Pornography might have gone mainstream, but the British Library still keeps an eye out for signs of moral turpitude in borrowersby Sam Leith / September 22, 2010 / Leave a comment
Porn has come a long way in 50 years or so
I was planning to write about modernism this month, but I was distracted by pornography. I won’t be the first writer to whom this has happened, you may say, but I don’t mean it like that.
The other day I was reading a scholarly history book in the British Library when I stumbled on a mention of Marty Ladwick’s Soho Street Girl, a mucky book from the mid-1950s. Among the many joys of the BL is the fact they’ve got everything, so out of curiosity I called it up. I say “out of curiosity,” but “prurience” is more the word. Knowing how pornographic pornography is now—indeed, how pornographic non-pornography is now—I wondered what it was like 50-odd years ago.
To read it, I had to move from the vulgar bustle of Humanities One to the relative tranquillity of Rare Books & Music. When I presented myself at the issue desk the librarian couldn’t find it. I insisted it had been issued and he checked his screen.
“Oh,” he said. “Oh, I see. It’s from the special collection.” He gave me a look. Then he went to a separate wooden safe, from which he retrieved the cheaply printed volume.
The book came with a brightly coloured cardboard insert warning the conditions under which it could be read. I was required to surrender my reader’s pass at the issue desk as surety. At no point was the book to be left unattended. At no point was this warning slip to be removed from the book. And you were only allowed to read it at a number of specific desks—all in close range of the librarian, who would keep an eye on you to make sure you weren’t enjoying the book too much. Having ordered this up out of (relatively) innocent curiosity, I found myself skulking to my place. Tweed-skirted undergraduates seemed to look up from their Mendelssohn biographies as if they knew exactly what I was up to. My cheeks were scarlet.
Soho Street Girl tells the story of a young woman called Eve who, with her no-good husband in prison, is making shift in the world. She is dissatisfied with her job; she “found the hours long and the pay too small. Eve wanted the best things in life the easiest and quickest way. She had taken a room off Soho Square and had decided to become a prostitute.” Here’s female independence, nascent consumerism and cosmopolitan Soho in kit form.
In her adventures, Eve comes across a naturalised Italian espresso bar owner called Luigi, a French brothel-keeper called Madam Terry, a nasty Cypriot pimp called Mario, and a kind doorman called Hal (“It was rumoured that he was a queer”). You know the old story about the man who sued the owner of a dirty bookshop because his pornography wasn’t pornographic enough? Had I not been feeling a bit shy, I’d have taken the chap behind the issue desk to task on the subject. As far as graphic sexual detail goes, there’s none. Breasts swell and breath comes raggedly, but the main descriptor for sexual activity is—as in the bromidic romance novels of yore—the ellipsis.
Aspects make uncomfortable reading. A few episodes are a bit rapey, and there’s a current of sadism. After Mario has Taught Her A Lesson: “Running from her shoulders to her thighs was a criss-crossed pattern of whip-marks that had been brutally inflicted on her soft flesh. Some of the weals had lacerated the skin and blood trickled onto the coverlet.” But there’s not much either attitudinally or in terms of description that would be out of place in an Ian Fleming novel. One would like to think it was the sadism that consigned it to the BL’s black museum, but that seems unlikely. Soho Street Girl was published in 1954; a year after Casino Royale, and not that long before Fleming was announcing that “all women love semi-rape.” In Soho Street Girl, only the baddies are rapists.
What was shocking—and why I’m sharing with the group—was not the book itself, but the newspaper cuttings that fell out of it: court reports from the book’s obscenity trial. The recorder, Gerald Dodson, rightly described it as “literary garbage,” and pronounced that “it is not merely the teenagers whom the law seeks to protect from contamination.” Its author Marty Ladwick (the pseudonym of Derek Amos Kirby) escaped jail. But its publishers, Bernard and Alfred Kaye, did not.
Bloody hell. It is extraordinary and sad to think that when my parents were young, men were sent to jail—actually to jail—for publishing this sort of thing. Yet little more than a generation on, Richard Desmond, the one-time publisher of Spunk Loving Sluts, is a major political donor and the owner of four British national newspapers and a terrestrial television channel.
I’m not sure either of these situations is necessarily the ideal one. Still, it’s quaint—if faintly absurd—that the mechanisms of the British Library remain geared to the earlier age.