MY MOTHER WAS ALWAYS CONCERNED that my sister and I had good shoes when we were children. We used to go to a shoe shop in the Market Place, which is in the heart of Hampstead Garden Suburb, where we lived. It was a store that sold the Start-Rite brand of footwear. What none of us knew in those far-off days was that the company was established in 1792 by James Smith in Norwich. His grandson, James Southall, gave the firm its name.
Start-Rite shoes had a good reputation for making sure that shoes it sold fitted the wearers well. I remember having my feet measured both for length and width. The shoes were available in several different widths for each length. For example, a size four shoe could be obtained in any of five widths, ranging from ‘a’ to e’. Thus, the shop assistant could ‘fine tune’ selecting the correct size shoe to fit a child’s feet. Also, the shoes were durable.
The shop in the Market Place had a machine that I was always dying to try. It was a tall box with two holes at its base and a viewing window at its top. The idea was that a child put on a pair of shoes, and then inserted his or her feet into the two holes. The shop assistant would then push a switch and look into the observation windoe at the top of the box. The machine produced x-rays which passed through the child’s shod feet and onto a fluorescing screen. By observing the image created by the radiation, the assistant could assess how well the shoes fitted. ‘Quel horreur’, you might be thinking if your mind operates in French.
Well, that is what my mother thought. Although not a scientist and having had little education in science, my mother knew very well that radiation was dangerous. After all, she knew all about Hiroshima and Nagasaki. What she might not have known is that the bone marrow cells in children’s skeletons are very sensitive to ionising radiation but being a cautious caring mother, she took no chances. Therefore, I was never able to see the bones of my feet in the device in that or any other shoe shop.
I outgrew Start-Rite shoes long ago. The shoe shop in the Market Place no longer exists, nor are those foot x-ray machines still in use. However, one thing endures. That is my memory of posters advertising Start-Rite shoes, which were pasted on the walls and hoardings of London’s Underground stations. They showed a couple of small children with arms interlinked walking towards infinity along a straight road bordered by fences and rows of trees. I still think that this is one of the most depressing adverts I have ever seen. The captions on the poster are “Children’s shoes have far to go” and “Start-Rite and they’ll walk happily ever after.”
I started ‘rite’ and since then, I have been walking happily ever after, but cannot erase the depressing image on the poster from my mind.