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.

A classic Blundstone boot...before wear and tear ages it beautifully.

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.)