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LAWAC7: Andy Capp's banned book

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Murder Ballads
Secret London

One of the things I love about PlanetSlade is the bizarre letters it produces. Take this one from Nick Hiley of Kent University's British Cartoon Archive, which arrived on September 25, 2012:

"I have been e-mailed by the bibliographer Patrick Kearney, who published the classic study of the Private Case books in the British Library (those withdrawn for various reasons, including sexual content, libel etc).
"He is obviously still working on the Private Case material, because he says: 'I am researching a collection of books in the British Library that have, for various reasons, been withdrawn. One is Laugh Again With Andy Capp No 7 (1972). I have no idea why it was felt necessary to suppress this title'."

Nick couldn't answer that one either, but he knew my interest in Andy Capp from the interview I'd done with him earlier this year, and wondered if I could help. The BCA didn't have a copy of this particular Andy Capp volume, but Nick's enquiries had already established there were plenty in circulation. "Any idea why the British Library should have withdrawn it?" he asked me. "There's no reference that I can find to this in the Daily Mirror for 1972/73. Bizarre..."
Indeed. Laugh Again With Andy Capp was a Daily Mirror series reprinting only extracts from the main collections, so I'd never bothered to buy any of them. I found a cheap copy of number 7 on Amazon, however, and bought it straight away. I'm going to call it LAWAC7 from here on for the sake of brevity.
My first thought on reading Nick's letter was that Andy Capp was still quite a violent strip in 1972, with Flo still sporting a black eye fairly regularly, plus all the usual drinking and smoking. Given that cartoons are always assumed to be aimed at children, I wondered if some over-zealous librarian had removed the book in case it corrupted young minds. If that was the case, though, why remove just the 1972 volume but leave many earlier, far more brutal, Andy Capp collections untouched?
Nick thought it was more likely that the book had somehow found itself caught up in a libel action, and been withdrawn for that reason. "It does seem strange that the British Library withdrew the book, but I think it could only have been in response to external events," he said.
"Making a book available in a library is defined as publication, so the British Library would have to withdraw any book which had been declared libellous, or risk being prosecuted itself for publishing a libel. But I can't find any hint of legal action against LAWAC7. Even writing that sentence seems farcical!"
There was nothing I could do to investigate that angle until my Amazon copy arrived, so I set about Googling Patrick Kearney to see what I could discover about him instead. This revealed that he was the author of Private Case: An Annotated Bibliography of the Erotica Collection in the British Library, published by J. Landesman in 1981, and also had his own website ( investigating similar material.
He'd found LAWAC7 not among the Private Case's erotica, but in a separate category the British Library calls its "Suppressed Safe" list (SS). BL curator Alison Bailey defined this category for me as follows:

"The Suppressed Safe collection contains works which have been received by the Library but which have subsequently been withdrawn by the publisher or contain personal information which falls within the scope of data protection legislation.
"Some material has been subject to legal action which it is understood would make the Library liable should it disseminate the work. Also included are some works that were supplied on the understanding that an embargo would be put in place for a period of time in order to safeguard the publisher's ability to sell the item in its initial period of publication."

Many books by famous authors have been consigned to the SS list in one edition or another, including WH Auden's Selected By The Author (reason unknown), John Betjeman's Continual Dew (author's surname mis-spelt), Anthony Burgess' The Worm & The Ring (libel), George du Maurier's Trilby (libel), Robert Graves' Good-bye to All That (withdrawn by publisher) and Thomas Hardy's ode Compassion (reason unknown).
In most cases, these problems come to light in preliminary editions of the book sent in advance to reviewers and the British Library's copyright registration people. The problem can then be corrected in subsequent editions, which go into the library's general catalogue as normal, leaving the original flawed volumes to sizzle away on the SS list.
I dropped Patrick a line saying I'd heard from Nick but that I was just as baffled by the LAWAC7 listing as everyone else. Had he discovered anything else that might provide a clue?
"Since the SS is off-limits to the public, it is not formally catalogued and the only listing is a scrappy Excel spreadsheet designed for internal and administrative use," he replied. "I received a copy under the 2000 Freedom of Information Act, but discovering why individual items (and there are in excess of 600 of them) are included on it is more problematical. The British Library does not encourage enquiries on matters relating to the SS, which makes my work a trifle difficult."
Patrick had been using the fruits of his FoI request, together with other sources, to try and piece together a copy of the full SS list. The extract he obtained for LAWAC7 reads like this:

"Smythe, Reginald 'Reg' (1917-1998). Laugh Again With Andy Capp No. 7 (2 items). London: Daily Mirror Books, 1972. SS.Cup [?]"

"Oddly, the SS pressmark doesn't include a number, hence the question mark in square brackets," he told me. "And what '2 items' might mean I have no idea. Two copies? Two cartoons?
"What happens in some cases with SS books is that advance copies sent out for review and copyright registration are found to be defective in some way. These are silently corrected for the public issue, and the copyright libraries asked to get rid of the imperfect copies and replace them with good ones. The British Library won't get rid of books, so instead squirrels them away in the SS.
"This is why one often finds what appears to be the same book in both the SS and the General Catalogue - but not in this case. It's all a bit of a mystery."
So, that leaves us with three main contenders for why LAWAC7 might have finished up in the SS vaults, plus a couple of also-rans. Let's deal with them one by one.

1) Libel.
This is one very common reason for books being consigned to the SS lists. As Nick says above, keeping such books on the public shelves could otherwise make the British Library guilty of publishing a libel, and hence dragged into any legal action it produces.
Examples of books being consigned to the SS for this reason include an early edition of Norman Tebbit's 1988 memoirs Upwardly Mobile. "The publishers and I were sued for libel," Tebbit later explained. "In the circumstances, we judged it best to settle out of court and withdraw the pre-publication copies rather than go through the risks and disruptions of defending our case."

2) Serious Printer's Error.
By this, I mean a production cock-up severe enough to render early copies of the book unsaleable and demand they be pulped. Patrick's best example of a book withdrawn for this reason is Gregg Bear's 1995 novel Legacy.
"The first English edition was found to be missing the final page of text in the advance copies sent out for review and copyright registration," he told me. "Curiously, the author told me, the book got warm reviews despite its abrupt, surrealistic ending."
In the case of both Tebbit and Bear's books, the problem was corrected in the copies that actually went on sale, and the amended book placed on the library's public shelves as normal. The original, flawed volumes remained on the SS, however.

3) Privacy Concerns
Or "data protection" as we'd call it these days. Occultists at The Pan-European Fraternity of Knowledge carried a membership directory in one edition of their Baelder magazine, and that's probably what landed it in the SS vaults. Members may not have wished to advertise the fact that they'd joined, I suppose.

4) Miscellaneous
Books can also finish up on the SS list for a host of other reasons. These include:

* Indecency. The Indiscreet Confessions of A Nice Girl, written by an anonymous author in 1935, was withdrawn after being found indecent in a British court.

* Plagiarism. Cecil Henderson's 1933 novel Death In The Dark was withdrawn after judges decided it had "shamelessly plagarised" Dashiell Hammett's novel The Maltese Falcon, published just three years earlier.

* Public Safety. Colonel John Cundhill's 1889 book A Dictionary of Explosives was withdrawn at Home Office request after an anarchist was arrested with a ticket showing he'd recently consulted the British Library's copy.

* Defence of the Realm Act. AT Fitzroy's 1918 novel Despised and Rejected was withdrawn after a court found it contained statements "likely to prejudice the recruiting, training and discipline of persons in his Majesty's forces". The novel features a group of gay, bohemian pacifists.

Of all those possible explanations, the only ones that seem remotely plausible as far as LAWAC7's concerned are libel or printer's error. When my copy of the book arrived I scoured it for any sign of controversy, but found nothing.
There's one strip there which makes oblique reference to the BBC showing a lot of repeats, but even that doesn't mention the corporation by name. The only strip in the book that does name any real-world people or firms has Andy telling Chalkie last night's beer must have been off because he had a terrible nightmare.

Andy: "I was marooned on a desert island wi' Liz Taylor and Sophia Loren."
Chalkie: "What was so terrible about that?"
Andy: "I was Doris Day."

It's hard to see either of those gags sparking a libel action, and harder still to imagine one from Taylor, Loren or Day failing to make the papers. It's possible that the British Library's early edition contains a problematic cartoon that the publishers had already removed before my copy reached the presses, of course, but Patrick didn't fancy my chances of checking that any further.
"If it was libelous, then it's unlikely you will be allowed access to the book itself," he warned. "Technically, the BL would be guilty of a libel [just by showing it to you]. It's for this reason they are so touchy on the subject of the SS in general. They may, however, tell you it's libelous and, given some nudging, might let you know, generically, who was libeled - eg "a publican" or "a barmaid".
The particular copy I'd received had no sign of any printer's error that I could see either, but once again that may be because I was looking for something that had already been fixed.
I got Sean Garnett from the current Andy Capp team to ask around his colleagues at the Mirror for me, but no-one there knew anything about an Andy Capp volume running into trouble with the British Library. Ken Layson, the Mirror's former cartoon editor, who worked closely with Reg Smythe on the strip for three decades, told me he'd never heard of the affair either. His first thought, like mine, was that someone at the British Library may have taken offence at Andy's violence in the strip.
All that was left was to check in with Alison again. "I have traced a record for Laugh Again With Andy Capp No. 7 (1972) on the finding list of the material in the Suppressed Safe collection," she confirmed. "It is described as 'damaged' on this finding list, and appears to have been withdrawn from use in 1984. Although there was an intention to acquire a replacement copy, I have been unable to trace such a replacement, and will follow this up."
Was it possible, I asked Alison, that the book had ended up on the SS list because it was too damaged to remain on the public shelves, and the only alternative would have been to chuck it in the bin? Being "just" a cartoon book, perhaps the plans to replace it were forgotten or derailed in some way, and the SS list is where it's remained ever since?
"It would certainly appear that the book was placed in the Suppressed Safe collection simply because of the physical damage and that the intention was to acquire a replacement copy to be made available for reader use," she replied.
Patrick had been mulling the issue of damaged books ending up on the SS for some time, and confessed he'd never been able to fathom it. "The BL has excellent restoration facilities, and if the damage was too bad to be repaired why not simply toss them and replace them with new copies?" he asked. "A quick check on ABE, eBay etc. reveals that most of the damaged books could be quite easily and cheaply replaced.
"The odd thing about Andy Capp is that the entry in the SS catalogue has '2 items' included it. Does this mean two copies? Or that the book is in two parts - i.e. has been torn or broken in half?"
Nick was sceptical about my theory too. "Maybe the damage in question isn't simply a broken back, but written comments or additions which make it impossible to issue the book for reasons usually associated with the SS - particularly obscenity," he said. "That might re-route a damaged book to the SS. I can't otherwise see why a damaged book shouldn't simply join a long queue for repair."
Sadly, it seems we'll never know for sure. I contacted Alison again, gave my British Library reader's card number, and asked if I could come in and see their copy of LAWAC7 for myself. Twenty-four hours later, she got back to me with a blanket refusal. "Material in the Suppressed Safe Collection is not available for consultation," she said.
And that - crashing anti-climax though it is - seems to be where our story ends. Laugh Again With Andy Capp Vol. 7 is indeed on the British Library's Suppressed Safe list, possibly in two pieces, where it rubs shoulders with the various pornographic, mangled or legally perilous titles mentioned above.
Probably, the reason for Andy Capp's inclusion on this list is a perfectly innocent one, combining simple wear and tear with a touch of human error. But because the British Library won't let anyone come in and see the book for themselves, we can't rule out the more sinister alternatives of libel or indecency. This is how conspiracy theories get started, you know.


Message board round-up

The source threads for our latest collection of PlanetSlade blurbs ("Happy hordes here hail.") can be found below. Sometimes there's quite an interesting discussion attached.





No Depression

Reaper Forums

Retro Man

Sound of the World

Incoming items indicate I impart immense interest

On Andy Capp
"Check it out." - Scott McCloud, author of Understanding Comics, via Twitter.

"This is great stuff, and fascinating for those of us who grew up with Andy Capp." - Former Andy Capp writer Roger Kettle, Camel Dung.

"Is there any kind of honorary degree in comics studies? If so, this deserves it." - Thelonius, Metafilter.

"An extensive, well-researched piece [.] Some fascinating details." - Sean Kleefeld, Kleefeld on Comics.

"Well researched, enlightening and interesting. I particularly like the analysis of the structure of the gags." - Bainbo, Mudcat.

"Any serious Andy Capp fan should read it." - Fanolio, Go Comics.

"What a great piece! I found it fascinating." - Private Eye cartoonist Andrew Birch, The Cartoonists' Forum.

"A huge, brilliant essay." - Lee Grice, via Twitter.

"I really loved your article, Paul." - Rob Lamb, The Comics Journal.

"I'd love to read a full biography on Smythe [and] your project is as close as one can get." - Xingcat, Metafilter.

"A fantastic read." - DD Degg, Kleefeld on Comics.

"Fascinating." - Musket, Mudcat.

"Tons of stuff which is new to me." -Gweedo Murray, Go Comics.

"A truly comprehensive history of Andy Capp." - Peter Dredge, The Cartoonists' Forum.

"Editor's pick." -

"Immense, assured, sprightly essay." -

"Awesome." - Conor Lastowka, via Twitter.

"This is weirdly intense. It's only page three and I already feel invested in Flo's redemption." - Postcommunism, Metafilter.

"Most interesting!" - Eliza, Mudcat.

"Fascinating and informative [.] A must read for any true Andy Fan."- Sandfan, Go Comics.

"Loved it." - Paktoons, The Cartoonists' Forum.

"Interesting read." - Adamatsya, via Twitter.

"This is a great essay." - Rumple, Metafilter.

"Interesting." - Gnu, Mudcat.

"Great essay." - Eldo, Go Comics.

"Rather splendid." - Nigel Sutherland, The Cartoonists' Forum.

"Epic." - T, via Twitter.

"Wonderful article." - JHarris, Metafilter.

"Quite exhaustive." - Conor Lastowka, via Twitter.

"Yay! This is great!" - DarlingBri, Metafilter.

"You have got to read this article." - Reena Jaglall, Facebook.

"Long and well-researched." - Mr O'Malley, The Comics Curmudgeon.

"Fine reading." - Leigh P, Twitter.

"Interesting article." - Daniel C Parmenter, The Comics Journal.

"Explores the strip, its history and its impact in incredible detail." - Taquitos, Reddir.

"This was really interesting!" - Mmmbacon, Metafilter.

"An unexpected treat. I loved it." - Fred Sanders, Twitter.

On Planet Slade
"Keep up the great work. I've been reading your [site] all weekend." - Jody Avirgan, editor at, via e-mail.

On Pearl Bryan
"Very interesting. I really learned a lot." - Jeff Kazor, The Crooked Jades, via e-mail.