Memorable Balls and My Poor Dick: the title says it all

Scouts in Bondage - Fish who Answer the Telephone and other Bizarre Books

February 2, 2007

These titles provide ample insights into the most unlikely books ever printed. Michael Bell has focused on titles that are open to gleeful misinterpretation. As the subtitle explains, it covers "Other Curious Works from Bygone Times with Titles that Might Cause Vulgar Minds to Misapprehend their Content".

The eponymous Scouts in Bondage is not the least of the works on offer: How Nell Scored, The Day Amanda Came (not to mention My Poor Dick ) are indicative of ways in which the language, or at least readers' perceptions, have changed down the years. The Gay Dogs of Old Yale dates from 1869 and so could have been read in those days at face value. The Sauciest Boy in the Forces of 1905 could have come straight out of Boys' Own Paper . But it is hard to credit the genuine nature of such gems as Queer Doings in the Navy , though it did at least come out in 1896, whereas Queer Shipmates hit the shelves in 1962.

The English language is particularly well endowed with ambiguities, double meanings and opportunities to take things the wrong way - and it was ever thus. Even Jane Austen could giggle at brother Frank's remarks about vices and rears - and he went on to become an admiral himself. Language and attitudes do change over time, so that Memorable Balls and Who's Who in Boxers may well have not raised an eyebrow in the 1950s, though Shag the Pony and Old Dykes I Have Known must surely have raised a guffaw at the time.

Attitudes, too, have changed with regard to what is appropriate to see in print. In 19, a health-related title had to be indirect, as in Troubles We Don't Talk About . By the turn of the century, works such as Psoriasis at Your Fingertips are quite unambiguous.

It all depends on which section of the bookshop the titles were intended for. It is to be hoped that Lines of Cleavage under Elizabeth (1909) was to be found in history, and British Tits (1952) in ornithology, though Boobs as Seen by John Henry must have defied classification even back in 1909.

Starting a series can create unforeseen hazards, too. Enjoy Your Turtle seems innocuous enough, but did Enjoy Your Skunk ever go into a second edition? The DIY section was undoubtedly enlivened by Do-It-Yourself Coffins , Build Your own Hindenburg and (best of the lot) You Can Make a Stradivarius - which, I am assured, has had to be withdrawn from the display in the shop window.

There are endless examples of titles that should really not have got past the editor. Someone should have spotted that Whippings and Lashings was a title open to misinterpretation even when it was published by no less a body than the Girl Guides Association. And Harvard University Press might have checked with the international office before proceeding with a treatise on Newly-Discovered French Letters . It might have been worth checking the demand for How I Learned to Ride the Bicycle in 1895 let alone Rock Climbs Round London of 1936, though it does boast illustrations by none other than Edmund Dulac. The marketing department must have shuddered at the thought of shifting Not Worth Reading , which came out in 1914, and The Incoherence of Incoherence must have had them flummoxed in 1954. Yet Poems in Praise of Practically Nothing (1928) ran to five editions.

There are titles that hardly leap off the shelf. The stern features of the Laird himself cannot have encouraged sales of Jokes Cracked by Lord Aberdeen (1929), while Premature Burial and How It May Be Prevented must have attracted a limited readership in 1896. The Beginner's Guide for the Recently Deceased , which first saw the light of day only two years ago, must be aimed at an even more specialised market. Alternatively, there are titles that are just waiting to be written, such as The Humour of Germany (a slim tome) or the garishly illustrated Private Life of Helen of Troy , which came out in 1948.

These books are prime examples of the quirky side of publishing and should become collectors' items in their own right. They are well presented in hard covers; Bell's book is made up almost entirely of high-quality colour reproductions of title pages, key illustrations and the odd extract. In Fish who Answer the Telephone and other Bizarre Books , Russell Ash and Brian Lake have provided us with a valuable work of reference, classifying the bizarre books by broad subject area and adding an appendix of that other unfortunate tribute to the publisher's art - the author's name that somehow goes with the title, as in Homespun by Wilhelmina Stitch or Your Teeth by John Chipping.

Fish who Answer the Telephone and Scouts in Bondage should become compulsory reading for trainee journalists and editors, and both have their place on creative-writing courses. But then future readers might be deprived of the oversights, unfortunate coincidences and double entendres that make both titles a delight.

Tim Connell is professor of languages for the professions, City University London.

Scouts in Bondage

Author - Michael Bell
Publisher - Aurum Press
Pages - 96
Price - £9.99
ISBN - 1 84513 196 7

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