Books: A Point of View: Glider Shoes |
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Glider Shoes : on sailing sideways

(S02E03, broadcast 6th and 8th July 2007)

"The holy grail of motion"
— perfect motion

The youngsters who wear them call them wheelies or Heelys, but to avoid any evocation of the dreaded wheelie bin I prefer to call them glider shoes. I saw my first pair of glider shoes several weeks ago on a slightly sloping stretch of brick pavement beside London’s City Hall, which is not far up river from my office. Or rather I saw the small boy wearing the glider shoes. I noticed him before I noticed the shoes, which is the whole idea.

Like anyone in the vicinity of the City Hall building at any time, I am always on the lookout for something pleasant to look at instead. Ken Livingstone works in City Hall and I would almost rather look at him than look at his building. As I recall, he had a similar opinion to mine about the appearance of that building before he was obliged to move into it, but after he was, his opinion abruptly changed: a measure of his pragmatism.

Anyway, less of that for now, because I want to be positive in this series. Let’s just say that there I was, walking up past City Hall towards my favoured branch of a certain famous coffee-bar chain where I get my morning grande decaff skinny latte to stay — the same establishment is patronized also by Ken, but he never stays, he always goes — and as I walked I was looking around trying to avoid any view that included City Hall, which for now I will deliberately avoid describing as a magnified flounder’s eye in lonely search of its missing twin, when suddenly, or rather gradually, this child glided into view.

Not yet an adolescent but bigger than an infant, in the Victorian era he would have been described as an urchin. But the Victorian era never produced an urchin who could glide forward without moving his feet. This kid moved silently past me and on down the very slight incline as I stopped, swivelled, and marvelled. It was a dream come true.

About fifty years ago when I first saw Jean Cocteau’s film about Orpheus, I had been especially taken by the way the characters, on their way into the underworld, glided forward without moving their feet. But I knew that to be film trickery. This was real life. The slope of the pavement was just detectable enough to suggest that gravity was doing the job of propelling this little bloke across the earth’s surface, but even more startling than the absence of motion from his shoes was the absence of noise.

If there were a hundred ball-bearings under each shoe, they must be of a new kind. I would have liked to ask him, but at my age you don’t want to be seen breaking into a run in pursuit of a strange child, or you can end up on a police register. So I contained my curiosity until I was among my family a few days later. Among my family there are sources for all knowledge. Knowledge, for example, of how to save the earth by separating compostable and non-compostable waste matter into dedicated wheelie bins. Knowledge beyond my ken, and, I suspect, beyond Ken’s ken.

But it soon became apparent that on the subject of glider shoes they were merely guessing. They hadn’t seen underneath a pair, although they could report numerous sightings of tots going eerily past without any obvious outlay of power: the ideal means of locomotion at last, emissions nil, the zero footprint. There were various guesses as to the means, from multiple nylon wheels to a caterpillar track suspended on liquid-filled tungsten bearings. One suggestion involved two tiny hovercraft connected electronically to travel side by side, but the proponent of that theory was at a loss to explain the absence of dust or indeed any measurable impact on the environment.

All were agreed that this latter characteristic was a good thing and the sooner that the President of the United States and his entire entourage could travel from the White House to Andrews Air Force Base by glider shoe instead of motorcade the better for mankind. But this consensus had yielded more emotion than information, and I resolved to arrange things in the near future so that I could find out how a glider shoe worked.

While waiting, I had ample time to review my life and decide that one of the many things that had gone wrong with it was that I have never managed to realize this very dream of frictionless, effortless motion despite many attempts. Early in my career, at about the age of ten, I was bought a pair of roller skates by my mother, but they were not very satisfactory. I could go down our street at a fair clip in my feeble pram-wheeled billycart, but on the skates I might as well have been going up the street as down.

The skates were a kind of framework with wheels. The framework was extensible, to fit any shoe by gripping on to the edge of the sole with adjustable grips. It was my first lesson in the lifelong necessity of avoiding anything extensible with adjustable grips. Later on I was to ruin my spearfishing career by paying extra money for a pair of adjustable flippers. They weighed a ton and were the main reason why I never speared anything except a friend.

The adjustable skates made a heck of a row and they didn’t work, so I was an uproar going nowhere. Later on the same sort of thing went wrong with my ice skates. They weren’t adjustable, but one of them kept coming detached from the boot. If they both had done that, at least symmetry would have been maintained. At the Glaciarium I learned nothing except how to go quite fast around the corners.

There was a fifteen-minute interval in every session during which a trainee figure-skater performed. One of them was called Jacqueline and I fell in love with her. She wasn’t just beauty, she was beauty going sideways without effort. Something deep within me, at the level of dreams, responded to the idea of this effortless transition through space. I tried to explain this to her later on when she was circulating with the crowd but I didn’t get very far before I noisily fell over, with that desperate last attempt to save one’s balance which on ice sounds so exactly like a frozen lettuce being cut up with a buzz saw.

The amount of effort I always had to put into the supposedly effortless was demoralizing. The same applied much later, when I first went skiing in the Alps. Instead of hiring my skis like everybody else, I made a bargain purchase of a pair of skis with adjustable bindings. The results were predictable and often inverted. It finally ceased to be astonishing how often I ended up upside down. Once again, there was a lot of noise involved, and scarcely any impression of a smooth transition across the surface. I made one transition across a ski instructor and was sent back to the baby slope, the oldest person there by twenty years. I conceived at that point a tremendous envy for small people gliding without effort.

And now here they are again, and they haven’t even got any paraphernalia under their feet. There is nothing between them and the turning earth except a mystery.

Last week I solved it. Once again I was passing City Hall, having just seen Ken arrive with his haversack, all set to sit up there in his office and ask himself, well what is it today, the congestion charge or global warming? I had lots of reasons to be looking away, and thus it was that another glider-shoe urchin, a female this time, sped silently across my vision.

But this time my quarry was speeding towards a pair of proud parents, who gathered her in and showered her with praise, as one does with one’s children when they defy the law of gravity. I asked to see how the shoes worked, and there was the secret. There was one wheel in each heel. The wheel was made of some tough plastic and the bearing was frictionless. So all you had to do was lift your toes and you were on your way.

You could tell instantly why there had never been any Victorian glider-shoe urchins. This was state-of-the-art technology. Not that it will change the world. The shoes will work on a flat surface if their owner skips along a bit at the start, and on anything a bit more inclined the effect is automatic and addictive. But on a too steep hill the heels dig in automatically and everything stops unless the human projectile leans right forward.

So the glider shoes would be good in Milton Keynes but hopeless in Edinburgh, fine in Perth but dangerous in Sydney, and in San Francisco they would produce the world’s first supersonic child. There has already been at least one serious glider-shoe accident and I suppose that when the first glider-shoe child goes under a bendy-bus, Ken will ban the shoes instead of the bus, and that will be that. But for now, it’s bliss if you’re the right weight and the right age. Watching, I can remember being both those things. I suppose the secret of life is not to miss the fun now of thinking how much fun you would have had then.


Several pedants wrote in to point out that a frictionless bearing was impossible. I knew that, but I was writing a lyric, if not a lament. The less-exacting listener could hear bubbling, not far under the surface of this broadcast, my genuine sense of having been cheated by time. Had roller-blades been available when I was young, my skating career might have been different, with less humiliation and fewer bruises. I can still remember the year when I visited New York on assignment and found the pathways of Central Park functioning as promenades for roller-bladers by the swarm. It was the ethereal ease of their progress that did my head in. Where were the curses and the beads of sweat? But this feeling of having been born too early for the best fun needs careful watching, or we will end up with bile-ducts corroded by envy of our own offspring. And anyway, it’s a kind of recompense that the offspring sometimes lose out by the advance. Young people born to the cassette and then the CD never knew the thrill of revelling in an LP’s artwork and liner notes, and now there are young people with hideously leaking earphones who have never touched a CD. Music comes to them through the iPod, with not a word to be seen. Through the iPad (is it wise for the name of each product to look like a misprint for the other?) words will come to the next generation with not a book to be seen. Or at any rate that’s the theory. But the theory might be worthless, and actual physical books might become more and more desirable and cherished. All we can be sure of is that the pleasure principle will rule. A questionable impulse, no doubt: but it built the Alhambra.