The Cardboard Giants. A Man Against Insanity. The Hidden Flower. If I close my eyes, I can still see the large dark brown or red tomes containing books edited down for inclusion into the Readers’ Digest omnibus editions. I never went back to read the full text of any of these books so I wonder what I missed. I know what I kept. The Cardboard Giants is about how our worst fears can be faced, managed and maybe overcome. A Man Against Insanity is a title vividly encapsulating the image of a struggle that goes on and on, though if memory serves, the book is about trying out early psychotrophic drugs. And The Hidden Flower is about racism, love between a wellborn Japanese girl and an American soldier in the aftermath of WWII. The Hidden Flower introduced me to two completely new ideas – firstly, tokonama, the place of peace or contemplation, a shrine carefully arranged in a Japanese Buddhist home – and then, to the notion that different peoples found different bits of the body erotic.
I think I was about 12. I had noticed bodies, listened to the occasional jokes of my parents (two remarkably sane people when it came to anything sexual), watched and noticed how other people talked and joshed about these things. I was crazy about the movies which inferred sex obviously through colour and movement but also much more indirectly through setting, lighting and angle. I knew the difference between a cleavage that was “pretty” and one that was “too much”. But as you would expect with any child, I was only beginning to be familiar with the broad outlines of the most accessible kind of the culture I was born into. And here was a grownup book offering images of the nape of the neck and palm of the hand as being “private” and therefore exciting places. Fascinating.
Over time, teachers explained what the codpiece of Henry XIII symbolised, why heads were covered in this context if bared in that, the obscene fascination of bound feet in China, how lipstick originated, and how though clothes and shoes and makeup and jewellery constantly change, they all point like any other animal signal, to the attraction of the opposite. (Then define your opposite !)
And then there was the crossover between what you personally found attractive and how that segued into being sexual – if only for a second and not directly so. Down the years , two wise men encouraged me to understand my perceptions as sensuality, a sense of touch, texture and thus pleasure, and not to get hung up in the syntax of sexuality, introducing me in the same breath to the idea of the erogenous zone.
Imagine the shock when skirts went from being ankle length to just on the knee in the 1920s. And the frisson all over again when they were hitched to the miniskirts of my youth. So legs were definitely an erogenous zone. And a lot of us went braless too. All this could be sexy, it could be attractive, it could be both and it could be a terrible mistake. Long and transparent superseded short and sneaky peeking. Backless came and went and came again. Current erogenous zones include the midriff, the bottom and the ankle. Yes, the ankle.
It hasn’t been anything like as cold here as it has been in continental Europe and most of the young I see are hurrying to class or work but nevertheless, with bare ankles. (This started in the summer, to suggest exercise, holiday in the sun or that you were well up in the technology of the fake tan and it has continued as a kind of “where I am going is centrally heated and aren’t I cute ?”) A new film about Mrs. Marmite herself (Jackie Kennedy) brought to mind an article about the uncomfortable crossover between those who are thin because they haven’t got enough to eat and those who have money to burn, totally directed through diet and exercise to the same slender goal. A journalist describes in today’s paper one of many young teenage boys, caught in the blizzards across Europe, with no food, no warmth, precious little hope. And no socks. That’s not sexy – that’s cold.