Simon Finch is undoubtedly a maverick of the rare and antiquarian book world. Having started out as a book trader at university, his reputation has spread like wildfire, allowing him to break the manacles of convention and launch his own book store bearing the slogan “Aspreys is now trading opposite Simon Finch: Rare Books.” But despite the critical acclaim that comes with clocking a books such as the 13th century Psalter (a volume containing the psalms) there has always been one collection that was a lot more personal. Propped on the pavement waiting for a mechanic to come service his newly broken down Vespa, Finch took some time to talk to Nouse about sex, death and publishing.
So what’s taken so long for eroticism to come out of the closet?
Well, [the collection] started because I used to sell books to Blackwell’s. This one guy had an amazing library, but he also had mounds of pornography- really rare stuff as well as modern. There was a clandestine nature about it that interested me. Many of the great writers wrote erotica anonymously with false imprints. So I took the whole lot and began learning about the clandestine collecting market.
So it was the research that took you so long?
Not the research. It was merely my ambitions to do it on a much bigger scale, with an exhibition incorporating art linking sex and death. So in the meantime I bought a lot of books and when someone badgered me for a copy I couldn’t resist. And when I started to see the illustrations of Belle Mere and read The Dances of Death by Holbein, it completely blew my mind. I’d never read anything so out there so sexually, in my life [laughs].
Going round other rare book stores and soon as sex or death were mentioned they
… Simon Finch [laughs]!
I think people think I’m a little bit mad as a bookseller, but they have great respect for the way I’ve presented books and been willing to take risks. Getting Hugh Grant to open my Notting Hill Gate bookstore was one of the times I knew it had paid off. As a thank you I gave him a first edition of White Stains by Anthony Crowley, the occultist who coined the term 666. Not long after he was arrested with his pants down for getting a blowjob off a prostitute.
Do you ever wake up from a Ted Bundy-esque nightmare?
Well, funnily enough the guy who did a lot of the cataloguing for me, said he did after about a month of working on it [laughs]. Any powerful material of that sort purveys one’s unconscious.
You start seeking the links everywhere
There’s a certain aspect of that. What really spurred me on was when AIDS became a clear sex and death link. I remember very well when AIDS first came, when I was in my sexual prime, and I was terrified. I thought even a triple wrapped condom wouldn’t be enough to protect me. It was a really frightening time which brought out a lot of peoples’ bigotry- and, of course, others’ courage. Then you start getting these artists like Damien Hirst. I mean, the embalmed shark was called The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living. A fantastic title- and very much on the edge of sex and death. I don’t know any statistics, but most people think about sex and death more than any other subject. It’s such a pervasive subject. It’s not antithetical. It’s very linked psychologically.
This issue is about partly about global warming and body warmth, among other things. I was wondering if you saw the West as addicted to eroticism now as they are to oil?
It’s a very old adage that sex sells and I think pornography is addictive. People are addicted to the process of collecting. The British Library, apart from the Vatican, has got the biggest institutionally held collection of erotica.
The Vatican has got an enormous amount of clandestine books, which means anything smutty that has ever been published. On the other hand, Pat Kearney- who, along with Peter Mendes helped me enormously- had only just catalogued the erotic collection at the British Library. There’s always been a tradition in France and in Holland that is slightly more liberal. Even sending this catalogue out to America, I got some people telling me please don’t send me anything like that again [laughs].
With the Internet, are we going to see the end of erotica in print?
I don’t think so. There will always be book collections involved in erotica and sensuality. There are always going to be fantastic erotic artists. Personally speaking, I think that the nature of pornography on the net is graphically obvious. It’s ugly and it doesn’t shed any light on human sexuality. The rare books in the collection stand out because of their clandestine nature while the more modern photography we’re moving into reflects the philosophy of the 20th century.