The New English Library Was the Sleazy King of British Pulp Publishing
Punks, mods, Hells Angels, and corrupt cops all had their place in the cult 1970s publishing stable.
The New English Library was the maniacal king of pulp publishing in 1970s Britain. Thrashing out books relentlessly, it excelled in the more brutal end of youth-oriented fiction: rampant gang violence, skinheads marauding around in bovver boots, Satanic cult worship… basically anything that was causing a moral fuss in the decade of disco.
Formed in 1961 as a subsidiary of the New American Library, they initially published genre fiction—Westerns, sci- fi, mysteries, that kind of thing. However, the editors quickly realized they were missing something of a trick: by gearing books toward a working-class youth audience—something American pulp merchants had been doing for some time with great success—they would be all but guaranteed a higher circulation.
Hells Angels, skinheads, punks, mods, girl gangs and bent coppers all found their place in an expanding catalogue that was, by the early 70s, essentially a production line of sleaze. The basic premise was simple: find a youth cult and write about them—and, crucially, to them—including every gritty detail necessary. It proved a winning formula.
Speed was of the essence; this was adrenalized story telling stripped down to the absolute base essentials, as former editor Mark Howell—who worked at the NEL during their early-70s heyday—explained to me.
“That damn delivery schedule was the most driving force I’ve ever met in publishing,” he said. “You just had to get it out there—it was breakneck, insane. I started a series called Deathlands, and the first writer I gave it to had done a wonderful first story and was given the green light—and spent his entire advance on heroin, which, back in those days, was not unknown. It was crippling for some, but most of our writers were addicts of the typewriter, and one of the glories of this was that it was a conveyer belt—we thoroughly addicted our readers. It was endless repetition stemming from unresolved anomaly.
“Take a book like Forgive the Executioner by Andrew Lane. The hook there was, ‘Can an agent of the government really kill people with indemnity?’ The reaction you want from the reader is, ‘Say that again? I don’t believe it!’ [Adopts solemn newsreader voice] ‘I said, “Can an agent of the government really kill people with total and utter indemnity?”‘ ‘Say it again?!’ [Laughs] You repeat the premise.’
fascinating and compellingly readable document of the early70s youthsploitation landscape.
Mean spirited and morally bankrupt, his novels spoke of cold rain, futility, bad sex, spilt blood and stale beer, all played out against a backdrop of decrepit East London hinterlands and grey estuary towns.
emergent literary counterculture.
“The underground was bursting out, and the NEL was not a mainstream operation; after the 60s we looked for more drama and more realism, and it was the skinheads and the bikers, etc, who provided that. Our writers were using imagination to get there. The British press was such that you could read the Sunday papers and pick up what the youth cults were about, and write about them—and to them—very quickly, provided you had the aptitude. We needed the youth side of it; these weren’t essays in sociology, they were attempts at writing adventure novels with new characters and themes. It was very original.”
And there lies the rub. Although the format was original, authors like James Moffat and Laurence James (writer of the “Mick Norman” Hells Angels books) had extraordinarily limited firsthand experience of the subjects they covered.
“I lived in Soho at the time—it was far rougher back then. There was a lot of crime on the streets; prostitutes operating out of doorways. There were clubs. A lot of them were unlicensed, and detectives did a lot of work in them. They met informers, grasses, other policemen. They were quite familiar with criminals. It was like a game—they all knew who was doing what, professionally. And they were often taking money from them as well.
“My time at the New English library was great, though. Publishing was fun back then. There was a lot of dope going down in publishing; some of the editors were often stoned in the office, but curiously able to function, as others did on booze. On occasion, James Moffat would turn up at the NEL offices, pissed out of his skull, and run up the stairs to drop off a manuscript and cadge a couple of quid for the taxi, which would be waiting downstairs.”
It was a fun experience,” he said. “Just imagine it—we were being paid to hang out with these wild boys. But we really did feel that we were contributing to youth culture, and even though it was the seedy side, it was still youth culture. Most of our writers were true believers.”