“Share if you remember” said one of those memes that circulate the web. The picture to be shared was a pair of Clark’s sandals. I did remember them, I would have worn such shoes in childhood years, but they were a symbol far more potent than that of any passing social media meme.
Clark’s was the major employer in my community. Their headquarters in the Somerset town of Street were eight miles away. Our next door neighbours worked there, as did the neighbours next door but two.
Clark’s was 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, it meant the bright and prosperous town where I went to the grammar school when I was eleven, it meant the town where I went to sixth form college when I was sixteen. Clark’s sandals were 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. It was an image with which I had grown up, it was 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.