THE PLIMSOLL VIRUS

Old, scrapped piece that seemed too juvenile so it never made the cut a year or so ago. I vowed to keep (sports) footwear to a mimimum on this blog, but with perfectly good shoes dumbing down and going pointlessly ‘vulc’ or ‘autoclave’ or whatever…it’s kind of timely. Too often things are inexplicably halting in progress and going back to wack.

Let’s make this clear. This isn’t another anti-hipster diatribe. That’s like shooting guppies in a barrel. With a bazooka. And anyway, they aren’t listening. They’re too busy perched on the edge of a grimy futon, clad in a fake Goofy sweatshirt they bought in Spain, giving themselves migraines by blaring a slab of doltish Southern snap rap idiocy filed next to a distorted Birthday Party b-side from their tinny MacBook speakers to even contemplate looking at an obscure corner of the internet like this.

But look beneath the deathly pallor of their postmodern heroin (hey, you can’t be ‘the Burroughs of blogging’ without it) intake or accompanying airtight Cheap Monday strides and focus on the nondescript kicks they’re sporting. Plimsolls. The scourge of olde world schooldays.

For those who suffered the indignity of these rubberised pieces of lo-fi rubbish, while elder siblings got their first padded performance piece, just eyeballing them on some rake-thin, backcombed buffoon is enough to induce a brutal physical education flashback that makes us gurn in horror like Donald Pleasance in…well, any horror film he signed up for, and induce the urge to stick on some Baltoros and stomp their bony, unsupported feet until they’re a shattered, uneven mass of claret coloured canvas and cartilage.

But while the wounded vocalist of an unsigned duo of Suicide-alikes lies writhing in the street, look around you and you’ll see the plimsoll on the feet of everyone else in the vicinity and beyond. It’s an epidemic.

Your admirable vigilantism has kept a mumbling, closet middle class misanthrope off the streets for a month, but family members, friends and neighbours have pared down their footwear style to the same intolerably minimal style. We’ve even seen the kind of kids; pintsized hardrocks, who would’ve made off with our hobbling poor man’s Kerouac’s iPod at knifepoint before sucking teeth at the “pussy music” it contained, sporting a pair of the offending pumps with tracksuit bottoms.

The situation is out of control.

To rid us of it, we need to know our enemy. And the plimsoll story, at least according to apocryphal tales, begins with a nautical term – the ‘Plimsoll line’ on a the side of a boat. A waterline that determined when a maximum load had been placed on a vessel, it was devised by social reformer Samuel Plimsoll, who campaigned tirelessly for safety in the 19 th century and once got so rowdy in the House Of Commons, it led to a temporary ban. We can’t blame Sam for the application of his surname to this footwear.

They were originally developed in the 1830s by the company that later became Dunlop for sporting on beaches, these were true proto-sneakers, and the ‘Plimsoll’ nickname only sprang up circa 1870 because the rubber sole was akin to the Plimsoll line. If water got above the sole and into the canvas upper, like the doomed denizens of a ship, you were in for a soaking. A pioneering creation, but that was then – this is now.

Also bear in mind that for those who can still recall corporal punishment, a ‘plimsolling’ to the behind was commonplace, with the shoe used as an object of fear and mild pain. It couldn’t be much more gloomily establishment if it tried.

You Yankees and your ‘skippies’ can never match the dark era in which these squeaked and scuffed across gym floors. With a microscopic pricepoint, these ridiculous-looking shoes were uniform in their slip-on variation. To forget them meant a preferable barefoot hour of exercise. The mere sight of them brings back the stench of institutions, faintly abusive physical education teachers, dead arms and a childhood longing for the kind of technical footwear only glimpsed on elder cousins and VHS back covers.

The involvement of the aforementioned Dunlop brand is telling – the Dunlop Green Flash tennis shoe, the next shaky step up from the plimsoll was another hated staple, and appropriated by equally hateful ironists inexplicably hunting the next chapter of retro-gone-wrong.

In the last year there’s been a glorious return to simplicity. Witness the rise and rise of clean 60’s and 70’s staples – don’t give a fuck shoes for those who most certainly do give a fuck, like the Jack Purcell, Chukka, Gazelle and Blazer. Given the gusto with which big brands misguidedly embraced the growing mania of the multiple-buying sneaker obsessive, it was clear something had to give.

Even when shoes are stripped down to mere panels and rubber soles the necessary obnoxious one-upmanship that’s part and parcel of the scene can still prevail. In an elitism process as tiered as Nike’s distribution system, a foodchain emerges – those who’ve been hoarding US and French made versions of these silhouettes before the Asian factories took over sneer at the kids bulk-buying the versions on skate and sneaker store shelves. These kids chuckle at the fans still hyperventilating over collaborative running shoe releases.

And somewhere in Japan, a black-clad brand owner laughs maniacally as they sell back their takes on classic Americana for six times the price.

It’s refreshing to know that in another year, the industry playing field will have shifted again, but plimsolls are the bastard son of this disillusionment. They’re not even comfortable. They don’t look good. They’re the fast track to foot fungus and a critical beatdown. They’ve got the foot-life of a flea. It’s taking it too far back, to a darker age. Like a Twilight Zone episode with a mad professor’s time machine going wrong and transporting him so heavily into the past he just becomes a primordial sludge, or opting to listen to shit lute music accompanied by a bearded minstrel rather than MP3s or choosing a rickety penny farthing over a Beemer. You get the idea.

If it’s a stand against the tyranny of the corporations, that might be a little moot. There’s a reason you copped those shoes for the lint in your pocket – somewhere far, far away, a four year old has probably been driven demented by glue fumes in factory farm conditions fastening these things together. And as stands against “the man” go, your tinpot revolution is hardly going to readdress the balance. Go and join the Zapatistas or something.

These things shift in self-knowing extremes though. That smug indie kid lurking in the scuffed Alien Stompers and New Era at a rakish angle could be the ironically clad antidote for this plague. While we can’t let this part of the decade be solely known for nights spent queuing for absolute crap, then arguing about it on the worldwide web, we also need to ensure it isn’t renowned for shoes so un-resilient they may as well be made of paper. And how do we solve the apathy that shoddy releases have induced? How about dumbing down by fusing a once progressive upper from a ’90s basketball shoe boomtime to a primitive vulcanized sole, despite the vast, cushioned steps that reduced the need to bake our sneakers? Yes. That ought to do it.


0 thoughts on “THE PLIMSOLL VIRUS

  1. Plimsolls are actually very good for your feet. They have no arch support, which strengthens the foot, and no heel, which allows the achilles tendon to lengthen properly. Most tend to be too narrow, but still, I’d rather the kids be wearing these than the latest running shoes.