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Sandal Scandal

When I worked for Save the Children I had, from time to time, to speak to local groups about the Vietnamese resettlement programme, a tricky task because we wanted them to support what we were doing without actually descending on our reception centres and patronising the refugees.

After one such sortie into blue-rinse land I was called in by the head of PR and Fundraising to be told that the local group in question had filed a complaint about my visit. I had addressed them wearing sandals! Emma Nicholson (of Nicholson’s gin) the director in question, was herself always impeccably and expensively turned out. My sartorial inelegance was to miff her even more.

I arrived in the SCF office one morning to be asked why I wasn’t at the Royal Festival Hall for the annual backslapping ceremony. Nobody had told me I was required there. An hour later Emma was presenting me to Princess Anne. Not only was I sporting sandals but also jeans and a sweater, and Emma couldn’t hide the sort of face one makes on discovering something nasty in the woodshed. To add injury to insult, I joked with the Princess for twice the time allocated on the clipboard, and Emma’s foot and pencil tapped out her impatience. I have a photo of the encounter somewhere in a box under the bed. Royalty and I face each other smiling, our hands clasped in front of our genitals. Odd!

Emma later became our Conservative MP and with her husband visited the Small School. Whether it was his influence or close-up encounters with party bigwigs that did it – probably both – but she transferred her affections to the Liberal Democrats, a party wedded not only to sandals but also to muesli. There was some soft chuckling here at Cheristow.

I must put in a good word for the now elevated lady. She has since done mighty good work on behalf of the Kurds and others.

I had had another run-in with a Conservative minister over sandals. From time to time the curates of St. Martin-in-the-Fields took services at St. Margaret’s, Westminster. After I had celebrated communion there the Rev. Austen Williams, our Vicar, received a call from the Hon. Quentin Hogg, MP, instructing him not to send them that sandal-wearing priest again.

Many people seem quite bothered by exposed feet. They ask why I don’t wear socks and I usually say that it is because they are unhealthy, which they are. I also reassure them that my feet are not cold, and a few of the more heroic ones accept my invitation to feel their temperature and are surprised.

In a land of shoes and socks the naked foot expresses vulnerability. ‘How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of one who brings good news, who heralds peace’ sings the prophet Isaiah. The naked foot is my constant reminder that I am a witness to the Good News, that I am committed to nonviolence and to peacemaking. The naked foot expresses humility, contact with the earth, with frost, with dew.

When I decided to wear sandals it was as a protection from a tendency to gravitate upwards, towards respectability, towards fame and fortune and to remind me that the place of a witness to the Good News is alongside the poor, the dispossessed, the hungry and the lame.

Life is so generous that it is a constant struggle to live simply. The Greens exhort us to cut down on consumption for the sake of the planet and the future but that is not why I seek simplicity. Nor is it because there is beauty to be found in it, though there is, as those who treasure Shaker furniture know. It is because we are of real use to others only if they have more than we have. It is out of voluntary poverty that the true word is spoken.

Of course it is solely within our shoe shuffling society that socklessness can carry such a meaning. In India and Japan, for instance, sandals pass without remark. In a country where East and West meet there can be an interesting confusion in interpretation. I once was one of a group of clergy who attended a peace conference in Moscow (the British government tried to discourage us and wrote us off as victims of Soviet propaganda). With my long hair, beard and sandals I spelt Western hippy, not a species of which the Soviet authorities were enamoured, and even some of my black and grey clad companions may have been slightly embarrassed by my appearance.

Towards the end of our stay we were invited to dine at the monastery of Zagorsk as guests of the Orthodox Church. I donned the only respectable garment I had, my cassock. Instant transformation! I now looked like a Russian monk, my sandals no problem. The white plastic collars and black stocks and socks of the rest of our party were far more alien to our clerical hosts. However, as the Orthodox Church was merely tolerated I was still a persona hardly grata as far as the conference organisers were concerned.

Somehow I seem to have strayed from footwear to clerical dress. When I was at theological college there was a general reaction against collars and stocks. More appealing was the black shirt and white tie introduced by the Rev. Dr. Alec Vidler, Dean of King’s College, Cambridge. However, after a year in a parish I went back and told my former ordinand colleagues that we should wear dog collars and, by doing so, change the public’s perception of them. But when I experienced shopkeepers serving the clergyman before others in the queue I did a Vicar of Bray-like about turn and opted for incognito. Now when I officiate I wear a white polo neck sweater. I wear a black one when I play music.

Dress cannot avoid being a public statement. Gandhi’s dhoti of self-spun cotton was a political calling card. I remember the impression Lanza del Vasto (Shantidas) made when he came to the London School of Nonviolence wearing long white woollen robes that he had woven himself from yarn he had spun in Gandhian fashion from the fleece of the community’s sheep that fed on the pastures of La Borie Noble. There was a universality about his appearance. He could have come from almost any country and any past age.

I once shared a workshop with a nicely turned-out voice coach who complemented me on my skills, then complained that I dressed like a deck-chair attendant. I took it as a compliment.

Ultimately, though it is always a statement, dress is unimportant. ‘Do not worry about your life and what you are to eat, nor your body and how you are to clothe it. Surely life means more than food, and the body more than clothing!…And why worry about clothing? Think of the flowers growing in the fields; they do not work or spin; yet I assure you that not even Solomon in all his regalia was robed like one of these.’ That is how Matthew reports it in the Sermon on the Mount.

Nevertheless, though I wish it otherwise, it seems that it will always be my feet, with their bits of flaking pink skin, cracked heels and veined ankles, which excite attention and provoke comment. On the rare occasions when I wear socks, in my organ shoes, for instance, that too is remarked on. Is all the world a foot fetishist? Possibly not, for no one yet has tried to kiss them, socked, sandaled or bare.


May 2002

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