A moral book? So was Mein Kampf

OLD AND grey and full of sleep as I am, the mere mention of the names Chatterley and Redgrave induces in me powerful and confused emotions. Lust, envy and admiration are combined with rage and scorn in a formidable cocktail. I shake and splutter.

And now on the telly last night the two names are conjoined thanks to the tireless activities of Ken Russell, another bete-semi-noire of mine, the desecrator of Richard Strauss's tomb and others.

He has summoned up Joely Richardson ('I have found her'), the beautiful daughter of beautiful Vanessa, to depict Lady Chatterley for the prurient masses. Miss Richardson is delighted: 'never so completely at home in a role', 'my best work', 'perfect casting'. Difficult to be sure of that, isn't it? What did Lady Chatterley look like? Lawrence says little, he seems much more interested in the appearance of Mellors, the gamekeeper (discuss).

The actress, or one of her many interviewers, notes that Russell has pared down all the 'preachy social content'; 'the love story is all'. Few will notice, she or her confidant continues, 'since that was precisely the part of the novel we skipped to get on to the rude bits'. If so, what a pity]

The dilution or omission of the preachy social bits would have enraged Lawrence, who put his dark soul into them. Without them, the uninitiated viewer has little idea of what the book is about. It certainly is not just a love story, oh no.

It was Sir Allen Lane, then boss of Penguin Books, who launched the Lady Chatterley brouhaha more than 30 years ago. It was his purpose to free himself and other publishers from fear of the obscenity laws. He accordingly planned to bulldoze through the courts a blockbuster hitherto pronounced obscene.

The problem was which to send first through the minefield, Henry Miller or D H Lawrence? Which would be surest of success? Lady Chatterley was eventually chosen as more likely to ensnare 'the experts' on literary merit and, above all, bishops and other 'experts' on moral merit.

What a triumph ensued] The law was rendered ridiculous, forced to assess merits, literary and otherwise, it was ill-fitted to assess. The prosecutor, Mervyn Griffith-Jones, was hilariously immortalised for doubting whether jurors could safely let their wives and servants read the book. The book was freed gloriously for publication, amid gales of exultant, enlightened giggling.

What truly shocked me and drew me into print at the time was not the possibility that Griffith-Jones's wife and servants, or my own, could freely buy Lady Chatterley at every bookstall. After all, books with 'rude bits' have always made their way through the undergrowth into the trembling hands that seek them. No, what shocked some of us were the disgraceful means by which this liberation was effected by the testifying clerisy.

Bishop Robinson of Woolwich affirmed that Lawrence was trying to portray sexual intercourse 'as in a real sense an act of holy communion'. Norman St John-Stevas, as he then was, in commending the book to every Catholic priest and moralist, declared it 'undoubtedly a moral book'. So it is, of course, in the sense that all books are in some way or another moral. Mein Kampf is 'a moral book'. It enjoins a certain morality, has had moral consequences - all evil. Would St John-Stevas accordingly have commended it to all Catholic priests and moralists? He might: some would have been appalled, others ensnared, all would have been better aware of what hadbeen afoot in inter-war Germany.

Richard Hoggart pronounced the book of all things 'puritanical', which he vaguely defined as having 'an intense sense of responsibility for one's conscience'. The rector of Eastwood, Lawrence's birthplace, suggested that the book might 'almost' be given to 'young people about to be married as a guide in love and marriage'. 'Almost' - a nice word for those whose generous impulses are checked by caution: 'I almost bought you some black undies, darling, but . . .'

At the time I rubbed my eyes at all this with amazement, expressed my misgivings. Could it be that these and other dignitaries had not read the book? Had they skipped the rude bits or the preachy social stuff or both? Or reading it, had they failed to understand it? Or, understanding, were they themselves bewitched? Or did they slip into perjury?

Could people of this sort tell the difference between a high mass and a black mass? What would they have made of The Story of O - 'a deeply religious and moral account of the spiritual value of suffering'?

Let none suppose that Dr George Carey is a novel phenomenon. He has just declared that divorce is sometimes 'not a bad thing': it 'may lead to better relationships'. At the Chatterley trial, the Bishop of Woolwich shiftily admitted that Lady Chatterley was in an immoral relationship, 'in so far as adultery is an immoral relationship'. Here speaks, before its time, the authentic voice of one of Mother Carey's chickens, quick to affirm the faith, quicker still to betray it.

Did these dignitaries not notice Lawrence's furious antipathy to Christian teaching on sex, love and marriage? Did they not notice how he places sex on a solitary pinnacle, above all mind and morals, and perfect sex above all other sex?

Did they not notice Mellors's murderous misanthropic ravings, directed not only against particular people - against his wife and Sir Clifford, for instance, and many others ('death would be the tenderest thing you could do for them . . . and I ought to be allowed to shoot them') - but against whole classes and nations and finally against the human race itself? These diatribes are rivalled only by those of Hitler and of Lawrence himself, writing elsewhere in propria persona.

Did the churchmen not notice that Lawrence's God is not their God but his own promised one, his saviour, the regenerating phallus? As Lady Chatterley proudly proclaims: 'whatever God there is has at last wakened up in my guts . . . and is rippling so happily there, like dawn'.

My own frail little sloop of dissent was launched in Encounter, without creating many waves. It was engulfed by the stupendous explosion, also in Encounter, of a friendly blockbuster fired off by Warden Sparrow of All Souls, Oxford. Strange 'experts' these, he thundered, who had failed to notice that at one point Mellors actually buggers Lady Chatterley]

In fact, they had noticed: they had even discussed among themselves how to wriggle round the point if challenged, which they weren't. Sparrow himself was awarded by Alastair Forbes the sonorous title, 'Warden of All Holes'.

Less predictable friendly fire came from Colin MacInnes, a high priest of the permissive society. He attacked the witnesses as 'trapped by ignorance, vanity or by fatal good intentions'. By appearing, they had 'dishonoured Lawrence': better his book were still banned than his vision thus hatefully distorted. Verb sap?