Poor Mervyn Griffith-Jones, a war hero awarded the Military Cross after his service in North Africa and Italy, was totally out of his depth.
It was almost in desperation that, in high-Victorian style, he asked the jury: “Would you approve of your young sons, young daughters – because girls can read as well as boys – reading this book?
And in May 1960, Penguin saw its chance, announcing its plans to publish 200,000 paperback copies at just 3s 6d each, the equivalent of £3 today.
Most accounts of the trial present it as a simple clash between the repressive old Establishment on the one hand, and the youthful forces of progress and enlightenment on the other. Under Jenkins’s legislation, the Crown had no choice but to prosecute: as the prosecuting counsel, Mervyn Griffith-Jones, told the director of public prosecutions: “If no action is taken in respect of this publication it will make proceedings against any other novel very difficult.” And contrary to myth, much of the Establishment, if such a thing ever really existed, actually supported the publishers.
They were not, however, allowed to take the book out of the jury room.
Only if Penguin were acquitted of breaking the Obscene Publications Act would it be legal to distribute it.
Hatchards sold out in 40 minutes; Selfridges sold 250 copies in half an hour.
In one Yorkshire town, a canny butcher sold copies of the book beside his lamb chops.
Antediluvian as the early 1960s might seem to us today, however, they seemed at the time an era of dizzying change.
Only a year before the trial, Roy Jenkins had secured the passage of a new Obscene Publications Act, leaving a crucial loophole – the question of literary merit – through which works might escape prohibition.
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Although only half a century separates us from Harold Macmillan’s Britain, the world of 1960 can easily seem like ancient history.