A case of censorship and the modern sensibility
A love of suppression is no longer the preserve of bullying politicians and `Daily Mail' columnists
The writer and broadcaster Terence Blacker contributes a twice-weekly column on a wide range of social, cultural and environmental issues. He is the author of four novels, of prize-winning fiction for children, and has written a highly praised biography of the brilliant reprobate Willie Donaldson.
Friday 28 August 1998
The bookshop politely noted their protest, asked them to move along there and left Irvine Welsh's novel in the window.
Now some might say that a pig had more right to object to Filth and its cover than a policeman, but not me. Apart from a few occasions when I have played football against a police team - a fixture that revealed them to be second only to milkmen for niggling and dirty play and had to be abandoned after a triple biting incident - I have always found policemen to be pleasant and easy-going, if not always very bright.
But it's an interesting development, local constables acting as concerned individuals, and there's something very contemporary about it.
Over the past decade, booksellers have become used to being leant on, whether it has been by Rushdie-hating religious zealots, by Sir William Armstrong attempting to stamp out Peter Wright's Spycatcher or by Peter Jay threatening dire legal consequences if an unfavourable biography of his boss of the time, Robert Maxwell, were sold. Invariably on these occasions, it is the small independent bookshops who stand up to the bullies, while the money-minded, ever-careful multiples run hysterically to their lawyers.
The form of pressure exerted in Muswell Hill and elsewhere is quieter and less threatening - yet, oddly, more creepy. Suddenly, it seems fine not only to object to discomfiting views but to attempt to protect others from them. Besides the well documented cases of the new culture of disapproval - WH Smith's banning of an issue of Private Eye that dared to take an irreverent approach to the reaction to Diana's death last year, the hysteria surrounding such films as Crash and Lolita - countless smaller incidents, such as that in Muswell Hill, are taking place.
Anyone who writes for children might argue that there's nothing particularly new in this trend. During the Eighties, a story by Rose Impey about a little girl who ran off with a gang of pirates was withdrawn from libraries in Birmingham after a parent action group decided that the book encouraged children to talk to strangers. Five years ago a teacher in Scotland complained that one of my books, written for 10- to 12-year-olds, was "an inappropriate text". What exactly was objectionable? No answer. Earlier this year, a senior librarian in Northern Ireland was harangued by a parent for inviting me to talk to children. Why? Because some of my books contained magic, and magic was dangerous for young minds. Had she read the books? Of course not. She didn't have to.
Now the new nannyism is everywhere. Constructing a series of philosophical dialogues around events in the World Cup, my friend Willie Donaldson and I discovered that, even in The Guardian, strict rules apply. A passing reference to a re-enactment of the Battle of Waterloo with "nasty little rentboys running up the rigging" was regarded as too hot to handle. Describing Zoe Ball as a prat was inappropriate. A minor, passing reference to this newspaper was banned - as if somehow, by not mentioning the name of its wittier, more sophisticated rival, it would cease to exist.
Suddenly the love of suppression, which used to be the preserve of bullying politicians, millionaires, Daily Mail columnists and mad parents, seems to be everywhere, and, with a sinking heart, one can only conclude that the new conformity of feeling has something to do with the stern air of moral superiority assumed by this Government.
Not that a hint of censoriousness has been evident from readers of this column, of which this is the last, since Miles Kington returns to his kingdom on Monday. What a joy it has been. I have discovered that the word "gorgeous" is much loved, having been used by Shakespeare, and, in a postmodern retro-ironic fashion, in the Baby Bird single, "You're Gorgeous". I have been invited to join bondage workshops in south London. I have heard - thank you, Toshiba - that the bugs I saw moving about behind my computer screen were not the first sign of madness but were real.
To you, it was a column. To me, it was a learning curve, and I enjoyed every minute.
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