A delicious foray into the hypocrisy of dirty minds

Bound and Gagged: a secret history of obscenity in Britain by Alan Travis (Profile Books, £16.99)
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The Independent Culture

There is much in Alan Travis's terrific book to reassure ageing progressives that, in spite of the evidence, some things really are getting better. Time and again, his anecdotes prompt a mixture of rage, incredulity and chortles, together with a keen sense of recognition. The world according to Waugh's Vile Bodies is vividly restored to us in these pages, not as comic vision but as mere realism.

There is much in Alan Travis's terrific book to reassure ageing progressives that, in spite of the evidence, some things really are getting better. Time and again, his anecdotes prompt a mixture of rage, incredulity and chortles, together with a keen sense of recognition. The world according to Waugh's Vile Bodies is vividly restored to us in these pages, not as comic vision but as mere realism.

It is, for instance, a sweet dose of historical medicine to be reminded of the ineffable Sir William Joynson-Hicks, known to the chaps as "Jix" and to legend as the Home Secretary dedicated to the snuffing out of filth and obscenity. "Jix" kept Joyce's Ulysses out of Britain from 1922 until 1936 and pretty well killed off Radclyffe Hall's sally into lesbian kitsch, The Well of Loneliness. He not only made jolly certain that Lady Chatterley stayed out of sight of wives and servants from 1928 until 1960, but removed the smut from Lawrence's wonderful collection of poems, Pansies, and dispatched the cops to impound any of the author's paintings that showed a glimpse of pubic hair. Dirty-mindedness and socialism being obviously interchangeable, he banned Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin as well.

These and many such delicious retrievals are to be found in Travis's book. One turns the pages with the anticipation of "Not many people know that..." Know that, for instance, a thousand copies of Lawrence's The Rainbow were placed in temperatures of Fahrenheit 451 in 1915; that Enoch Powell authorised the seizure of the works of Jean Genet; that Customs and Excise, who retain extraordinary power and tender imaginations even now, kept J P Donleavy's The Ginger Man on their index long after it was on sale everywhere; that (my favourite) honest Bob Maxwell testified against passages "oozing with muck" in Last Exit to Brooklyn which would "undermine the morale [sic] of the young".

This is not, morally, a very subtle book. Travis hasn't really told the history of obscenity, but only the way in which that elusive category has come in for definition and dispute in law. He doesn't tackle the difficult anthropology of totem and taboo that lurks in his subject, nor address with sufficient courage the point at which the balance of liberty with unspeakability is lost.

However, he takes Bernard Williams as his brisk guide to reasonableness. Williams chaired the 1979 Royal Commission, and those pages of his report which define obscenity, and direct the application of practical reason in dealing with it, remain a model of Fabian policy-making. Williams recommended that obscenity law be applicable not to putative effects ("which corrupt and deprave") but to actual harm. His Commission advised that all but the most horribly hard-core pornography be available in licensed sex-shops, whose contents must not be publicly displayed. Thus what was ineradicable would be tolerated but sequestered.

The conventions of Stationery Office prose kept some of Williams's comic details out of the final version, including his immortal observation that pornographic filming causes spotty bottoms, and the instructive tale of the secretary who fainted during a special screening of Pasolini's 120 Days of Sodom.

Travis barely looks at movies, and might have made useful play of Williams's distinction between the different imaginative force of words on the page and images on the screen. He ends with a rather dashed-off chapter on "What to Do About the Net", which underlines this weakness.

The Williams Report fell to the coming of Margaret Thatcher, and Travis is judicious in resurrecting it. He has been indomitable in his researches, even persuading the Home Office, in spite of Son of Jix, to open files a long way ahead of the official date. He makes such a cracking read of the history of high-toned British hypocrisy, class fat-headedness and bullying obduracy that he does your heart good, if not your mind.

The reviewer is professor of cultural studies at Sheffield University

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