A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
It’s hard to love the Tottenham Court Road. By any stretch of the imagination it cannot be counted among the glories of London’s heritage. Its side streets are an improvement though – those on the west leading to slightly louche Fitzrovia and on the east towards Bloomsbury, that paradise of erudition and culture. One in particular I have known and walked for over 40 years now – Store Street, the one with the most spectacular view, which is of the totalitarian wedding cake that is Senate House at its end. For all those years I’ve hopped off the 73 bus, or emerged from Goodge St tube and walked down Store Street, on my way to Senate House for the library and seminars, or to Cilip (the Organisation Formerly Known As The Library Association). In Store Street and just round the corner in Albert Place there used to be other magnets for library folk, the old National Central Library, and the London and South Eastern Regional Library Service. So, one way and another it has been my second home.
Store Street has been smartened up recently, and its south side turned into a rather chi-chi parade of shops and cafés. Still there is Olivelli’s Paradiso, where I ate my first ever pizza some time in the 70s – it now trades on its longevity and self-awarded legendary status through a chain of restaurants across London. There’s a bike shop and a really opulent florist, and Adnam’s, the classiest ‘offie’ I know. Another survivor is Treadwell’s Bookshop. This is not going to be an in depth review of the shop, as I am actually a little wary of it. A bookshop advertising Daily Tarot Readings on its bookmark needs more time than I generally am able to give it. However, I love what it says about itself: Treadwell’s is an eclectic bookshop in Bloomsbury, London. We specialise in worldwide culture, with a special interest in the banned, burned and ridiculed. As you will see, this is most appropriate. All I do know is that it has the best, most eclectic £1 pavement book rack I know, and as I can generally spare five minutes to work through it I’m always coming away with books I never knew I was missing. They are often so off the wall that I thought I’d perhaps start posting the odd mini-review of what I find.
Last time I did particularly well – I came away with a delightful anthology of Paris Tales translated by Helen Constantine (review to follow on another day, see below!), and a copy of a book that just leapt up crying ‘Buy me!’ – one I had not thought about for decades: Peter Fryer’s 1966 exposé of the British Museum’s attitude to ‘dirty books’ Private Case – Public Scandal. Secrets of the British Museum revealed. I said I’d write mini-reviews (plural), but this has turned into a long blog post about just one of them.
Peter Fryer’s book is a real period piece now, though causing quite a stir at the time. I think what attracted me to buy it, apart from an acute attack of nostalgia at finding it in Store Street, the very heart of Libraryland, is that it had hardly moved a stone’s throw away from the institution the author was railing against. I hadn’t thought of its author from that day to this, either. He died in 2006, and it has been fascinating to look back at his career in the round. Back then, he was a frustrated journalist who, history would prove, had been right about Hungary at the time of the uprising, recanting his communist party loyalty and losing his livelihood as a correspondent for The Daily Worker after it would not print his copy. He then turned his talents to attacking what he saw as the barriers to the sexual revolution, writing controversially successful books on the history of prudery and of birth control. Then, as a result of what he saw as his struggles against conventional morality in gaining access to the sources he needed, he turned his sights on the British Museum and its policy on access (or lack of it) to erotic, obscene and subversive texts. Library staff hearts must have sunk into their boots when Peter Fryer walked into the famous round reading room. By sheer persistence, and by his encyclopaedic and bizarre expertise in the bibliography of erotica and obscene publications, he managed to construct some picture of what the British Museum kept hidden in what it called the Private Case (what a gift of a punning title).
The reason that I knew about this book is that when I was a library school student in the early 70s, (obvious point coming up) the 60s had come and gone, with the revolution in moral attitudes they brought, the issues of censorship and obscenity were very much alive, and this was a significant case study.
The book, now I read it again, short as it is, really amounts to a bloated pamphlet, with too much filler for my current taste. Fryer the persistent and meticulous researcher had caught the BM out in massive hypocrisy – its rhetoric about the extent of its collections and the scrupulous accuracy of its catalogues was given the lie by the existence of the Private Case, the catalogue of which was not made public. Even more egregious to his mind was the existence of a more deeply concealed collection, of books so suppressed that no-one was allowed to know that the collection of suppressed books existed, nor what books were in it (work that one out). The ultra-hidden books contained those that had been subject to successful libel suits, or contained information thought to be of danger to the public at large (eg explosives manuals) as well as works considered particularly and grossly obscene. The book is topped and tailed by chapters on the discovery of the extent of these collections, and they make great, rip-roaring reading. However, in the middle – what yawns! Fryer divides his finds up into various categories, lists choice titles and describes the contents with examples. Oh the tedium – oh that ghastly archness and euphemism that always seems to pervade vintage erotica – these days, the Private Case could scarcely be big enough to house all our contemporary adult modern romance and its numerous sub-genres, most of which would knock into a cocked hat what was regarded as too obscene to catalogue until about 40 years ago. I did a lot of skipping. But back then, of course, Fryer was being brave. I don’t know still if he listed and quoted so extensively with a view to say to the reader ‘See – hardly worth the fuss, don’t you think?’ or, ‘See – I’ve listed all these bad books, and quoted those dirty scenes in full, and the sky hasn’t fallen. Lord Chamberlain – catch me if you dare!’
The fact is that by then Fryer was pushing on an open door – these policies were on the way out, and he even has to add to his Introduction: While this book was in the press, it was announced that Mr R A Wilson, whose statements are frequently quoted in these pages, is retiring [H wonders – why?] this September from the post of principal keeper of printed books. His successor is said to have it in mind to liberalise BM policy towards erotica. Half the books at present in the private case are, I am informed, to be removed from this category. Changes of this kind, for which a few of us have been agitating for several years, will be most welcome and will prove how right we have been to agitate.
Now the memory of the British Museum and its round reading room is fading from the public consciousness. The collection has moved to the British Library in Euston Road, and the concept of the Private Case or the SS (Super-Suppressed?) collection is no more. It is still not easy to access these books, but restrictions and supervision are now most likely in cases where the books are rare and irreplaceable, rather than for any moral consideration.
This was not all there was to this author, although it was all I knew at the time. After leaving the Daily Worker Peter Fryer continued with left-wing journalism, editing and contributing to Trotskyist publications, until he parted ways with Gerry Healy. He then supported himself as a writer of gadfly attacks on what he saw as the undeserving guardians of public morals, before becoming a noted chronicler of black history (Staying Power, (1984)) and music (Rhythms of Resistance, (2000)). A varied career indeed.
Peter Fryer: Private Case – Public Scandal. London, Secker & Warburg, 1966. 160pp
It is out print, unsurprisingly, but there are second hand copies to be had.
The photograph of the elegant end of Store Street is taken from the Flickr photostream of Mark Walley, and is reproduced here under a Creative Commons Licence. Clicking on the image will load the source page.