The power of naked

Posted in Books, naked, Nakedness, naturism by Deputy city editor on January 14, 2010

Here are the results of my survey of modern naked behaviour. This is not a scientific poll – it is a sounding.

Half of us sleep naked, to the despair of pajama manufacturers. Half of us walk naked around our own houses. Of those who have their own private swimming pools, 90 per cent swim in them naked.  Half the British population has stripped for a charity calendar.  Perhaps.

Men and women are equally interested in nakedness – being naked and seeing other people naked. Half those studying bare breasts in The Sun every day are female.

There are some national differences. But there is still plenty of nudity even in chilly Britain where we have naked bike rides (sounds uncomfortable), nude days at theme parks, lots of nude beaches, and mediatised nudity on a heroic scale.  Nude is no longer especially rude although exposure does not limit the potential for embarrassment.

Nudity is a subject of endless fascination for everybody – moral philosophers, psychologists, artists, editors – but it is a complicated subject. There is a place where nudity segues to perversity and becomes in itself a symptom of madness. What are we to make of all this flesh?

It is timely that Philip Carr-Gomm,  a writer in Lewes, Sussex who specialises normally in the mystical and Druidic, should have authored A Brief History of Nakedness (Reaktion Books, London, 2010).

In a lavishly illustrated tour of the horizon, from religious and artistic confrontations with nakedness, to the quotidian nudity of today, Carr-Gomm advances the thesis that there has recently been a fundamental shift in attitudes towards nudity. He posits this began in the sixties and heralded a shifting of the idea of nakedness from something perverted to something socially responsible and even heroic.  Even before the body scanners are rolled out to strip us all naked at the airport, this is the age of bare, he proposes.

Perhaps. The sixties were without doubt a social-sexual milestone but a point of departure? I am a little more sceptical. I’d propose that the Internet has had more to do with demystifying the human body –  of which there is no nook or cranny that is not a click away.  The counter-argument, and Carr-Gomm makes it himself, is that human fascination with the nude is eternal. So technology has really changed nothing other than to make the nude prosaic and maybe slightly less interesting. Books. Films. Videotape. The Internet. Nudity is a cross-platform driver.  There has been a widening experience of nudity since the sixties, but this has also coincided with the availability of cheap holidays to climates where it is fun to be nude.

I am not certain whether nakedness is a serious subject to be lightly treated, or the opposite. Philip Carr-Gomm obviously isn’t completely sure, either, because this is a serious and funny book that is certainly revealing, and also very naughty, with extraordinary pictures of naked people, often behaving very oddly. The copy I received did not have an index but there will be one when the book is released. This ought to be something of a classic in its own right, given the depth and eccentricity of the subject. An amazing story.  Read it naked.

Read this: Alone in Berlin

Posted in Berlin, Books, facism, Labour party, Terrorism by Deputy city editor on April 15, 2009


Even before ‘Jackboots’ Jacqui Smith announced her plan to recruit block wardens throughout Britain, trained to work with the authorities in the war on terrorism, there was more than a strong whiff of fascism in the air.

To see  the consequences of how easy it is for people to be led down this road by unscrupulous leaders, there is Alone in Berlin.

Today Berlin is a city that throbs with youth, art and music, but these streets are cohabited by ghosts and they are far from exclusively Jewish.

You do not need to know Alexanderplatz to see the contemporary resonance in Hans Fallada’s brilliant testament of Nazi state terrorism.

Modern Britain, where the police also kill with impunity,  is a good place to read this.

Alone in Berlin has only now been published in English, in a superb translation by Michael Hoffman. (The book is published in America as Every Man Dies Alone.)   This is the best book I have read about Berlin during the war.

This is not the high society Berlin of the same period, described by Marie Vassiltchikov nor do the grand events of the war provide more than a passing backdrop to the events Fallada describes.  More or less everything happens in this book, all at once. There are love stories, tales of brutality, ordinary people who are extraordinary for their braveness and courage, and ordinary people who are bullies and cowards. This is yet more evidence that what happened in Germany could happen to any of us – and perhaps especially to the delusional British, with our demented politicians and ridiculous media.

Fallada died shortly after finishing this masterpiece. On the basis of the experience of reading this novel, he seems to me one of the great journalist/writers of the 20th century.

Click on the image above to look inside this book.

Skimmed book. ++

Posted in Books, Graham Greene, lacan, Oscar Wilde, Pierre Bayard, reading by Deputy city editor on December 3, 2007

Pierre Bayard is a professor of French literature at Paris VII, a psychotherapist, and the génial author of the controversialist Comment parler des livres que l’on n’a pas lus ? His book Who Killed Roger Ackroyd (Qui a tué Roger Ackroyd?), a stylish rumination and theoretical investigation of the eponymous novel by Agatha Christie, is a structuralist classic. If Ackroyd was a preliminary excursion in subverting, deturning or drawing entertaining if sometimes insane theoretical inferences from sometimes slender evidence, then with this new work Professor Bayard is staging a scorched earth policy and questions whether it is worth reading any books at all. This is bound to be discutable and hence rentable. Bravo to an enterprising Frenchman. We can overlook that his inquiry has been published in the form of, excusez-moi, a book.

This treat has now appeared in English in the US and UK titled How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, translated by Jeffrey Mehlman, professor of French literature at Boston University. Mehlman is an important translator of Lacan. He is also in his own right the author of the fascinating Emigré New York: French Intellectuals in Wartime Manhattan, study of the French community in New York during Vichy and up to the liberation, and the charming Walter Benjamin for Children, amongst others.

The quality of his translation is exceptional and one is laughing out loud at the fluent transmission of the jokes. En route Bayard reinvents the ending of The Name of the Rose, perfects Graham Greene’s Third Man, and even kills off a character belonging to David Lodge. One can tell that both author and Mehlman are having fun. The larger scope is that while Bayard has written an amazingly practical guide to bluffing your way in books (his techniques also work for film, television programmes and much else), he makes a serious point on the nature of reading itself, a process more subtle than generally acknowledged.

The original reaction to this book when it was published in French was admiring and dismissive, with a certain predictable (among academics) jealousy. Not least because it was so original and lucrative, so provocative and too clever by three quarters.

But also unsettling, and not so easily dismissed, as it asked a number of questions for which the correct answers are more nuanced than some would admit.

Bayard classified all books in four categories: Heard of book (HB), skimmed book (SB), unknown book (UB) and FB (forgotten book).

Hence, Ulysees he notes as an HB++ meaning an extremely positive opinion of a book he has heard of. Proust is an SB and HB++. It is not necessary to have read these books to locate them in their literary context, Bayard notes. As for reading books from start to finish – what a waste of time.

A delight of How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read – dare I say it – is the extensive “reading” (or skimming) that Bayard has done to assemble a blue ribbon cast of sources to make his case against books.

Bayard begins with Musil’s character of the librarian who avoids reading, in order to better know all his books. The wisdom of Musil’s librarian lies in perspective, says Bayard. This is the prelude for a dazzling romp through read and unread print from Paul Valéry (on Proust and Anatole France), Shakespeare via the encounter of the Tiv tribe with Hamlet, the academic follies of David Lodge, to Umberto Eco, Bill Murray and Balzac, and above all, Oscar Wilde.

It was Oscar Wilde who warned against reading books before reviewing them and Bayard cites him enough to suppose that he has skimmed quite deeply into the canon of this should-be-sainted genius.

It is hard to argue with Bayard that life is too short for reading books, even if we do. And that reading them is not the most important thing about them. Still, as a work to provoke an intellectual jouissance, Bayard has produced a SB++, at least.

How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read is a must for any bibliophile’s holiday stocking and a source of great comfort for those of us who have never got through A la recherche du temps perdu.

Hortense de Monplaisir offers a twisted verdict on the English and the French

Posted in Books, France, The English by Deputy city editor on November 5, 2007

Arielle Dombasle

Why can’t the English be more like the French? Image of Mme Bernard-Henri Lévi chosen by The Sunday Times to illustrate this enigma.

One must admit the brilliance of Sarah Long’s “translation” of Hortense de Monplaisir’s snooty verdict on The English in Le Dossier: How to Survive the English, published by John Murray at £12.99. Sarah Long is a novelist and “met” Hortense at a wine tasting.

In amongst the many genial passages – the book was filleted in yesterday’s Sunday Times – she describes Hortense like this:

Hortense de Monplaisir is from a very old French family who did not need to buy their particule. After studying at Sciences Po, one of the grandes écoles, or top universities, she married a grosse légume in banking and has made a career embellishing his grey world with her vivacious conversation and colourful table displays.

Thanks to her expatriation, her children are bilingual and au fait with binge drinking culture, while preferring to sip Orangina and dance le rock taught by a maître danseur from Paris. She and her husband live in London, but have homes in Paris’s Left Bank and in the Luberon, as well as one-tenth of the family manoir in Brittany.

An incisive observer of the English, she remains French through and through. Her interests include le scrapbooking, painting on porcelain and organising holidays in Verbier, St Barts and the Ile de Ré.

She has an exceptional IQ and is a member of French Mensa.

I think this would be a rival for the best book about France this year except that Graham Robb has already crossed the finishing line. And with the complication that it is not a book about France, precisely. Many of the 115 people commenting on the Sunday Times web site seem to think this is a book about England written by a French woman. And that it is most offensive, to boot. When of course it is also simultaneously the exact opposite – a book about the French, written by a rosbif. Plus also a book about the English by someone pretending to be French. Un engrenage! This is a very good joke. Made even better in the comment sphere, as the “author” is condemned for chauvinism!

Hortense might very well see Sarah Long to a manoir of her own. Ms Long has produced a witty, wicked and twisted parody that is very funny. If nothing else, it is the “translation” of the year.

Kate Petty’s party

Posted in Bedales, Books, Eden Project, Obituaries by Deputy city editor on November 3, 2007

Kate’s triumphant finale – illustrated by Jennie Maizels

To the Canal Museum behind King’s Cross for Kate Petty’s last party. There are some blown-up pictures of Kate in her hippy chick days when she was already one of the most attractive girls at Bedales, at the top of the class for her wit, and for her amazing ability to get A grades in all subjects without compromising in any way her love of a good dance. Kate was amazingly popular without ever saying a mean word about anyone. Nor have I ever heard anyone say a mean word about her.

She died when I was in France. I missed the funeral which was in Cornwall. Kate and Mike moved there to devote themselves to the Eden Project. Kate was already sick although she worked ferociously on a children’s list for Eden that has been been rapturously received.

It was an inspired choice of venue. The Canal Museum is one of the great tucked-away places in London and an agreeable place to have a thrash. The mood is good, although we all have a little tear for Katie. Fear is also a feature of these occasions, as the beating reaper grows closer.

Mike has decided to raise money for Cornwall Hospice Care where they had taken such good care of Katie and there was an auction at which I am happy to say I became the owner of a signed first edition of Philip Pullman’s Lyra’s Oxford. I have a great deal of time for Pullman and the character of Lyra. Now I consider it, there are parallels between the characters of Lyra and Kate.

Kate lived a big life after leaving school.

Julia Eccleshare’s beautiful and touching obituary of Kate in the Guardian is here.

On cria haro sur le Pluton

Posted in academic freedom, Books, Palestine, University of Michigan, zionism by Deputy city editor on October 22, 2007


Pluto Press better get itself a new distributor in America because the University of Michigan wants to be included out of any future relationship with the radical North London publisher of, amongst other works, Joel Kovel’s “Overcoming Zionism,” a passionate attack on the relgious foundations of the Jewish state which has the Zionist lobby on American campuses howling racism, amongst other things.

Other titles susceptible of inciting neocon and donor rage such as “Economics Transformed: Discovering the Brilliance of Marx,” are equally unlikely to find sympathetic defenders in the most senior echelons of the university, obsessed as they are with not offending the wallets.

Like Inspector Renault in Casablanca, who discovered gambling going on in Rick’s café while picking up his winnings, the university appears to be “shocked” to discover that Pluto was not simply a liberal press, but a – gasp! – radical one. (Although by European academic standards, it seems pretty tame!) So a divorce looms. Pluto will be a loser. Butthe university also, for caving in to a campaign of intellectual terrorism being waged on American campuses by a fanatical Zionist lobby that is taken seriously only in America. Even in Israel they tell these people to piss off.

This is a hot potato for the university mainly because it threatens the core function of the university presidency which is raising money.

On balance, those who want the book banned and Pluto banished from the precincts probably write bigger checks than critical outsiders. (The horrified faculty think Kovel makes some solid points, actually.)

Mary Coleman, the university president, and the university’s 300 development officers, do not want anyone upset. So it is time to pour oil on troubled waters with a statement (currently awaited) that I predict will be a masterwork in contradiction.

Carefully lawyered, the statement will give the university the chance to promise both sides that they have got what they want. My guess is that it will note a review of the contract with Pluto and note that it only has a few months to go in any case. Hence, the book will be distributed for now, but not later. Masterful!

The fallout from this affair puts in play the future of the U-M Press, whose reputation has been badly damaged. When push came to shove, the press has represented itself poorly, to say the least.

Uppity stakeholders are asking questions previously left unasked. What is the press for? Money? Prestige? To widen the scope of human knowledge?

This is now an open question. Someone at the Michigan Daily should look at the finances. Meanwhile, it is clear that whatever else the press is for, it is not there to irritate donors nor to generate embarrassing headlines in the academic press and the blogosphere.

Will the U-M press continue under present management? It ought to be unlikely, but firing people is notoriously difficult on campus. Does Michigan have a future in the publishing business? This is only one of many unanswered questions, since U-M appears to have very little whatever in the way of a communications strategy.

The affair also renews the question of the power of the Zionist lobby on American campuses who have decided that any attack whatsoever on Zionism constuitutes racism and is hence inadmissible. Is discussion of Zionism about to be shut down? The affair sadly signals the possibility.

Meanwhile, Pluto will have to find itself another American distributor. It has an attractive list. But too scary for a nervous American university.

A coward on campus

Posted in academic freedom, Books, Palestine, University of Michigan, zionism by Deputy city editor on October 19, 2007


Phil Pochoda (above) is the director of the University of Michigan press. He is also an intellectual coward.

This is a sad story made personally more distressing for me because the chairman of the university press, Peggy McCracken, is a personal friend and a scholar for whom my admiration is boundless. It is made even sadder by the feeble performance of the campus newspaper, The Michigan Daily, where I learned my trade, and whose coverage of this has been embarrassing in its superficiality and lack of curiosity.

Joel Kovel is a controversial scholar and in Overcoming Zionism he has written a controversial book in which he proposes that Israel is a racist, apartheid state. He proposes that no two-state solution can ever resolve the Israel-Palestine problem.

Kovel’s book is published by Pluto Press in London which has had a longstanding distribution agreement with the University of Michigan Press.

Enter the bullies in the form of Stand With Us Michigan, one of a growing network of groups on American campuses that specialise in the intimidation of anyone who dares to question Israel. Anyone who does is immediately accused of anti-semitism. This, it must be said, is part of a long-standing pattern of abuse hurled by some Zionists at anyone who disagrees with them. (Indeed, this has been going on for more than a century.) They reserve their most intemperate and abusive attacks for other Jews. But they are not reluctant to hurl the accusation of anti-semitism at others who dare to question Israel. Recent victims include both Jimmy Carter and Christiane Amanpour.
Stand With Us Michigan demanded that Kovel’s book be withdrawn. Incredibly, this is exactly what Mr Pochoda did. It is unclear whether this ban stands or not. It is apparently under some kind of review. Worse, the university is now apparently considering whether to terminate its distribution agreement with Pluto altogether.

In a barely literate screed, Pochoda wrote to Joel Kovel declaring himself, “apalled [sic] by your reckless, viscious [sic], and unmodulated attack on Zionism and all Zionists.”

He added – and this is the sting:

For us, the issue raised by the book is not free speech but hate speech. Perhaps such vituperative and aggressive rhetoric works for the barricades, but it cannot be countenanced or underwritten by the university or the university press, even in this peripheral, distributed capacity.

Intrigued, I ordered a copy of Kovel’s book and read it carefully. I failed to detect the hate speech to which Pochoda refers although I did discover a closely argued book whose author has strong views. Bemused, I wrote to Pochoda asking him for a citation which might substantiate the accusation of “hate” speech. Reply there was none. I wrote again. Here is his belated response:

My comments on Overcoming Zionism were made in a private and, I presumed, confidential note to Joel Kovel. He apparently chose to make the note public, but I have no interest in engaging in further public discussion.

This to me is remarkable. Pochoda withdraws a book, apparently because he believes it constitutes “hate speech,” and then in effect declares that he has no responsibility to defend his actions or his words in public. This is cowardice wrapped in arrogance.

Pochoda, who earned $163,000 last year, is a disgrace to the university. And not just because he can’t spell.

Inside Higher Education has a good piece on this with further links.

The Committee for the Open Discussion of Zionism is tracking assaults on academic freedom.

The blogger Dissident Veteran for Peace has come to Kovel’s aid.

The Michigan Daily, which boasts of defending editorial freedom, has so far been useless, scooped on the story and belatedly offering a single feeble news report. There is no evidence that the editorial staff have a clue what is at stake.

Joel Kovel’s site is here.

‘Blinded by anti-communism’

Posted in Books, Spanish Civil War by Deputy city editor on October 16, 2007

Writing in the October newsletter of the International Brigade Memorial Trust, Helen Graham, professor of contemporary Spanish history at Royal Holloway, University of London, offers various criticisms of Antony Beevor’s “The Battle for Spain” of which the primary one is her accusation that this history is distorted by Beevor’s distate for the comrades. “Relentless anti-communism,” is her verdict.

“In the end the Cold War view of the Spanish Republic is an imperialist one,” she states. But Beevor offers neither a Cold War view nor an imperialist view. He merely strips the varnish off the myths and reveals that the Communists played a pretty disgusting game in Spain. (He makes no apologies for the Francoists, either.) But this even-handed approach will not do for Dr Graham. She notes the “quite fundamental differences between the Francoist and Republican political projects” which she claims “are pretty much empiracally verifiable.” This is an odd formulation. Who can know if a Republican victory would have been followed by a bloodbath on the scale of the one ordered by Franco. It might have been lesser, or worse. Nobody can doubt the taste of the commissars for slaying their enemies.

Dr Graham’s review is oddly self-contradictory. She says the book’s “real value” lies in its military analysis. Yet she comes to the defence of the Republican chief of staff Vincente Rojo, trashed by Beevor as a military adventurer. Rojo was certainly quick to throw away the lives of his men in wild adventures. Yet Dr Graham defends operations like the Ebro offensive as “vital to projecting an image of military vitality and political will.” Frankly, this is an utterly bizarre assessment of a commander who marched ill-equipped men up exposed hills to be shredded by nationalist bombers and artillery, opening the gates of Barcelona in the process.

I know nothing of Dr Graham’s politics but perhaps she protests too much. The excuse that the republic was done in by shortages of material is neither novel nor sufficient explanation for the catalogue of Republican military failures. She complains of Beevor’s lack of interest in non-intervention. But this seems a red herring to me. If the Republicans were ill-equipped it was Stalin who was to blame. Having taken the Republic’s gold, he supplied his clients with scrap metal.

To write off Beevor as a Cold War historian does not do justice to his work and imputes to him an ideology for which there is no evidence (and Dr Graham supplies none). It was always going to be the case that Beevor’s work would unsettle the custodians of the sacred flame. To them, Beevor’s crime seems to be telling it like it was.

My kinsman Morris Miller was killed in the Ebro offensive. His story is here.

…on cria haro sur le baudet

Posted in Books, epizootics, FMD, Foot and mouth, France, Justice, La Fontaine, Language, translation by Deputy city editor on October 2, 2007

Gustave Doré : Les Animaux malades de la peste

I have been rude elsewhere to Charles Timoney who has written a reasonable book about French that is amusing even if spotty. “Pardon my French” is good at interpreting various phrases but not always so good at getting to the bottom of them. He annoyed me with his entry on the word ‘haro’ which suggests to me that researches were shallow. (Does he have a copy of Le Petit Robert?) The celebrated usage is that of Jean de La Fontaine.

The word is also used by Baudelaire: Il est bon de hausser la voix et de crier haro sur la bêtise contemporaine. This is in Curiosités esthetiques, Salon de 1859.

So do not rely on Charles Timoney in this instance. However my researches led me back to the fable which was first introduced to me, of course, by my French mistress.

This is all as it happens amazingly topical on our island cursed as it is with animal plagues, and so I reproduce it gleefully below. An English translation is available here – also one in Italian!

This really is a remarkable fable and I would like to believe it is still taught to all French school children. It conveys the important lesson that life is very sad. The punishment of the innocent baudet, whose only crime was to have eaten grass, speaks of the exquisite cruelty of justice. Once again I reach for Gustave Doré (above), one of many who have illustrated this story but who really does pathos better than anyone.

Les Animaux malades de la Peste
Jean De La Fontaine (1621-1695)

Un mal qui répand la terreur,
Mal que le ciel en sa fureur
Inventa pour punir les crimes de la terre,
La peste (puisqu’il faut l’appeler par son nom),
Capable d’enrichir en un jour l’Achéron,
Faisait aux animaux la guerre.
Ils ne mouraient pas tous, mais tous étaient frappés:
On n’en voyait point d’occupés
A chercher le soutien d’une mourante vie;
Nul mets n’excitait leur envie,
Ni loups ni renards n’épiaient
La douce et l’innocente proie;
Les tourterelles se fuyaient:
Plus d’amour, partant plus de joie.
Le lion tint conseil, et dit: «Mes chers amis,
Je crois que le Ciel a permis
Pour nos péchés cette infortune;
Que le plus coupable de nous
Se sacrifie aux traits du céleste courroux;
Peut-être il obtiendra la guérison commune.
L’histoire nous apprend qu’en de tels accidents
On fait de pareils dévouements
Ne nous flattons donc point, voyons sans indulgence
L’état de notre conscience
Pour moi, satisfaisant mes appétits gloutons,
J’ai dévoré force moutons.
Que m’avaient-ils fait? Nulle offense;
Même il m’est arrivé quelquefois de manger
Le berger.
Je me dévouerai donc, s’il le faut: mais je pense
Qu’il est bon que chacun s’accuse ainsi que moi:
Car on doit souhaiter, selon toute justice,
Que le plus coupable périsse.
– Sire, dit le renard, vous êtes trop bon roi;
Vos scrupules font voir trop de délicatesse.
Eh bien! manger moutons, canaille, sotte espèce.
Est-ce un péché? Non, non. Vous leur fîtes, Seigneur,
En les croquant, beaucoup d’honneur;
Et quant au berger, l’on peut dire
Qu’il était digne de tous maux,
Etant de ces gens-là qui sur les animaux
Se font un chimérique empire.»
Ainsi dit le renard; et flatteurs d’applaudir.
On n’osa trop approfondir
Du tigre, ni de l’ours, ni des autres puissances
Les moins pardonnables offenses:
Tous les gens querelleurs, jusqu’aux simples mâtins,
Au dire de chacun, étaient de petits saints.
L’âne vint à son tour, et dit: «J’ai souvenance
Qu’en un pré de moines passant,
La faim, l’occasion, l’herbe tendre, et, je pense,
Quelque diable aussi me poussant,
Je tondis de ce pré la largeur de ma langue.
Je n’en avais nul droit, puisqu’il faut parler
A ces mots on cria haro sur le baudet.
Un loup, quelque peu clerc, prouva par sa harangue
Qu’il fallait dévouer ce maudit animal,
Ce pelé, ce galeux, d’où venait tout le mal.
Sa peccadille fut jugée un cas pendable.
Manger l’herbe d’autrui! quel crime abominable!
Rien que la mort n’était capable
D’expier son forfait: on le lui fit bien voir.
Selon que vous serez puissant ou misérable,
Les jugements de cour vous rendront blanc ou noir.

The ‘haro’ of Baudelaire (much more forgettable) is here in full otherwise the pertinent bit is more of a complaint about market failure in the sale rooms:

Non, je ne suis pas injuste à ce point; mais il est bon de hausser la voix et de crier haro sur la bêtise contemporaine, quand, à la même époque où un ravissant tableau de Delacroix trouvait difficilement acheteur à mille francs, les figures imperceptibles de Meissonier se faisaient payer dix fois et vingt fois plus. Mais ces beaux temps sont passés; nous sommes tombés plus bas, et M. Meissonier, qui, malgré tous ses mérites, eut le malheur d’introduire et de populariser le goût du petit, est un véritable géant auprès des faiseurs de babioles actuels.

Pick of the crop

Posted in Books, France by Deputy city editor on October 2, 2007


Graham Robb has written the season’s best book about France. It shreds the French mythology comprehensively, demonstrating that what we think of as the eternal France is nothing of the kind. More or less everything about France has been invented and much of it rather recently. France has been going through an identity crisis that began even before the turn of the century since exacerbated by the new mood post 9-11 and the disturbances in the banlieue of major French cities. The French had believed that their Republican model would integrate everyone and sneered at the multiculuralism practised in Britain, for example. But it has turned out that appeals to laïcité in France and celebrations of difference in Britain have both turned out to be not exactly comprehensively fit for purpose. One reason is that in neither Britain or France is it entirely clear what it means to be British, or French. Or English. Or Catalan. Robb reminds us that identity has much more local origins than this – certainly in France. This is not always a flattering portrait of the people who came to be the French. The women did much of the work. The agrarian tradition celebrated today is as mythical as the rest. Agronomists dispatched from Paris in the 19th century despaired at the peasantry’s refusal to cultivate the land, holding to their pastures and the animals who kept them warm. Only the invention of the internal combustion engine and the tractor persuaded French men to till the land – when they had machines to drive around in. Modern France may be an invented trope but it is real enough. Is Republicanism with its various contradictions ultimately a strong enough idea to unite all the fractious clans within? So far, it has not proved fully capable of the job. France is a nation united, perhaps, only by its hatred of tax collectors and officials. Meanwhile, if you want to wallow in a really profound France, read this book.

The Discovery of France. Graham Robb.