Dec 17, 2023

Will shoe

Ysenda Maxtone Graham

As I digest the news that Kiwi are ceasing the sale of its shoe polish in the UK, due to plummeting demand in the age of trainers, I find myself in mourning chiefly for the tin. What will the ritual of shoe-polishing feel like when it no longer starts with the thumb-against-index-finger rub of the butterfly-twist opener? That was a brilliant invention by Kiwi, and I’m afraid that the shoe polish tin that survives in the British market – Cherry Blossom's, the same shallow cylindrical shape as Kiwi's but with a ‘press hard here and the other side pops off’ opening system – doesn't provide quite the Proustian kick of Sunday evenings in the 20th century: that combination of nausea at the strong smell and at the thought of tomorrow's history test.

Like many on hearing the news of Kiwi's imminent withdrawal, I rushed to my store of shoe-cleaning items to check how much was left. The answer was not much, and what was there reminded me of the things I will not miss if shoe polish vanishes from our lives. For a start, when I tried to open the remaining tin of black Kiwi, I found that the butterfly-twist opener had somehow loosened, so when I twisted it the top wing was a millimetre too far away to ‘bite’ the lid, and nothing moved. On prising it open with a screwdriver, I was greeted not by a lovely glistening, oily surface, but by a few dry crumbs of what looked like charcoal.

Not that things were much better when I tried to open the Cherry Blossom tin. Its press-down mechanism had also grown weak and ineffective during its years there, and I couldn't get it to budge. In my panic, I grabbed hold of the bottle of ‘liquid’ navy-blue shoe polish, supposed to be the quick option for a rushed world, and tried smearing it on my navy shoes, pressing the foamy applicator down hard. Out came what looked like a child's scrawl of long lines done with a fat felt-pen of not quite the right colour.

No wonder Romi Topi, the shoe shiner in the Burlington Arcade, does a roaring trade when home shoe-polishing is fraught with such difficulties. But he has had to start a trainer-cleaning service alongside polishing, because fewer and fewer people come past in leather shoes in this age of working from home and wearing ‘comfortable shoes’ when we do go to an office. Those of us who still feel cheered by the sight of a man in a suit wearing well-polished shoes realised that standards have slipped badly when we spotted the President of Fifa, Gianni Infantino, with white Adidas trainers under his suit for the presentation of the World Cup trophy.

We must hope that the army maintains its shoe-polishing standards and thus keeps Cherry Blossom in business. Former Welsh Guards officer Mark Presland gave me a vivid description of the two-hour ‘shining parade’ he had to undergo at Brigade Squad at Pirbright. ‘Round and round in little circles on the shoe,’ he explained, ‘for hours, and you’d gradually build up a glass-like surface.’ I still relish that mirror-level shine on the shoes of the Chelsea Pensioners who sit opposite me at Matins at the Royal Hospital, as proud of their polished black shoes as they are of their monarch when they stand to attention to sing ‘God Save the King’.

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Ysenda Maxtone Graham

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