Weekend links 257

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The Nine of Swords by Pamela Colman Smith, and the same card from The Ghetto Tarot, a Haitian deck created by photographer Alice Smits and Haitian art group Atis Rezistans.

Almost four months after the murders in Paris, Charlie Hebdo continues to be problematic, to use a common epithet. The “p” word occurs with such frequency in current discussions about offence—and those discussions so often seem like a secular version of old religious arguments, with Manichean forces pitted against each other, and the same schisms, heresies and witch hunts—that I’ve taken to translating “problematic” as “sinful”. Charlie Hebdo is nothing if not a heretical text even if many of those pronouncing on its heresies have never read a copy. Back in January I was confident that we’d be seeing a great deal of equivocation (if not outright victim-blaming) when people began to look closely at the magazine, or at least read hasty appraisals of its contents. You didn’t have to be a psychic to predict any of this because the equivocations are merely the current manifestation of a familiar syndrome. This week’s authorial objections about PEN America honouring Charlie Hebdo have led to a reiteration of the grumblings we heard in January: “Yes, of course, we condemn the violence but…” But, what? “But, it’s a sinful publication…”(This piece by one of the PEN objectors in the LRB is typical.) Publication liberties, which in the UK are more constrained than in the US, are apparently best championed for the virtuous (the responsible, the respectful, etc), not the sinful. In 1963 “Yes, but…” equivocations about freedom of speech were being deployed in the letters page of the Times Literary Supplement with worthies such as Victor Gollancz and Edith Sitwell wondering why it was necessary to defend a deplorable book like The Naked Lunch; in 1992 I sat in a courtroom watching a judge make similar comments when grudgingly overturning an obscenity ruling against David Britton’s Lord Horror novel. The same judge then upheld the obscenity charge against Britton & Guidio’s Meng & Ecker comic which he regarded as trashier fare, “luridly bound” and containing “pictures that will be repulsive to right-thinking people”.

So much for old arguments. Jodie Ginsberg at Index on Censorship goes into some detail about the PEN kerfuffle in a piece entitled “I believe in free expression, but…”; Justin EH Smith for Harper’s says:

I heard from [friends and equals] countless variations on the banality that “violence is always wrong.” How did I know that this judgment, though perfectly true in itself, was only a banality, the expression of a sentiment that had little to do with pacifism? By the clockwork predictability of the “but” that always followed.”

Kenan Malik, who writes a great deal about these issues (his new book is The Quest for a Moral Compass: A Global History of Ethics) posted a statement from Jo Glanville from English PEN, and a lengthy piece by Leigh Phillips. This affair will rumble on.

• More sinful material: Samuel R. Delany’s Hogg is a novel so transgressive/offensive that it took 26 years to find a publisher. You seldom see any mention of the book when Delany’s work is being discussed, especially in prudish SF circles, but Dennis Cooper’s blog ran a retrospective feature about it this week. Caveat lector. Related: Stories for Chip: A Tribute to Samuel R. Delany is looking for crowdfunding.

• “[Judy] Oppenheimer relates that Jackson kept a library of over two hundred books on witchcraft, and her interest in the subject was not purely academic.” Martyn Wendell Jones on Shirley Jackson.

The Satyr and Other Tales, a collection by Stephen J. Clark, the title story of which is “inspired by the life and ethos of sorcerer and artist Austin Osman Spare”.

• Mixes of the week: Bacchus Beltane 2: The Mists of Avalon by The Ephemeral Man, and The Ivy-Strangled Path Vol. VI by David Colohan.

Boy and his SIR: BDSM and the Queer Family, a photo series by Kevin Warth, and Xteriors II, a photo series by Desiree Dolron.

• The Quest for Stenbock: David Tibet talks to Strange Flowers about his obsession with the eccentric Count.

Dark Star: HR Giger’s World is a documentary about the artist by Belinda Sallin.

1 in 3 Impressions, a free EP of Moog music by M. Geddes Gengras.

The rise and fall of the codpiece

Blade Runner Reality

Some Weird Sin (1977) by Iggy Pop | Sin In My Heart (1981) by Siouxsie and The Banshees | It’s A Sin (1987) by Pet Shop Boys

Dissent

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If you believe in freedom of speech, you believe in freedom of speech for views you don’t like. Goebbels was in favour of freedom of speech for views he liked. So was Stalin. If you’re in favour of freedom of speech, that means you’re in favour of freedom of speech precisely for views you despise.

Noam Chomsky in Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media (1992)

Terrorists don’t care about rights or laws so any debate about freedom of speech isn’t directed at them. I’d be more encouraged by the show of solidarity for dead cartoonists if I didn’t believe that many of those currently declaring their support will continue burning up social media in the next few months with demands that something be banned or stopped. We live in censorious times. Censorship (or the urge to see it enforced) never disappears, it migrates along with whatever happens to be taboo to current generations. In the 1970s much of the heat was around sexual content; today it’s predominantly about identity politics. Whatever the provocation, the results are the same: angry people step forward with a demand that something be forbidden. Last September a showing at the Barbican in London of Brett Bailey’s Exhibit B was cancelled after a petition and a demonstration outside the venue. Bonnie Greer wanted to make up her own mind but she didn’t get the opportunity:

These people largely reacted from hearsay, ideology, photos and the reactions of others who had seen it—not their own experience. I’ve seen people like this before, self-appointed judges, roaming the internet in search of what displeases and offends them. One protester went so far as to issue an absurd analysis of the possible psychological damage Exhibit B could cause the actors involved. It was ignorant and insulting psychobabble.

I don’t want to be stopped from seeing a work because, in their opinion, it’s “inappropriate”, “incorrect” or “racist”—words which are, at best, moveable feasts. I want to think for myself.

You’ll be seeing more movable feasts in the next few days when Anglophone commenters begin to discover that Charlie Hebdo was a full-spectrum offender rather like my colleagues at Savoy Books. When David Britton’s novel Lord Horror was being subject to Crown Court disapproval in 1992 The Independent wrote a prissy editorial complaining that the novel and a death metal album by Dismember were hardly worth the trouble of defending. These things weren’t art, they were trash, something that one of the UK comics mags (I forget which one) also complained about when discussing the Meng & Ecker prosecution. You can defend the principle of freedom of speech (or art) without agreeing with anything that’s being said, but for some people this often seems to be a step too far. Lord Horror escaped the obscenity charge thanks to Geoffrey Robertson QC but Meng & Ecker didn’t (comics being deemed trashier than novels by the court); my artwork for Hard Core Horror #5 was deemed obscene three years later in a separate trial in which Savoy were also declared to be unworthy of trial by jury because they were “not a bona fide publisher”. We don’t have a freedom of speech defence in Britain which is why history continues to repeat itself.

In the end all discussion about censorship comes down to this: who decides what is art and what is trash, what should be defended and what should be thrown to the dogs (or the gunmen)? You? Me? The Pope? Some guy in a ski-mask? Is freedom of speech only for the responsible people, for you and your friends? Or does it also apply to the irresponsible, the contentious, the trashy and the downright offensive? If freedom isn’t for everyone then someone, somewhere is willing to decide it’s not for you.

The Trials of Oz

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If it’s a surprise to see Cockney geezer Phil Daniels masquerading as the erudite (and non-Cockney) Thomas De Quincey in The Art of Tripping, it’s even more of a surprise to see Hugh Grant in wig and hippy gear as Richard Neville in this 1991 dramatisation of the obscenity trial against Neville’s Oz magazine. Grant wasn’t exactly unknown when this was made but it was prior to Four Weddings and a Funeral so the casting didn’t seem very notable at the time.

The play was written by Geoffrey Robertson QC from the trial transcripts to observe the 20th anniversary of a lengthy and very public trial. Robertson in 1971 was an assistant to John Mortimer, the magazine’s lawyer, so the reconstruction may be taken to be an accurate one. In addition to Grant as Neville, Simon Callow plays Mortimer, Nigel Hawthorne is prosecutor Brian Leary, and Leslie Phillips is Judge Michael Argyle. Among the witnesses there’s Alfred Molina as George Melly (yet again; see yesterday’s post), and Nigel Planer as DJ John Peel, both of whom were called to testify that the notorious “School Kids” issue of Oz wasn’t an obscene publication. The trial, like the earlier drug busts against the Rolling Stones, was as much about the State trying to clobber a bunch of anarchist upstarts as anything that involved the pros and cons of antiquated laws. The three defendants—Neville, Felix Dennis and Jim Anderson—were also accused of “conspiring to corrupt public morals”; the obscenity issue was merely a pretext for getting the longhairs into the dock.

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Oz 28 (1970). Art by Raymond Bertrand.

This isn’t a lavish production—it’s stylised to the extent that the public gallery is made up of cardboard figures—but it’s good to know that there’s a (rough) copy out there after my tape of the original broadcast developed a fault. Not available, unfortunately, is the live studio discussion that followed in which Jonathan Dimbleby spoke to Geoffrey Robertson, Germaine Greer and others about the trial. The discussion featured a delicious moment when Dimbleby referred to Greer’s feminist issue (no. 29) as “C-Power Oz“. “Come on, Jonathan,” said Greer, “it was Cunt Power Oz!” Dimbleby then spluttered “Anyone can say ‘Cunt Power Oz‘…” and hastily moved on the discussion.

A year after his TV appearance Geoffrey Robertson was in Manchester Crown Court appealing an earlier ruling of obscenity against David Britton’s Lord Horror (1990) novel. I was in the public gallery on that occasion, and it was an education seeing how little had changed since the Oz trial, with a similarly Philistine and deeply ignorant judge presiding. Robertson overturned the ruling against the novel but a ruling against one of Savoy’s Meng & Ecker comics was upheld. In 1995 we were back in court attempting to argue for a jury trial against further rulings of obscenity, this time against one of my own comics, Hard Core Horror 5. (That issue is now the opening section of the Reverbstorm book.) We failed that time thanks to a magistrate who was even less inclined to listen to any argument.

The Oz trial may seem quaint and farcical today but the issues remain pertinent: some forms of art will always be in conflict with laws that are out-of-date, badly written or maliciously applied. And once you’re standing in a courtroom your opinion about the situation is of no consequence; you’re at the mercy of the people who make the rules.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Martin Sharp, 1942–2013
Raymond Bertrand paintings
Raymond Bertrand’s science fiction covers
The art of Bertrand
Oz magazine, 1967–73

Reverbstorm: an introduction and preview

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Reverbstorm: 1994–2012.

Art, intellectual pursuits, the development of the natural sciences, many branches of scholarship flourished in close spacial, temporal proximity to massacre and the death camps. It is the structure and meaning of that proximity that must be looked at. […] But there is a […] danger. Not only is the relevant material vast and intractable: it exercises a subtle, corrupting fascination. Bending too fixedly over hideousness, one feels queerly drawn. In some strange way the horror flatters attention, it gives to one’s own limited means a spurious resonance. […] I am not sure whether anyone, however scrupulous, who spends time and imaginative resources on these dark places, can, or indeed, ought to leave them personally intact. Yet the dark places are at the centre. Pass them by and there can be no serious discussion of human potential.

George Steiner, In Bluebeard’s Castle: Some Notes Towards the Re-definition of Culture (1971)

Reverbstorm is an eight-part comic series which I began drawing in 1990. Last week I finished work on the final section, and also completed the layout and design for the collected edition, a 344-page volume which Savoy Books will be publishing later this year. All the artwork has been scanned afresh, re-lettered and, in a few places, improved to fix compromises and print errors present in the published issues. This unfinished project has been hanging over me for so long that I make this announcement with some relief. The book will be published without a foreword so this post can serve as an introduction for the uninitiated. But before I get to the details, some history.

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David Britton was the writer and instigator of Reverbstorm, the series being a continued exploration in the comics medium of his Lord Horror character. Lord Horror is an alternate-history equivalent of the real-life William Joyce, a member of the British Union of Fascists in the 1930s whose propaganda broadcasts to Britain from Nazi Germany during the Second World War led the press to dub him Lord Haw-Haw. The first five-part Lord Horror comic series, Hard Core Horror, showed the evolution of Horace William Joyce, aka Lord Horror, from charismatic politician to Nazi collaborator; the final two issues of the series concerned Horror’s involvement in the Holocaust. In Britton’s mythos James Joyce is the brother of Horace Joyce while Jessie Matthews, a popular British musical star of the 1930s, is Lord Horror’s wife. (Britton’s Lord Horror novels are examined in detail by Keith Seward in his Horror Panegyric essay.) My fellow artist at Savoy, Kris Guidio, drew the first four issues of Hard Core Horror; I drew issue five which was less a comic story, more a portfolio of static scenes of death-camp architecture. The series was well-received by regular Savoy readers but mostly ignored by the British comics world, with some justification: the comics were a glossy production but the narrative was very erratic, even technically inept in places. At Savoy the series was regarded as a failed experiment, Kris’s drawing style and flair for cartooning being more suited to the broad humour of the Meng & Ecker strips. But Dave liked what I’d done with the final issue and felt we could try something new that was also more original than a fictional skate through recent history.

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In addition to producing comics in the late 1980s, Savoy had been recording a number of eccentric cover versions, most of them sung by PJ Proby. A music journalist, Paul Temple, came to interview Proby about the songs and stayed in touch. He subsequently approached the company with a song of his own entitled Reverbstorm, a bombastic number best described as “Wagnerian Northern Soul” which Savoy recorded in 1993. (Temple recounts the origin of the song here.) This gave a title to the new comic series that Dave was planning, the story outline being expanded from a scenario that he and Savoy colleague Michael Butterworth had sketched out when a film company showed some fleeting interest in Lord Horror. Kris Guidio and I worked on the opening pages, the initial idea being that Kris would continue drawing the Lord while I would do everything else. Once I’d convinced Dave that I could draw his Lordship to his satisfaction I took over the series while Kris carried on with the Meng & Ecker comics. I spent most of 1991–1996 drawing the first seven parts of Reverbstorm which were published as separate comics during that period. The first issue came with a CD single of Paul Temple’s song which was sung by Sue Quinn but credited to Jessie Matthews. (It’s now available on iTunes.) The last part of the series was always going to be something that differed from the preceding sections but I didn’t know how this might manifest until 1997 when I painted a series of monochrome double-spreads intended to form backgrounds for Dave’s text. That’s where the series stalled after the paintings had improvised themselves to such a degree of abstraction and incoherence that I didn’t feel able to continue. The breakthrough came a couple of years ago when I started scanning all the artwork into the computer and thinking again about the series. I realised I could complete everything now that my computer graphics skills were adequate enough to complement the earlier issues whilst also adding something new.

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