20 JANUARY 1961, Page 10

From Here to Obscenity

By ALAN BRIEN VOTE the straight progressive ticket on almost I every single issue that makes Sunday morn- ing drinking conversation in the Hampstead district. I am for nuclear disarmament, homo- sexual law reform, abolition of the death penalty, legalised abortion, Clause Four, the Bow Group, the Good Food Guide, puns, champagne and vodka, all the weeklies except one, and the National Film Theatre. I am against the licensing laws, Chelsea, bureaucracy, censorship, the House of Lords, the immortality of the soul, gin and cider, dirty jokes, Trust houses, vintage cars and the National Theatre.

In my simple, North Country, grammar school, journalistic way I think of it as a question of Us and Them. (In moments of passion I sometimes even ask with a sneer—'Would you let your daughter marry Peter Simple?') Us are William Hazlitt, F.D.R., D. H. Lawrence, F. W. Bateson, H. L. Mencken, Bernard Shaw, Edmund Wilson, Kenneth Tynan, John Osborne, Lord Altrincham, Brendan Behan and Michael Foot. (Not all of Us think I'm one of Us. But at least none of Them think I'm one of Them.) Them are John Gordon, any Lord Chief Justice, Sir Walter Scott, Edmund Burke, Enid Blyton, Lord David Cecil, the Earl of Scarbrough, Senator McCarthy (or have I included him twice?), all men who pronounce their name Hume and spell it Home, George Brown and Mr, Scott Henderson, QC.

All of Them and Theirs should cease reading now. My concern is with Us and one of Our pet subjects, 'obscenity.' I've been thinking about obscenity off and on for weeks since reading an entertaining and provoking pamphlet on the sub- ject written by Kenneth Allsop and Robert Pitman.* It is printed in an unusual way so that whichever end you begin is the front and one author's essay is upside down. In a way that's, how I feel about the subject and these two op- posed approaches to it.

If we take the word 'obscene' to mean 'that which should only be presented off-stage,' or ob scena, even They would presumably agree that the list of improper sights for the public gaze has varied enormously from age to age, country to country and society to society. And They, if They knew how to conduct a controversy in- telligently, would reply that this point is irrele-, vant—definitions of crime and cruelty and heroism have always altered yet none of Us denies that crime and cruelty and heroism exist today. No man can live simultaneously in more than one age or country or society. What matters is what we think is obscene and whether we in- tend to keep it off-stage or parade it down the centre aisle. What is important here is that 'obscene' can only be expressed as a relative, * A QUESTION OF OBSCENITY. By Kenneth Allsop and Robert Pitman. (Scorpion Press, 6s.) subjective and personal prejudice. It is stamped on the eye of the beholder and appears to mark everything he sees like a scratch on the retina.

It is rationalisation of a unique disgust which no individual can be certain of sharing with his neighbour. Even within any one person there are usually gradations of acceptability of an obscene act. He may be able to do it but not think about it, to think about it but not describe it, describe it in his journal but not to his wife, discuss it with his wife but not before his child- ren, discuss it with his children but not with the children next door.

This is why I listed my own emotional allegiances while hop-scotching around the open- ing of this article. Tot homilies, allot obscenities — show me the man's banner and I will tell you what he wants to ban. And almost every man wants to prohibit somebody from thinking some- thing. Censorship is the vice of the progressive just as much as of the reactionary. A particularly sorry example of radical authoritarianism, I thought, occurred in the Spectator a few weeks ago in a joint article by Katharine Whitehorn and Cyril Ray. This listed the Private Member's Bills they would like to see passed by Parliament and it was noticeable that every single one was concerned to diminish the freedom of some in- dividual whose views were different from theirs. There were penalties for dog-owners—but not for cat-lovers. Minorities were to be deprived of their place of meeting—as long as they were Christian minorities and not racial or political. Supporters of capital punishment were to be dragooned into attending hangings—but oppo- nents were not to be forced to view the corpses of the murdered victims.

How this fever to melt the stubborn indepen- dence of the rest of the nation and pour them, protesting, into your own mould must have astonished Robert Pitman! He paints the Spectator in his half of the pamphlet as the spineless, a-moral bear-leader of the freedom- gone-mad cult. My criticism of my former colleagues springs from my consciousness of the strength, not the weakness, of their opinions. Obscenity is a question of liberty and not of licentiousness. It is time we stood the famous freethinker's slogan on its head—we should boast to our supporters now, 'I applaud your views but I oppose to the, death your right to impose them on other people.'

Mr. Pitman could never say this about his views on obscenity, and that is why he is one of Them. It never seems to occur to him that there is any arrogance in enlarging his own definition of obscenity and projecting it on to everyone else in Britain. Like all censors, too, he imagines that he is immune from the corrup- tion he believes is corrupting the whole life of the country. He is at pains to counteract any sug- gestion that he is self-righteous in his criticisms of what he calls 'the Sleazy Society.'

When I was invited to go to a strip-club .

I went like a shot. And I would go to one of the more lurid latter-day clubs as readily—just as I will pick up one of those controversial books if one happens to be around . . . even though I oppose those who want to remove such things from all social restraint. If there were a public execution at Marble 'Arch tomorrow, I would want a back-row seat at least. But that does not mean that I am in favour of public executions. Apart from everything else, it is the social harm that I oppose.

In other words, don't do as I do, do as I say. What is good enough for Pitman will be too bad for pitmen and gamekeepers and servants and factory girls and schoolboys and perhaps even some of the 'A' class readers of the Sunday Ex- press. 'Social harm' is one of those evasive, evoca- tive phrases which he handles so well. (Rather like

`Controversial books,' which ensures that no one can quote him as saying, 'I pick up a porno- graphic novel whenever one is around.') Every- one is against 'social harm' but no one can measure it or cross-examine it.

If only one of these obscenity-hunters would suffer a little personal harm from such constant exposure to temptation and admit that he had ripped the dress off his secretary or fallen in love With his press lord through reading a 'contro- versial book' there might be a little first-hand evidence of the dangers we are courting. If an obscene book did corrupt someone, what would be the attitude of those of us who oppose cen-

sorship'? Philip Toynbee in an outstandingly silly article in the Observer argued that Lolita should he suppressed 'if it was likely that a single little girl was likely to be seduced as a result.' But in my view, this would still not make Lolita obscene. Any day in the history of the world, if written down minute by minute, pub- lished as a White Paper and issued to schools, would be obscene—in Lord Chief Justice Cockburn's definition : its 'tendency would be to deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences and into whose hands a publication of this sort may fall.' The history of one nation which is studied in schools

would stand little chance of being acquitted by that standard; I can imagine counsel for the prosecution flipping through the Bible and say- ing, 'And these alleged holy men, these prophets of righteousness; I see one of them used to get drunk and sleep with his daughters; and this same holy prophet lived in a city frequented entirely by homosexuals; and we read how he exposed his daughters to a sex-mad mob to save a male guest from rape. Is that what you call "holy" and

O. •


In Robert Pitman's half of the pamphlet, obscenity seems to mean tending to excite exag- gerated sexual passion, especially when it is likely to manifest itself in perversions, paraphilias and crimes. His aim is to demolish the Jenkins Act and in his view 'the fuss about the Act is en- tirely about the act.' Kenneth Allsop's half is a defence of the freedom of the artist to describe and interpret life in all its aspects. He is full of good points—that books are already censored by the courts and the Customs and the morality councils and the local librarians; that censor- ship by its nature is absurd and inefficient, re- flecting 'the forces of timidity, conformity and

priggishness—the most debilitating of middle- class values'; that moral objections can merge imperceptibly into political objections. But Allsop's arguments are the standard defence measures of the liberal-minded libertarian in re- action against the moral indignation of those who want to ration dangerous knowledge. They are none the worse for that but, purely as a piece of ingenious pamphleteering and court-room rhetoric, his essay cannot keep pace with Robert Pitman's. Pitman, like all the most effective popular journalists, keeps on tagging his argu- ment to persons. Not one of his arrows strikes fatally home, but he inflicts a good many nasty flesh wounds.

Oddly enough, though, for a professional book reviewer he usually displays a much shakier knowledge of literature than he does of dialec- tics. He claims, for example, that under our present laws (and it is one of his characteristic dodges to pretend to be a champion of the Jenkins Act against popular pressure for its repeal) all the masterpieces could have been freely published. Why then, he asks, should we imagine that any future masterpieces will be stifled by existing restraints? He then cites Shakespeare as an example of an admirable genius who cen- sored himself-111e chief thing that sets him aside from his contemporaries . . . is purity: the purity of his themes and the purity of his hero- ines.' Now it is impossible to argue with a man who seriously plays that as a trump card; I can only suggest that he tries printing any three ran- dom entries from Partridge's Shakespeare's Bawdy in any popular newspaper.

He is equally ill-informed about Chaucer and here it is possible to confound him with a simple, single example. 'As far as I can see,' he says, 'the belief that he would have found our modern restraints unendurable is based on one word alone —"fart." In the same paragraph, he describes The Miller's Tale as 'splendid.' Pitman seems to have overlooked the fact that it is in this poem that the second of the Lady Chatterley words (the one not even the Guardian or the Observer could quite bring itself to print) is used with admirable, Laurentian bluntness. Possibly he missed it because Chaucer turns it into a seven- letter word and begins it with a `q.' Personally I find the modern version too gross and hoggish- sounding--I propose we readopt 'queynte' as a more appropriately elegant and precise and printable substitute. I see no reason to believe that the Magistrates of, say, Swindon would be less likely to confiscate The Canterbury Tales, if someone translated it into their language, than they were to seize The Decameron.

Together these two essays provided me with entertainment and stimulation and I recommend their pamphlet for anyone whose ideas are still in a flux on the subject. Yet at the end 1 won- dered if in fact they were talking about 'obscenity' at all. If obscenity is the public exposure of actions which any given individual finds revolt- ing and disgusting—then why do both of them concern themselves entirely with descriptions of sexual activity? If I discovered in a novel a careful, vivid description of a woman defecat- ing, that would be obscene by my personal stan- dard. I would consider it an unnecessary and infantile obsession with a mechanical function which is in itself neither particularly interesting nor particularly repulsive. There could not pos- sibly be any case for suggesting that such a description would deprave' anyone—yet I am sure any well-brought-up, toilet-trained censor would find some excuse for banning the book. Or take the description of a particularly brutal murder which emphasised the pleasures of kill- ing and maiming another human being for the sheer joy of the exercise—would this be obscene? Yet few of the censor-supporters seem to be worried about the growing cult of violence, or to find any depravity and corruption in presen- tation of brutality as long as it is not overtly sexual.

What Pitman and Allsop and the rest of us are really discussing when we argue about the amount of freedom to be given to artists is pornography. And here the variation in flash- point between person and person is far greater than it is in the case of simple obscenity. Porno- graphy attracts those whom it disgusts much more directly and disturbingly than any other kind of literature. There is a good deal of evi- dence to suggest that the advocate of censorship is projecting his own tensions on the others and setting up an outside prohibition to help him control his own desires. I personally see no reason why a book about love should not be porno- graphic. If indeed afterwards I rape or assault or embarrass some female then I must suffer the social consequences. I should consider it shameful dodging of guilt to blame the author—just as logically might I blame the woman for being pretty. If there were ever a case for prohibiting material likely to corrupt and deprave that material would be alcohol. Almost all of us be- lieve that in any country with the first claim to civilisation any man must be allowed to choose his own temptations and indulge his own pleasures unless they destroy the pleasure and peaceful enjoyment of his fellows. This should be the central tenet of Our creed. Let us leave the role of playing God's right-hand man to Them who cannot help themselves without hindering others.

'I must say, there's just no word to describe your behaviour at times, Don Quixote!'