Friday, June 10, 2005

A New Library for England


What can we say about the New English Library? For me, they are one of the Holy Grails of bookshopping: tight, grubby little paperbacks, never more than a couple of quid, always fascinating. They are kind of anti-Penguins: cheap, affordable paperbacks for the masses, ranging across fiction and non-fiction, but with absolutely no redeeming social value whatsoever: pure pulp. NEL would have a Pelican up the alley any day of the week: take my fantastic NEL First Paperback Edition (May 1975) of Found Naked And Dead: The facts behind the Thames-side murders by Brian McConnell. In the early seventies, Pelican is producing slim sky-blue tomes, written by academics, like The Young Offender and John Berger’s Ways of Seeing. NEL has a London hack slithering in the Thames-side mud, interviewing whores in Notting Hill and returning a curiously nihilistic open verdict on the identity of ‘Jack the Stripper’. They may try Violent Men: Inside The Psychology of Violence, but NEL has got Richard Allen’s Skinhead Girls. Top that.

The information on NEL is sketchy. The earliest I’ve found appear at the beginning of the sixties, publishing mainly Science Fiction – a tradition that extends throughout their heyday, with notables including Isaac Asimov, Michael Moorcock, A.E. Van Vogt and Frank Herbert. A lot of Edgar Rice Burroughs – but that’s probably a skewed sample provided, as all second hand favourites are, by authors who swing periodically in and out of fashion. A sign of things to come towards the end of the decade – handbooks on Judo and Ju-jitsu, Jan Hudson’s Sex and Savagery of Hell’s Angels (all 1967), and, in 1969, a reprint of Gillian Freeman’s Leather Boys, the charming tale of two 18-year-old Rockers – not a million miles from Allen’s skinhead boys – who, during a run of burglaries, end up falling in love.

But it’s in the Seventies that they really hit their stride, opening the decade with titles such as French Art of Sex Manners, Bastard Brigade, Girl in the Centrefold and Gynaecologist (all 1970), most of which I’d be more than happy to spend a few hours with… For the rest of the decade they appear to put out up to ten books a week; shoddy, glaring things – even when the authors are J.D. Salinger, Emile Zola, Jack London or Anatole France, all of whom appear in the NEL, or it’s classier daughter imprint Signet, during the 70s. Thrillers, crime, exposes, salacious history, self-delusional self-helps – they all get the NEL treatment. (One of my favourite twists in the list: in 1967, Stephen Baker and Eric Gurney bring out How to live with a Neurotic Dog and How to live with a Paranoid Cat; three years later, it’s How to Live with a Neurotic Wife. In Hardcover too – a rare treat for NEL.)

NEL starts to fade in the second half of the eighties, producing a mere handful of title compared to its heyday. Perhaps significantly, this is the same time that Penguin starts to phase out the last vestiges of its ‘house style’ – the coloured grid design, the prominently displayed avians. The era of the mass-market cheap paperback is over: the era of the mass-market expensive paperback is just about to arrive. These days, NEL is technically an imprint of Hodder Headline, who are not known for their boat-rocking activities, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find anything new coming out (with the rather interesting-looking exception of this). Here’s to the old NEL – never knowingly unshocked.

(Oh, and if you’re upset about the lack of links in this post, you try googling ’Found Naked And Dead’ and see where it gets you.)

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