“Democracy is a thing which is always breaking down through the complexity of civilisation” – GK Chesterton, Allan Massie and complexity

. As I have recently written, I am reading a collection of Allan Massie’s Life and Letters columns from the Spectator, which is full of shrewd judgments. In particular there is this on G K Chesterton:

What is disconcerting for many about Chesterton is that, while deadly serious, he revelled in paradoxes, absurdity and farce. He believed in the Devil, believed in him as perhaps few in the last centuries did, but the weapon he employed against him was laughter; he was at one with Rabelais : ‘the discovery of the reality of evil and the battle against it are at the basis of all gaiety and even of all farce’.

Chesterton would have found Orwell admirable — and ridiculous; ridiculous because of his solemnity. ‘The men who really believe in themselves are all in lunatic asylums’, he declared. He thought in paradoxes, on the sensible ground that if an idea is worth anything it ought to be able to be held upside down and shaken about.

Sometimes, admittedly, the paradoxes flew too easily, too frequently and tiresomely from his pen. He wrote too much and often, I suspect, when he was tired, and then the paradoxes had a mechanical or tinkling sound like music from an elderly barrel-organ. But at his best they make you think, and this is always disturbing: ‘Reason is itself a matter of faith. It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all.’

That’s a thought you get your mind round. Because he was a man of faith he understood and valued doubt. He thought Charles II’s deathbed admission to the Roman Church proof of his perfect scepticism. The wafer might, or might not be, the body of Christ, but then it might, or might not be, a wafer. More than 70 years after his death he remains an entertaining writer, and a disquieting one. In the opinion of the editor of L’Atelier du Roman, Lakis Proguidis, ‘no twentieth-century author has so thoroughly examined the yawning gulf cut in each soul by the ideology of Progress’.

I know what Massie means about “too easily, too frequently and tiresomely” – at times in the polemical and apologetic works there is a sense of dead horses being flogged. At his best, however, there is a freshness to Chesterton’s prose, especially his fiction. Borges adored Chesterton, indeed placed him with Stevenson (and on one occasion Homer) in a personal pantheon.

Anyhow all this is prelude to a passage from The Everlasting Man which struck me as forcibly summarising the thoughts of Joseph Tainter on complexity:

It is far more probable that a primitive society was something like a pure democracy. To this day the comparatively simple agricultural communities are by far the purest democracies. Democracy is a thing which is always breaking down through the complexity of civilisation. Anyone who likes may state it by saying that democracy is the foe of civilisation. But he must remember that some of us really prefer democracy to civilisation, in the sense of preferring democracy to complexity.


“Fearful of My Joy” – Adam deVille on cooking, feasting and the sacramental

I am running the risk of turning this blog into nothing but reposting of Adam deVille, but I could resist this 2013 post on cooking, feasting, joy, and the sacramental by way of Chesterton, Waugh, Jennifer Patterson, Alexander Schememann, and Babette’s Feast

Cooking (which, bizarrely, people watch constantly on TV but rarely do themselves) is of course far more than a utilitarian necessity. It is a deeply, uniquely human activity the absence of which increasingly today can only be greeted with alarm–not only because of what its lack does to us psychologically as families and communities, but also physiologically: some studies have recently shown that the failure to cook regularly not only has deleterious effects on the family as such, but also on our physical health through the rise of diabetes and obesity even in very young children. The failure to eat together as humans is equally destructive in related and different ways.

But I am not here, schoolmarm-like, to hector you about nutrition. Such busybodies are the most tiresome people around. As an unabashed fan of Evelyn Waugh, I firmly believe with him that “food can and should be about enjoyment. As for ‘nutrition’–that is all balls.” And I would note that when Jennifer Patterson, one of the two gloriously grand, uproariously funny and hugely incorrect “Two Fat Ladies” died of lung cancer in the summer of 1999–while still smoking in the hospital and eating caviar and drinking champagne apparently–I used some of their recipes to make a special dinner for some of my friends in honour of Patterson–a devout Catholic and parishoner at the glorious London Oratory of which I have such fond memories from a 1997 visit. (During that dinner, and too many others, I have often bored myself by quoting Chesterton too frequently: “Catholicism is a thick steak, a frosted stout, and a good cigar!”)

Some days I am tempted to write a book “Towards an Eastern Christian Theology of Feasting and Fasting” but you will be spared the dyspepsia that would come from reading such a turgid volume because I think it has largely been done better by others, including Robert Farrar Capon (an Episcopalian theologian actually) in his Food for Thought: Resurrecting the Art of Eating and his The Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection.

Among Eastern Christians, the best person to write on the connections of food-feasting-sacraments is of course Alexander Schmemann in his For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy, which I have been reading this semester with my students. Schmemann beings by observing that

man must eat in order to live; he must take the world into his body and transform it into himself, into flesh and blood. He is indeed that which he eats, and the whole world is presented as one all-embracing banquet table…. And this image of the banquet remains, throughout the whole Bible, the central image of life (11).

I recently tried to illustrate the centrality of the banquet by watching with my students a charming movie from 1987, Babette’s Feast. If you’ve not seen it, go and watch it. It’s a marvelous illustration of the importance not only of feasting, but of the very sacramental nature of human life even in ways not often thought of in those terms–opera, dancing, music, and of course the preparing and enjoying of both food and wine. It also wonderfully illustrates the joy of cooking good food and, in doing so, the joy of giving joy to others–the joy of gracious hospitality graciously conveyed and received. (Mary may think she had the “better part” but there’s a lot of delight for the Marthas of this world being in the kitchen.)

The movie raised some difficult questions for my students–and I daresay for most of us today in our absurdly over-busy age–not least because of its languorous pace: each course (of seven) is focused on as each diner enjoys every bite slowly and deliberately. How rarely, they admitted, do they feast like that–even on a much less grand scale–at such a pace, and without doing so while texting, watching TV, or playing on the computer. What are we losing by not doing this regularly? Why do we deprive ourselves of one of the most basic and joyful of human encounters qua human? (One answer to that was provided many decades ago now, but all the more important today: Joseph Pieper’s splendid work Leisure: The Basis of Culture.) Good food, wine, and conversation: what more could one ask for? Why would one absent oneself from that or pick oneself up from the table only to hurry back to what–the Internet or some ghastly bit of ironically so-called “reality” TV?

“an author whose books were marvellous but rather the same” – Elizabeth Taylor and Andrei Makine


I have just begun reading Elizabeth Taylor’s At Mrs Lippincote’s (not, it feels obligatory to point out, not that Elizabeth Taylor. From Valerie Martin‘s introduction:

Though I never met either of them, Kingsley Amis introduced me to Elizabeth Taylor. He did it slyly, with deceptive nonchalance, as one might present a powerful relative to an acquaintance at a party; he knew she was important but had his doubts about me. This happened in his novel Difficulties With Girls. After a poor lunch of macaroni cheese, Jenny Standish, much neglected wife of the libidinous Patrick, has gone to the library in search of steady company. ‘Everything seemed to be out, bar an enormous saga about Southern Belles, but then she spotted a new Elizabeth Taylor on the returns shelf.’ At home, Jenny is disappointed to discover that ‘the new Elizabeth Taylor turned out to be an old Elizabeth Taylor in a new impression and with a different outside, and she must have been slipping not to have checked, always advisable with an author whose books were marvellous but rather the same.’

I am just starting to read Elizabeth Taylor (though I already know her mother died of politeness, suffering appendicitis on Christmas Day and refusing to bother the doctor), but, as Martin goes on to write “for any novelist, let alone one as famously cranky and hard on the women as Sir Kingsley, to stop cold the progress of his own story in order to extol the virtues of another novelist is unusual, to say the least” and so far I am impressed. The quote from Difficulties With Girls Martin cites also put me in mind of another novelist with a seemingly very different thematic concern than Taylor’s, Andrei Makine. I have had occasion to cite Makine a couple of times before. And I am nursing a longer essay on this remarkable writer, whose work is of a high pitch of lyrical intensity, who offers an unimpeachable insight into the tragedy of Russia in the twentieth (and twenty-first) century, with emotion but without sentimentality, managing to depict the USSR as a tyranny which treated the lives of its citizens (supposedly what the whole enterprise was about) as utterly disposable – while, without exoneration or excuse, capturing the moments of idealism that could capture youthful enthusiasm.


But they are rather the same – a narrator born in the post war couple of decades, now an exile in the West rather like Makine himself, recovering via memory a now vanished world which was defined by the gargantuan, heroic sacrifices of the Great Patriotic War (as WWII is still known in Russia) There are variations – The Woman Who Waited’s erotic longing and ironic release, The Life of An Unknown Man’s satire of the New Russia, Confessions of a Lapsed Standard Bearer’s more direct focus on childhood memory, A Life’s Music musical themes – but the overall pattern is the same.

And yet, his work is marvellous. So much for range!


Mourinho at Baselworld

It is hard to parody the overheated rhetoric of the luxury watch business’ merchandising arm. In his book Timekeepers, Simon Garfield has some very funny passages on the world of haut horologie. Garfield is evidently a watch aficionado, but one aware of the somewhat absurd side of this business.

Anyway, here is a passage on Jose Mourinho at Baselworld 2017. Mourinho’s campaign for/with Hublot can be viewed here and is as grandiose as you would expect (though in fairness in the below video he doesn’t seem to be just going through the PR motions). I present this piece really in the spirit of a previously shared profile of The Rock from GQ – as a relief from the times I fear a little too much of monasticism and worries about whether the classical and early Christian worlds were really in conflict dominates this blog too much…

Baselworld has chosen its name well. It is indeed a world of its own, held each March in a multi-tiered exhibition hall of 140,000 square metres, and most of the big brands have created a nation state within it. When I visited in 2014, for example, Breitling had built a huge rectangular tank containing hundreds of tropical fish above its stand, for no other reason than that it could. And it wasn’t a stand, it was a ‘Pavilion’. Elsewhere, Tissot and Tudor had giant walls of flashing disco lights above their wares, while TAG Heuer had placed one of its watchmakers at a bench at the front of its pavilion to demonstrate how doubly difficult it was to build a watch while being watched. Just as motor racing fans love the occasional crash, TAG Heuer aficionados stand around waiting for their man to drop a screw on the carpet. I crushed my way into the Hublot conference with José Mourinho, then still the Chelsea manager, the company’s latest brand ambassador. Every watch company needs its ambassadors: the fact that they do not usually wear the watch while achieving their greatest feats is not a major consideration. Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have signed for Audemars Piguet and Jacob & Co. Alongside Mourinho, Hublot also has Usain Bolt. Breitling has John Travolta and David Beckham, Montblanc Hugh Jackman, TAG Heuer Brad Pitt and Cameron Diaz, Rolex Roger Federer, IWC Ewan McGregor, and Longines Kate Winslet. Patek Philippe, ever keen to market itself as a brand with longevity and cross-generational worth, has shied away from asking, say, Taylor Swift or other shooting stars to represent its interests. Instead, it celebrates its client list from another era, starting with Queen Victoria.

Mourinho has just flown in to Basel from the Chelsea training ground at Cobham. He is wearing a grey raincoat over grey cashmere knitwear, and he accepts his watch with light applause and a short speech about how he has been part of the ‘Hublot family’ for a long time as a fan, but now it’s all been made official (i.e. he’s received his bank transfer). His watch is called the King Power ‘Special One’, almost the size of a fist, 18-carat ‘king gold’ with blue carbon, a self-winding Unico manufacture Flyback Chronograph with 300 components, 48mm case, all the mechanics exposed on the dial side, blue alligator strap, a skeleton dial, a power reserve of 72 hours, an edition of 100 and a price of $44,200. Just like Mourinho, the blurb says, ‘The watch is provocative . . . the robust exterior hides the genius below.’ Astonishingly, it’s both stunning and hideous at the same time. Call for availability

The strangest thing about the Hublot King Power was not that it looked like an armoured tank, but that it didn’t keep very accurate time. When the popular American magazine WatchTime conducted tests on an earlier model, it found it gained between 1.6 to 4.3 seconds a day, which is not what you’d expect from a Swiss watch costing so much. My Timex Expedition Scout does better, losing about 18 seconds a month, or about 4 minutes annually. Four minutes annually, in the scheme of things, is nothing. You can run a mile in that, but it takes longer to stroll the length of the Baselworld carpeted walkways. Because I only had Timex money and not Hublot money I spent most of my time at the fair looking at the marketing, the thing that had brought me here in the first place. I particularly liked the text for the Mondaine Stop2go, which, as with most Mondaine watches, modelled itself on the Swiss railway clock. But this one was designed to run fast for 58 seconds and then stop at the top of the dial for two seconds before moving on again. It was an unnerving thing to see on the watch itself – time really standing still – but I was also thrown by the accompanying tagline: ‘What does two seconds mean to you?’ At the Victorinox Swiss Army stand was a man who said that his watches reflected the same attributes as its knives, being both functional and reliable

“an expert on Brecht, the law of contract, the price of light bulbs and how to stack loo rolls”

The full text of Henry Hitchings‘ review of Nicholas Hytner‘s memoir in the current TLS isn’t available online, but there is just enough to include this gem:

“The artistic director of a modestly resourced theatre once told me that his job obliged him to be an expert on Brecht, the law of contract, the price of light bulbs and how to stack loo rolls.”

William Gerhardie – review of “God’s Fifth Column”, The Dabbler, 2015

Another William Gerhardie piece, this time ten years on from the SAU blog one and covering much of the same ground about his odd kind of fame. The Dabbler had a feature called the 1p book review, on books that, in theory at least, cost only 1p via Amazon marketplace. I also had encountered Gerhardie again in the memoir of Rupert Louis Ferdinand Frederick Constantine Lofredo Leopold Herbert Maximilian Hubert John Henry zu Löwenstein-Wertheim-Freudenberg, Count of Loewenstein-Scharffenec, financial manager of the Rolling Stones.


1p Book Review: God’s Fifth Column by William Gerhardie

Seamus Sweeney reads God’s Fifth Column: A Biography of the Age 1890-1940 – an unusual work by an author who at one time looked like becoming one of the greats…

William Gerhardie has achieved an odd kind of fame; famous for not being famous.

He is a writer whose champions specifically focus on his obscurity, or rather the obscurity of his later life. Gerhardie was well-known in his early career, and the same few quotes that recur in his blurbs give testament to his appeal to his contemporaries. Evelyn Waugh said of him, “I have talent, but he has genius”, and for Graham Greene “to those of my generation he was the most important new novelist to appear in our young life. We were proud of his early and immediate success, like men who have spotted the right horse.”

Born in St Petersburg, Gerhardie was an English merchant of great wealth who was thrown into a sack in the 1905 Revolution. According to his son, he was only spared by being confused by the mob with Keir Hardie (this does have the air of a somewhat convenient anecdote). A Russian education for William was followed by being packed off to England to prepare for a commercial career of some kind; he ended up returning to the land of his birth as part of the failed Allied intervention after the 1917 Revolution.

As well as the acclaim of Greene, Waugh, Katharine Mansfield and Edith Wharton, Gerhardie also achieved a fair measure of worldly success, being taken up by Lord Beaverbrook as a potential protégé on the strength of The Polyglots. Beaverbrook’s attempts to turn him into a bestseller failed, and a lengthy decline into obscurity began. In 1931, aged 36, he published an autobiography, and moved into Rossetti House in London, behind Broadcasting House. He would remain there until his death in 1977, “a hermit in the West End of London” in the words of Holroyd and Robert Skidelsky’s introduction to God’s Fifth Column.

Every so often, Gerhardie achieves some revival  degree of revivial. I myself tried to stoke the embers in 2006. William Boyd, a longtime admirer partly based Logan Mountstuart in Any Human Heart on Gerhardie. Michael Holroyd seems the most devout keeper of the flame.

 There was another flurry of interest when his biographer, Dido Davies, died in 2013. Davies was a former heroin addict and author of sex manuals who had her funeral written up in Mary Beard’s blog.

 Of his novels, Futility, Doom and The Polyglots are widely available. Futility is the most amenable to (my) contemporary taste,  while Doom and The Polyglots are much shaggier stories but with much to recommend them. The latter,  with its vain narrator, is notable for a remarkably clear-eyed portrayal of children free of sentimentality or faux-toughness. The former features a fictionalised Beaverbrook and a piecemeal apocalypse.

 One of his works I have yet to track down is Meet Yourself As You Really Are written with Prince Rupert Lowenstein, father of the Prince Rupert Lowenstein (or more properly, Rupert Louis Ferdinand Frederick Constantine Lofredo Leopold Herbert Maximilian Hubert John Henry zu Löwenstein-Wertheim-Freudenberg, Count of Loewenstein-Scharffenec) who became financial manager of the Rolling Stones. In his biography A Prince Among Stones (which Sir Michael Philip Jagger, perhaps actuated by jealousy due to relative lack of names, responded: “Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t think your ex-bank manager should be discussing your financial dealings and personal information in public”) the younger Lowenstein describes the work:

He [Prince Rupert] was a writer, or more precisely, he had had a modestly successful book first published by Faber and Faber … which he had written with William Gerhardi, a novelist, playwright and critic, born in St Petersburg to English parents, who was a renowned and pioneering supporter of Chekhov’s writing in the West. (Gerhardi was also a keen supporter or the Tsarina, whom he had met as a young man, and believed that the best influence in Russia was, contrary to all normal belief, that of Rasputin who had been violently against the war in Germany…)

 Meet Yourself as You Really Are was a very early example of home psychoanalysis, one of those psychological quizzes that offers instant insights into your personality and psyche … You are asked a long list of questions about all aspects of your life, covering everything from childhood to phobia, social behaviour to daily routine. I remember one that asked ‘Do you like your bath water tepid/hot/very hot?’ … From these answers and a scoring systems, you could discover your personality type among multiple permutations (three million possibilities, the book’s strapline proclaimed) leading to a number of basic key type.

William Gerhardi and my father had decided to name these different types after rivers, so you might at the end of the process discover you were the Rhine, the Nile, the Tiber or the River Thames, the latter with its conclusion ‘You’re the sort of poor mutt who always pays.’

 After his death, within various cardboard boxes labelled “DO NOT CRUSH”, was found the manuscript posthumously published as God’s Fifth Column. He had been working on this from 1939, and it made it into the Metheun catalogue of upcoming publications for Autumn 1942, but was then withdrawn (the relevant correspondence disappeared during the War; Gerhardie claimed he had withdrawn it at his own request for revision).

The “god’s fifth column” of the title is the comic spirit, subverting humanity’s well-intentioned, seemingly rational plans. Gerhardie defines it thus:

God’s Fifth Column is that destroying agent – more often the unconscious agent, sometimes malevolent or maladroit in intention – of spirit within the gate of matter. Its purpose is to sabotage such structures and formations of human society, built as it were of individual human bricks, as have proved to be unserviceable for association into larger groups of suffering units because insufficiently baked by suffering to cement with their immediate neighbours.

Later, he writes “Comedy is God’s Fifth Column sabotaging the earnest in the cause of the serious.”

Despising overarching explanations of history, and keen to defend the individual against all the collectives, from family to state, that seek to the control the “suffering unit” that is the individual person, Gerhadie’s history is a series of tableaux, of scenes in which the same figures -Tolstoy, Shaw, Margot Asquith, Arthur Balfour, various royals of various  nations – recur.

Holroyd and Skidelsky edited out a quarter of the text which was unready for publication; the bulk of the text  relates to the 1890-1919 period, with the next twenty years much more briefly dealt with.  Gerhardie’s judgments are direct, his authorial voice magisterially certain of his subjects. A sample:

Bernard Shaw sent the greater writer of the Russian soil [Tolstoy] his The Shewing Up of Blanco Posnet, which drew a blank from Tolstoy, who answered that he ‘looked forward to reading it with interest’. Which, in author’s vocabulary, may be taken to mean he had already dipped into the thing without much interest and elected to write before he had to confess disappointment. In his accompanying letter Shaw stressed that virtue was ineffective because habitually cloaked in pious language, and would gain by the prestige of blunt, full-blooded, pithy speech, in which vice masquerades attractively before an admiring adolescent world.

 This suggestion also seems to have drawn a blank. Virtue knocked dumb by meekness drew tears from Tolstoy’s old eyes, and he could not see it swaggering in jackboots.

 But the letter is key to Shaw. He is a swaggerer, and he knows it and enjoys it. A man of trepidation in most things, he takes a double step. Metaphorically, even physically, as he strides up like a conquerer before the cine-camera. He adds an incongruous flourish of defiance to his old-maid’s signature: uses belligerent barrack room terms to convey Salvation Army sentiments.

This extract is fairly representative. God’s Fifth Column is full of entertaining anecdote, and Gerhardie has extracted from a host of memoirs of the age a host of arresting observations and unexpected encounters. His style, lapidary in Futility, tends to the verbose (not to mention tendentious) here, and ironically given his disdain for the great abstractions that press on the “suffering unit”, much of the narration is taken up with abstraction.

Read at length, the style becomes slightly grating; however as a book to dip and out of, it works very well.



Nthposition review of “The Book of Skin”, Steven Connor, 2003

This book is a good example of contemporary (well, 14 year old at this stage) academic writing in the humanities – jargon and theory rich, concerned with unpicking privilege and inequality (and yet its very existence based on the privilege and hierarchy of the academy)

Over time I was less harsh on academic books on “readability” grounds. I never “pursued”  Armando Favazza’s  work on self-laceration, or at least I don’t remember Armando Favazza until just now.



The Book of Skin

[ bookreviews ]

“I want to be able to follow out (and follow others in following out) the intrigues (from that same root, tricoter), the knitting, the sifting, the inriddling of history… I expect to end up materially implicated, perhaps incriminated in the things I am up to here, in the skin… I am to be found writing here, though, not as the skin’s inquisitor but as its amanuensis” Thus, towards the end of his first chapter, does Steven Connor proclaim his intention in writing this book.

Reading The Book of Skin is a formidable undertaking. On the first page Connor refers to Barthes, Emmanuel Levinas, Derrida, Gilles Deleuze, Baudrillard, and “the abiding presence of skin in the work of Jean-François Lyotard.” The reader no doubt has her own opinion on the work of the Parisian postmodernists, but even their most avid fan can hardly claim their influence on the clarity of prose, certainly in English, has been good. Connor, as befits, one supposes, a Professor of Modern Literature and Theory at Birkbeck College, is immersed in their tendency to verbiage, and to tendentious (or at least debatable) statements delivered with a confidence that brooks little opposition. I could only bring myself to read a chapter a night, afterwards soothing myself with the most vapid airport novels I could find. The tiny typeface, evocative of particularly daunting textbooks, does nothing to encourage the reader.

It is invidious to quote in isolation fragments which do, in fairness, make more (but not much more) sense in context. Nevertheless, I feel obliged to give the reader a flavour of the verbal environment of the book: “The two kinds of skin markings, letter and picture, discourse and figure, encode absolute and empty time. The law that enacts its everlasting marks is a law of vengeance, measure and ordeal, enacted in linear time. The marks of law mark the entry of law into time.” Another sample: “In fact, for Didier Houzel, the non-orientable manifold is in no sense a desirable or healthy condition. It typifies the experience of the autistic child, whose life is the enactment of an unmasterable internal turbulence.” Everything seems to either “enact” or “encode” something else, and often on the flimsiest of pretexts.

My favourite sentence, and the moment when I almost abandoned the book altogether: “Lyotard’s concern is with the topography and the temporality of this typography.” I’m sure it is.

From the occasional binding of books in human skin (John Horwood’s murder trial and execution were recorded in a volume bound in his own skin) to the differing portrayals of male and female bodybuilders in muscle magazines (the male bodies shinier, harder-looking than the female), the cultural history of the skin is fascinating. Connor displays great erudition – references to Flann O’Brien, to Chaucer and Shakespeare, to Richey Edwards of the Manic Street Preachers carving “4 REAL” into his arm, to the urban legend of Shirley Eaton’s death during the making of Goldfinger after being painted in gold among many others – which leavens the work somewhat. When not cramming in as many references to French thinkers as he can, he is a witty writer, for instance when writing of now-obsolete terms for colour: “the term ‘isabelle’, to signify a rather soiled-looking calico, in memory of the Infanta Isabella, daughter of Philip II of Spain, who vowed not to change her underwear until her forces had taken the city of Ostend. (The grubbiness of the shade they finally attained may be gauged from the fact the siege lasted from 1601 to 1604)”

The early chapters (which “consider the various forms of the skin’s visibility”) are particularly freighted with theoretical ballast, while later chapters (“discussions of aspects of the skin which do not begin or end with the skin’s appearance”) – where the literary theory is in the background, and a particular aspect of skin is discussed in each – are far more readable. Even here the ghosts of the Left Bank rise to haunt the reader – for example at the end of a lucid chapter on the persistent idea that while pregnant were pregnant, any shocks or cravings they experienced would be transmitted to the foetus as a suitable skin marking (for example, desire for a particular fruit would transmit itself into a birthmark in the shape of that fruit, which would change with the seasons in accordance with the ripening of the fruit) Connor can’t resist a bit more theory: “The law of beings is subject to the accident of adversity, which is its own prior law.”

Nevertheless, the later chapters, put bluntly, “make more sense” – one even sees how the theory has its place. Perhaps Connor would have been better served by reversing the order of the chapters, and discussing “the various forms of the skin’s visibility” after the paradoxically more concrete “discussions of aspects of the skin which do not begin or end with the skin’s appearance.”

It would barbarous to dismiss this book simply because it is difficult, but it would be equally wrong to praise it for that reason. Alberto Manguel’s Reading Pictures combined erudition and learning with a clarity of expression and even, at times, an entertainers touch. There is much in The Book of Skin to provoke thought and discussion, many references to works (for example, Armando Favazza’s on self-laceration) which intrigue (and which I intend to pursue), yet one wishes Connor hadn’t made the book such hard work.