Drifting and striding, in Hollywood and elsewhere, with Geoff Nicholson - author of The Lost Art of Walking, and Walking in Ruins withcholson, author of Toff Nidrifting and stomping withcholson, author of The Lost Art of Walking, considers the narrower and wider shores of obsessive pedestrianism.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015


“There is man in his entirety, blaming his shoe when his foot is guilty.”  
Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot.

And thinking of walking in other people’s shoes, Steve Martin was famously in a production of Waiting for Godot, a play with much boot imagery from Estragon who struggles every day with boots that are too tight and hurt his feet.  The beauty of this thought is slightly spoiled by the fact that Martin actually played Vladimir, and it was Robin Williams who played Estragon.  Still …

At this point in literary history anyone who cares about these things probably knows the story of Beckett’s shoes.  It pops up again in the latest New York Review of Books in Fintan O’Toole’s review of Beckett's Echo's Bones.
         O’Toole writes, “Georges Pelorson, who was a close friend of Samuel Beckett’s, recalled a walk they took together in Phoenix Park in Dublin in 1929 or 1930, when Beckett was twenty-three or twenty-four:
“‘After a few hundred yards I noticed Sam was walking almost like a duck. I said to him “What’s the matter with you, are your feet hurting?” and he said “Yes.” “Why, are you tired?” and he answered “No it’s my shoes. They’re too tight.” “Well, why don’t you change them?” I got no answer or rather I got it years later.’
“The answer came when Pelorson met Beckett in Paris with James Joyce. Joyce was wearing ‘extraordinary shoes of a blistering canary yellow.’ Pelorson had his answer to the mystery of Beckett’s sore feet: 
“’Sam was sitting nearby and as I was looking at him all of a sudden I realized that his shoes were exactly the same size as Joyce’s, though evidently his feet were not…’
“In the early 1930s, the young Beckett was trying, with sometimes painful results, to walk in Joyce’s shoes.”

Well this is very odd.  Beckett was a youngish man in the early 1930s, but not that young.   Be that as it may, I have been searching for pictures of both Joyce and Beckett which show them wearing, and preferably walking in, a pair of “blistering canary yellow shoes.”
This isn’t easy, not least because the photographs from that period are likely to be in black and white, and frankly none of them is exactly focused on the footwear.  Still …
Here’s Joyce walking with Nora Barnacle in London on their wedding day in 1931: Joyce’s shoes are very dark and very shiny, as I suppose befits a wedding.

His shoes are similarly dark and shiny in this photographed taken in Zurich in 1938 by James Stephens.

And here he is in Paris in a wonderful but undated photograph walking with that very James Stephens (who’s looking a lot like Buster Keaton, if you ask me) and John Sullivan.  Again the shoes are clearly not yellow.

The best bet, I think, are the photographs of Joyce and Sylvia Beach taken at Shakespeare and Company – its date seems uncertain, sources give as somewhere between 1921 and 1925.  Beckett moved to Paris in 1926, which is promising, though obviously not the “early 1930s” spoken of above.  Joyce’s shoes are certainly pale, but who could swear they were yellow, much less blistering canary?  Joycean scholarship being what it is, I’m sure somebody knows and may even tell me.

As for Beckett, well, here the photographic evidence seems to be a complete a non-starter.  I haven’t found any picture of him wearing any shoes that could possibly be yellow, but then pictures of him as a young man are pretty thin on the ground and certainly don’t show his shoes, although the facial expressions are in keeping with a man experiencing some kind of pain, whether from the feet or elsewhere.

There is this photograph taken by Liam Costello (I confess I don’t know who that is).  Beckett looks youngish, but the photograph is undated, and in any case the shoes are dark and shiny.

         And here’s a picture right from 1934 with Thomas McGreevy, which would again be the right period according to Pelorson, but those aren’t yellow shoes though he does appear to be wearing “skinny jeans.”  And could that coat really be black leather?

In any case, eventually, sanely, Beckett gave up on the whole “tiny shoe” thing.  In this picture he’s wearing what I’ve been told by people who know about these things, are Clarks Wallabees. 

They, or at least one version of them, do in fact come in yellow, though not the blistering canary kind.

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