Somehow, it seems, it all comes down to footwear.
Recently I was invited to speak at a university’s graduation ceremony up at Parliament House and once I recovered from the shock of being asked, I noticed how the inviter was staring at what I had on my feet, a mangy old pair of red-and-white-striped runners. ‘I should warn you,’ she said, ‘you’ll need better shoes than that – you’ll be seated on the stage beside the chancellor!’ I sought advice from a good friend, a journalist, who told me how she’d done a similar gig and a week later was approached by a woman who congratulated her on the speech but also took the opportunity to comment on the knee-high black leather boots.
During the writing and rewriting of my speech, making sure to read it aloud for flow and mistakes (there’s nothing more off-putting when presenting than finding a wayward word or apostrophe), I went out for a break with a friend – who also stared at my foot clobber. This time I had on what I like to wear during the week: a pair of well-worn Blundstone boots, brown-leather with the elastic up the sides.
My friend said, ‘You’re not going to wear those up at Parliament House, are you?’
‘Of course,’ I replied emphatically.
‘You can’t – graduation is… significant.’
As if the importance of the event was lost on me.
‘But Blundstones are my thing!’ I protested.
As the writing of the draft speech lurched this way and that, those words lingered: Blundstones are my thing. I recalled the pair I wore as a teenager; I remembered being crammed into the back of my school-friend Stephanie’s little car and taking a photo of my boots because how perfect (and perfect is the word) they looked on my feet. Ten years later, after I’d under-graduated, I moved to Perth to find myself (I didn’t) and a friend wrote me a letter to say how in the library she’d seen a pair of Blundstones walking along on the other side of the stacks and she thought I’d come to say hello. More recently I spotted a revered member of the local arts community wearing Blundstones as she floated through the central plaza of my city, and I realised I’d be able to approach her because of what she had on her feet.
How can a make of boot mean so much? Is it the Australian-ness? But what does Australian-ness actually mean? What is national culture? And at what point does national culture become nationalism? British author Richard Aldington wrote that ‘Nationalism is a silly cock crowing on its own dunghill and calling for larger spurs and brighter beaks.’ When does that ‘silly cock’ transform, Jekyll-like, into something much more evil?
All I know for certain is that, as absurd as it might sound, Blundstone boots complete me – they are my personal culture. Tens of millions of personal cultures might make up the national culture, but that’s not really any of my business. So, stubbornly, I did wear the boots up at Parliament House last week, and as I delivered the speech – it had as its central theme the idea of ‘living what we love’, which is apt now I think about it – I felt solid on the ground, I felt anchored.
And sometimes that’s all that’s needed.
(First published in Panorama, Canberra Times, 2 January 2010.)