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The Censor

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New English Library, London, 1972
(price: 20p; 256 pages)
first published by NEL 1970

dedication: To Alec King with thanks

The blurb on the back:

This is the red-hot novel that dares to confront the most burning issue of our times.
This is the blazing book that scorches without fear the very fabric of our society.
This is the books that spins at the centre of today's whirlpool of permissiveness -
and repression.
This is THE CENSOR - John Gardner's latest. Read it.

opening lines:
It was not natural.

There are a couple of other John Gardner novels on this site, but they draw on his more normal interests of crime and espionage, and unfortunately those interests aren't my interests. So while I'm prepared to recognize that they're well written, I'm not going to be too enthusiastic about recommending them. This one, however, is something else altogether. Here we get onto things that I know and care about: the role of popular fiction in the modern world and the nature of censorship.

This is the set-up: David Askelon is an American writer who's hit it big with a fat million-selling novel entitled The Golden Spin and is now in London preparing for the British publication. The book tells the story of four young men from different States drifting individually towards Haight-Ashbury in pursuit of the hippy dream; once there they meet, form a band called The Essential Hypertension and become world superstars. Sounds like it could be a neat novel, and a sure-fire best-seller, but - to the distress of the British publishers - it's a story laced with hardcore sex, drugs and violence. Exactly the sort of thing, in other words, that's guaranteed to upset right-wing moralisers. And one of those great 1960s obscenity trials looms.

Now I'm a big fan of the history of obscenity trials (check out John Sutherland's fantastic Offensive Literature for a thorough and accessible account), and so this stuff is right up my street. And when I find that one of the critics of The Golden Spin is named Harvey Proctor, it all becomes irresistible to me.

So it's eminently readable, great fun and addresses some serious issues. Where it falls down a little is its lack of focus. The strap-line on the cover - 'The secret life of an anti-pornography campaigner' - indicates one of the strands running through the book, but there are others. We also see a great deal of Askelon, of his English publisher, of the women they both pursue, of the publisher's wife, of the wife of the anti-pornography campaigner, of one of the people brought in by the anti-pornography campaigner to fight the novel. And so on... There are so many elements that the central drive of the story has its power reduced. And given that we're heading towards a court scene - the most dramatic of all plot devices - it's a bit of a shame. Some trimming and sharpening and this could have been a tremendous book.

Nonetheless, its heart is in the right place, as an academic from Cambridge, called in as an expert witness, makes clear:

'What's the true obscenity? Is it concerned with sex or is it the corruption of nations wasting themselves over issues that do not matter? Isn't the true obscenity to do with facts like governments paying farmers not to grow wheat when whole populations are starving? Or governments allowing people to pollute the atmosphere, pollute our seas, lakes and rivers, the earth? Isn't obscenity, governments allowing people to kill each other, on a warlike scale, with motor cars, every day? Isn't it to do with noise and overcrowding, with injustice and rudeness and fourteen thousand tons of Dutch butter being kept in refrigeration because the price is too high, while people go hungry? No, I'm not being emotional. I'm being realistic. Isn't obscenity the fact of allowing governments to prepare for bacteriological warfare? Aren't those obscenities more corrupting than small facts about what men and women sometimes do with their genitals?' (p.211)

Yeah, I know it's obvious and shouldn't need spelling out, but it's a deeply regrettable fact that more than three decades later it does still need spelling out . We still live in a culture that has no sense of proportion, and we still have a government that doesn't give a toss about human suffering when there are vested interests to appease. Pathetic, ain't it?

Mr Gardner
John Gardner

This was written when David Blunkett was Home Secretary, making some remember the good old days of David Waddington or even of William Joynson-Hicks himself.


from the maker of:

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The Liquidator
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The Revenge of Moriarty