A discovery in a secondhand bookshop takes Steerforth back to the disappointments and confusions of adolescence…
During a recent visit to Camilla’s Bookshop in Eastbourne, I found the above novel by Richard Condon. It reminded how much superfluous nudity there used to be on book covers, before feminism, AIDS and the new conservatism of the 80s changed the cultural climate.
When I was fourteen my parents booked a week at a holiday cottage in Somerset. The owners had a large bookcase of paperback fiction and to me, coming from a house without books, it was an object of great curiosity. I went through the whole collection of novels and was particularly excited by the sexy cover designs, which seemed to promise so much:
I flicked through all of the Edna O’Briens, hoping to find some naughty bits that would give me an insight into what adults were getting up to. The covers suggested that people were at it all of the time, but the contents were generally disappointing. Even the Dennis Wheatley horror novels were extremely chaste, compared to their salacious covers:
Like real life, these novels promised so much and delivered so little. Breasts occasionally heaved and manhoods throbbed, but I was still none the wiser about what would be expected of me. Men seemed to ‘take’ women who, after an initial attempt at resistance, succumbed with half-closed eyes. I was confused. Wasn’t that called rape?
Films didn’t make things any clearer. Men behaved like complete bastards, women slapped them in the face and then they had a snog. If it was a French film, these actions were accompanied by long, convoluted conversations and chain smoking. I compared these people to my parents, who liked going to garden centres and Brentford Nylons. Where did I fit into all this?
A few years later a bookshop opened at the end of my road. It was absurdly small, but had a stock that was chosen by someone who clearly knew what he was doing. I went in out of curiosity and, for reasons I can’t remember, ended up buying Turgenev’s Spring Torrents. I’d never read a novel before and had no idea who Turgenev was, but his descriptions of people falling in love seemed to make much more sense than the worlds of Sidney Sheldon and Jackie Collins.
The Richard Condon and Edna O’Brien novels look rather incongruous amongst the respectable orange Penguins in Camilla’s. I wondered how long they’d been on the shelf and was almost tempted to buy them just for the covers, but I got distracted by this: