London Unexpurgated

London UnexpurgatedI have a number of weaknesses. Some of them, in no particular order are: dirty books (obviously), old London guidebooks (of which I have many) and the New English Library.

The old NEL was a wonderful thing. The current incarnation is an indifferent imprint of Hodder & Staughton, but in the 50s and 60s they published all kids of weird and wonderful (and dirty) things, hitting a high point in the 70s with a whole raft of hack writing – notably Richard Allen’s Skinhead and Mick Norman’s Hells Angels series, which are well worth seeking out.

I particularly like the fact they weren’t afraid of producing their own books – ‘Mick Norman’ was a pseudonym of Laurence James, an editor at NEL who churned out tonnes of this stuff. They were also utterly mercenary, which brings us to this: London Unexpurgated, by Petronius. LibraryThing attributes ‘Petronius’ to Paul Tabori, author of a range of likely-sounding titles such as The Torture Machine and A pictorial history of love, but even the old NEL editors aren’t sure any more.

No matter. Petronius proves an excellent guide to London, 1969, in a book aimed at Yanks (he’s also credited with New York Unexpurgated), but containing plenty of gems for the amateur historian of the London underworld, as well as some rather lovely illustrations, like this one, fronting the chapter on The London Whore:

The London Whore

Petronius takes the visitor to London (or the inquisitive local) on a tour of London’s best pick-up spots, including exhibitions, ice rinks and the pub (which get their own chapter); the best places to peep (outside the youth hostel by Holland Park is a top contender); into the the heart of the Hippie subculture, characterised by Happenings, Pentangle, and pot; and around the late night coffee houses and steak joints inhabited by nightbirds. It is occasionally serious, too, discussing the enlightened British attitude to registered drug addicts (which, “like all well-meaning, general control schemes, does not really work”), and contrasting Paris, which has within recent memory “driven the girls from maisons beloved by Maupassant and Toulouse-Lautrec into the street” under the Marthe Richard laws, with London’s banning of street prostitution, forcing girls into hidden, vulnerable bedsits and leading to the proliferation of coy notices in shop windows:

Young Model
Artistic Sessions
English and Swedish lessons
Young Lady Good at Figures seeks Position

And so on. It’s also occasionally very rude indeed, advising those in search of nymphettes (“The older I get the younger I like ’em”—The Duke of Wellington) to join the fan clubs of Englebert Humperdinck, Tom Jones and, ahem, Liberace, in the hopes that they may “deflect their passion from their idol to yourself”. The disclaimer reads “We would not like to be accused of encouraging statutory
rape – we are only giving the facts.”

Petronius is also not coy about delving into the world of “The Consenting Adult”, aka homosexuals, advising males so interested to seek out The Albany Trust – but leaving lesbians to find “their clubs and associations, their regular meeting places and rites” on their own.

Like most NEL titles, there is far more titillation than filth here, and far less information than could be found in a standard guidebook of the day, but couched in a whispering, adult tone that was still welcomed in contrast to the still straight-laced mainstream it subverted. Encouraging the young to explore, and the old to help them, Petronius is a wonderful guide, whose only real injunction is to look beneath the surface, and say:


Anyone else got any dirty guidebook recommendations we should be checking out? Let us know.

Posted January 7, 2009 by James Bridle. Comments Off on London Unexpurgated

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