When I was a research student in the London Whitechapel hospital in the late nineteen sixties, the nails of both my forefingers were mangled while I was calibrating the snap power of people’s jaws. My subjects were patients in the local mental asylum. Their bite reflexes were not conditioned, something I felt I ought to approve of, being a believer in William Godwin, the anarchist.

The crunch sent my mind spinning back to Godwin’s distinction between governments and society. The Powers that Be lock us up in institutions to save us from yourselves. Society, on the other hand, if left alone, brings out the best in people. We release ourselves to promote happiness. The thought momentarily numbed the pain. But it did not mitigate the damage. I held my two fingers up to the light. The “terrible bite of necessity” (Montaigne), I decided, came from a hunger for which the Powers that Be were to blame. I resisted the temptation to bite back.

Next day I thought I had better save my hands from further damage. Jewish sweatshops in the high street were the best place to buy metal thimbles. I visited several, fascinated by the old world smells of wools, linen and silks, the brocaded upholstery and the threaded gold serpentine motif on the yarmulkes of the tailors, men of courtesy, who wore what seemed to me more like religious habits rather than overalls, and traded in little things worth only a few bob with the same ceremony as though I was buying the king elephant in the Procession of the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy.

Although you only need one thimble to protect the fingernails, I became a collector, and still have a box of silver thimbles with pointillist bubbles on the exterior and the smoothness of the Orient inside (checking them just now, I realise I have remembered this wrongly. The outside is peppered with little bibbles. Bumps would get in the way of the needle).

A few weeks after the “terrible bit of necessity”, I was backpacking in Southern Italy, my nails festered and the fingertips began to throb. In Reggio Calabria I bought a cutthroat razor and in my hotel room, sedated with whiskey, I cut the cuticles to drain the pus until the blood flowed. I remember the immediate relief of pain, and the blood on the carpet. The antibiotics I injected upset my stomach, and I could only keep down plain pasta for a week. Not the worst place in the world for it. I still live with the consequences of my amateur surgery. The nail of my left forefinger splits when I’m run down. The nail on the right is a perfect hypocrite.