A Happy Finish: James Gillray and the Victorian Obscenity Laws

If you wanted to get your hands on the really dirty stuff in the 19th century, you had to get it under the counter. But, you could usually get it from the same people you got your finer works from: private publishers and printers.

19th century society, and the laws in force, meant that printers had to leave out many of the saucier images from collections that had been published in their entirety in a previous era. And so it is believed to be with a collection of plates by James Gillray recently unearthed in the vaults of the Ministry of Justice:

‘The folio was carefully wrapped up alongside a collection of seized material that had been handed to the old obscene publications unit over the years. That material is fairly tame by today’s standards, but when I uncovered the folio it was clear that it was something a little out of the ordinary. Even so, after some research, I was amazed to discover it had such historic value and am pleased to now see the prints kept safe in a suitable home.’

Gillray’s drawings – including his more famous caricatures of the political figures of the time – were republished in the 1840s, but like his contemporary Thomas Rowlandson – of whom we have written before – Gillray also produced a body of work of an even more controversial nature.

It’s believed that this slim volume of ‘Curiosa’ would have reproduced those engravings excised from the main 1840 editions of Gillray’s work, and privately sold to the more curious collector. Some way along the line, it fell into the hands of the Victorian Vice Squad, but it has now, to much rejoicing, been presented to the nation, and appropriately to the Victoria and Albert museum, where it is viewable in the museum’s prints room.

We’re very grateful to the V&A for supplying Bookkake with a few images from the collection – tame by today’s standards, yes, but not without charm. And we’d love to know what else a clear-out of the old obscene publications store might reveal… (Click for much larger versions).

Fashionable Contrasts; or the Duchess’s little shoe yielding to the magnitude of the Duke’s Foot, 1792

Ladies Dress, as it soon will be, 1796

ci-Devant Occupations; or Madame Talian and the Empress Josephine Dancing Naked before Barras in the Winter of 1797, 1805

All images by James Gillray, © V&A Images, reproduced with permission.

Posted January 6, 2010 | Comments Off on A Happy Finish: James Gillray and the Victorian Obscenity Laws.

Quantum Obscenity, and the networking of desire

A good, if a little vague, article by Maureen Freely in Saturday’s Guardian brings together two recent news stories in an examination of our changing attitudes to children, art and sexual offences: the arrest of Roman Polanski for a 1977 assault on a minor (on which Steve Lopez writes convincingly, and approvingly, in the LA Times) and the removal of an artwork by Richard Prince from the Tate’s new Pop Life exhibition.

The artwork in question is a reproduction of a 1975 fashion photo of a nude, oiled and heavily made-up 10-year-old Brooke Shields – the same child who appeared naked on celluloid at 12 in Louis Malle’s Pretty Baby (available on Amazon), and at 15 in a TV jeans ad with the strapline: “You want to know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing.” (Christopher Turner has a good history of the piece in the same newspaper.)

There’s no question as to the artistic merit of the piece: Prince’s appropriation is a direct questioning of sensuality versus sexuality, of the morality of art and the placing of responsibility for interpretation (Its title, “Spiritual America”, refers to an Alfred Stieglitz photograph of a gelded horse, referencing the breakdown of discussion of sexuality in society). Does the offence, the implicit lust, reside with the artwork, or the viewer? The Metropolitan Police are clear on the issue, or at least, on their opinion of the issue.

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Posted October 5, 2009 | Comments Off on Quantum Obscenity, and the networking of desire.

Some kind of Justice: Girls Aloud torture porn Redux

Publishers and internet users can breathe a sigh of relief today, as Newcastle Crown Court formally returned a not guilty verdict to the charges we first discussed back in December.

Darryn Walker, a civil servant, lost his job when the short story he posted online, Girls (Scream) Aloud, was seized upon by the utterly unaccountable Internet Watch Foundation. Worse, the prosecution offered no evidence when it came to trial. The case threatened to severely curtail freedom of speech online and off, with Sky News calling it one of the most significant [obscenity trials] since the trial over DH Lawrence’s novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover.”

The media still hasn’t got a real handle on it, however, with the BBC continuing to get the basic details wrong (it’s neither 12 pages long, or a blog). They also report that “As soon as he was aware of the upset and fuss that had been created, [Mr Walker] took steps himself to take the article off the website” – ignorant of the fact that it’s very much still online (and still NSFW – although far worse can be found in your local bookshop or even on this website).

Worse, there seems little impetus to question why this case was brought in the first place, or the ramifications of a “a report from a consultant psychiatrist [that] said it was “baseless” to suggest that reading such material could turn other people into sexual predators” (BBC, again) – a finding that, taken seriously, should have very real consequences for Britain’s outmoded and outlandish obscenity laws.

We hope that this result will lead to some inquiry into the role of the Internet Watch Foundation before it arbitrarily blocks or criminalises more legal material, but we’re not holding our breath. The government’s recent Digital Britain report stated that “The IWF’s work remains invaluable to every part of the value chain in the UK’s Internet industry” (Page 202, Final Report) – a weasel statement that conflates what’s good for the industry (desperately trying to stave off government interference with opaque self-regulation) with what’s good for citizens. This case could be used to better define the role of the IWF, rather than just calling for its funding to be increased, which is the Digital Britain report’s conclusion. We’ll keep watching.

Posted June 29, 2009 | Comments Off on Some kind of Justice: Girls Aloud torture porn Redux.

It’s Still On: The real failure of Amazonfail, Dubai, and Internet Outrage

There’s a lot of post-Amazonfail discussion on the blogs at the moment. We wrote up our own experiences here, but we’d like to do a bit of a debrief on this, and the recent Dubai Literature Festival controversy, to explain why this is important, and why it’s not over.

First of all, let’s get a couple of things clear: it wasn’t a troll and it wasn’t all a big glitch. The troll/user-tagging argument relies on the assumption that it was only LGBT (Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) books that were targetted: Bookkake’s own examples contradict this (and, contrary to many reports, there’s no facility on Amazon to flag up products you dislike, only other user comments). And Amazon’s “glitch” excuse does not in any way explain why LGBT books – all of them, books with no sexual content, books about parenting, marriage and advice for young people – got shunted into the ‘adult’, family-unfriendly reaches of the catalogue.

There’s a lot of back-tracking going on right now, with some interesting thoughts on the issue, mostly from webby, social media types. Among others, Meg Pickard, Head of Communities at Guardian Media Group, is concerned about this kind of internet-enabled hue and cry, and whether it’s doing more harm than good. Clay Shirky, new media commentator de nos jours, has a thoughtful – and apologetic – piece on why moral ourage may have been redirected, and why it’s so hard to turn around.

We understand these arguments, and we sympathise with them. We don’t endorse the mindless mob, and in our own reporting of the event, we tried to stick to our own experiences, and we kept our minds open. But now Amazon has had a chance to respond, it’s time to talk about what’s really the matter here, and we’ll start by going back a couple of months, to Dubai.

As regular readers will know, a comparable situation occurred back in February over the alleged “banning” of a book with gay content by the Dubai Literature Festival. There was a similar (if far smaller) outcry in the book world, with calls for a boycott—in which Bookkake participated, gathering contact details for attendees, soliciting statements from those involved, and collating information as the event unfolded. Margaret Atwood, no less, changed her plans to attend. Others reconsidered.

Some days later, it turned out that the book had not been banned, but simply not selected for the festival, and the director had written a rather naive letter to the publisher saying she didn’t think the book would sit well with “local sensibilities”. Well, OK then, said everyone, what a silly hoo-hah over nothing. Poor new festival director who got it in the neck. They even put together, at short notice, a special panel on censorship, with several prominent Middle Eastern writers, representatives from PEN, the international writers’ human rights organisation, and Atwood beamed in by satellite. Job done.

Well, sorry, but no. Here’s a thing: in the whole two-hour panel, which you can watch online, in its entirety, on Vimeo and on the festival’s website, nobody talks about homosexuality. (Andrey Kurkov – author of the excellent Death and the Penguin – says the word ‘homosexual’ around 82:50, as part of a throwaway remark with little relevance to the discussion. That’s it.) That bears repeating: in a two-hour panel on censorship, set up specifically in response to accusations of homophobia, not a single participant talks about homosexuality.

You don’t play these sort of games with literature, with peoples’ lives. The book in question is still not on sale in Dubai, and the local media can’t discuss it. The Dubai Literature Festival’s tagline was “There are places only books can take you.” If you’re gay in Dubai, the only place you’ll go is to prison, for up to ten years. This issue vanished from the debate, which became one of general censorship, rather than one of specific discrimination against lesbians and gays.

On the panel, in the video, Margaret Atwood, International PEN Vice-President, talked about how books can be a lifeline to those who read them (64:00). Rachel Billington, previous President Of English PEN, spoke of how authors’ self-censorship is often the greatest danger (71:35). Eugene Schoulgin, International Secretary of International PEN, said that “it is our responsibility as writers not to close our eyes to what is going on” (80:15). And yet: no one spoke of homosexuality.

Likewise, the issue at the heart of #amazonfail is not – should not be – whether Amazon’s recategorisation was accidental or not, but how LGBT books came to be classified as not suitable for “family” viewing. How Amazon attempted to place them in the category of things of which we shall not speak. There is an effort to recoup and reform the discussion going on right now, to make this an issue of social media, of its use – and misuse – to “victimise” Amazon. But Amazon started applying these filters two months ago, and when it was just the gays who complained, as recently as last week, Amazon did nothing. Homosexual speech is not heard; it is unimportant; it is recategorised; it is censored and banned and imprisoned.

It took the full weight of the social web hue and cry—yes, an ugly thing at times—to turn Amazon around. Which they have now done. But is it enough? No. If Amazon really want to rebuild their credibility, they need to tell us exactly what happened, how it happened, and promise that it won’t happen again. We won’t let you play these kinds of games with literature. We won’t let you weasel out of this debate; we won’t be sidetracked by the issues of social media, mob rule and poor reporting; we won’t just move on as the short-attention-span of internet outrage passes. We’re willing to give you a fair hearing, but you must speak so that we all can hear.

Image detail from 58/365: It’s Better This Way by Eternal Grom, used under Creative Commons.

Dirty Mondays: “The Love That Dares To Speak Its Name” by James Kirkup

For Easter Monday, possibly the most controversial poem of recent decades: James Kirkup’s “The Love That Dares To Speak Its Name”. When it was first published in Gay News in 1976, it caused a furore led by the British “moral campaigner” Mary Whitehouse, which led to the eventual prosecution and conviction for Blasphemy of the editor of Gay News, Denis Lemon.

Blasphemous libel was an offence under the common law of England and Wales until it was abolished on 8 July 2008 by the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008, having been replaced with the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006, another piece of legislation which has been accused of poor phrasing, dubious intent, and of more likelihood to create tensions between communities than prevent them.

Poetry can be dangerous, and rarely more so than in Kirkup’s poem, which uses the same religious themes and setting employed by countless artists over centuries to throw light on current issues, and highlight in the story of Christ not the savagery of his execution, but the love he brought into the world.

The Love That Dares To Speak Its Name

As they took him from the cross
I, the centurion, took him in my arms—
the tough lean body
of a man no longer young,
beardless, breathless,
but well hung.

He was still warm.
While they prepared the tomb
I kept guard over him.
His mother and the Magdalen
had gone to fetch clean linen
to shroud his nakedness.

I was alone with him.
For the last time
I kissed his mouth. My tongue
found his, bitter with death.
I licked his wound—
the blood was harsh
For the last time
I laid my lips around the tip
of that great cock, the instrument
of our salvation, our eternal joy.
The shaft, still throbbed, anointed
with death’s final ejaculation

I knew he’d had it off with other men—
with Herod’s guards, with Pontius Pilate,
With John the Baptist, with Paul of Tarsus
with foxy Judas, a great kisser, with
the rest of the Twelve, together and apart.
He loved all men, body, soul and spirit. — even me.

So now I took off my uniform, and, naked,
lay together with him in his desolation,
caressing every shadow of his cooling flesh,
hugging him and trying to warm him back to life.
Slowly the fire in his thighs went out,
while I grew hotter with unearthly love.

It was the only way I knew to speak our love’s proud name,
to tell him of my long devotion, my desire, my dread—
something we had never talked about. My spear, wet with blood,
his dear, broken body all open wounds,
and in each wound his side, his back,
his mouth—I came and came and came

as if each coming was my last.
And then the miracle possessed us.
I felt him enter into me, and fiercely spend
his spirit’s final seed within my hole, my soul,
pulse upon pulse, unto the ends of the earth-
he crucified me with him into kingdom come.

This is the passionate and blissful crucifixion
same-sex lovers suffer, patiently and gladly.
They inflict these loving injuries of joy and grace
one upon the other, till they die of lust and pain
within the horny paradise of one anothers’ limbs,
with one voice cry to heaven in a last divine release.

Then lie long together, peacefully entwined, with hope
of resurrection, as we did, on that green hill far away.
But before we rose again, they came and took him from me.
They knew not what we had done, but felt
no shame or anger. Rather they were glad for us,
and blessed us, as would he, who loved all men.

And after three long, lonely days, like years,
in which I roamed the gardens of my grief
seeking for him, my one friend who had gone from me,
he rose from sleep, at dawn, and showed himself to me before
all others. And took me to him with
the love that now forever dares to speak its name.

James Kirkup (born April 23, 1918).

Image: Detail from Caravaggio’s Taking of Christ in the Garden.

Posted April 13, 2009 | Comments Off on Dirty Mondays: “The Love That Dares To Speak Its Name” by James Kirkup.

On Amazonfail: Another case study for the pile

Over the last weekend, a controversy has blown up around the online retailer Amazon’s apparent “restriction” of large numbers of books across its international sites, heavily weighted towards adult and LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) content. We’re not sure exactly what’s going on – there are some suggestions that it could be a malicious action by third parties taking advantage of Amazon’s user-flagging systems – but you can get a good idea of the scope from this listing at LJ, this call by Ed Champion for a boycott, and Kassia Krozser’s excellent open letter to Amazon at Booksquare. The twittersphere has reacted with predictable and massive uproar.

For the record, Bookkake seems very much affected by what’s happening. We got a message last week from a friend pointing out that a simple Amazon.co.uk search for “bookkake”, which we linked to from our books page no longer returned any results, and we changed this to an advanced search for all books “published by Bookkake“, which did return our books.

On Sunday—yesterday—we performed a number of trial searches, and found that it was almost impossible to find any of our books through basic searches, with many totally unrelated items ranking higher in searches than the books we were quite obviously looking for, in much the way Kassia notes in her post.

Today—Monday—this seems to have changed. Our books are once again appearing as would be expected in normal searches, although they still don’t have any sales rank data attached, which they had previously. We’re not sure what’s going on, and it appears to still be in flux, but we don’t have much confidence in Amazon’s statement that it was all a “glitch”, and we’ll keep monitoring the situation for now.

What this highlights is the growing power of the new generation of massively pervasive retailers such as Amazon—and the search engines that support them—as well as the damage they can do if they choose to censor or de-list literature. On the flip side, the controversy it raised shows the power consumers have to fight back: if nothing else, we can be sure that corporations are more interested in making money than making policy, and the loudest political voice among their consumers will trump any moral outrage on the other side.

Update P.S.: I have to add this wonderful example of consumer power: within 24 hours, a successful googlebombing for the string “amazon rank“. Good job, Smart Bitches.

Image of a Yagua tribesman demonstrating the use of the blowgun, on one of the Amazonian islands near Iquito, Peru. Used under GNU license from Wikimedia Commons.

Posted April 13, 2009 | Comments Off on On Amazonfail: Another case study for the pile.

Boycott Dubai: Literature, Censorship and Homophobia in the Gulf

Several news outlets this morning carry the story of British author Geraldine Bedell being banned from the Emirates Airline International Festival of Literature in Dubai because of the depiction of a homosexual relationship in her novel The Gulf Between Us, and possible queries about its stance on Islam.

[Multiple updates with response from the festival and partners, and some authors pulling out (appended below).]

The Telegraph quotes festival director Isobel Abulhoul saying that “I do not want our festival remembered for the launch of a controversial book. If we launched the book and a journalist happened to read it, then you could imagine the political fallout that would follow. This could be a minefield.”

MSNBC reports that festival organizers complained that “it talks about Islam and queries what is said.”

The New York Times quotes Bedell’s publisher, Juliet Annan, saying: ”It’s all very unfortunate. In effect the censor has said they will ban it, which means no book chain can buy it.”

The Dubai Festival calls itself “the first true literary Festival in the Middle East celebrating the world of books in all its infinite variety” – a shocking claim to be making when it in fact singles out and censors books whose variety it finds it impossible to confront. There is no place for censorship in literature, or at any “true” literary festival.

The festival claims as attendees the writers Anthony Horowitz, Kate Adie, Chimamanda Adichie, Sir Ranulph Fiennes, Lauren Child, Terry Brooks, Alexander Maitland, Kate Mosse, Brian Aldiss, Robert Irwin, Rachel Billington, Frank McCourt, Sir Mark Tully, Wilbur Smith, Anita Nair, Victoria Hislop, Philippa Gregory, Margaret Atwood, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Karin Slaughter, Louis de Bernières and a host of others. It is sponsored by Emirates Airlines, and partners include Time Out and the British Council.

I urge you to contact these individuals and organisations and express your dismay at the actions of the festival, and urge them to either boycott the festival, or engage with the organisers and insist that work invited to the festival is not censored in this way.

Let’s be entirely clear about this: the suppression of literature leads to the suppression of people. Article 177 of the Penal Code of Dubai imposes imprisonment of up to 10 years on consensual homosexual relations, which is regularly enforced (see Wikipedia article). Oppression is a result of ignorance, and literature can be one of the great forces to bring understanding and the ending of such oppression. Authors, journalists and all lovers of literature should see it as something to be supported, argued over, but never suppressed.

After the jump, I’ve provided contact details for those listed above. Please consider contacting them.

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Posted February 17, 2009 | Comments (3).

Girls Aloud and the Obscene Publications Act

Not words you really expect to find in the same sentence. Girls Aloud, Britain’s best girl-pop combo in absolutely yonks, are definitely flirty and really a little bit dirty, but obscene? No. But they have been dragged into the debate in a most unpleasant fashion.

Britain’s 1959 and 1964 Obscene Publications Acts are still very much in force, and still based on the 1st Baron Coleridge’s 1868 definition of that which “tends to deprave and corrupt,” although they are, thankfully, rarely enforced. The last time the Act was used in anger was in the banning of David Britton’s Lord Horror in 1991 – still rather recent, although this was later, finally, overturned. (The full story can be found here, and our good friend Supervert recently published an excellent introduction to Britton’s fascinating oeuvre.)

Darryn Walker, 35, a civil servant, appeared at Newcastle Crown Court on 22 October, charged with offences under the OPA. He was charged and a trial date was set for March 16th 2009. According to the papers, a story written by Walker, Girls (Scream) Aloud, was found online by the Internet Watch Foundation and reported to the police. Yes, the same IWF that last week unilaterally banned (and then un-banned) a large number of Britons from Wikipedia.

The work in question, posted on an international site, is apparently still available online – indeed, it’s even on Digg – although we definitely don’t recommend it. It’s difficult to know where it first appeared – that link goes to a repository of Alt.sex.stories, registered in New Jersey, and therefore beyond the jurisdiction of the British Police, but “prosecution has been able to go ahead because the alleged author was identified as a UK citizen living in Britain“.

It should be pointed out that while the case has been widely reported, none of the newspapers involved has checked out the story itself (being neither 12 pages long, nor on a blog, as reported) and all prefixing their statements about the content with “allegedly”. The original even includes a disclaimer:

Author’s note: the named celebrities in this piece are fictionalised representations of themselves. I do not condone in the real world any of the acts described in this work.

The media is calling the case “one of the most significant since the Lady Chatterly case”, although they’re also taking quotes from people who say “As far as I’m aware there hasn’t been an obscenity prosecution concerning the written word since the 1970s, so this is very unusual,” ignoring both the Britton Case and the 1984 prosecution of Gay’s The Word. Suffice to say, there seems little interest in the British media in investigating a case with deeply serious consequences for literature, free speech and the internet.

If you do read the story, you’ll find it’s pretty gross and distasteful, but contains significantly less sex than most fan porn, and no more violence than de Sade or even our own The Torture Garden – if rather less literary merit. But surely that’s not enough to warrant prosecution.

The case reminds us of a less celebrated and certainly less prosecuted episode from one of our favourite novelists: Dennis Cooper (above). An extended passage in his 1997 novel Guide featured the drugging and rape of a thinly-fictionalised Alex James from Blur (‘Alex’ from ‘Smear’ in the book). Those who’ve read Cooper’s work will know that it too contains scenes far more sexual and violent than anything in Girls (Scream) Aloud – and Cooper has been published by Grove Press, Canongate, Carroll & Graf, Serpent’s Tail and been nominated for and awarded numerous literary prizes.

By all accounts, James was actually quite flattered by the homage, going so far as to set up an interview with Cooper, although he pulled out at the last minute. Somehow, it seems unlikely that Darryn Walker will meet with the same reception.

It will be very interesting to see the result of this case, which, if the prosecution is to be successful, will have to show that the material is not only “likely to deprave and corrupt” but also widely available. In the age of the internet, the latter is perhaps more significant: anything published electronically is now available to everyone, and there is much worse than Mr Walker’s story out there. Like all these cases, the decision will have more to do with the sensibilities of judge and jury than any sound legal or moral basis, but the real questions are why 50 year-old legislation is still the basis of Britain’s naive attempts to censor the internet, and why an unaccountable British charity is deciding what literature is acceptable.

Fanny, or, More problems with the naughty filter

After our recent troubles with Facebook, our attempt to sign up with Google Books faces this unexpected hurdle:

In a previous editing life, I was once involved in a very, very long discussion with an American author about whether ‘fanny’ was appropriate in the UK edition of his work. In that case, it specifically referred to an older man touching the ‘fanny’ of a young girl. While fully aware of the term’s meaning in the US, we felt it might be rather more ambiguous to UK readers, and might be substituted without changing the meaning or the effect of the text. The author eventually overruled us.

In this case, it seems particularly egregious. What is Google hoping to avoid? Who put ‘fanny’ on the naughty list? And will they accept a tinyurl instead?

(To the last question, at least: Yes.)

Posted October 30, 2008 | Comments (1).

Banned Books

If you’re not aware already, this week is the American Library Association’s Banned Book Week, which seeks to draw attention to the freedom to read and “reminds Americans not to take this precious democratic freedom for granted.” Of course, this is a warning we should all heed – as the example of Bookkake’s Fanny Hill demonstrates.

Fanny Hill remains one of the most famous cases of censorship in British – and indeed American – history, and Sean Walsh details the beginnings of its troubles in his introduction to the book – alongside details of Jacobite sex clubs, and Eighteenth century sex panic and blood fixations. It was Fanny Hill that was at the centre of Memoirs v. Massachusetts, a landmark 1966 Supreme Court case that finally put the decade-old Roth ruling for obscenity to the test.

John Mark Ockerbloom has a great post on Why Banned Book Week Matters over at the Everybody’s Libraries blog, and the Guardian is also running a reasonably enlightening Banned Books Quiz to test your knowledge.

Image from florian.b’s Flickr stream, under Creative Commons.

Posted September 30, 2008 | Comments (2).

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