Some years back, having managed to leave an external business meeting early using the classic gambit of feigning rage, I decided to pause for a while in Green Park and collect my thoughts, or at least see if I had any left. I knew Ahmed, the deckchair man, well and in quiet periods he would let me rest my bones, gratis.
It was a warm, dry autumn day – the sort we used to have before the Tories got in – and I decided to make the most of it by taking off my shoes. This simple act of removing one of modernity’s strictures relaxed me immediately and put me, I felt, onto a different plane of existence to my fellow parklifers.
Look at these berks, I thought to myself, all trying to chill out with their shoes on. And then look at me, in my socks, relaxing and everything. I’m like their leader. I’m a winner. I sat awhile – I may even have nodded off, as was my habit just before lunch – and it was only as I was putting my shoes back on to return to the office that I spotted him: A man, a little older than me, in a suit and tie, sitting on the grass, having removed his shoes and his socks.
My stomach lurched. I was transfixed. As he waggled his toes back and forth in the long grass, he glanced over at me. He didn’t speak, but he said to me, ‘I am free’. And I knew that I still had much to learn.
My diary entry for that day reads, ‘I have today seen a new way in which we can stick it to The Man. To such looks as vest tops, long hair and a year round tan, we can now add: The absence of socks. The bare foot announces to the world that you are outside the realm of the responsible; that you might, at any moment, not be bothered.’
And so when in May this year I spied a pair of open-toed sandals in Clarks Shoes, Peckham, something stirred in me, like a spoon. I removed my socks to try them on and as I paraded up and down the aisles I turned to Mrs Raider, whose good fortune it was to be accompanying me.
‘I shall not be wearing socks again until October,’ I declared. ‘And I shall call it… Socktober!’ Mrs Raider said nothing, though I did notice the shop assistant give her a sad look. ‘Write that down, babe,’ I added.
‘You write it down,’ she replied.
‘I can’t, can I?’ I cried. ‘Look at me. I’m walking up and down!’
And so began my summer of sockless feet. Around the house I went barefoot, outside I sported my sandals. I felt liberated. Connected to nature. I enjoyed the feel of fresh air, the sun and even the rain on my feet. And my feet responded by becoming bronzed and weather-healthy. I looked like an outdoors type.
I struck up conversations with the sockless, I nodded at fellow sandal wearers, I embraced the barefoot.
I became, in short, a podiaphile. Though I had to get rid of my ‘I’m a Podiaphile’ T-shirt after a misunderstanding in Toys R Us.
Here comes the science bit
As I repeatedly make clear on these pages, I am not a doctor, or at least not one in the conventional sense of the word. But I became convinced that being sockless was good for you. Great, I thought to myself, paraphrasing Conrad, I am becoming medically interesting.
And sure enough, after almost nearly a minute’s research on the Internet I unearthed a couple of US Army studies quoted in Immersion Foot Syndromes by John Adnot, MD and Charles W. Lewis, MD:
“Sandals were issued to approximately 1,000 men, who were permitted to wear them on the post as much as they wished; most of them practically gave up wearing shoes. A similar number of men wore shoes as usual. Within a month, the proportion of severe dermatophytoses in men wearing sandals fell from 30 to 3 percent, while in the control group, the disease remained as troublesome as usual.
“A similar study was conducted in New Guinea, while the 43d Infantry Division was in a rest area. Some 300 men with unclassified skin diseases, many of whom undoubtedly had dermatophytosis of the feet, were kept on the beach for 4 hours daily, without clothing or shoes. They bathed, exercised, or just lay in the sun as they wished. Within a month, the majority of infections had cleared without any other treatment.”
So there you go. I couldn’t actually be bothered to look up what ‘dermatophytosis’ is but, you’ve got to admit, it sounds fucking awful.
My summer challenge threw up many interesting moments.
One August evening I bumped into an old friend of mine on Piccadilly. She’d just finished a choir recital and was in the mood for celebrating. I decided to take her to The Ritz but the doorman had other ideas.
‘I’m afraid you’re not conforming to our dress code, sir,’ he said, not unpleasantly, eyeing my sandals.
‘But I am a multi-millionaire!’ I countered, waving a tenner.
‘Then perhaps sir would care to purchase a pair of shoes,’ he dead-panned.
On another occasion, late to catch a train to Windsor Races one Monday afternoon, I was out of the house and halfway across the park opposite before I realised I wasn’t wearing any shoes at all. It was too late to return so I gamely pushed on.
They call the Shoreditch-Peckham-Clapham section of the Ginger Line, the ‘Hipster Express’, but the young ’uns were no longer looking admiringly at each other, they were looking at me. Or, to be more accurate, moving away from me.
At Clapham Junction I changed trains and wondered if I was the first person ever to catch the 16.38 to Windsor & Eton Riverside, barefoot. Probably not, I figured, as I unfolded the Racing Post and opened a tinnie.
A low-point was a visit to Waterloo’s Hole in the Wall pub. This time wearing sandals, they proved to be insufficient protection from the piss-flooded toilet floor and the sticky, urinous gloop breached my sandal rims and coagulated underfoot.
Really, shoes are the bare minimum in this establishment, especially late on. I’d actually recommend a full-body wetsuit and breathing apparatus.
Still, even this experience had its reward as I got a seat to myself on the night bus home.
And, finally, failure
The struggles of the sockless man are universal struggles, those of overcoming prejudice, stereotyping and mild chafing. I learned about the fight, from day to day, and in the end, reader, I also learned about failure.
In September, to my horror, I developed a painful split beneath my big toe. On its own this setback may have been surmountable, and indeed I was searching for the super-glue with which to effect some home repairs (like the good ol’ boys I briefly hung out with in the Okavango Delta, who would routinely glue up their cracked heels). As I was doing so, hobbling around the kitchen, I stood – with the same foot – on a shard of glass that lodged deep within my flesh, invisible to the naked eye.
Alerted by my manly shrieks, Mrs Raider appeared and spent an hour digging around inside my heel with a needle and tweezers. With the little fucker removed and my wounds dressed, I put on two pairs of socks and sat with my feet up for 48 hours with nothing but a bottle of Lagavulin to numb the pain. The challenge was over.
‘That is a real shame,’ said Dirty South, when I recounted the story. ‘I mean, it’s the very height of ambition, and you were so close.’
But for me, as with all athletes, failure is merely success waiting to happen. For now, we rest. Then early next year the training begins. And on May 1st, we go again.