Vulpes Libris

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.

Serendipity in Store Street

10456958794_5918e6b9c9_bIt’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.

ScanPeter 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.

8 comments on “Serendipity in Store Street

  1. Kate
    May 9, 2014

    Fabulous! Exactly the kind of review I like, and what a book find! I agree with you about Treadwells, Tread Warily. There’s another bookshop like that off Drury Lane, it looks so alluring and interesting until you see the diagrams for palm-reading on the wall.

  2. Michael Carley
    May 9, 2014

    Fryer was indeed an excellent writer, and his work from Hungary took a lot of nerve. More of it is here:

    I’m surprised Fryer had `too much filler’, given that he also wrote this Lucid, Vigorous and Brief, on how to write well.

    It is excellent advice, and well worth handing to anyone about to start writing for a purpose (engineering students, I’m looking at you).

  3. Melrose
    May 9, 2014

    What’s all the wariness about palmists and Tarot readers, everyone. The posters and bookmarks would definitely draw me in. Perhaps I am not getting the sense of the sentence about daily tarot readings, and picking things up wrongly. Do you know you can get Tarot for business people now called The Bright Ideas Pack? The cards are basically used for problem solving/brain storming/looking at things in a different fashion. It has become a huge field, tarot packs springing up all over the place. They’e come into the mainstream, and lots of people are Tarot Card collectors now, some of the packs are so pretty/jhumorous/gothic/etc.

    That apart, what a great review. It is always lovely to read an article that has been written by an insider, so to speak. It always adds something, and makes the reader feel that they are involved in a cosy discussion, have been allowed special access to that world. The description of the area too was excellent, I could almost imagine wandering down the street, tripping over bikes and buckets of flowers. I really enjoyed it, Hilary, and got quite engrossed in the personality of Peter Fryer and his cataloguing!

    Interesting, too, that another side of the writer was presented in Michael Carley’s post. Mr Fryer certainly seems a multi-faceted author.

  4. Jackie
    May 9, 2014

    Really, really enjoyed this review and the vivid setting. One of your best, Hilary, because of all the info on libraries and bookstores and the verbal tour around that area of London. I was also surprised that the UK had such strict rules about obscenity in those days, here I was thinking that was American prudishness!

  5. rosyb
    May 10, 2014

    It’s a shame the book didn’t quite live up to its very interesting context that you bring out so brilliantly for us all here, Hilary. It should have been a really interesting book – so it’s a shame so much lapses into dull listings. I’m still intrigued about what was on the super suppressed list and who decided what was on what list – does it tell you that? If things were libellous and suppressed – had they been published in the first place? Were they the subjects of court cases? And how many were on these lists? I kept thinking at the beginning at your who can love tottenham court road bit – “but look at the beautiful picture” – before getting to the bottom and realising it was a different street altogether!

  6. Kate
    May 10, 2014

    I can tell you one of the great restricted loans scandals of the 19thC: the mid-century tight-lacing debate! Books and other materials (bit vague on recall here) that debated Victorian concerns over whether women were wearing their corsets too tight, and how erotic this was, were/are definitely loaned out only on the Librarian’s discretion. Or were; it’s a Victorianists’ thing, or was.

  7. Hilary
    May 10, 2014

    Thanks so much for these lovely comments – I had no idea that reviewing a street would prove so popular! Rosy, you can see the merest glimpse of the TCR in the background of the photo, but I can assure you, turn the corner at the Carphone Warehouse, and you enter a different, quieter world (except when walking past the College Arms when the law students have just finished their day). Melrose, I think my dissenting upbringing was showing a bit re Tarot readings – I can never rid myself of the memory of pursed lips over reading of tealeaves and turning of tables.

    Michael (thank you for the links) and Rosy – I think I was a little unfair, and judging the content by my own taste, when I used the word ‘filler’ for the heart of the book. On reflection, the subtitle of the book ‘Secrets of the British Museum Revealed’ could well refer to two layers of secrecy – the duplicitous ways of the BM in hiding what they held from enquirers, and the books they were hiding. I enjoyed the detective work of the chapters I, II, III, IX and X more than the repertoire of works in chapters IV-VIII, but that is my personal preference, and I confessed why. There are some gems in those chapters – here’s one in Ch IV Sexology, Dictionaries and Books about Books that encapsulates Fryer’s style, his erudition and his hobby-horse all in one:

    Finally, some of the encyclopaedias, histories of erotica, and bibliographies that repose in the private case. All serious research in the field of sexual studies begins, or ought to begin, with the magnificent four-volume Bilder-Lexikon (Vienna and Leipzig, 1928-31), edited by Leo Schidrowitz. The set in Cambridge university library was brought through the customs in a parcel marked ‘Bible Lexicon’.

    Isn’t that terrific? There are little grenades like that hidden all through the (for my taste) rather yawn-making lists.

    As for the Suppressed books, Fryer’s chapter describes the mixed results of his hounding of the BM – on the one hand, the withdrawal of any assistance in his enquiries, on the other, the evidence of some scrupulous revision, whereby some items were transferred to the private case (i.e. one tiny step closer to normal access) once the case of their suppression was reviewed. (Fryer has his heroes and villains at the BM – his heroes Sir Antony Panizzi, the first principal librarian, and Sir Frank Francis, the principal librarian in his time, he regards as being broadly on his side; R A Wilson, the principal keeper, was his bête noire.) The main classes of suppressed books were those that laid the museum open to legal sanction by making them available – there was a tension between collecting them and holding them for completeness and for posterity, and complying with the law, and in some cases the conditions placed on it by interested parties of confidentiality. Books withdrawn after successful libel suits could not be made available until after the death of the subjects put them beyond libel. Some books were banned by the courts for obscenity, or subject to more insidious suppression by the police on the orders of the government. Anomalies arose from over-cautious decisions made in the past, changes in the law, and the death of libelled persons – but the constant revision needed to liberate books from the Suppressed collection was never a high priority. In one of his houndings of Mr Wilson, he records the following exchange:

    I also gave the principal keeper the titles of a number of books I thought might be on the handlist, Could he confirm that they were? To which he replied: ‘Since all the suppressed items are withheld from circulation, I cannot give details about particular items.’

    The unknown unknown, then. Kate, unfortunately this book lacks an index (pause to let irony sink in), but I don’t recall tight-lacing being mentioned, so it must have been no longer deemed worthy of suppression by then – or else it was not in Fryer’s purview.

    By his persistence when researching for his book on the history of birth control, Fryer managed to liberate from the Suppressed list a libellous biography of the long-dead radical secularist MP and champion of birth control Charles Bradlaugh. As an aside, he is well-remembered in my home town, Northampton where he was the Radical MP from 1880. He was a pioneer there too, refusing to take the oath unless he was allowed to affirm. After a struggle with the parliamentary authorities, he eventually after several years forced a change in the law to enable non-conformists and those of no religious faith to affirm. Bradlaugh died in 1891 and is buried at the London Necropolis, Brookwood, in unconsecrated ground as he desired. Dr Tony Shaw’s – blog – illustrates his statue (as another – naughty – aside, regularly defiled by painted footsteps leading from his plinth to the nearby gents’ convenience) in Abington Square, Northampton, in the ‘naughty corner’ of the town, close to the Unitarian church. I feel a blog post about him coming on, perhaps!

    Sorry – another supplementary post from me!

  8. Pingback: Paris Tales, translated by Helen Constantine. | Vulpes Libris

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