Books: The Metropolitan Critic — After the <i>Oz</i> Trial |
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After the Oz Trial

The Oz trial went overhead very slowly, like a fair to middling episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus running at the wrong speed. Suddenly, a far-off crunch: our faces fall. The news arrives that there has been an almighty pile-up and three of the madcap aviators will have to walk back — one of them might not be back at all. End of joke.

In the heyday of censorship in Australia’s comic State of Victoria, you always knew what you were up against: nobody pretended to wisdom or even common reason. Inspector Eulenspiegel, or whatever his name was, simply asked the court to hang, draw and quarter the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary on the grounds that it contained certain words: whereupon the judge instructed the jury to show no mercy and awarded Eulenspiegel a fourth bar to his Surf Lifesaving Association’s Bronze Medallion. The Returned Servicemen’s League (95 per cent of the male adult population of the country) would then commandeer every existing news medium to remind the other 5 per cent that the lonely voice of the true digger had at last been heard and that these poms from Oxford were a mob of cockatoos and poof-dahs. There was none of this misleading veneer of common sense disguising the essential rat-baggery and shoddiness of the proceedings: you knew where you were — which was usually on the first available ship to England.

There is not much point in stoking the fire under Judge Argyle. Despite the views of several of Fleet Street’s most distinguished leader writers (who seem to be of the opinion that he had sentenced the Oz editors for corrupting and depraving minors), he most definitely did not sentence the three intrepid flyers for something the jury said they had not done. What he did was give them a thundering sentence for what the jury said they had done. He picked them up by the exposed scruff of the neck and dumped them in the jug for something that in the normal course of events would not have cost them anything but money. Several of Fleet Street’s most distinguished leader writers were acting on their own account when they decided to flounce up and down outside the chokey window patting themselves with power puffs and shrieking about ‘corruption’ — an idea the jury had already rejected, on the strength of the prosecution’s notable failure to produce expert evidence in its favour. Whether something is obscene or not is a ponderable which Judge Argyle treated as something empirically ascertainable, like whether someone is dead or not or whether a shop has been broken into or not: there is nothing in the law to dictate that he should have done otherwise, and if Wittgenstein had been in his place the instruction to the jury would still have had to be based on an a priori assumption, although probably a better one.

For the same reason, there is no point in guying Brian Leary: he attacked the moral credibility of witnesses for the simple reason that the law encourages him to — the only way to falsify somebody’s moral assertions is to prove him immoral. When the crime itself is all to be established, who among us is not guilty? Nobody, except (and here we see a dazzle of propeller, a flash of goggles and a stream of silken scarf ) Lord Longford, the White Knight of the Air.

Similarly there are no prizes to be won by poking fun at Detective Inspector Luff of the Obscene Publications Squad. For all the restrictions it places in the way of the police interpreting people’s intentions and evincing distaste for people’s general attitudes, the law (which is the well-known double-whammy, the Obscene Publications Acts of 1964 and 1969) might as well be Article 58 of the old Soviet Criminal Code.

With all the world of obscenity to choose from — and everything is obscene which the police disapprove of — it is necessary to be selective. No wonder, then, that Soho porn is left relatively alone and those areas are picked on which are not self-regulating, where rudery is claimed to be a means towards an end and where the end is something with which they are out of sympathy. The police would have to be Athenian philosophers, and several cuts above the ones surrounding Socrates, to do better than they do now. It’s the law that’s at fault. It centres on a concept that nobody has ever been able to define, and once a charge has been brought under it there is no defence against the ordinary prejudices of prosecution, judge and jury except to introduce a counterbalancing, equally undefinable concept, such as literary merit.

In the Oz case the counter-balancing concept turned out to be a version of the public good — a version involving the right to criticize, the right to question, the necessity for untrammelled evolutionary change. It didn’t have a chance. It wouldn’t have had a chance if George Bernard Shaw had stood there for five weeks reading his collected ‘Prefaces’ aloud and screening newsreels of Galileo on the rack. There is nothing that can happen in a courtroom which will give specificity to a vague law. It was a wise man who said that the Lady Chatterley acquittal gave the notion of obscenity substance and was therefore catastrophic.

Under the Obscenity laws it is possible to bring covert charges against political opinions, and the mere possibility should be enough reason to get these laws off the books in all haste. It makes no difference if the judge thinks it is not a political trial. It makes no difference if all the leader-writers in London think it is not a political trial. Once there is selection in deciding what to charge, it is a political trial, whatever happens at it and whichever way it goes. An underground publication can be wiped out simply by the cost of being hauled before a court. Once the charge is brought, the job is done. This is too much power for anyone to have, and what our leader-writers must realize — all at once if possible, but one at a time if necessary — is that any use of such power is an abuse.

I should say at this point that I myself have small sympathy for Oz in general, and scarcely any at all for the culprit issue No. 28: I laughed like a drain at the priapic Rupert the Bear but found the rest thick-witted and raucous in the usual Oz way. That it was produced by schoolchildren proved nothing to me beyond the fact that adolescent rhetoric had shifted away from class-ridden, British Empire rubbish towards revolutionary rubbish. The new brand of rhetoric, like the old, is there to be grown out of in the search for the real, and the one advantage it offers is that it at least tries to take account of a few salient facts about the condition of the modern world. On sex the new rhetoric is less obscurantist than the old, and the Oz editors (and their defenders both legal and journalistic) are on strong moral ground when they argue that an imposed ignorance is no control and that a compassionate concern for the world is closely allied to the shedding of sexual guilt.

Beyond that, in Oz No. 28, as in every other issue, there is just the usual earnest confusion about what the condition of the world actually is. Like equivalent confusions of previous eras it strikes me as being ineluctably middle-class in the political solutions it proposes. For the short term at any rate it’s a phantom revolution, but at least it is not po-faced. At least it tries to be fun to belong to, and probably the objections of the Whitehouse-Longford brigade begin at this fact. Although the underground thinks quite otherwise, neither of these worthies is in the least political; they are sheerly and simply Puritan and wouldn’t know a radical alternative from a limited-slip differential, and where the law allows them no scope they can have no influence beyond that conferred by innate authority: i.e., practically zero.

I have known Richard Neville for years and have always admired his honesty: his intelligence (which apparently earned him an extra three months in the slam, if I read Judge Argyle aright) is tenacious rather than quick, but he faces facts once he has worked them out. In his book Play Power there were already signs that he had recognized the dangers the underground might face through violent confrontation. He was already betting on establishing a plump, healthy parasite alternative within the body of a tolerant host. When people started jumping bail after he had posted his own money for them, he regretted fast enough — and in Oz too — that he had ever recommended sharp practice.

The editorial policy of Oz has always been to have no policy: they’d shove anything in, not excluding the ravings of the madder situationists or the bomb plots of crazed, desperate Americans. But I never heard that the Oz editors as a group had any idea of encouraging organized violence in this country. Their double-think about Britain was too impregnable for that: they never doubted that this hopelessly corrupt, repressive capitalist system was anything other than fundamentally reliable, tolerant and pluralist. Revolutionary in rhetoric, Oz and all its off-shoots are revisionist to the core.

Until recently there was an interesting situation evolving in the underground press. Time Out had moved up to a just-below-the-overground position where it started providing news and services in a recognizable and useful radical mode. Ink had been launched as an alternative newspaper and after a typically chaotic start (everything around Neville is pure Keystone Kops) had begun to improve. Below these, down in the old underground, Oz, IT and the rest were facing the possibility that the underground was here to stay — that it was part of the life of the country and needed to work out what kind of influences it could exert. I don’t think I’m being optimistic or smug in saying that the underground was maturing. If society had rational interests it would have been within those interests to protect this maturing process by leaving it alone. But as the underground began to find out all over again, you underestimate your opponent if you attribute rational coherence to the ‘system’: it is not perfectly coherent, it is far from rational and it has no reliable means of knowing its own interests.

In late March a wave of prosecutions and book-shop raids began. It was left to the underground press to report the speed and weight of this wave, and now the underground press itself is starting to crumple under the pressure. The charge which made life difficult for IT was particularly piquant: the editors were pulled in on an obscenity rap for allowing homosexuals to signal to one another in the small ads. So far as I know, there is nothing that proscribes this in any law of the land, and by the same logic the police should be conducting lightning raids on public lavatories and carrying away van-loads of cubicle doors.

Under the obscenity law, young people are being charged with offences they will not be aware they have committed until they hear the verdict. This is against the whole spirit of the legal system in this country and has its proper place only in police states. Under the obscenity law, defence counsel is obliged to ask for a wider context to be taken into consideration (the public good, etc.) and so imply that in the narrow context the object in question may well be obscene. This places the defence in a difficult position and on occasion virtually aligns it with the prosecution. Under the obscenity law, the police are encouraged to behave like Dogberry, and the bench is obliged to indulge in philosophical investigations that are beyond its competence, and would be beyond the competence of Hegel and Aristotle trapped together for ten years in the Library of Congress.

The first penalty of thought control is to make the controller seem a clown. Already we are not far from the moment when some home-grown equivalent of Eulenspiegel will support the evidence of his latest pot-bust with books culled from private shelves. Neville has got his bail, which postpones the fateful moment, but if his appeal should be turned down, there might not be any need to cap his fifteen-month stretch by sending him home. Australia could already be here.

(Listener, 1971)
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Too many colons and loose ‘ands’ betray the urge to sound pushed for time, as if the self-imposed obligation to mediate between the Establishment and the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers was a matter of life and death. ‘Eulenspiegel, or whatever his name was’ was an unnecessary obfuscation. His real name was Vogelsang and he was a police officer in Melbourne, where he once prosecuted a book because it contained the word ‘incest’. (On being asked under cross-examination what ‘incest’ meant, he said he didn’t know, but that he knew it was obscene.) Australia was still a heavily censored country when Richard Neville and his hairy friends came to England, so they had already had plenty of experience at facing up to authority. Not long afterward, the Whitlam government changed Australia, unquestionably for the better; but the Oz generation had helped to form the cultural outlook of the Whitlam government; so the place in history of these insolently shambling young men was rather more substantial than their conservative critics in Britain were inclined to allow.