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‘A Brief History of Nakedness’ Delights one Oxford Don, Shocks Another – Meanwhile I’m Wrestling my Mother to the Ground

May 30th, 2010

It is said that an author should ignore bad reviews, particularly when he’s had good reviews elsewhere, since responding to the bad one just draws undeserved attention to it. But in these days of the internet, a bad review can stick around forever – unlike the old days when it disappeared quickly to light fires and wrap fish and chips soon after publication.

So I’m not going to ignore Peter Conrad’s peculiar, but very revealing, review in The Observer today – particularly because yesterday a fellow don from the same university reviewed the book in The Telegraph, and comparing the two offers some interesting insights into human nature. Conrad is at Christ Church, Robert Douglas-Fairhurst at Magdalen. Sadly the Telegraph review has not been put online (yet) whereas Conrad’s has – another spur to responding to it.

If you haven’t read it, suffice it to say that its weirdness lies in the fact that he hardly engages with the ideas and history discussed in the book at all, but instead wastes newsprint suggesting I’m fat, that my bum is moving southward and so on. Very childish and odd really. And that’s why I’m wrestling my 87 year old mother to the ground: to stop her posting a letter she’s written  to Christ Church asking Dr Conrad why an academic has descended to personal insult. She feels he’s ‘letting Oxford down’. A University Fellow should be engaging in intelligent debate surely, not playground insults: calling people ‘Fatty’?

I find myself in the odd position of defending Conrad: ‘Oh he’s probably going through a rough patch…I’ve read an awful review of one of his books… Perhaps he suffers from body-shame, and that runs deep, and so on.’

Now my daughter has joined the fray “Oh dad you’re always defending people! He’s obviously a ****”  Well I don’t know about that, but what I do know is that there is an obvious problem with his review, and leaving aside any consideration for his mental state, it would be worth him swapping his body-shame for simply being ashamed of writing such tosh.

We can easily dispose of the obvious problem with his review: the way he is more interested in insulting me than in seriously engaging with the book. Why waste space considering the content in a book and debating its ideas when you can fill it with vitriol?  He calls me sanctimonious so let me indulge him in this belief by forgiving him. ‘May he gain Enlightenment’, as the Buddhists would say (as rapidly as possible please). A clue as to how far he has to go to achieve this lies in his remark: ‘The genitals, Carr-Gomm dozily says, are “symbols of power and vulnerability”, but how can they be both?’  In raising this Conrad reveals not only his inability to grasp paradox, but also more sadly his chauvinism. He continues dismissing my remark by saying it’s all simple really: ‘The vulva keeps its secrets; the extroverted male organ means one thing when erect and the exact opposite when it detumesces.” He doesn’t think the vulva symbolises power when through it he was born? He doesn’t think it symbolizes vulnerability when through it he can reach inside a woman’s body to touch her heart and soul (or wound her deeply)? And as if to reinforce this lack of sensitivity and the overall tone of bullying testosterone in his review he finishes with a variation on the archetypal old-world-lager-lout insult about erectile dysfunction.

Such was his need to kick someone that he over-rode any academic rigour he might possess, to suggest the book is based on ‘a few Google searches and a random scanning of the TV listings.’ He was clearly so upset by the pictures in the book he failed to reach the references section, which lists the numerous sources I consulted over the years it took me to research the book. And he’s a university lecturer?

In the end, though, Conrad’s review illustrates perfectly the point I make in the book. Nakedness in itself is no big deal, but as a subject through which to explore the heart, mind and soul it is extraordinarily powerful. It acts like a mirror for their inner workings, and the picture in Conrad’s mirror is not a pretty sight. Moving from Christ Church to Magdalen mercifully offers us relief from his fluster and venom. Douglas-Fairhurst in his Telegraph review writes: ‘In a topsy-turvy culture where wearing clothes is thought of as normal, and going without them is seen as the behaviour of exhibitionists or weirdos, an unexpected flash of flesh does for everyday experience what Shelley thought was poetry’s task: it ‘strips the veil of familiarity from the world”. Nudists, flashers and strippers are the human exclamation marks that punctuate our lives. Once you’ve finished this thought-provoking book, go back to the mirror. Slip off the bathrobe and have another look… If it weren’t anatomically impossible, you’d swear your whole body was smiling.’