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…