A book I’m investigating at the moment is ‘D’ Company and Black ‘Ell: Two Plays by Miles Malleson, published in 1916 by the radical publisher Henderson. The police raided Henderson’s shop in the Charing Cross Road, and all copies in stock were confiscated under the Defence of the Realm Act.
Black ‘Ell is a strong little one-act play about a returning soldier. It begins with his family anxious for his return; then they receive news that he has been awarded a medal for killing six Germans and are overjoyed. But when he does arrive, he is a nervous wreck full of self-disgust, horrified by the thought that he has taken human life. A difficult theme for 1916 – though it is hard to see why the plays were seized, while Malleson’s pamphlets, making the same argument about the sanctity of human life, were not.
Malleson, of course, became an actor, and a very well-known presence in films of the forties and fifties. He is Canon Chasuble in Asquith’s The Importance of Being Earnest, the hangman in Kind Hearts and Coronets, and – my favourite – the furtive vicar buying porn in Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom. It’s hard to connect that tubby embarrassed presence with impassioned anti-war propaganda, but then, life is full of surprises.
I had seen references to Henderson’s shop as “The Bomb Shop”, but thought that this was just a nickname applied by the sceptical, making fun of its radicalism. I was rather surprised therefore to see the term actually used on the back of the book.
“The Bomb Shop” seems to have had its origins in the Morris-school socialism of the late nineteenth century, and mixed radical politics with radical art. Most of the firm’s publications were more on the arty side than the political, I think, and include some surprises. Henderson’s was, for example, the publisher of Coterie magazine in 1919 – the first number of which includes T.S.Eliot’s A Cooking Egg.
I can’t help wondering what the reaction would be today if a radical Muslim bookshop advertised itself as “The Bomb Shop”.
There is a good description of the shop in the memoirs of Reg Groves , a Trotskyite activist:
…one bright cold spring morning in 1931, I called at the Bomb Shop in Charing Cross Road, to buy some pamphlets and say hullo to old Henderson, who ran it.
Henderson was short, rotund, brusque in manner, with bristling white hair, pointed beard and scarlet tie; his was the only socialist bookshop in the West End. An open-style shop – unusual then – it had been designed and decorated in red and gold and emblazoned with the names of past rebels, by socialist painter Walter Crane. Its defiant name, red doors and window frames, and display of socialist and anarchist publications, incited upper-class louts and their toadies to heave an occasional brick through the full-length plate glass door and windows, to daub blue and white paint on to the red, and sometimes to break in at night and wreck the interior.
By the thirties Henderson’s shop was in financial trouble, and he was forced to sell it. The buyer was the Communist Nina Reckitt (whose money came from Reckitt and Colman the mustard firm, and she reopened it as Collets.
I remember Collets in the early sixties, when I used to book-browse along Charing Cross Road. It stocked an amazing range of left-wing papers, most of which you’d never see elsewhere, and there were high bookcases chock-full with political and historical literature, including much that was printed in Moscow. They didn’t mind at all if you spent a long time browsing. I think it was at Collet’s that I bought my copy of Das Kapital. I read some of it. Apparently the war poet Edgell Rickword was manager of their second-hand section from 1959 to 1965. I think I remember a rather melancholy elderly man who sat by the till and appraised the book that you’d bought with a sceptical eye. I wonder if that was him.