Filth and obscenity

Particularly against books the Home Secretary is

Particularly against books the Home Secretary is. If we can't stamp out literature in this country we can at least stop its being brought in from outside.

Evelyn Waugh's Vile Bodies, 1930

The personal vendetta waged by the British authorities against James Joyce started long before English customs officers began seizing and burning imported copies of Ulysses in 1922. Unpublished Whitehall papers show that the British Foreign Office had opened a secret file on Joyce in the summer of 1918, which was so unremittingly hostile to Joyce that London even considered revoking his British passport - a move which would have confined him to Dublin. The file concerned an obscure diplomatic incident during the final summer of the first World War when Joyce was touring French-speaking Switzerland with an English theatrical company's production of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest. A request from Joyce to the British legation in Berne to help with one performance triggered an exchange of diplomatic telegrams between Switzerland and London in which it was suggested that, despite being 36, he should have been serving in the British army and that the theatre group's performances were mediocre.

The British legation responded to his request by sending him a circular about military service - which he returned with a note saying he had been sent it by mistake. Some officials in London wanted to go further and revoke his passport for engaging in the "wrong kind of cultural propaganda". But wiser heads prevailed: "Mr Joyce is a novelist of some note - his novel Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was received favourably here some few months ago. His later work is bad and what he is doing in Switzerland is not very much to our artistic credit, but these are hardly reasons for revoking his passport," was the final official view from London.


Joyce's own version of the incident is rather different. He said that he had fallen out over money with a young official at the British consulate in Switzerland, Henry Carr, who had played the role of Algernon Moncrieff in Wilde's play. Joyce thought Carr owed him money and Carr believed Joyce had underpaid him for his part in the play. When Joyce went to the consulate, the young Englishman called him "a swindler and a cad" and threatened to throw him down the stairs.

If such a trivial incident could provoke official enmity towards Joyce, it was little wonder that when the Whitehall papers on Ulysses were finally made public, more than 70 years later, they revealed a deep animosity by the English establishment towards the Irish author.

The files show that the English director of public prosecutions, Sir Archibald Bodkin, banned one of the greatest literary works of the 20th century after reading only 42 of its 732 pages and admitting he could not make "head or tail" of it. It was a decision which was to drive Ulysses underground, not only in Britain but also throughout the British empire until 1936.

The British Home Office was alerted to Ulysses's publication by a review which described it as "an attempted Clerkenwell explosion in the well-guarded, well-built, classical prison of English literature. The bomb has exploded . . . All that is unmentionable, according to civilised standards, has been brought to the light of day without any veil of decency," wrote the critic, Shane Leslie.

After the first copy was seized at Croydon Airport, the Home Office quickly despatched it to the DPP for his opinion: "I have not had the time, nor may I add the inclination to read through this book. I have however read pages 690 to 732," said Sir Archibald. "I am entirely unable to appreciate how those pages are relevant to the rest of the book or indeed what the book itself is about. I can discover no story."

The passages containing Molly Bloom's soliloquy were described by Sir Archibald as "written . . . as if composed by a more or less illiterate vulgar woman". He concluded that there was "a great deal more than mere vulgarity or coarseness, there is a great deal of unmitigated filth and obscenity". Sir Archibald conceded that there might be those who would criticise this attitude towards a well-known writer: "the answer will be that it is filthy and filthy books are not allowed to be imported into this country".

The remarkable thing is that this legal opinion, once it had the backing of Stanley Baldwin's puritanical Home Secretary, William Joynson-Hicks (he described it as "this loathsome book"), was sufficient to ban Ulysses and to ensure that, for the next 14 years, all copies found by Customs would be seized and destroyed - all without troubling a court.

One victim was F.R. Leavis, whose suggestion he be allowed to import a copy of Ulysses to use in his Cambridge lectures caused consternation in Whitehall. The police were ordered to investigate by Bodkin who wanted to know if the lecture would be delivered to a mixed class: "I presume of males and females" - and whether they would be recommended to read the book.

The Home Office shared the DPP's shock: "This is an amazing proposition. A lecturer at Cambridge who proposes to make this book a textbook for a mixed class of undergraduates must be a dangerous crank. Permission must of course be refused," wrote Sidney Harris, a senior civil servant on the Home Office file. "If the last 40 pages of this book can be called literature, there is a whole lot of it running to waste every day in the airing courts of Broadmoor," added his colleague.

Leavis was not the only one to face the wrath of the British authorities for wanting to get their hands on a copy of Ulysses. A request from Joseph Lask, a miller who lived in London's East End, to the Stepney municipal library for a copy of the book brought an order from the Home Secretary that all his post should be intercepted to see if he tried to import a copy from Paris.

But when, in 1930, a finely bound illegal copy of Ulysses was found being sold as part of the library of the late Lord Birkenhead (F.E. Smith, the former Tory Lord Chancellor and Attorney-General) no action was taken. The police had a "quiet word" with Lady Birkenhead's private secretary and warned there might be "some adverse press comment" if the book was not withdrawn from the auction.

Although some copies of Ulysses were smuggled into Britain, and sold on the black market at £40, the ban was surprisingly effective. Even when it was published in Britain in 1936, its expensive cover price meant sales rarely reached beyond the intelligentsia. It was not until Penguin produced its cheap paperback edition 30 years later, in 1968, that the Joyce classic reached the status of bestseller. By 1970, the Penguin edition had sold more than 420,000 copies. It took 50 years but in the end Sir Archibald Bodkin helped to turn Ulysses into one of the biggest-selling books of the 20th century.

Alan Travis is the author of Bound and Gagged, A Secret History of Obscenity in Britain, about successive British governments' attempts to control what the public read. It is published by Profile Books this week at £16.99 in UK