Wednesday, April 28, 2004

Nude Ego and Roye

Another book found during the decorating episode (see yesterday) was Nude Ego (1955, Hutchinson) by Roye – Roye being the professional name of the photographer Horace Narbeth. I have a signed copy, no less.

Roye was a talented photographer in many areas; at one time he was commissioned by the Rank Organisation (then Britain’s premier film-making company) to produce top-quality publicity shots of all their starlets. But he is chiefly famous, I suppose, for his nudes.

Beginning with Perfect Womanhood in 1938, Roye produced a succession of studies of the female nude. The English Maid was next, followed by Welsh, Scottish, and Irish maids, all of whom proved extremely popular, especially during the war.

Roye’s autobiography is interesting for a variety of reasons, but it was the last chapter which caught my eye this week. Writing at the end of 1954, Roye made the point that the English laws at that time relating to ‘obscenity’ were in a hopeless muddle. ‘Today,’ wrote Roye, ‘more and more publishers and authors are getting into a tangle with the authorities.... They are being heavily fined, and are having their work banned and branded as obscene, or let off, according to the personal outlook of the presiding judge and the luck of the draw in juries.’ He goes on to give examples, including the famous occasion in 1954 when Swindon police seized copies of Boccaccio’s 600-year-old classic The Decameron. The magistrates who declared this work obscene were a retired engineer, a hospital secretary, a grocer, and a railway worker.

Roye was quite right, of course. Chapter five of Victor Bonham Carter’s Authors by Profession (1984, the Bodley Head) describes how, in 1954, five very respectable publishers were prosecuted for obscenity. Needless to say – or perhaps we do need to say – the content of those five books would not raise an eyebrow today. Those of us who live in the wonderful world of the twenty-first century are inclined to forget, even if we were alive then, just how prudish and tight-arsed the English were in the 1950s. The Welsh and the Scots were far worse.

Theoretically, there was no censorship of books; books did not have to be submitted to some central authority for approval. But there was censorship in the theatre, in the form of the Lord Chamberlain’s office. No play could be produced in London without the Lord Chamberlain’s thumbprint upon it, and the newspapers of the day frequently carried accounts from playwrights of the footling changes demanded by that official. No one could exclaim ‘Jesus Christ!’ for example. And as for fuck, bugger and shit – well, my dears, the whole universe would have collapsed around our ears had such words ever been heard upon the English stage.

The Lord Chamberlain survived until the Theatres Act of 1968 sent him packing. The book world was sorted out, after a fashion, by the Obscene Publications Act of 1959. Thereafter a number of attempts were made by well-meaning bumblers (Mary Whitehouse to the fore) to control the reading matter of the great British public, but they were largely unsuccessful and served only to provide acres of free publicity for books which really didn’t deserve it.

So Roye was right. The law then was an ass. He himself was prosecuted in 1958 – twice, in fact – for daring to sell photographs of a nude model in which the young woman’s pubic hair was visible. Oh my God! Steps back three paces and clutches heart. I can scarcely bring myself to write these words. Up to that point, you see, it had been a settled principle of English law that any young man, on catching a glimpse of female pubic hair, would immediately suffer a moral and physical collapse, leading to a loss of brain fluid through the end of his penis. The Empire would disintegrate and Hitler would rise from his grave. At Roye’s first trial the jury could not make its made up: 10 of the 12 were for acquittal. The authorities promptly set up a second trial, and lost. Roye chose to relate the whole story in a small booklet, Unique Verdict. This booklet included reproductions of the offending photographs, unretouched pubic hair and all. As you would expect from a man of Roye’s taste and refinement, the pictures are really rather beautiful.

Soon after the unsuccessful prosecution of his work, Roye left England and went to live abroad. He survived to a great age, well into his nineties, and remained a powerful personality to the end. There was an exhibition of his work at the George Street Gallery in Brighton in about five years ago, which he happily attended, but the old fellow came to a sad end. In 2002 he was stabbed to death at his home in Morocco by an intruder.