plenty of cultures go barefooted so bootlessness must be as different from barefootedness as nudity is from nakedness.

Iris, the Messenger, a bronze sculpture by Auguste Rodin has all four bases covered but not much else.

Iris, Messenger of the Gods, Auguste Rodin, 1890
Iris the Messenger, bronze, Auguste Rodin, 1890

The figure is naked and headless and poised on the toes of one foot. Her left arm is torn off at the shoulder. She grasps her other foot with her remaining hand. Her legs are wide apart, her vulva in your face. (Rodin was particular about how he mounted his sculptures; the iris was intended to be at eye level.)

Iris’s disinhibition invites abandon. You feel in a physical way the primality in the clasped foot particularly, and in-your-face vulva – but her scarred torso, wide-eyed bum-crack and clasped foot bring an earthiness to the scene that is a step lower than sensuality.

Rodin’s Iris was cast into several bronze sculptures. Sylvester Stallone owned one. He called it the “flying beaver”.

Such taste.

British artist Lucien Freud owned a copy too.

Painter Working, Reflection, Lucien Freud, 1993. He has kept his boots on.

He kept it the end of his bed so it was the first thing he saw on waking up each morning. As the discoverer of the Oedipal complex, Lucien’s grandfather, Sigmund, might have had some thoughts on that.

(The pioneer of psychoanalysis also claimed the bare foot resembled the penis which brings a whole different set of baggage to the sculpture).

The 1891 figure was originally conceived by Rodin for a Victor Hugo monument.

“His idea was for a winged Iris to hover as a muse above the seated figure of Hugo,” writes Mark Brown in The Guardian, “but things changed and Rodin reworked her as a sculpture in her own right, removing her wings, head and an arm, raising her leg and deliberately directing the viewer’s eyes to her genitals,”

In the end, Rodin incorporated Iris into a sculpture-group portal called The Gates of Hell.

The Gates of Hell, Auguste Rodin, the Kunsthaus Zürich

Postscript: I had just typed the title Bootless at the Gates of Hell as an ironic wave to adventure-travel writer Tim Cahill’s hyperbolic titles Pecked to Death by Ducks, and Jaguars Ripped My Flesh, when Gisborne Herald chief reporter Debbie Gregory posted on Facebook this picture of The Shoes on the Danube Bank in Budapest.

shoes by danube
Shoes on the Danube embankment, Can Togay and Gyula Pauer, 2005. Picture by Debbie Gregory

Conceived by film director Can Togay, who created it with sculptor Gyula Pauer on the east bank of the Danube River, the composition comprises 60 pairs of metal shoes set in concrete on the Danube embankment.

The installation commemorates the Hungarian Jews killed by the Arrow Cross militiamen in Hungary, 1944-1945. The killings usually took place en masse.

Victims were lined up at the embankment, ordered to take off their shoes and were shot at the edge of the water.

The sculpture group is powerfully arresting. I’m ashamed to include it with this lightweight story as footnote.


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