The shoe-shiners of Leadenhall Market
Yesterday afternoon, I walked over in the torrential rain to find the shoe-shiners of Leadenhall Market but they were gone. It was my mistake, I should have known better, I should have realised that you cannot polish wet leather. So today I returned under a benign blue sky and was delighted to discover that the sunshine brings out the shoe-shiners in the City of London.
Before long, I struck up a conversation with John who you see above in the throes of his swift occupation. He explained that he is one of a half dozen actors and musicians who work here in Leadenhall Market shining shoes as part of the London City Shoe Shine Company when they are between engagements. Even in these pictures, you can tell that John is a natural performer, bringing his relaxed stage presence and gallant sense of style to fulfill his current role of shoe-shiner for bankers with appealing panache. There is a sense of theatre about Leadenhall Market with its intricate carmine ironwork and John’s virtuoso performance on the shoe-shine has become a major dramatic attraction in this Victorian architectural masterpiece sequestered between Lloyds and Gracechurch St.
Observe the casual pride on the customers’ faces as they place their best foot forward to receive the polish that is the finishing touch. Assuming a stance that has an innate nobility and enjoying a tiny moment of grace, they bolster their spirits, before striding off with glazed eyes to take on the Leviathan that is the infinite tribulation of the global financial marketplace.
Meanwhile, exuding an appealing buoyant energy, John is an enthusiastic advocate for the understated art of the shoe-shine. “We all enjoy doing it because it is a window into a world you wouldn’t be party to otherwise”, he explained as he finished up another shoe-shine and eagerly pocketed another banknote, before turning to me and rolling his eyes with sardonic humour, “During the banking crisis was an interesting time to be down here. The sense of dread was palpable for a while. Anyone who works in a high powered business wants to protect their interests, they need a lot of money to live, so there were a lot of very scared people around at that time.”
But a global financial crisis is water off a duck’s back for the shoe-shiners. “It didn’t affect our business at all,” revealed John with a breezy smile,“People need to look good, especially for job interviews. It’s surprising how much pride they take in their appearance.” I asked John, if like those Wall St shoe-shiners of the nineteen thirties, any of his colleagues were tempted to cross over to work in the financial sector, but he shook his head with good-humoured disinterest, “We see the pitfalls from the ground, he concluded sagely.
There is an intimacy between the shoe-shiner and the customer, comparable to that of a barber and client, and it is this camaraderie of the city that John delights in, because actors are by nature students of humanity. “It’s a very social job and we have regulars who we consider friends. We are privy to things they wouldn’t tell their nearest and dearest”, he said, with a grin that transformed into an incongruous laugh as he revealed his customers’ curiosity for the acting life, “Everybody is very interested in what we do, because the pursuit of artistic endeavour isn’t prevalent in the City.”
I wondered whether John might get cold, working outdoors in all weathers, but he rejected my concern robustly with a smirk. ” The worst thing is the people who say ‘God you must be freezing!’ It’s a physical job, so you keep warm and you wear the right clothes,” he said, drawing my attention to the salopettes and moon boots he was wearing and explaining that he prefers to work in shorts in summer, adding, “Business is pretty even all year round,” just to confirm his state of ease in the day job, in case I had even the hint of a shred of doubt left. Then another customer arrived and, as I was taking my pictures, I overheard John speaking in care-free excitement for his next engagement as an actor/musician, a tour of South East Asia. As John was explaining that he might take some time at the beach afterwards, I could see the grey-faced city worker filling with barely-concealed jealousy and it made me realise that the balance of the transaction between shoe-shiner and businessman is not as clear cut as it might first appear.
Finally, I asked about the rain.“All of those people who were drowned yesterday will be here today, it’s swings and roundabouts.” declared John with his indefatigable alacrity, as he set upon the high-powered two-handed brush action that brings the ultimate lustrous gloss to the leather. Then his pal interrupted with a nudge, “Tell him about the pancake race, John.” and John blushed to confess he won the Leadenhall Pancake Race yesterday morning, receiving a magnum of champagne as his reward. Come rain or shine, the life of the modest shoe-shiner possesses an enivable sheen. You have to admire his polish.