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Brendan Larvor © 2000


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Once upon a time in country nothing like our own there lived a King who worried about his subjects' feet. The King and his Ministers wore elegant city shoes with ribbons and heels, as befitted their importance. Outside the court the more prosperous merchants wore hard-wearing boots that made up in strength what they lacked in grace. The less wealthy artisans wore wooden clogs, which distressed the King terribly as they made the capital city look frumpy and provincial. The poorest people wore no shoes at all. Naturally the King rarely met such unfortunates, let alone inspected their feet. This was just as well, since the mere knowledge that his poorest subjects went barefoot caused the King to fall into intense bouts of depression. Sometimes when he put on a new pair of court-shoes they pinched his feet a little, and his spirits fell at the thought of the poor walking unshod through the streets and fields in all weathers. Fortunately the King had the fortitude natural to royalty -- for no-one can rule a kingdom who cannot first rule his own passions -- and was able to shake off these sentiments within minutes. Above all the King worried about his soldiers. Some of them marched in unmilitary brown boots; others wore boots with odd laces; some even had old-fashioned tall cavalry boots with jingling spurs. It is well known to all modern generals that a soldier cannot shoot straight standing in cavalry boots, nor strike fear into the enemy while wearing brown boots and still less with odd laces. "Our neighbours all have well-shod armies", said the King to himself. "They will surely beat us in war, for as the proverb says, an army marches on its boots! I must do something to raise our military competitiveness."

And he did. The King appointed a new Minister of Footwear, one Mr. Blinkered. Some whispered that Mr. Blinkered was an unsuitable choice, as he had no special knowledge of feet. Friends of the new Minister retorted that such whispers were put about by the guilds of cobblers and chiropodists in an effort to maintain their closed shop. Specialist knowledge of footwear was not necessary -- anyone with feet was perfectly qualified. The Minister's first reform was to unite his ministry with another, to create a new Ministry of Footwear and Marching. It is by devices of this sort that great men may defeat the most serious difficulties of any age -- a minute study of the careers of Alexander, Caesar and Napoleon would establish the point, were there time enough. For now, be assured that everyone understood that the new Minister was Very Determined to solve the problem of army boots and thus to raise the military competitiveness of his country. Henceforth, he decided, all the cobblers of the land would make black army boots and nothing else. That is how determined he was.

Next, the Minister commissioned a report from the wisest sage in all the land, a Dr. Cheapening. This learned gentleman studied the question from every side. He read the ancient authors in their original languages; he consulted the Astronomer Royal; he employed the experimental method, dropping pairs of boots from towers and other high places to see which would land first; and he sent spies into neighbouring countries to look at their soldiers' boots. After ten years of deep thought Dr. Cheapening offered the Minister a report in five volumes of folio, each volume running to five hundred pages. With this mass of evidence to support it his conclusion could not be doubted. He concluded that all the cobblers of the land should make black army boots and nothing else.

The Minister assembled these five folio volumes into a sort of rampart, behind which he could hide from stinging darts of lucid criticism and violent mortar-shots of reasoned dispute. Thus protected he issued an edict: all the shoe-makers of the land are to make black army boots and nothing else. (The original edict said "cobblers", but the Minister insisted it be changed to "shoe-makers". He was a skilful politician and knew how to flatter people.)

The poor cobblers were thrown into confusion by this instruction. Some did not believe it -- surely no Minister of the Crown would issue such a foolish and short-sighted order! Others believed but refused to obey -- what did the Minister know about shoes anyway? The majority heard the edict and set to deciding what to do. Only a few were flattered at being called "shoe-makers". The very best cobblers left the kingdom and set up shop abroad, where they lived happy and prosperous lives making fine shoes for rich foreigners. They would meet in the evenings at each other's villas and wonder aloud why they had not emigrated earlier. Less distinguished cobblers without families to tie them took the best leather they could find and made good quality black boots for themselves. They then joined the army where they were made officers because of their excellent footwear. A few of those who had previously made elegant shoes for the King and his court were seized with a fit of patriotism. These splendid subjects set to making army boots with the soft leather and delicate tools they had previously used to make fancy shoes for courtiers. They broke their tools, cut their fingers, made very bad boots and were miserable. Others in the fine shoe trade, seeing this, continued to make elegant shoes with ribbons and heels, only taking care to write "Army Boots -- Black"on the boxes in which they packed their wares. Some of those who had formerly made wooden clogs tried to make army boots out of wood, and made only kindling. Other clog-makers despaired of making army boots and continued instead to make clogs, but took care to paint them black, and call them "Boots". The cobblers who had always made boots for the army celebrated the day. "At last", they cried, "We are raised to our proper dignity, and our importance to the nation is recognised."

At first the new Minister of Footwear and Marching was well pleased. Every cobbler in the land seemed to be hard at work making black army boots. On the King's birthday the Minister stood with the King and the other Ministers to watch the grand parade of the King's armies. Surely this would be the proudest day of his life. He would bathe in royal gratitude as the King reviewed his troops, who would be shod to a man in new black army boots of the most modern design. All fears concerning the national military competitiveness would be banished. His policy could not fail -- Dr. Cheapening had proved it.

Alas! It was not to be. Certainly some soldiers had excellent boots -- especially those officers with cobbling connections. But others clumped and shuffled by in what were quite obviously black wooden clogs. Some limped past in fancy court-shoes with hob-nails driven in to the soles. Some marched well enough in hastily-blackened brown boots, the black polish staining their puttees and working its way up their inside-legs. Cruellest mortification of all, some of the soldiers had kept their tall cavalry boots with spurs and had shined them up proudly for the occasion.

Poor Mr. Blinkered quailed before the royal displeasure. "Minister" said the King in the same low booming voice that judges use to sentence the most serious criminals, "you have one more chance. Regiment my soldiers' boots!"

The Minister set to work that very afternoon. Using his new powers as Minister of Marching he confiscated all the tall old cavalry boots with jingling spurs and placed their wearers in the stocks. Next, he recruited a body of inspectors to see that his edict was properly obeyed. There could, after all, be nothing wrong with his policy: the nation needed army boots and he had commanded their manufacture. Therefore the problem must lie with the cobblers -- pardon me: the shoe-makers. His inspectors would find out what was going wrong. These worthy men, whose halitosis was no fault of their own, set to visiting the cobblers of the kingdom. They visited the makers of elegant city shoes, and discovered their ruse of writing "Army Boots -- Black" on their shoe-boxes (all except for two or three of the oldest-established cobblers, who took care to nail their shoe-boxes shut before the inspectors visited. This was just as well, since the King and his ministers bought shoes for their children from these venerable and wily enterprises, and did not wish to shame their country by shopping abroad, but nor did they want their children's perfect feet to be callused in rough army boots fit only for lesser persons.) The embarrassed cobblers had no choice but to make army boots, or elegant, black, city boots at any rate. The inspectors then visited the makers of black army boots, and told them that they were not making nearly enough. If they did not raise production by at least ten per cent they would be whipped and set in the stocks. The makers of black army boots despaired, as they could work no harder than they already did. Then one of them, who had formerly been clerk to a lawyer, noticed that they were only told to make black army boots. The edict did not say what size or sort. The boot-makers saw that they could obey the letter of the royal command if they made just one size for just one foot. Thereafter they only made left boots size 7 and increased production by 15%. Finally the inspectors visited the clog-makers. The Minister's men, who had been specially trained for their important task, turned the black clogs over, weighed them in their hands, scraped at the black paint with their thumbnails, and praised the clog-makers for their skill in manufacturing boots. Then the inspectors returned to the Ministry of Footwear and Marching to inform Mr. Blinkered that all was now well.

I cannot tell how the tale ends, for the man who told it to me left that kingdom before the story was played out. He returned here out of homesickness, for as I said, that country is nothing like our own. Before he left he saw the King and his Ministers (except Mr. Blinkered) walking about in elegant army-boot-style city shoes with military ribbons bearing the mark of the oldest established cobblers; he saw outside the city behind the midden a growing pile of mouldering left-foot black boots all the same size; he saw the people who used to wear boots wearing black clogs; and he saw that the poor still went barefoot.




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