James May

James May

Toeing the party line

I often think that life would be a lot easier if I could just be an Italian. For example; as an Englishman, my tax return is an annual trauma because I've been meticulous and honest with my finances and I believe in playing it straight. But if I were Italian I could dismiss the whole thing with an emphatic shrug, because all the money would be in used notes under the bed.

You think I'm making this up? Just before Italy switched to the euro there was a huge surge in domestic car sales, all because people needed a way to dispose of all their undeclared lira.

My brief experiences of Italian industry are very encouraging, too. The working day begins with a cappuccino, followed by some crostini, then an argument and an espresso and then it's lunchtime. Lunch is enormous, lasts for two hours, probably involves some grappa and is followed by a kip, by which time we can start thinking about going home. Somewhere in the middle of all this is a one-hour work break when you might be engaged in building an Alfa Romeo, or some similarly casual job.

The best argument for converting to Italy, however, is this: if I were an Italian, I would be able to drive a Ferrari in my normal shoes. The last Ferrari I drove was a BB512, and experience warned me that even my lightest, snuggest fitting and least substantial English bench-made brogues would be far too big for the Fezza's pedal box. And I was right: the box the shoes came in would have been bigger.

I can drive my old Bentley in my coarsest builder's gangboots, which is exactly how most of them are driven, come to think of it. The Bentley's pedals are like the treadles of a Victorian workhouse. A Ferrari's are just too small for anyone with proper peasant breeding.

As something of a footwear fetishist, this bothers me. I have spent quite a bit of time roaming those exquisite little shoe shops you find in the back streets of Milan and Turin, some of which have even been open. The Italians make some fantastic shoes, but I have never bought any. That's because I'm a size 11, and all Italian men are size seven. I'm surprised they can even stand up.

Japanese men are all size five, though in fairness to them they do fall over quite a bit, especially on a Friday night in the bars and jazz clubs of Ropongi. Yet even they have recognised that properly bred northern Europeans with a hint of Viking in them have proper feet, so they build their cars accordingly. I can drive the Honda NSX in any of my shoes.

Back with the 512, I had two choices. I could have bought a pair of those high-performance Puma racing booties, as favoured by the supercar fraternity. Trouble is, they tend to be rather gaily coloured and give the impression that you're walking around with a couple of miniature sports motorcycle fairings strapped to your feet. They also cost in excess of £120, and for that sort of money I could buy a nice pair of shoes. I wasn't going to spend £120 just to look like the sort of man who knows how to heel and toe.

“Whenever I climb manfully out of an Italian supercar, it looks like I've just come from an am-dram Snow White performance” 

So in the end, as usual, I was forced to rum mage in the cupboard under the stairs and dig out my ballet shoes.

Now I wish to point out that I have never been a ballet dancer. But I did once, and for a reason that now escapes me, find myself at a Royal Opera House jumble sale of redundant ballet costumery. I could have bought Romeo's billowing shirt or Juliet's tutu, but instead I headed straight for the footwear section.

Most dancers, like Italians, have woefully small feet. An exception is William Tuckett, a former Royal Ballet soloist and a man who, by the standards of his profession, has gallumping great plates of meat. I tried a pair of his old booties. They fitted perfectly. In fact, they fitted better than my socks.

I was immediately struck by some similarities between the dance boot and the racing boot. Tuckett's were superbly made out of the most supple leather I have ever had the privilege to slip over an unworthy foot and had clearly never been worn outdoors. The soles were stiff but thin, for heightened feedback.

There were also some differences. The ballet boots were finished in a sort of pixie green and had tassels, but as these weren't long enough to interfere with braking, it wasn't an issue. They weren't fireproof either, but I wasn't planning to set light to them anyway. So I queued up with a load of old women clutching Darcey Bussell's used underwear and bought them.

Of course, whenever I climb manfully out of the cabin of a gently smoking Italian supercar, I give the impression that I've just come from an am-dram performance of Snow White, but I don't care. It's a small price to pay for being able to brake for a roundabout without accelerating straight into the chevrons.

And my detractors might like to consider this. Turn a boot over and, on the sole, you can read the inscription ‘Tuckett, Duke, Beauty' -- they were worn by Mr Tuckett in the role of the Duke in the early Nineties production of Sleeping Beauty. This may seem irrelevant, but if there was a Goodwood Festival of Ballet they would be described as unique boots with a documented dance pedigree. In secondhand ballet-wear terms, this is the equivalent of owning a Birdcage Maserati that was once driven by Fangio in the Mille Miglia.

If this was a pair of race boots formerly worn by Schumacher, they would probably be sold by Bonhams for several thousand pounds. But the price of the Duke's boots? Ten pounds.

Remarkable, really, because if you look beyond the price difference and the thorny issue of colour scheme, there really is very little to distinguish the two types of boot. One is a bespoke item handcrafted from the finest materials in the interests of supremely deft footwork, and lent extra kudos through having once been used in anger by an absolute master of his art. The other is just a pair of poncy overpriced trainers.



James May, Column, Ferrari, Honda, Bentley

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