Among the many dotty and hilarious trials which have enlivened our legal history, the Pemberton Billing libel action in the closing year of the 1914–18 war must rank among the Top Ten. Reference was made throughout the proceedings to a mysterious German ‘Black Book’, which was said to contain the names of 47,000 prominent British homosexuals, lesbians and secret agents working for the enemy. The names included, it was said, Asquith, Margot Asquith, Lord Haldane and many others of the great and good. When a Mrs Villiers-Stuart (later imprisoned for bigamy) shouted, from the witness box, that the judge’s name was in the book, the proceedings reached a level of insanity beyond anything achieved by Mr Justice Cocklecarrot.
The story of the Pemberton Billing trial is hugely entertaining and Philip Hoare has resurrected it in all its bizarre detail. He has unearthed the shady characters who played on xenophobia and sexual prejudice to sow the seeds of that unhealthy and short-lived plant, British fascism. He is on less