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Amiable Warriors, reviewed by Brett Humphreys

Peter and book 427x400Towards the end of 2010, following a generous bequest from a former member, the Campaign for Homosexual Equality (CHE) commissioned Peter Scott-Presland, left, founder of the Homo Promos theatre company, to produce an official history of the organisation. It turned out to be a much larger task than they had anticipated, eventually expanding to three volumes, the first of which was published on Valentine’s day this year.

Peter Scott-Presland points out that there has been very little previous effort to document the history of CHE as compared with, say, the much shorter-lived Gay Liberation Front. Hence he is working on untilled ground. His principal sources are interviews and archives, the flesh and the bones.

Sadly the flesh is mortal. By the time he began interviewing, many key players in the history of CHE were already dead – some long ago, such as Roger Baker (1993) and Jackie Forster (1998); others just recently, including Antony Grey and Griff Vaughan Williams (both 2010). Several of those he did have the chance to interview were gone by the time the first volume was published, including Allan Horsfall, Ian Buist (both 2012), Michael Brown, Meg Elizabeth Atkins, Ray Gosling (all 2013), and Michael Schofield (2014). So the conception of the book was timely, although a little later than ideal. Over 30 people have contributed interview material.

The “bones” come primarily from the Hall-Carpenter Archives, a resource originally established by CHE itself in the early 1980s and now housed at various locations in London. It holds the archives of CHE and many related people and organisations, as well as runs of journals like Gay News and an extensive collection of press cuttings. Despite ever-growing public online access to historical records in this Internet age thanks to digitisation projects like the Internet Archive and Google Books, only the catalogue, not the content, of the Hall-Carpenter Archives is presently available online.

So Peter Scott-Presland has had to do his research in the tedious traditional way, by visiting the physical collections. Fortunately he lives not far away.

The first volume covers the period 1954 to 1973. Why 1954, ten years before Allan Horsfall co-founded the North Western Homosexual Law Reform Committee (NWHLRC), which later became CHE? Possibly because 1954 was a watershed year in UK gay history. A year of high-profile trials and growing pressure for an inquiry, leading to the appointment of the Wolfenden Committee. It’s perhaps no coincidence that it was during the first half of this year that Alan Turing made a will and took his own life. The first of the book’s six substantial chapters deals with this pre-history up to the long-delayed publication of the Wolfenden Report in 1957 and the subsequent formation of the Homosexual Law Reform Society (HLRS), a predecessor of the NWHLRC, the following year.

Chapter 2 charts the growing tension between the HLRS, seen as pussyfooting middle-class southerners afraid even to use their real names, and the radical working-class northerner Allan Horsfall, confident enough to publish his home address and be prepared to take the consequences. The difference led to the formation of the breakaway NWHLRC in the Manchester area in 1964. This chapter covers the law reform campaign up to the partial reform implemented by the Sexual Offences Act in July 1967.

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In the following years Allan Horsfall and colleagues focused their energies on a project to set up gay social clubs, known as Esquire Clubs. The HLRS and its associated counselling charity, the Albany Trust, opposed the idea. As Chapter 3 recounts, the project was ultimately unsuccessful.

Meanwhile, a younger generation were coming to the helm. Paul Temperton and Martin Stafford were both teenagers when they joined the NWHLRC. Paul went on to be secretary, later becoming the first full-time paid general secretary when the organisation was reconstituted as the Campaign for Homosexual Equality in 1971. Martin, his partner, was particularly active in the promotion of local groups across the country. This is the main theme of Chapter 4, which goes into some detail on early developments in the West Midlands, Liverpool and the Chilterns, supported by interview material from Peter Norman, Robin Bloxsidge and Alan Swerdlow (early leaders of Liverpool CHE) and Roy Saich and George Broadhead (co-founders of Chilterns CHE, the first rural group).

Much of CHE’s early expansion occurred in London, not surprisingly given the capital’s high concentration of gay population. The last two chapters – more than a third of the main body of the book – are devoted to the burgeoning activities of the London groups that sprang up from 1970 onwards. They include the magazine Lunch, the annual Winter Fairs, the CHE London Information Centre, and the counselling wing Friend, which later developed into a separate national network (which I was involved in for many years).

Although CHE declined greatly in its later years, its legacy is surprisingly broad. Some spin-off bodies continue to thrive. The Croydon Area Gay Society, for example, is a direct descendant of the “London 7” CHE group formed in 1971. The Gay Authors Workshop, publisher of Amiable Warriors under the imprint Paradise Press, was originally set up by CHE members. The Gay Sunday Walking Group started as the CHE Walking Group in 1972 and the Gay Outdoor Club came from CHE. The Allegro Music Group began as the CHE Music Group in 1972.

Peter Scott-Presland frets in his preface about not being a “proper” historian or academic. But he needn’t worry. This is a solid book, with a full apparatus of source references, and free of the opaque jargon that some “proper” academics seem to favour. I did, however, find the index somewhat awkward to use because of the way it’s structured. For example, the names of local groups aren’t in their proper alphabetical place but listed under a series of “local groups” subheadings below the headword “CHE” – hardly the obvious place to look in a book almost entirely about CHE. Also not everyone mentioned in the book appears in the index.

Chronologically, the first volume ends just before the first national CHE annual conference, held in Morecambe in April 1973. This marked CHE’s debut as a nationally coherent organisation. As the author says in his closing sentence, the conference “was the moment CHE itself came of age”. The second volume, due next year, is to be entitled Fifty Grades of CHE – a whimsical spoonerism based on the pronunciation of CHE as “chay” or “shay”. For many readers this will be simply a continuation of the story but for me, at least, the second volume should be even more interesting than the first because the transition roughly coincides with my coming out – I expect it then to be more like a remembrance of things past than just plain history.

Amiable Warriors: A history of the Campaign for Homosexual Equality and its times. Volume One: A Space to Breathe, 1954–1973. By Peter Scott-Presland (Paradise Press, 2015, hardback, 640 pages, £35). For more information on the book see the website www.amiable-warriors.uk. For video of CHE members in the early 1970s, see Speak for Yourself (London Weekend Television, 21 July 1974), available on YouTube. 

The Holy Mark, reviewed by Diesel Balaam

bookTHE protagonist and authorial voice of The Holy Mark, Joe, is a man marked for the Roman Catholic priesthood – quite literally – by the birthmark on his scalp, which his immigrant Italian-speaking grandmother declares is a “segno sacro” – a sign from God that this particular grandson is destined for the Church.

Thus begins the tragicomic tale of the innocent and plump little gay boy, drawn inexorably towards the priesthood, via an intricate web of family jealousies and rivalries, an uncommon intelligence, and an often thwarted talent for teaching teenaged boys. All of this is subtly directed by the manipulative church hierarchy of the local New Orleans diocese, with the corrupt Bishop Franklin Ratchett firmly in the pocket of Joe’s scheming Uncle Anthony, whose name Joe assumes when he joins the priesthood.

As “Father Tony”, Joe soon becomes a thorn in the side of his uncle, thwarting his uncle’s plan to usurp more than his fair share of the Miggliore family’s fortune by extracting a bogus last will and testament from the aged matriarch, Grandma Miggliore, as she lies on her deathbed hallucinating about the Holy Family. Needless to say, Bishop Ratchett is in on his uncle’s nefarious plan, being a skilled networker among New Orleans’s successful businessmen and lawyers, knowing that the diocese benefits handsomely from their donations, provided he is willing to do their bidding.

Joe loathes his greedy uncle, and also his Aunt Rose, referring to her as “the fish-wife” on account of her conspicuous wealth coming from her successful husband’s fish business. It is she who eventually dupes Joe’s mother into handing over most of her rightful inheritance, leaving Joe’s financial future uncertain and dependent on whatever demeaning employment is meted out by the vengeful Bishop Ratchett and his minions, forever in cahoots with Joe’s grasping uncle.

Joe, or Father Tony, has no illusions about his extended family, indeed his very survival comes to be driven by a seemingly “un-Christian” enjoyment of their misfortunes and his own desire for revenge, as well as a hatred of the Church and the pinched, invariably deformed characters who run it. He delights in his “fish-wife” aunt’s misfortune when the expensive plastic surgery that was supposed to cure her unfortunate resemblance to the hook-nosed Grandma Miggliore, is more than undone by aggressive facial cancer. He is even more delighted when she survives the cancer just long enough to bury her own gay son, Ronnie, who died from AIDS. Although the book’s first-person narrative and deliciously sardonic humour inevitably pushes the reader into siding and identifying with Joe, this isn’t always a comfortable experience.

These themes of disfigurement, disease, and unattractiveness are the warp and weft of The Holy Mark. This starts with Father Tony’s low self-esteem; the self-consciousness from the birthmark on his scalp (which tingles and throbs when he is sexually aroused), his weight and his self-perceived lack of desirability; but this theme also extends to those around him. His nemesis, Bishop Ratchett, has a deformed hand, which is likened to a mace; the sadistic priest, Father Pedeaux, in the seminary where Father Tony prepared for the priesthood, is described as an “anorexic skinflint”, the withered specimen evidently determined to force his own anorexia on the younger priests by affording them only the most meagre of rations in the refectory where he lords it over them. The aged nuns in the care home where Father Tony is forced to work at one point are all in various stages of dribbling, shuffling decrepitude. Eventually, AIDS claims the life of his effeminate bitch-queen cousin, Ronnie.

All of this contrasts markedly with Father Tony’s rhapsodic and forensically detailed descriptions of youthful male beauty and virility. His sexual epiphany begins in early puberty with his athletic cousin, Tony (son of evil Uncle Anthony), behind the levee of the Mississippi. When diving off the roof of an abandoned river tug, safely in the muscular arms of his fearlessly naked older cousin, Joe spontaneously ejaculates. However, he must compete for the attentions of Tony with his queeny, prancing cousin, Ronnie. Nonetheless, Joe remains “pure”, a virgin until his thirties, by which time he is surrounded by the raw beauty of youth at “the Den”, a Catholic residential home for disadvantaged and troubled teenaged boys. Ironically, Bishop Ratchett and his minions intended this post as a punishment for thwarting their attempted death-bed heist, but this first posting brings Father Tony new purpose and fulfilment for the several years he is there during the 1970s.

Though challenging, the dozen boys in his charge come to accept him and even compete for his attention and tactile affections. Here, for the first time, he finds himself answering a personal calling, a sense of doing something useful, turning around young lives for the better.
It is also here that, by chance, he is gently seduced by one of his more troubled charges, Jason, who climbs into Father Tony’s bed, making it clear that he needs to feel loved, expressed through sexual comfort, which after some hesitation, Father Tony supplies. Though technically “child abuse” and certainly an abuse of his “position of trust”, there is nothing here to suggest that Jason is anything other than the willing initiator.

Thus begins Father Tony’s occasional servicing of some of the boys’ sexual needs, albeit with a light touch and exclusively orientated towards their gratification and relief, never his own. In a very Catholic way, he convinces himself his actions are selfless and godly. To his mind, he is “walking in Christ’s footsteps” by taking the supposed sins of the boys upon himself, absolving them of guilt, making them happier, better human beings. Father Tony’s passion is “a passion of sacrifice, not of salaciousness”, one that ultimately leads to his undoing – his symbolic crucifixion.

This is certainly challenging to the received wisdoms of our time, when man–boy love is unerringly taboo, even while man-on-man love is increasingly accepted and officially sanctioned. Through Father Tony’s eyes, at least, there is something pure, noble, and selfless about what he is doing. If we take Father Tony at his word (or the author’s word), then this is something very far removed from dominant narratives of perverts in the depraved Catholic clergy preying on children and ruining lives. On the contrary, in this instance, man–boy love, or priest–boy love, is portrayed as something harmless, consensual, even healing. This very much runs counter to the self-serving stance of hard-nosed secular opportunists – always keen to find a new stick with which to beat the Catholic church – or, indeed, the kind of androphobic feminists who fear and despise male sexuality per se and who would insist that all man–boy love is, by definition, abusive.

authorphoto 1How much of The Holy Mark is simply fiction, and how much is an attempted defence of man–boy love by the author, Greg Alexander, left. only he knows. The rest of us can only guess. The author, like his protagonist, “has experience of teaching in several Catholic schools” and “lives outside New Orleans”. Choice biblical verses are pressed into service to add a sense of divinity to man–boy love, which, parachuted in to this unconventional narrative polemic, they sort of do, albeit with a large helping of wishful reinterpretation. This part of the book deals with that period of American gay history – the 1970s – when man-boy love was a hot political issue and grist to the mill for the religious right of the nascent Reagan era.

The author would have lived through this febrile period of American sexual politics. Of course, one should never confuse the author of a book with the characters he creates, any more than one should confuse an actor with the roles he plays.

Part of the book’s purchase on the reader is the way it challenges and ruptures the received assumptions of our times. Father Tony clearly deplores child sexual abuse – he tries to help a boy whose family has been destroyed by his father sexually abusing his own daughter, causing her to try to take her own life.

Nonetheless, he puts his own sexual encounters with teenaged boys in a more rarefied and spiritually elevated category. The reader can take Father Tony at his word, or, more cynically, may see him as conveniently self-deluding. Sean, the boy whose father abused his own daughter, is also the recipient of Father Tony’s “healing ministrations” during a Catholic summer camp, but soon after, Sean takes his own life. Father Tony puts this down to the legacy of the father’s behaviour and the Church’s unsympathetic response to the discovery of his sexual liaison with Sean (via the boy’s confession), never pausing to reflect whether the liaison itself may have been a factor in the troubled boy’s suicide.

Likewise, his cousin Ronnie is portrayed as a contemptible vacuous queen (he fails as a dancer, so becomes a hairdresser instead, helping Father Tony disguise the birthmark on his scalp). Because he is unashamedly promiscuous and frivolous, participating in “gay carnivals”, Father Tony evidently sees him as somehow deserving of his eventual fate. Of course, the reader is perfectly entitled to think otherwise, that – unlike Father Tony – Ronnie might just have been living his life openly and honestly as a determinedly camp and “out there” gay man, doing his best to get by with the cards he’s been dealt.

The Holy Mark is a brave and very honest book and might easily offend the sensibilities of those wedded to rigid ideologies, whether the reader is right-wing, left-wing, Catholic, atheist, feminist, or gay. The characters are also given free rein to express their ambivalence towards black people, or “negroes” as they are referred to here (the story is set in the deep South of the USA, after all). But none of this should detract from the sheer enjoyment of this book. In fact, it probably adds to it. Written in the first person singular, or, rather, first person desperate, The Holy Mark is, by turns, confessional, witty, despairing, well-observed, and not a little creepy – but always, always gripping. An enjoyable read, with an uncompromisingly clear, charismatic, and painfully honest voice.

The Holy Mark is available here.

From the archives: Happy homosexual Geoffrey Palmer, 92, shares his memories

no apologies no regrets by cornlord d3b66y3THIS is a shortened version of an article entitled 'You Don't Have to be Sad to be Gay' by GEOFFREY PALMER for the winter 2004/5 issue of The Gay and Lesbian Humanist. He died shortly after, aged 92.

If I want to boast a little, I tell people that I was born before the First World War. Well, so I was, in 1912, but the announcement never seems to impress many people, so usually I keep my secret hidden. I don’t remember much about the war itself, except for the Zeppelin that passed over the village, and the flags and balloons that decorated the shops and cottages on Armistice Day. But, above all, I remember my grandmother saying, bitterly, “Why should I have anything to celebrate? I’m the only person in the village to have had two sons killed.” (The Titanic went down in 1912 too.)

When I was five I felt there was something different about me but I couldn’t explain this difference. I was usually in charge of the makeshift costumes that the cops and robbers or, more often, Robin Hood and his merry men wore (because this was Sherwood Forest country), and when I was cast as Maid Marian or a lady cop I willingly accepted the role, principally, I think, because I had to be kissed by one of the winning teams at the end of the game after I had been captured, or released.

No, the difference never came to be important until I reached early adolescence, when I began to see that I was forever eyeing blokes rather than girls, but never in a sexual way. I just accepted the fact that I preferred a kiss from a boy than from a girl and never stopped to wonder why.

At grammar school my allegiances were divided. There were at least three girls I grew very fond of, and one in particular. I travelled to and from school by bus so that I could sit next to her and put my arm round her waist, which she didn’t seem particularly to care about, but put up with. At college in the early 1930s things were different. The good-looking men of my age received a lot of attention from me from a distance (I was shy in those days) and one or two of them reciprocated in a polite way, though without much encouragement.

At the end of the course I was notorious for two things: snogging the local “anybody’s girl” under a bridge in Wollaton Park, and finding out for the first time the real difference between male and female. Pale interest rather than rampant desire was the final outcome of these sessions, and falling in love quite seriously with a lovely girl I was going to propose to until I found out that she was secretly engaged to a man of thirty. I relinquished her with a good deal of heartburning, but it didn’t last when a new roommate swam into my ken and engaged my attentions with a good deal of reciprocal interest; and my first venture into physical pleasure was thus engendered.

Then it was time for the wide world of teaching: a village church school where I lasted for five years. In all that time my main interest, apart from the local dramatic society (alas, no parts where men kissed men!), was the 18-year-old brother of one of my pupils – he, at 14, was far too young for me. Sid, the 18-year-old, would do anything for anybody, including me, now getting less and less shy.

When the war came to an end in 1945 I became a professional actor and joined repertory companies in Sheffield, Wakefield and Nottingham; did a tour of Murder in the Cathedral, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Tobias and the Angel.

My real life began in a Bradford theatre bar after a show, when I was having a drink and reading the New Statesman – that was when it was worth reading. I suddenly realised that my hand, under the table, was being sort of caressed in a totally acceptable way by another hand. I glanced round to see who was being so daring and found that he was a young actor who had recently joined the company and was rehearsing the next play. He had fair hair, blue eyes and a half-scared, half-determined expression on his face. I gave his hand a thorough grasp to say, “Carry on, I don’t mind” – and fell hook, line and sinker in love, a real love, not something I’d imagined, or vaguely experienced, or looked forward to over the years, but a love that was to last for 53 years, a feeling that was to take over my life, and that was reciprocated with the same degree of fervour by the owner of the hand that was now clasping mine with an ironlike grip. I discovered that his name was John – though he preferred to be called by his second name, Noel – and that he was 12 years younger than I was.

From 1945 to 1998 Noel and I enjoyed a sweet and loving partnership which, over the 53 years it lasted, gave the lie to every bigoted fundamentalist, from Jehovah’s Witness to Roman Catholic, who expressed horror at the thought of two men living together, loving together and finding all the happiness in each other’s company their natures required. “They can live by Leviticus and die by Leviticus,” I used to say, “but we live by love and, yes, would die for it, if necessary.” And the Old Testament, particularly, became for me a Chamber of Horrors.

Noel and I shared flats together, wrote more than thirty books together, had an enormous amount of fun together and travelled widely.

Noel worked a lot in Northern Ireland for the BBC and the Ulster Group Theatre, and did a long stint at the theatre in Minehead, Somerset – though at every opportunity we would meet at the most unlikely places for a session to find delight in our loving together, to get on with the book we were writing and plan the next one – and I sometimes played small parts in plays during my summer holidays.

For some years we rented a flat exactly opposite the brand-new school in Islington of which I was now the headmaster; and Noel became a sort of unpaid appendage of the school – producing plays, using his car to take unwell children home, taking teams to football and cricket matches – and became as much part of the scene as any paid member of the staff. This went on until 1975, when it was time for me to retire after eighteen years of the headship, and time for Noel to give up work in TV, which he did not enjoy.

So we were free from bricks, children and cameras, and, though continuing to write, we went in for keeping bookshops, in Islington, Eye, and, latterly, Harleston in Norfolk. And in all those years I can remember only one occasion when we had a serious row.

I don’t know now what it was about, but it ended up with one of us throwing the telephone at the other, though for the life of me I can’t remember who did what to whom, and the whole affair took only about ten minutes, finishing up with a good laugh and a stiff drink.

The bookshops did well and we were able to do a lot of travelling; and it was on the aeroplane from Seattle, my favourite American city, that I began to feel unwell, and developed a heart condition that gradually grew more serious and eventually demanded the wearing of a pacemaker. But life continued to be worth living with Noel by my side. We wrote more books, haunted the theatre, entertained friends, and loved each other more with every day that passed – until Noel died suddenly in August 1998, of a heart attack. Then memories were all that remained and living them was what made a happy homosexual able to stay happy.

And, to finish with a boast, I can say that, though hundreds of children and their parents, staff, governors, administrators and political figures passed through my life, never once did I detect a sniff or hear an unkind remark, a comment on my sexuality, a critical glance or doubtful shrug in over fifty years of open and honest gayness. My parents, bless them, were simple village people and did not know a hawk from a handsaw.

“I am what I am” was, and still is, my creed, “and, if you don’t like what I am, then it’s you that’s got the problem, my friend.” No child felt awkward in my presence: he or she was too busy grinning at one of my weak jokes. And the only physical contact that passed between us was a ruffle of the hair or a smack on the bottom – and only then when Mum or Dad was present and we were laughing at something outrageous that the child had done. I haven’t an ounce of paedophilia in me and that has helped me in my relationships. I’ve been a humanist for at least sixty years and I thank God that I don’t believe in him. Strange, though: I always watch the gloriously silly Songs of Praise. It’s a good laugh and the tunes are worth listening to.

Only recently I received a card from a not-long-married great-nephew who had heard from his mother the inside story of my thoroughly debauched life (according to religionists) and his response was, “Good on you, mate. Keep it up.” Which, in the necessarily short time I have left, I intend to do. You don’t have to be sad to be gay!

You can read the full article here.

Allen Ginsberg, my hero

ginsberg 81632cPINK HUMANIST editor BARRY DUKE tells how American poet Allen Ginsberg set him on a lifelong mission to combat censorship

When I’m engaging in conversation with youngsters who are barely older that the boots on my feet I quickly come to realise how little they know about mid-to-late-20th-century landmark events and the individuals who helped shape the culture of this era. This can be extremely irritating, and frequently I am heard to exclaim, “For fuck sake, what did they teach you in school?”

“Why”, some grizzled old grump once asked me, “do you waste time in engaging with no-nothing youngsters?” I replied that I enjoy their company because they energise me, and serve as an antidote to ageing. They impel me to keep fit so that I can carry fashionable clothing as well as they can – sometimes better, I like to think – and can hold my own in any discussion about contemporary culture and music. It’s great to be thought of as being “cool” when you’re knocking on 70.

What’s more, not all kids are ignorant. Earlier this year I was completely taken aback by a young British holidaymaker to Spain who said he was sad to hear of the death of blues legend B B King, who died aged 89 in May, 2015.

“You know King’s music?”, I asked in surprise. Jonathan, aged 19, then rattled off a list of factoids about King, and moved onto other great blues singers. He asked me whether I knew that a biopic about Bessie Smith had premiered in America in May this year to enormous critical acclaim. I didn’t, and vowed there and then to obtain a copy of Bessie as I am a devotee both of Smith and Queen Latifah, who plays her in the movie.

Mention of King and Smith quickly turned into a challenging game, with me throwing out random names that I was sure would mean nothing at all to him. Rosa Parks … Quentin Crisp … Lord Wolfenden … Hendrik Verwoerd … He knew them all.

“Ah, but what about Allen Ginsberg?” I tosseded Ginsberg’s name into this eclectic mix because I read a report in June this year that the controversial American beat poet, who died in 1997, was the subject of a huge row that erupted at a high school in Connecticut.

A student at South Windsor High School brought Ginsberg’s “Please Master” to teacher David Olio’s attention during a class discussion about obscenity. The award-winning teacher (with 19 years under his belt) wasn’t familiar with the erotic gay poem, but he read it aloud.

Two students complained about the reading and a media uproar ensued. “South Windsor Teacher Reads Graphic Poem About Gay Sex to Classroom” read one headline, with the story saying students were “subjected” to the poem. A TV newscast warned viewers the piece was “too graphic to detail in almost any part”, and bizarrely noted that the local police were not involved in the investigation. Olio was forced to resign.

“Ah,” said Jonathan with a grin, “you mean the guy whose poem caused a shitstorm in Connecticut? I memorised it after reading about the incident.” And he promptly rattled off its first 14 lines:

Please master can I touch your cheek

please master can I kneel at your feet

please master can I loosen your blue pants

please master can I gaze at your golden haired belly

please master can I gently take down your shorts

please master can I have your thighs bare to my eyes

please master can I take off your clothes below your chair

please master can I kiss your ankles and soul

please master can I touch lips to your muscle hairless thigh

please master can I lay my ear pressed to your stomach

please master can I wrap my arms around your white ass

please master can I lick your groin curled with soft blond fur

please master can I touch my tongue to your rosy asshole

please master may I pass my face to your balls …

Astounding! When I got over the shock of realising that I was chatting to a remarkably knowledgeable young man, I responded by telling him something he did not know: that Ginsberg was the single biggest factor in my decision to begin actively campaigning against the draconian censorship laws that existed in apartheid South Africa, where I lived until 1973.

At the time of his writing “Please Master”, Ginsberg’s work was already banned by the white, Christian puritans appointed to serve on the Publications Control Board. These arrogant Calvinist Afrikaners, with more teeth among them than brain cells, had identified the poet as a dangerous deviant, and added his name to a growing list of writers South Africans were prohibited from reading. Despite this ban, I obtained a copy of “Please Master” from a friend who ran a bookshop in Johannesburg that did a roaring trade in clandestinely selling “objectionable” books, records and even T-shirts – including one that bore the slogan “Black is Beautiful”.

After reading “Please Master” I approached the editorial board of an entertainment magazine, Time Out (named after the London-based publication) and suggested a monthly column, written in a satirical style, listing all that the censors had banned in the previous four weeks.

The aim was to expose the sheer idiocy of the censors, headed by the aged, profoundly deaf, sight-impaired Dr Jannie Kruger, and it proved such a hit that I was asked to do a similar column for the Star newspaper in Johannesburg.

The material for both columns was gleaned from two publications: The Government Gazette and Jacobsen’s Index of Objectionable Literature, a tome that ran to more than 500 pages that listed “all of the items which old white men decided were too objectionable for us to see”.

That quote was extracted from an online article written by a South African signing himself “Dungbeetlemania”, who went on to say that Jacobsen’s Index “includes, but is not limited to: postcards, flyers, pamphlets, stickers, books, magazines, newspapers, movies, sex toys, calendars, music and t-shirts.

“Sometimes, in the case of newspapers and magazines, only single editions were banned, although many were banned outright. Each of the listed objects has the distinction of being so morally repugnant that we could not possibly be exposed to them, in case we were adversely influenced.

“Every bookshop was expected to have a copy to ensure that they did not accidentally order something prohibited by the Publication Act. Included was just about anything about the then-banned ANC, communism, homosexuality, Satanism, (normal) sex, drugs, anything critical of Christianity, anything critical of South Africa, the NP [National Party] or apartheid ... the list goes on and on.”

black beautyOne early edition included South Africa most infamous banned book, Black Beauty, which was proscribed in 1951, but later removed when the censors realised that it was actually about a horse, and not a black sex bomb.

In 1968 “the old white men” banned three Sidney Poitier movies: Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, In the Heat of the Night and To Sir With Love. Other films banned in the same year included The Graduate, Blow Up, Finian’s Rainbow and Bonnie and Clyde – all internationally acclaimed and award-winning productions.

Twelve years on, in 1980, they banned the Pink Floyd song “The Wall”, which featured on the group’s 11th album. The ban of just the one song and not the entire album proved a real headache for record store owners and librarians. For they were required to use a nail or similar sharp object to ruin the grooves of the offending song. Compact discs only exacerbated the “problem”. The reason for the ban was that black kids adopted the song as a protest anthem against inferior education.

Later in the 1980s all of Stevie Wonder’s songs were banned because he had dedicated his Best Original Song Oscar (which he won for “I Just Called to Say I Love You”) to Nelson Mandela, who remained imprisoned at Pollsmoor Prison.

From a sampling of the bans above, you can see how easy it would be to lampoon the censors, who – until I hit on the idea of shining a light on their decisions – had been operating in a quasi-secret manner. Sure, the bans they imposed were published in The Government Gazette and Jacobsen’s Index, but these were publications very few South Africans were ever likely to read.

My columns flushed the censors out into the open, and within weeks Kruger and his band of “old white men” had become national laughing stocks – and I became something of a public enemy in the eyes of the authorities.

Never before had ridicule been heaped on the censors in this manner, and I was not the least bit surprised when the Government outlawed any attempts to mock the PCB’s insane decisions.

But that failed to solve their problem. My columns continued as simple lists of banned material, devoid of snarky editorial commentary.

None was needed. The lists on their own spoke volumes about how desperate Kruger and his cohorts were to prevent South Africans being exposed to things they regarded as objectionable – including American singer, Janis Joplin, whose singing was described by the PCB as “screeching”.

In 1970 the Publications Control Board proudly announced in its annual report that, since its inception in 1963, with old white man Professor Gerrit Dekker, 80, as its head, it had ordered numerous cuts to 1,600 movies, rendering many of them utterly incomprehensible in the process, and had imposed outright bans on 300, including, in 1965, Sidney Lumet’s The Pawnbroker. The reason given by the PCB in this instance was that “it is offensive to see a ‘Bantu’ female bearing her breasts for a white man.”

Three years later, the PCB’s then head, the doddering old imbecile Jannie Kruger, denied that censorship existed in any form in South Africa, and is quoted as saying “SA has no censorship system of any kind, we merely have a system of publications control”; but in 1982 the Department of Home Affairs announced that “South Africa has the strictest censorship system in the world”.

In 1977 the Government added a clause to the Publications and Entertainments Act that stated: “It is an offence to prejudice, influence or anticipate the decisions of the Publications Directorate.”

Frighteningly, decisions made by the PCB even impacted on people’s right to travel outside of the country to see a film banned by Kruger and his crew. After the censors banned Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris in 1973 it was screened uncut at a casino in neighbouring Swaziland. This prompted the then Information Minister, Dr Connie Mulder, to threaten “serious action” against those who dared to cross the border to view it. It was never clear how he intended punishing miscreants.

When the apartheid system finally collapsed, the PCB was scrapped and the newly-appointed Minister of Home Affairs, Dr Mangosuthu Buthelezi, said in Parliament in 1994 that “never again in this country will anyone decide what any rational and intelligent beings may or may not watch, read or hear.”

To those idiots who forced the resignation of David Olio I would say only this: take Buthelezi’s words and write them out on a blackboard 100 times a day until the message finally sinks in that there should never be a place for this sort of censorious behaviour in any serious place of learning.