“Share if you remember” says a Facebook meme circulating at present, the picture to be shared is a pair of Clark’s sandals. I do remember them, I would have worn such shoes in childhood years, but they are a symbol far more potent than any passing social media meme.
Clark’s were the major employer in my home community. Their headquarters in the Somerset town of Street were six miles away. Our next door neighbours worked there, as did the neighbours next door but two. They were a formative influence in the life of our local community, a presence for the good. The founding principles of Quaker family that started the company had brought great benefits to countless people.
Clark’s meant more than a pair of sandals, they meant the bright and prosperous town where I went to the grammar school when I was eleven, they meant the town where I went to sixth form college when I was sixteen. Clark’s sandals are a symbol of childhood and youth, of a secure and optimistic world.
Such a world seemed far away on a Sunday morning in December 2012. Sitting under a tree to escape the heat of the Burundian sun, I noticed something strange. On the ground in front of my chair, imprinted in the dust, there was the image of a church tower standing on a hilltop – an image with which I had grown up, Glastonbury Tor.
Rubbing my eyes to ensure that the image was not an hallucination. I lifted my left foot, crossing my leg over my right knee in order to be able to see more clearly. It was taking my foot in my right hand that caused me to realize that the sole of the shoe was not smooth – an image was set into it, the Tor, the familiar trademark of Clark’s Shoes.
There was a sense of disappointment – Glastonbury Tor had not appeared in the soil of mid-Africa, the sense of reassurance that had come with the childhood image was dispelled.
What if the people of that place had experienced not the rapacious attentions of a colonial power followed by a succession of presidents, each more corrupt than his predecessor, but the old fashioned paternalism of people like the Clark family? What if the place had been administered not by those who took all they could, but those who had a genuine concern for the whole community?
Nineteenth Century British capitalism may have had many faults, but it left an enduring legacy. Few companies like Clark’s were now exist, future generations will not be able to appreciate the significance of those sandals. For the people of Burundi, such times never existed, and are never likely to do so.