Classified: The Secret History of the Personal Column

HG Cocks

Classified: The Secret History of the Personal Column

Bohemian girl (London, S.W.) 24, in digs, interested most things, educated, lonely, desires man pal, London or abroad'. On 1 September 1920, the Metropolitan police received a tip-off that a certain magazine, the Link, was running extremely dubious personal ads. An investigation and court case followed, and the editor of the Link, Alfred Barrett, found himself in the dock accused of promoting, among many other things, loose living, homosexuality, prostitution and white slavery. As he struggled to defend himself, the full weight of official disapproval and media outrage was brought to bear on him. So begins "Classified", an original sideways look at the history of relationships - and attitudes to relationships - in twentieth-century Britain, explored through the medium of the personal ad. From First World War soldiers hoping for lady friends who would send them food packages, to lonely clerks and typists desperate for love in the cities of 1920s England, through to the swingers of the 1960s and 1970s and the internet junkies of today, it shows how the personal ad has mirrored and encouraged seismic shifts in society and popular attitudes to relationships. At the same time, it also unearths the stories of the heroes and villains of the personal ad - the former deb Heather Jenner who in 1939 set up a marriage bureau for Tatler-reading aristocrats, the shadowy Cyril Benbow whose cryptic 'Gentleman has books for sale' masked a burgeoning pornography empire, and the tragic figure of Irene Wilkins, strangled and bludgeoned to death in Bournemouth in 1921 by a man who scoured the personal ads in his search for victims. Together the tales of such individuals reveal the many-faceted nature of love and desire in the Britain of the past hundred years. 3.5 out of 5 based on 7 reviews
Classified: The Secret History of the Personal Column

Omniscore:

Classification Non-fiction
Genre History, Sex & Sexuality
Format Hardback
Pages 240
RRP £14.99
Date of Publication February 2009
ISBN 978-1847945006
Publisher Random House
 

Bohemian girl (London, S.W.) 24, in digs, interested most things, educated, lonely, desires man pal, London or abroad'. On 1 September 1920, the Metropolitan police received a tip-off that a certain magazine, the Link, was running extremely dubious personal ads. An investigation and court case followed, and the editor of the Link, Alfred Barrett, found himself in the dock accused of promoting, among many other things, loose living, homosexuality, prostitution and white slavery. As he struggled to defend himself, the full weight of official disapproval and media outrage was brought to bear on him. So begins "Classified", an original sideways look at the history of relationships - and attitudes to relationships - in twentieth-century Britain, explored through the medium of the personal ad. From First World War soldiers hoping for lady friends who would send them food packages, to lonely clerks and typists desperate for love in the cities of 1920s England, through to the swingers of the 1960s and 1970s and the internet junkies of today, it shows how the personal ad has mirrored and encouraged seismic shifts in society and popular attitudes to relationships. At the same time, it also unearths the stories of the heroes and villains of the personal ad - the former deb Heather Jenner who in 1939 set up a marriage bureau for Tatler-reading aristocrats, the shadowy Cyril Benbow whose cryptic 'Gentleman has books for sale' masked a burgeoning pornography empire, and the tragic figure of Irene Wilkins, strangled and bludgeoned to death in Bournemouth in 1921 by a man who scoured the personal ads in his search for victims. Together the tales of such individuals reveal the many-faceted nature of love and desire in the Britain of the past hundred years.

Reviews

The Literary Review

Harry Mount

[Cocks] has pulled off another little cracker... the art of the personal ad became the art of the euphemism, the gay euphemism in particular – ‘Iolaus, 24, intensely musical, of a peculiar temperament. Have been looking for many years for tall, manly Hercules.’ The great pleasure of this book is this jump from the euphemistic wording in the ads to the sexual truth behind it.

01/03/2009

Read Full Review


Standpoint

John Preston

He clearly knows his stuff and he certainly is thorough, but he's also - given the nature of the subject-matter - rather more po-faced, more academic, than necessary... Things get much more interesting - and fun - when he sticks closely to his "secret history", tracing how the personal column has moved from being the preserve of the desperate and the depraved to its present, rather dreary, respectability.

01/02/2009

Read Full Review


The Daily Telegraph

Brian MacArthur

Link may have been the first magazine for lonely hearts but Cocks shows that advertising for a wife or husband has been going on for centuries. He awards the first classified ad – a statement of ecclesiastical rules for the Easter festival – to William Caxton in 1477. But the first lonely hearts ads were published in the 1690s and matrimonial advertising was booming by the early 18th century.

09/02/2009

Read Full Review


The Times

Iain Finlayson

Like crosswords, personal ads had a language code all of their own: let's just say, if someone advertised herself as a “sporting girl” you could take it that she didn't mean lacrosse; a young man describing himself as “musical” would more than probably prefer show tunes... Cocks tells a lively, surprising, sometimes saucy story.

21/02/2009

Read Full Review


The Sunday Times

Roland White

To describe this book as a history of the classified ad is slightly misleading. As HG Cocks shows, the purpose of such advertising has been pretty much the same throughout its history: the search for love, marriage and sexual adventure. The only difference has been the ways in which that search has been expressed. As genuine fans of Wilde and Whitman might have been alarmed to discover, advertisers - especially gay men - once had to speak in code. Cocks's book is really more of a history of sex and sexual attitudes, told through the medium of advertising.

01/02/2009

Read Full Review


The Guardian

Stephen Moss

Classified is a slender book, somewhat distended to make even this length. Size isn't everything, of course, but it reflects an uncertainty about the project; Cocks includes 20 pages of footnotes but then in the acknowledgments apologises for not making his effort "33% funnier". Is it history or humour? In the end, it isn't quite either, though many of the ads themselves - and the code you have to crack to understand them - are funny, and Cocks's analysis, though sometimes meandering, is suitably suggestive.

28/02/2009

Read Full Review


The Independent

Marianne Brace

Classified's cover – of a man peeking teasingly over the top of a newspaper of social ads – suggests that we're in for a racy read. What HG Cocks actually gives us is a serious survey... Some of Cocks's material is rather dull, unless you find fascinating the complications of peddling "dirty" books. Meanwhile, calling the personal column a "vital resource" seems overstated. The classified ad appears not so much subversive as suburban.

13/02/2009

Read Full Review


©2013 The Omnivore