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The Hands Behind Our Shoes

Poet James Massiah and filmmaker Aaron Christian talk to Josh Sims about how they were inspired by the work of Church’s artisans when making their new film for the brand detailing the process of creating a pair of shoes

If a poet’s inclination to write about something as prosaic as shoes feels likely to be slight indeed, then think again. ‘Shoes actually feature a lot in my writing,’ laughs the London-based poet James Massiah. ‘I tend to write a lot about movement, velocity, the changing pace of life in the city, so shoes often feature as a metaphor. I think in my older years it might be time to smarten up a bit with some proper shoes, too.’


Massiah is now well-placed to do so. Church’s latest promotional video, The Hands Behind Our Shoes – shot by Aaron Christian, a go-to film-maker when it comes to capturing craft-making – features longing, glorious and sometimes abstract close-ups of the many laboriously precise hand processes that go into making the company’s footwear, while rightly also celebrating the usually anonymous makers behind them. But, unusually, this film is set to a specially commissioned poem by Massiah.


‘It’s by design through toil and time and fate our fingers link this time, we link this time, to pinch and polish, preen and primp, shine and groom and graft and go,’ he intones over the visuals. ‘Where hands are from that make the soles…’


‘Poetry gets a bad rap sometimes. I think it’s just been replaced as a means of communication so many times now by new media that if you want to get a message from A to B, then poetry certainly isn’t an obvious choice for many people,’ explains Massiah, whose latest collection, New Poems, Volume 1 to 3 is out in March. ‘But poetry brings its own enjoyment. There’s a pure beauty to it.’

Even, unexpectedly perhaps, in a poem about the making of a nice pair of classic brogues, ‘these new machines from days of old’, as Massiah puts it. 


‘It’s the poetry that gives this kind of brand film a really interesting spin, that helps introduce these kinds of heritage products to people who might not be their natural customer,’ argues Christian. ‘We get so much content blasted at us these days, there needs to be both visual and sonic interest.’


It’s easily missed on a single viewing – indeed, Massiah’s rhythmic echoes, connecting rhymes and changes of pace make for a poem that needs a few listens to be properly appreciated – but Christian didn’t even cut the film to provide the beginning-to-end storytelling typical of craft films. 


‘Normally you get a voice-over with a more linear structure, showing the start of the making process and ending up with the completed product,’ Christian explains. 


‘Here we broke those rules, just as, since we wanted the craftspeople as well as the shoes to come through, we kept in their well-worked hands,’ he adds. In fact, there are more balletic hands than shoes in this film. ‘Typically, that doesn’t happen either. It all gets cleaned up. The fact that we didn’t gives it all extra authenticity, I think. Honestly, at this level of shoe-making the factories can all feel the same – so this is a fresh perspective.’

Christian admits that he’s not much of a poetry fan himself. Like so many people, he had certain misconceptions about it, but enthuses about the inspirational quality of Massiah’s talent – even with Massiah admitting that it took a while to find ‘that lick of inspiration’ to start writing his Church's poem, and a few drafts to get it right. 


It certainly helps, of course, that Massiah brings layers of meaning and his signature sense of irreverence and knowingness to proceedings, building his poem around the idea of a couple getting dressed up to go out, and approving of each other’s sartorial choices. If shoemaking can be given a romantic sheen, Massiah does just that.


‘Whether it’s poetry or a stage performance, I think you have to break the conventions of the form to really connect with the audience, and all the more so with commissioned work,’ suggests Massiah, who admits to a penchant for those Inside the Factory-style programmes on the more obscure TV channels. It means there’s a genuine appreciation for the craft, without the high seriousness that might be tempting. 


‘It makes for a nice contrast to the stuffiness that often surrounds traditional hand-making,’ argues Massiah who, far from being the traditionalist himself, writes his poetry on his laptop. No quill and parchment for him. ‘That said, I always wanted it to be a poem I’d be happy to recite to an audience alongside my other poetry. And I would be.’


Josh Sims writes for Esquire, The Times, Wallpaper* and is the author of Men of Style and The Details: Iconic Men's Accessories

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