In the midst of life I found myself in a shoe shop beside Brick Lane in the East End of London.
My search for stout and sturdy footwear has brought me to Cheshire Street, a redoubtable thoroughfare of great heritage. Approaching from Brick Lane I pass a selection of upstart boutiques and coffee shops, and several tourists spilling off the main drag in search of fashion. But my destination is the squat black building on the cobbled corner of Grimsby Street, the redoubtable fortress of Blackman's shoe shop. I do so hope that Master Phil Knight is at home.
Since my last visit a glowing blue cloud with sunglasses and teeth has been spray-painted on the wall up the side of the shop, but all is as normal around the front. A painted board with the name of the shop rests vertically against a pillar, alongside a board on which "We do not sell online" has been written in white tape. A rag-tag collection of 20th century shelving units, not one of them the same, is lined up along the pavement. Some are empty, but others support a sparse selection of shoes and boots, and bulging cardboard boxes that may or may not hold more. It is as it always has been.
"Get your plimsoles £5 and jog on!" says the sign by the door. Immediately Blackman's footwear of choice is obvious. "The Devil wears Prada but the people wear plimsoles" is the even larger message above the entrance. At only a fiver a rock-bottom bargain, I'm sure you'll agree. The Knights have always targeted their wares at the East End faithful, hence even the most financially-challenged Spitalfields resident could afford a pair of their finest rubber soles. Another bestseller is pinned to a shelf close by, a single boot labelled "Wellies £8 pair", there being no reason ever to pay more elsewhere. Meanwhile a tattered blue chair has been left immediately outside the front door near the Doc Martens, but my friend is not sitting there. I do so hope that he is inside.
He is! Master Phil Knight is here, holding court in his shoe leather emporium alongside two of his closest business associates. I am greeted as I would be by an old friend. "Hey, you here for shoes? Yeah? So just stand over there for a sec mate." It is always good to see a friendly face.
I take the opportunity to look around. The interior of the shop is dark and musty, yet brightly lit by strip lights and sheer personality. One wall is taken up by a rack on which the shop's complete range of wares is laid out. There's nothing fancy, it wouldn't sell, but here are all the everyday boots and shoes in browns and blacks that any decent market trader might wear. The other walls are stacked high with boxes, each containing part of the limited range in a variety of shades and sizes - one suspects Phil always knows precisely where. And diagonally across the centre of the room is a row of faded cushioned chairs, the last of which is labelled "VIP SEAT" in sellotaped marker pen.
I am directed to sit down, my rights as a genuine VIP confirmed. Phil's kindly gesture suggests that my custom will be taken shortly, as soon as another customer has been served. I listen in on their conversation - she's on her lunch break, it's the third company she's been an intern at, and these shoes will probably do nicely. Phil has witty rejoinders for everything she says, as did his father Lee before him, but then the Knights have always been masters of the cheeky banter.
"What can I get you then geezer?" Suddenly the game is afoot! I explain the workmanlike style that I require, and Phil nips off into the adjacent Aladdin's Cave to locate the box with the perfect match. He's not long. My black lace-ups arrive and I get to try them on, while Phil and the gang return to discussing disreputable customers, last night's football and the state of the nation. The proffered pair is a size smaller than I usually take, and a wider fitting too, but fits perfectly. Here, I think to myself, is a man at the very top of his game.
I am a fraction nervous at this stage because Blackman's takes only cash, and my haul costs over a bullseye. Thankfully I find three score in my pocket and hand it over, which causes Phil to reach for a battered wallet filled with Lady Godivas, one of which is swiftly mine. The young assistant drops the shoebox into a plain blue bag and returns to tidying up the leftover packaging scattered across the floor. My time in the store is nearly at an end.
"See ya guv!" exclaims Phil with a cheery grin as I approach the doorway. "Thanks for your custom and come again!" And in that moment, gentle reader, I make up my mind to return to meet my friends at Blackman's once again. Perhaps it'll be the plimsoles next time.