Friday, October 29, 2004

Obscenity, censorship, and free speech

Yesterday I talked about Steve Holland’s excellent book The Mushroom Jungle. And one of the several ways in which it is excellent is in describing one of the fits of madness which periodically overcome the English.

Elsewhere in this blog I have expressed my conviction that at least parts of the English population were driven insane by the two world wars which occurred in the first half of the twentieth century. In world war I, most of the best, bravest, and brightest young men were killed off. In world war II, a similar culling occurred, albeit on a lesser scale. What this meant was that, come the 1950s, there were men in high places (and they mostly were men) who had been born in, say, 1895.

These men were often second- or third-rate at whatever it was they were doing: the law, medicine, politics. But they had risen to the top because, through some quirk of fate, they had survived. Not only were they second-rate, but, as indicated above, their experiences had driven them insane. They were not barking, baying at the moon-type screwy, but they were very definitely a bit odd.

It was not difficult, among these men, to find a determination to pretend that none of the nastiness of the two world wars had really happened. The true history of events, culminating in atom bombs and Auschwitz, was, after all, too dreadful for all but the strongest minds to contemplate. As a result, many of the men in high places chose to pretend that none of the unpleasantness had taken place at all; either that, or they chose to believe that it was possible to wind back the clocks, and to recreate in English society of the 1950s the kind of moral atmosphere and social structures which had existed fifty years earlier.

Such attempts were, of course, bound to fail. But that didn’t stop men trying. And in The Mushroom Jungle Steve Holland gives us the best description that I have ever read of how these crazy ambitions were attempted in the book world. The facts are reasonably well known, but Holland gives us fresh insights and new detail.

In 1951, Sir David Maxwell-Fyfe was appointed as Home Secretary. He was one of those with many screws loose, and he used his position of power to attack ‘the forces of evil’ on three fronts. He began a witch-hunt against homosexuals; he ordered the harassment of prostitutes; and he declared it his intention to stamp out ‘pornography’. In all these areas, Maxwell-Fyfe was supported by the Director of Public Prosecutions, Sir Theobald Mathew; and Mathew was assisted by a sidekick called Mervyn Griffith-Jones.

As far as ‘pornography’ was concerned, the most obvious targets were the publishers of the paperback originals who had come into being since the end of the war. These new publishers were putting out hundreds of original stories, most of them with covers featuring an attractive young woman (though never naked, of course, or anything like it); and the stories often had titles, such as Virgin Dancer, or The White Slave Racket, which gave promise of sauciness within.

In fact, of course, nothing published in the 1950s was ever remotely ‘pornographic’ in the modern sense of the term. To begin with, it was quite impossible to use words such as fuck, shit, or piss, without ending up in prison. No printer would risk his skin by setting the words in type. And such descriptions of sexual activity as were printed were always highly restrained, often ending at the bedroom door, or couched in the most general terms. ('His passion overwhelmed her.')

Nevertheless, the cheap paperbacks were an easy target, and in 1953 the authorities launched 197 prosecutions against ‘obscene’ literature. In many cases the whole of a publisher’s stock might be subject to a destruction order; the company could well be made to pay a crippling fine; and, most serious of all, the proprietor could be sent to prison. Several of these publishers of cheap paperbacks actually did serve prison sentences; and, even if they didn’t, the fine put them out of business.

The futility of these prosecutions is well demonstrated by the fact that, once a book was ‘banned’ in one part of the country, sales of that book promptly rose everywhere else. ‘Since the [Hank Janson] books were first brought to the public’s attention,’ said one bookseller, ‘there has been a rush to buy them. I sold all I had in an hour.’

The day came, however, when the authorities overreached themselves. It was one thing to prosecute publishers who were issuing cheap paperbacks, which were sold to working-class readers through newsagents’ shops. The men who operated in that field had few resources: they could not afford good lawyers, and they had no friends in high places. It was quite another thing, however, to prosecute respectable, long-established firms, operating through traditional book-trade channels. The men behind these companies certainly could afford a good barrister; what was more, they had friends and neighbours who were actively involved in politics, the law, and other areas of influence; and, when they believed that they were publishing literary fiction of a high order, they did not take at all kindly to being labelled as anti-social smut merchants.

In 1954, the previously respectable and blameless firms of Heinemann, Hutchinson, Arthur Barker, Werner Laurie, and Secker & Warburg, were all prosecuted for publishing ‘obscene’ novels. One firm chose to plead guilty; another was acquitted by the jury in thirteen minutes flat; two other firms were found not guilty after a considerable struggle; but Hutchinson, and their author, were both fined £500.

These five trials made it abundantly clear to all but the screwiest of Englishmen that the law on ‘obscenity’ was a complete mess, and needed review. The result, very eventually, was a new Obscene Publications Act, which became law in 1959.

Even then the authorities did not give up. When Penguin decided to publish D.H. Lawrence’s famous sex novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover, the by now experienced prosecution team went into action once more.

The prosecution was led by Mervyn Griffith-Jones, a complete arsehole if ever there was one. He had a ten-year track record of success in prosecuting so-called dirty books, and he was hot stuff when it came to bullying shabby little men in shiny suits. But when he came up against the heavy troops marshalled by Penguin, he found himself on the end of a well-deserved beating.

It was Griffith-Jones, of course, who famously asked the jury whether Lady Chatterley’s Lover was the kind of book that they would want their servant, or their wife, to read – thus demonstrating beyond all possible doubt that he was living so far in the past that he was positively out of sight.

As the whole world knows, the publishers of Lady Chatterley’s Lover were found not guilty of publishing an obscene book. From then on, the great British public was perfectly free to read about people fucking each other to their hearts’ content, and no publisher need ever again worry about whether to delete any of the so-called four-letter words.

But let it not be forgotten, please, that there are still plenty of people around who would gladly wind back the clock again, even at this late hour. Those of us who value the freedom of speech would be well advised to keep that in mind.

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