Past and Present series
Asked last year during a Zoom talk I gave to a UK Humanist group what book, if any, had the greatest influence on my life, I got blank stares when I proffered the name of a publication none had ever heard of: Jacobsen’s Index to Objectionable Literature. By around 1970, Jacobsen’s comprised a list of all material declared verboten by apartheid South Africa’s Publications Control Board (PCB).
Between the covers of that hefty tome at that time were around 13,000 items (including Black Beauty, banned for its title alone), films, statuettes – one store was prosecuted for having The Wrestlers on display – posters, button badges, “Black is Beautiful” and other T-shirts, comics and magazines, including The Freethinker.
I never knew of Jacobsen’s existence until a neighbour introduced me to The Freethinker in the 1960s. Relatives in the UK would post him the magazine at regular intervals. After lending me his collection, he warned me that I should show it to no-one, as it was banned, and that I risked prosecution if the authorities were ever to find out.
Being an intensely curious teenager, as well as a voracious reader, I visited my local library and asked whether it had any lists of banned material. A helpful but puzzled librarian handed me a copy of Jacobsen’s and I spent an entire afternoon absorbing items found “offensive” or “blasphemous” by the censors.
From that point on, I used Jacobsen’s to seek out banned titles that sounded appealing but could only be found, if one were lucky, under the counters of a few radical bookstores. Ironically, one was Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury’s 1953 dystopian novel in which “Firemen” have a duty to raid homes and burn any books they happen to find.
Fahrenheit 451, along with thousands of other titles seized by the authorities, were routinely tossed into incinerators from the 1950s through to the 1970s, but my cherished copy remains with me to this day.
The effect of Jacobsen’s on me was profound. I vowed to bring to the attention of fellow South Africans the absurdities of censorship, imposed on them by feeble-minded, barely literate “morality” crusaders – Christofascists all – who were given the job of deciding what material was suitable or not for schools, libraries, bookstores and cinemas.
So, for example, in 1968, three of Sidney Poitier’s films – Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, In The Heat Of The Night and To Sir, With Love were banned. Other films that got the chop included The Graduate, Blow Up, Finian’s Rainbow, Witchfinder General and Bonnie and Clyde – all internationally acclaimed and award-winning films.
Three years earlier Sidney Lumet’s The Pawnbroker was banned. The reason given by the PCB was that “it is offensive to see a ‘Bantu’ [Black] female baring her breasts for a white man.” It was unusual for the censors to use the word Bantu; rather they chose to refer to Blacks in their documentation as “kaffirs“, a derogatory term equivalent to the N-word.
Instructions to the distributors of one movie, the name of which I cannot recall, called for the banning of a scene where “a kaffir refuses to shake a white man’s hand.”
In 1970 The PCB’s annual report stated that since its in inception in 1934, 1,600 films had been severely cut and 300 films banned.
Using Jacobsen’s to compile lists which I freely distributed among friends and acquaintances eventually plunged me into a world of woe.
I wanted my list to be seen by many more, so when I suggested to the editor of The Star newspaper in Johannesburg, which employed me as chief court reporter, that I write a weekly column detailing the racist, antisemitic and homophobic decisions made by the censors, he jumped at the idea.
I was given a free hand to inform readers of what they were prevented from reading or watching, and, thanks to whistleblowers working for film distribution companies, I was handed documentation containing details of swingeing cuts made to movies.
The PCB, accustomed to doing its dirty work in secret, was horrified by this exposure, and one afternoon I was summonsed to an office of the Bureau of State Security (BOSS), where I discovered that a dossier had been opened on me. It detailed my involvement with the banned Communist Party and the African National Congress, as well as my friendship with Winnie Mandela, former wife of Nelson, who was serving a life sentence in prison at the time for sabotage.
But my exposure of the work of the censors appeared to unsettle them most, and I was ordered to cease and desist immediately. I flatly refused, but after the newspaper was approached directly and warned that such disclosures might be illegal, The Star took fright and scrapped my column, despite its growing popularity.
However, an entertainments guide called TimeOut was more than happy to take up my column, even though one edition had already been banned for featuring an “indecently dressed” Pamela Anderson, of Baywatch fame, on the cover. Shortly after, the guide itself was banned outright.
Later I was branded a “grave security risk” and was tipped off by my editor that BOSS intended arresting me, and he arranged for me to flee the country in 1973 and take up a position at the newspaper’s bureau in the UK, where I was eventually granted political asylum.
On arriving in London, one of the first things I did was contact the then editor of The Freethinker, and offered to write a series of articles linking the Christianity to the atrocities committed by the apartheid regime, and detailing what the SA censors considered “blasphemous.”
In the UK, Christians – especially members of the Salvation Army which G W Foote, founder of the Freethinker, held in particular contempt – detested the publication and would dearly have loved to have seen it banned. But, odd as it may sound, book banning was not a big thing in Victorian England. The authorities trusted writers not to offend sensitive readers, and the majority complied. Self-censorship was the order of the day.
Foote, who started his working life as a librarian, was not one of them. Casting aside all rules of propriety he declared upon launching The Freethinker in 1881:
The Freethinker is an anti-Christian organ, and must therefore be chiefly aggressive. It will wage relentless war against Superstition in general, and against Christian Superstition in particular. It will do its best to employ the resources of Science, Scholarship, Philosophy and Ethics against the claims of the Bible as a Divine Revelation; and it will not scruple to employ for the same purpose any weapons of ridicule or sarcasm that may be borrowed from the armoury of Common Sense.
Rather than ban the publication, the authorities tried to halt its publication it by bringing Foote and two associates to trial for blasphemy, but it continued without a break under interim editor Edward B Aveling. Below is the masthead of the October 28, 1883, edition.
In his defense, Foote quoted from a number of books which he claimed contained blasphemous material, but were never prosecuted. An extremely hostile Judge North, a devout Roman Catholic, would have none of it. In sentencing Foote to a year in prison with hard labor, he said:
George William Foote, you have been found Guilty by the jury of publishing these blasphemous libels. This trial has been to me a very painful one. I regret extremely to find a person of your undoubted intelligence, a man gifted by God with such great ability, should have chosen to prostitute his talents to the service of the Devil. I consider this paper totally different from any of the works you have brought before me in every way, and the sentence I now pass upon you is one of imprisonment for twelve calendar months.
The next person to be jailed for blasphemy in the the UK was trouser salesman John William Gott. He came to the attention of the Home Office in 1902 with the Truth Seeker when local Manchester residents started to agitate against its circulation.
In 1911, Gott was sentenced to four months in jail for blasphemy. Further periods of imprisonment followed. His final arrest was in 1921, initially for obstruction after selling birth control tracts and other material. The charge was increased to blasphemy. At his last trial at the Old Bailey in London in 1921, he was found guilty, and sentenced to nine months’ imprisonment with hard labour. He appealed and lost. Giving the judgment at the Court of Appeal, Lord Trevethin C.J. said:
It does not require a person of strong religious feelings to be outraged by a description of Jesus Christ entering Jerusalem ‘like a circus clown on the back of two donkeys. There are other passages in the pamphlets equally offensive to anyone in sympathy with the Christian religion, whether he be a strong Christian, or a lukewarm Christian, or merely a person sympathizing with their ideals. Such a person might be provoked to a breach of the peace.
(My thanks to Bob Forder, who is heading a team that plans to digitalize the entire Freethinker printed archive, for finding this cartoon, one of many that played a major role in Foote prosecution.)
Fifty-six years elapsed before Christianity was again found to have been maligned in the case of Whitehouse v Lemon. James Kirkup’s poem – The Love that Dares to Speak its Name – was published in the June 3, 1976, issue of Gay News. Hardly a masterpiece, the poem, written from the viewpoint of a Roman centurion, graphically describes him having sex with Jesus after his crucifixion, and also claims that Jesus had had sex with numerous disciples, guards, and even Pontius Pilate.
Citing the little-known Blasphemy Act of 1697, lawyers acting for Whitehouse filed a writ for “blasphemous libel” against the magazine and a year later its editor, Denis Lemon. Lemon was fined £500 and sentenced to nine months’ imprisonment, suspended for 18 months.
His jail sentence was subsequently quashed by the Court of Appeal, but his blasphemy conviction was upheld. He died in 1994 aged 49 of an AIDS-related condition.
Free speech advocates were appalled by the private prosecution brought against Lemon by Mary Whitehouse, self-appointed nanny to the nation, and I – as a founder member of the Gay Humanist Group (later to become the Gay and Lesbian Humanist Association (GALHA) – commissioned a card that we sold in great numbers to help with Lemon’s legal costs.
It should be noted that John Smyth, the evangelical Christian barrister and part-time judge chosen by Whitehouse to represent her, was later exposed as a homophobic sadomasochist who brutally abused boys in his care after he settled first in Zimbabwe and then South Africa. He died before he could be brought to justice.
Encouraged by her successful prosecution of Lemon, in 1982 Whitehouse, founder of the National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association, brought another private prosecution against theater director Michael Bogdanov, alleging that his play, The Romans in Britain, was “grossly offensive” because of a scene depicting homosexual rape. On this occasion, the case was thrown out of court.
Seven years later, religion – this time Islam – became the center of a major international controversy after British Indian writer Salman Rushdie published The Satanic Verses. Its fanciful and satiric use of Islam struck many Muslims as blasphemous. This from Britannica:
Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against the author in 1989, enjoining Muslims to kill not only Rushdie but also his editors and publishers. Violent demonstrations followed in Pakistan; copies of the novel were burned in Britain, where several bookstores were bombed; and the work was banned in several countries.
The anti-censorship quest on which I embarked as a teen eventually projected me into a very public square: the famous Trafalgar Square in London. In 2002, along with a group of campaigners demanding the scrapping of the UK’s blasphemy laws, we stood on the steps of St Martin-in-the-Fields Church, and took turns in reading out loud the ten stanzas of Kirkup’s poem.
If I recall correctly I read:
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.
One of those who stood beside me was a hero of mine: George Melly, above, the renowned jazz singer, writer, expert on surrealism, and President of the then British Humanist Society, now Humanists UK. He sadly died five years later.
Our group was vastly outnumbered by hundreds of hysterical Christians, baying for our blood. Screaming “blasphemy!” and promising us “eternal damnation,” they were prevented from physically attacking us by a sizeable police presence and metal barriers.
But one American evangelist managed to breach a barrier, and, brandishing an enormous wooden cross, tried to hit me with it. I snatched it from his hand, smashed it over one knee, and threw the remnants in his face.
It was one of the best days of my life.
On March 5, 2008, an amendment was passed to the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 which abolished the common law offenses of blasphemy and blasphemous libel in England and Wales. Last year, Scotland repealed its blasphemy law.
Now, on the cusp of turning 75, my fiery determination to oppose those who are intent on dictating what one can or cannot read, watch or hear, burns as strong as it was when I first discovered Jacobsen’s.
Next up: a look at how embattled libraries in the US are being targeted by a terrifying alliance of Christian extremists and Republicans.