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 Book Shops > Good Bye! Sambo

Good Bye! Sambo

Not an obscure title by the well-known author Helen Bannerman - but nevertheless largely made of paper - "Good Bye! Sambo" resulted in our bookshop being visited by the police last week ... but I’m getting ahead of myself.

A couple of weeks earlier Dodgy Mark and a battered tin trunk had erupted through the shop door, scattering bewildered customers, as the trunk and its contents hit the floor. "You’re going to love this", he announced with his customary enthusiasm. From amongst the disgorged chaos of decrepit books, damp paper and long forgotten children’s games, he produced a box and thrust it under my nose. "What do you think of that!" he demanded.

What indeed. The triumphantly offered treasure was an Edwardian toy shooting game, which, judging by the number of variants that have survived both small hands and the ravages of time, must have been extremely popular in their day.

The idea is simple, and must have been very cheap to produce. A pressed tin gun is used to shoot lethal looking lengths of dowel at a target. Some have a mechanical element, which is triggered by successfully hitting the target, and they are normally (apart from the gun) constructed from paper and cardboard. So far, so ordinary - but what set the Dodge’s treasure apart was the subject matter of this particular shooting game.

Dodgy Mark and I go back a long way, and we share a delight in the crass and gaudy - particularly when the item is also of some historic interest - and he has sold me some classics in the past. However, on this occasion he had excelled himself, Good Bye! Sambo was quite simply appalling.

The object of the game is straight forward - a direct hit to the target results in the figure of Sambo being catapulted down the throat of a waiting crocodile - a scene rather more dramatically portrayed on the game's box lid.

I was both stunned by its awfulness and astonished that such an article could ever have been produced. I’ve bought and sold lots of material that chronicles the British portrayal of non-whites over the years, but nothing as outrageous as this. I had to have it!

Mere cash wasn’t going to be enough to clinch the deal; I had to promise Dodgy Mark that I would prominently display the offending item in the front window. I was, of course, happy to comply.

I’ve never been one to avoid controversy and, some would say that I have occasionally courted it :) But it really never occurred to me that this item would be seen as anything other than a vulgarly graphic reminder of attitudes less than 100 years ago.

In those days, it appears to have been acceptable for white British children to amuse themselves by causing the virtual death by crocodile, of a small black child. Of course, one has to remember that at the time it was popularly held that the "Hun" ate babies, and women couldn’t vote.

So, imagine my surprise when one of our boys in blue pops in to tell me that someone has complained to the police about a "racist item" in my window. "Which one", I ask? And we go outside to have a look.

"As we have had a complaint that it’s racist I’m going to have to politely ask you to remove it", he say’s. "That’s fine", I reply, "I will have to politely refuse". We go on to have a moderately interesting chat about the difficulty of defining racism and what might constitute censorship, then he leaves.

As you would expect, while Good Bye! Sambo has been on display it has prompted a number of comments. To date, the majority of customers seem to experience varying degrees of the same combination of horror and fascination that it prompted in me. Of course, that’s not to say that a few people weren’t simply horrified by it. However, hardly anyone has had any difficulty seeing it in its historic context, and no one has suggested that it shouldn’t be displayed.

I doubt that the anonymous complainant gave a thought to any of this. For them, reporting the item as "racist" to the police provided an opportunity to try and remove a difficult and challenging reminder of our recent past. In an increasingly censorious Britain, the risk of causing offence to anyone, now seems sufficient reason for the police to "have a quiet word".

I’ve always had a fairly low censorship threshold, and very nearly lost a friend over a display of 1930’s fascist Black Shirt publications. But for me, one of the most rewarding parts of this job, is rootling about in dark nooks and crannies, for those items that connect one viscerally to the past.

And as a BookSELLER, I have to give my purchases the best possible exposure to the buying public. But perhaps I should wait for a week or two before I put the collection of vintage prostitute’s telephone box "vice cards" in the window?

Vice Cards was presented at the first annual friends of St Bride Library Conference in 2002, and it's author, Caroline Archer, has published Tart Cards: London's Illicit Advertising Art.

Mike Goodenough

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