Ordering the copies of texts and materials held by the British Library (BL) can be an exciting experience for new scholars and I would suppose any scholar who loves the nuts-and-bolts side of their work. Collection times at the humanities reading rooms can feel like Christmas if you have found that one juicy text or pile of texts that you have wanted to get your hands on for some time. Fresh discoveries and the unexpected find can be an exhilerating source of anticipation.
That was the mood which struck as I discovered that the BL held among its collections the back issues of the now-defunct Living Marxism (known after 1997 as LM). This magazine will form one of the cornerstones of my History Undergraduate Dissertation; if we imagine a basic four-column structural plan, the temple of the Dissertation is supported at one side by the work of Deborah Lipstadt and Richard J. Evans and the journalists Penny Marshall and Ed Vulliamy and on the other by the writings of David Irving and Living Marxism. Perhaps the analogy is fudged; the Dissertation is, after all, the subject-container for content which involves the discussion of this literature. That would make Irving and LM the sacrificial offerings. Or the Scriptures. Henceforth theological and ecclesiastical analogies shall be withdrawn from circulation.
And withdrawn from circulation was LM following the successful suit brought by Independent Television News (ITN) against the small magazine in 1997 following the publication in LM 97 of allegations that ITN journalists had exaggerated, misrepresented or even staged atrocities during the Bosnian War in 1992. The case lit up the world of literary London in the late 1990s and attracted much fanfare, much of the support which LM received coming from writers and journalists who defended the publication on free-speech grounds. By LM 105, the campaign to raise war-fighting funds for the magazine’s defence had adopted this line. The editors and publishers fought the legal battle in the public domain by asserting a resolute commitment to their rights to publish the work of Thomas Deichmann, a German writer and electrical engineer whom Nick Cohen described as a “power-worshipping fruitcake” and a “crank”. The back of LM‘s print editions adopted a fundraising campaign logo in the shape of barbed-wire (central to the original Deichmann article in LM 97 alleging misrepresentation in the ITN report) which had been ‘redacted’ in the censor’s black pen.
This information is now in my possession thanks to the archiving practices of the BL. I am uncertain how they procured their copies of LM, possibly deposited at the time of the magazine’s publication or donated after LM folded in 2000. But my initial fears that the Dissertation would have to rely entirely on second-hand accounts of the magazine’s contents, like ferreting through Eusebius to find quotations of lost ancient works, have been allayed. When I first read Nick Cohen’s What’s Left, one of the most widely-read and compelling accounts of the intellectual and moral crisis of the post-1989 political Left in the Western world, I pondered where Cohen had got hold of his sources for the discussion of the LM trial. The magazine which ITN sued was at its peak reaching a readership of around 10,000. Aside from copies tucked away in the attics and personal collections of bibliophiles or the magazine’s former staff, I would not have been surprised if no physical traces of the publication readily existed. I seriously doubted that physical copies would be procurable, not least for an undergraduate student researching for a dissertation.
However, thanks to the BL, I was able to take a look at the records for the entire back catalogue of LM, requesting and collecting their copies of issues LM 97 and LM 105 for my first source reading. They have the dubious honour of being the first pieces of primary sources to enter my notes for the Dissertation, which is still awaiting final formal proposal and approval by the Department of History. Honour is something which really belongs to the BL; preserving the physical copies of the weird and the bizarre for posterity should be the archivist’s bread-and-butter. I felt proud to be handling the copies of this quite ignominious publication knowing the work that must have gone into keeping it safely stored in the BL’s possession. For this reason and much else besides, I sincerely hope that the BL does not cave to the pressure of critics and boot out undergraduate researchers by raising the membership age back up to 21. It would be a terrible blow to my new plans for the Dissertation and I have no doubt would adversely affect the plans of many others – even if, as many older academics plead, “we want out British Library back!”.