England has a tradition of producing degenerate aristocrats. There must be something in the combination of wealth and a public school education that propels this country’s elite to buggery and an obsession with smut. One of the filthiest rogues to disgrace their rich heritage is the novelist and Uppingham alumni Norman Douglas, born in 1868. His various sexual scandals got him not only thrown out of the diplomatic service but also exiled from Britain. Now his book of grotesque limericks is finally being released.
For years, the book passed about on the second-hand book market, occasionally printed clandestinely, but fated to relative obscurity. Now, thanks to the enlightened souls at Atlas Press, publishers of anti-classics and surrealist wonders, Some Limericks is being reprinted properly, with a foreword by fellow Uppingham school chap, Stephen Fry, and is even distributed in Borders. Good news. I spoke to Alastair Brotchie, head of Atlas Press, about Douglas’s exploits and his book of filthy verse, which includes beauties such as this:
There were two young men of Cawnpore,
Who buggered and fucked the same whore.
But the partition split,
And the spunk and the shit
Rolled out in great lumps on the floor.
Vice: So just how much of a beast was Douglas?
Alastair Brotchie: Well there is a great story of how he got thrown out of the British diplomatic service. He was having affairs with three aristocratic Russian women at once and got one of them pregnant. He had to leave St. Petersburg because he was in danger of being killed by the family, who were related to the Romanovs, so he went to Italy. Back then it was a bit medieval, you could just buy a girl. You gave the family some money and they gave you their daughter, and it was just accepted. It was a bit like Bangkok, extremely dubious. So he had this relationship with a girl he’d bought from a family, but the brother got uptight about it and one evening, when Douglas walked into an alley, the brother followed him and gave him a good beating. Douglas went to the family and complained and they agreed it was outrageous, the brother had completely dishonored them. So then, Douglas falls in love with the brother and after that was mostly homosexual. True romance.
Did he ever come back to England?
He went back to England briefly to work on the English Review but left again over some scandal involving him pressing his lust on a young man. This was so typical then, these English aristocrats going abroad, creating mayhem and shagging anything that walked. Capri was this weird place where all these sort of people hung out. Somerset Maugham was there. He was basically in the same situation, he had a wife who ignored all his exploits with the house boys. You could have got a prison sentence for that back in England, but in Capri, no one gave a fuck.
Wasn’t Douglas friends with D.H. Lawrence?
Apparently he was, but they fell out because of a character in one of Lawrence’s novels that was obviously based on him. That was around the time Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley came out and so Douglas decided he had to produce really obscene books in competition.
And that’s how Some Limericks came out?
Yes, but he must have been collecting them for a long time. Unfortunately his biography has nothing on how the book was put together. Certainly Graham Greene used to collect limericks for him.
There was a young girl of Detroit,
Who at fucking was very adroit.
She could squeeze her vagina
To a pin-point and finer,
Or open it out like a quoit.
He was obviously into teenage boys. Do you think he preyed on them?
Yes, definitely, he was a real perv, and that was his preference. But it was deemed acceptable for certain people back then. There were plenty of them around like that. Frederick Rolfe (Baron Corvo) was very similar, with all those photos he took of young fisherman in Italy, bollock naked. It was just absolutely the “droit de signeur” (”the lord can have what he wants”). Not too dissimilar, I imagine, to Thailand now. It had a lot to do with the English currency being worth so much more than the Italian, so if you were reasonably well off in England, then you were really wealthy over there.
What is it about these old aristocrats and all their perversions?
Well, this was a time when pornography was exclusively an upper class thing. There was no such thing as pornography for anyone but the very rich. I once met this photography dealer that dealt in certain books that were published from the 1890s up until around the First World War, for very rich connoisseurs. They would have a story, normally involving the lord having his way with the servants, and there’d be blank pages in the book so you could commission someone to take photos to illustrate it. So there are original photographs stuck in these books and basically you could have your servants in your own copy of the book. They were strong too, pretty hardcore.
The limericks are pretty raunchy but they’re funny as well…
Yes, of course. It was Douglas’s two fingers to the establishment: “Fuck you, this is funny, I’m not in England anymore, you stuffy bastards.” And you know, he was right. Imagine what England was like back then, a very strange place.
Is that what inspired you to reprint it?
I always just thought that this was a very, very funny book. It divides people in an interesting way. Certain people find it shocking and certain people find it hilarious and there’s not a lot of in between. The limericks are obviously really vulgar and some of them are very obscene but then the commentary is written by someone who is extremely well-educated, with a very dry sense of humor and it’s a fabulous contrast. I think it’s a classic.
There was an old man of Corfu,
Who fed upon cunt-juice and spew.
When he couldn’t get this,
He fed upon piss —
And a bloody good substitute, too.