Clogs and Long Trousers
By Ronnie Bray
Time was when dark nights and dusky mornings were lit up as if by hordes of fireflies by clogs sparking on cobblestones as men and women made their way home and back to work, their feet scraping like overworked horses without the strength to pick their hooves up. Sparks were not the only product of clog iron on sandstone flag paving. There was the unmistakeably loud and satisfying noise as the clip-clop of clogs of all shapes and sizes clanked down streets, across roads, and through cobbled alleyways as their owners headed for another day’s unremitting grind. These were the clog-shod labourers whose characters and determinations were forged in the furnace fires of need and want.
Clogs were cheap and durable and that meant low maintenance, most people re-ironed their own clogs. Sitting on the back door step, or the front step facing the street if you didn’t have a back door, holding the clogs between clenched knees, pair of pincers pulled the old worn irons from the wooden soles and heels, and a few deft blows with a hammer fastened new ones with flat brad nails. Good as new in less than five minutes. New clogs had to be carefully broken in as the uppers could be very stiff around the ankles and many an unwary first-time clog wearer suffered cut and bleeding ankles before learning to make a series of half-inch cuts all around the top like a fringe. This made the tops bendable and much kinder on tender legs.
I got my first pair of clogs long before I needed them. They were one of my first fashion statements. I cannot remember when I became conscious of the lovely music of clogs on cobbles and sandstone slabs but their music haunts me yet. No footwear feels as good to feet or gives the support to tired working feet even at the end of a long working day as the shaped insole of a clog. In hot weather, clogs remain cold and in cold weather, they warm the feet. The thick wooden sole is a highly efficient insulation material. When I worked in the brickyards they prevented the residual hot ashes of the fired kilns burning my feet, kept my feet dry in the rain, and protected them from all kinds of flying objects that entered low orbit in the most elementary kind of factory that is a brickyard.
However, I wanted clogs long before I started work. In the days before teenagers were invented, the transition from boyhood to manhood was socially difficult. The hobbledehoy was neither man nor boy and the leap was enormous. The mark of young manhood was the first pair of long trousers. English boys wore short trousers reaching the knee in summer and winter alike. They were a sign that the boy was still a boy and that he had not yet been granted the social privileges afforded to a youth. The distinction was chasmic.
It transpired that my clogs and my first pair of long trousers came at the same time. Disappointingly, the long trousers were not my ticket to manhood since they were strictly for Sunday use. The ambiguous status conferred by part time long trousers was a source of pain and mortification because I reached an almost status on Sundays only to be relegated for the rest of the week: one step forward and six backwards every week. The clogs, however, were seven-day servants.
My first trip wearing clogs and long trousers down Fitzwilliam Street was probably my most embarrassing moment. When playing parlour games asking for the most embarrassing moment ever suffered, I have always drawn a blank and imagined that I have never had an embarrassing moment. However, thinking about this journey of a quarter mile I now recall that I could have died at every step. Even wearing my glasses for the first time when I was ten did not compare with the discomfiture I felt walking to Brunswick Street Sunday School that Sabbath morning. Sunday morning was the time when people walked to the many churches in the area and I felt their eyes burning into me and heard their unspoken questions, “Look at him! Long trousers and clogs!” It was to be many years before I was convinced that not everyone who shared the thoroughfare with me was at all interested in me or how I looked or what I thought or what, indeed, I was, whatever that was.
How strange that the things I most desired, clogs and long ‘uns, brought with the satisfaction of having them and wearing them, a sense that I should not be doing so and that I would feel so shameful to be seen, even by people who did not notice me. That is the dilemma I faced: being in a world I did not like but afraid to walk through into a new one lest it turn out to be even more hostile.
Yet, as I walked across the bridge that led into the Sunday School rooms of the chapel, I picked up what remained of my courage and struck my clog irons on the sandstone flags at every step. The noise resounded in the deep and wide well that ran around three quarters of the basement that lay below street level at the back and sides of the building. Even in defeat, we sometimes hold on to bewildering inner needs and give them expression in desperate acts of defiance.
Clip-clop-clip-clop sang my clogs and, for a few brief moments, I sang it to all the world, (or at least to those in all the world who were within earshot of the back door of that house of worship from whose portals I would soon be banished), before becoming invisible again as I quietly slid past the tall varnished doors to find a place at the back of the room, where I sat and listened, enchanted by stories of Jesus.
I have always envied those who are at home in the world and who carry in them the sense that they belong and are comfortable within themselves and in the presence of others. To a great extent I now have their self-possession and my envy has reduced by an awareness that those who feel too much at home here are often unaware of the sufferings of others and ignorant of the pain of others do not rush to help, comfort, cheer, or heal.
And, all things considered, I am glad that I have been blessed to be the way I am. For each distress I have ever felt, and every pain that has crushed my own heart, has made me aware of the pain that others feel in silence and it makes me want to bind up their wounds, wipe their tears, and heal their hearts. And, as painful as it was, I would not have secured my own ease at the cost of ignorantly neglecting theirs. I realize with gratitude that all of my discomforts have been heavily disguised blessings, and I thank God for every humbling one of them that marked my path of preparation in the school that teaches us that self is unimportant and selfishness a sin, and that the noble heart is one that understands suffering through suffering.
As Jung wisely said, ”only the wounded physician heals” and he was right. Only a suffering Saviour could truly heal his people, and only those of his servants who are willing to follow him in suffering can minister to the needs of his people. Knowing that, I am grateful for clogs and long trousers and for the lessons they taught.
Copyright © June 2000 - 2010 Ronnie Bray All Rights Reserved