Scouting around the house this week, looking for books to pack for next weekend’s Edinburgh Book Fair at the Radisson Blu Hotel on the High Street. Wondering, in that (usually mistaken) Coals-to-Newcastle way that you do, if I had anything that was suitably Scottish – preferably both rare and Scottish. I found a few decent books: Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, a three-decker by William Strange Adventures of a Phaeton Black, an inscribed Bothie of Toper-na-Fuosich – you know the kind of thing – but actually the only real rarities were these rather lurid and indecent paperbacks.
Yes, yes, I know, I know – it will lower the tone. Lord knows what Simon Beattie on the next stand will think (think of them as Books You Never Knew You Wanted, Simon). What will my dear friend Miss Strong of McNaughtan’s Bookshop (Stand 16) think? Avert your eyes, Elizabeth! Will I be made to go and stand in the corner? (Actually, looking at the floor-plan, it seems I already have been). Will I be dismissed from the ABA room at the Fair altogether and sent to join the rough-and-ready PBFA types below stairs? (No great hardship in that, there are some very fine booksellers in every quarter of this joint fair). But, yes – I am afraid I shall be bringing along this clutch of shaming paperbacks. All bar the last undated, all ostensibly written by someone claiming to be called “Nat Karta”, and all bar the last published some sixty years ago by the almost forgotten Glasgow publishing house of Muir-Watson Publications.
Here’s the justification. A search for Muir-Watson in the usual sources doesn’t throw up a great deal (a single result from COPAC for The Glasgow Review, 1946 – National Library of Scotland), but they were listed in telephone directories from 1947 to 1955 at 112 Bath Street, Glasgow (just up the road from Cooper Hay, who is on Stand 15). There the record might have remained forever silent but for the enterprise and brilliant research undertaken by Steve Holland for his The Mushroom Jungle : A History of Postwar Paperback Publishing (1993). Holland managed to track down and get the whole story from John Watson himself (John Muir was more or less a silent partner).
Trained as a journalist on The Glasgow Herald before the war, in 1946 Watson “emerged from the R.A.F. as a Flight Lieutenant with a D.F.C., some distinction as a pilot who knew how to bomb Germans, a wife and child and more or less bugger all else”. He founded a magazine to “capture the Renaissance-like feeling in the arts and politics which was prevalent in Scotland at the time. It was called The Glasgow Review and needless to say I had lost my shirt before I could say ‘cut’”.
All Watson really had in his favour was that as an ex-serviceman he had the guarantee of a paper quota at a time when paper was strictly rationed. Aiming at a wider and perhaps less demanding audience than the Scottish intelligentsia, he began producing thrillers, romances and westerns. On the advice of Edwin Turvey of Modern Fiction Ltd., who ran the highly successful “Griff” and “Ben Sarto” series, he decided to create his own hard-boiled faux American line. This was a period at which postwar restrictions meant that genuine American magazines and pulps were practically unobtainable, but a large and movie-noir fed demand existed: Stephen Frances, in his “Hank Janson” persona, was outselling every other author in the country.
In 1949 John Watson sat down at his desk in Glasgow and wrote The Merry Virgin – and with it his alter ego “Nat Karta” was born. It was an alter ego subsequently fleshed out with grainy and stagey photographs of himself on the covers, as well as the occasional bizarre tough-guy biographical note: “The Author says of himself that he has three hates … marriage, children and personal publicity. Under hobbies he lists tuny fishing and tearing the wings off house flies”. The blurb for A Dame Called Desire gives you the flavour: “A story that tears at the very vitals of life; it lifts you to heights of screaming passion, and carries you from first page to last on a torrent of action that is as thrilling as the climatic movement of a great symphony or the kiss of a beautiful woman … Only Karta could create a character who could get into all this trouble between the pages of one book”. Once Bitten Twice Bitten is prefaced by “Fiery with the passion of white-hot steel he brings his British public a novel as tempestuously exciting as the sight of a half-dressed gypsy girl dancing in the dark before an open fire”.
Success was, perhaps all too predictably, almost immediate. Thorpe & Porter of Leicester, who were major distributors of this kind of thing, soon offered to take 50,000 copies of a fresh Nat Karta title every month. A rapid cycle of monthly production came into being, and although Watson continued to write some of the books himself, other writers were soon brought in to keep up the flow. Norman Lazenby, responsible for A Guy Named Judas, reminisced to Steve Holland about how it worked: “Muir-Watson were always in a hurry and they supplied the titles and I wrote the stories at 4,000 words a day, each 4,000 a chapter which I sent off by mail that day. So they were actually printing the first chapters while I was writing the last few! I simply wrote the narrative as I went along, without plot outlines or notes”. Given a successful formula and the boon of some truly inspired titles like Too Good for the Poor and All the Things You Ain’t, it was difficult to go wrong, while Watson himself wasn’t quite so dismissive of the craftsmanship: “I had learned how to control a narrative, and long before my time a lot of good writers had learned their trade at the rubbish end of the market”.
In 1952 Watson sold the rights in the “Nat Karta” name (along with those of his other creations “Hans Vogel” and “Hyman Zore”) to the London-based Scion imprint, who continued to churn them out with the assistance of Lazenby, and other assured pulp hands like Donald Cresswell, Victor Norwood, Terry Stanford, John Russell Fearn and Dail Ambler. They sold in large numbers and the Scion claim of Nat Karta sales of seven million copies on The Foolish Virgin Says No (1953) may not be quite such a wild exaggeration as it first appears.
As it turned out, John Watson got out at the right time: “Churning out that kind of crap was not really my idea of a life fulfilled, apart from which there was some faint writing on the wall”. A spate of destruction orders by local authorities worried by the corrupting influence of these pulps was followed by some fairly high profile trials under the antiquated obscenity laws (for which see Steve Holland’s The Trials of Hank Janson, 2004). The books weren’t obscene in any meaningful sense, far from it – they are suggestive at most, but that they looked as if they might be was apparently enough. There were fines and even prison sentences for some publishers. The pulp publishers soon either went mainstream or went under, paradoxically leaving the way beautifully clear for an establishment-type like Ian Fleming to clean up in the sex-and-violence stakes with his own brand of hardback (and therefore respectable) titillating tosh.
If sales of the “Nat Karta” books were of anything like the order claimed by Scion, how then can they be rare? This is partly, I suspect, that in the wake of the trials no-one wanted to be seen handling these type of books. And of course pulps are usually and inevitably simply pulped. Let us look at the standard measures. There are thought to have been forty or more “Nat Karta” titles published (for which see John Fraser’s absorbing and highly perceptive Found Pages blog). Scouring the internet today, I can only find a single one of these titles currently being offered for sale in any edition – and that’s one more than usual. As for institutional copies, the Bodleian admits to having just twenty of the forty or more, while Trinity College, Dublin, has a dozen. Neither library has three of the titles shown here. Beyond that, there would not appear to be a single “Nat Karta” in the British Library or elsewhere – not even in the National Library of Scotland (unless they are simply being coy about having them).
Yes – these are genuinely rare books. And if we are genuinely interested in what people read, enjoyed, and bought in large numbers, they are an important and almost lost part of our cultural history too. They’ll be on Stand 1 at the Fair (possibly under the counter).