Robert Leeson on Censorship Past … and Present
Alphabets were first made for rulers to control the food supply and priests to set down the true word of the Gods. So writing from the start embodied mystery and power and conferred respect and status on those who could do it. And until very recent times most of the population, everywhere on the globe, were excluded from this power, by being neither able to read nor write.
Can one be surprised then that the Book still inspires passion? What television mogul with satellites at his command could inflame the world as Salman Rushdie did from his little back room?
In modern thought the book represents a liberating force. Writers are expected to be freedom fighters. Over the centuries since the battle to read the Bible freely, censorship has been a dirty word.
For the book is more than a liberating force. It represents power, which would-be censors, national or local, do not like to see in the hands of freelance citizens. So censorship came into existence with the book.
The oral storyteller wandering the roads was at one with the audience. Together they made, distributed, stored – and presumably selected and possibly censored it. But the storyteller (unless a minstrel in a court) owed allegiance to no other power. In medieval times you could lose a hand for ‘telling tales to the discredit of the King and his ministers’, but catching you at it was another matter.
But written and more so printed word, though it spread the tale throughout the land, also narrowed down the source of the story. The book was liberating, but it was controllable.
For two centuries after Caxton, Church/State control limited the number of printing presses in England to twenty. Even the free-wheeling Charles II had a Court Censor for books.
But in the end ‘free trade’ won. There was money to be made from selling books. Who dare stop that? From the 1690s on there has been no national peace-time censorship of books – save that via the back door of the Secrets Act, the Blasphemy Laws or Obscenity Acts.
It was then assumed, and still is, that market forces guarantee freedom. No one must stop you buying what you can afford. (In retrospect we know the limits of this freedom. Over the past one hundred years the free library service has evolved to ensure that all citizens irrespective of pocket may be free to have books.) Turning the story into a commodity to be sold passed the power down the line, from the King and his Bishops, to the social group who ran the presses. It widened and diffused the control of the book, it did not do away with it.
It is interesting to see how the new masters of the book in the eighteenth and nineteenth century used their new-found power. First and foremost they concerned themselves with the future – the new generation. They placed a high value on the stories children got to know as they grew up. They created the beginnings of our children’s literature.
In doing so they used their power to dispense with the existing stories, the folk tradition. Single-mindedly, high-mindedly they set about making that rich, varied, earthy tradition fit for the middle-class nursery. As Lady Eleanor Fenn, early children’s writer remarked, the nursery children should not receive ‘their first notions from the most illiterate persons’ (i.e. folk tales from maid-servants).
The folk tale, especially in England, was transformed by disparagement, bowdlerising, filleting, censorship by selection into the ‘fairy tale’ of Victorian times, itself an imitation of German (Grimm) and Scandinavian (Andersen) models.
The new book people knew what they were at. As a book published in the mid-eighteenth century put it.
‘Tom Thumb shall now be thrown away
And he that did the Giant slay
These ill-consorted, artless lies,
Our British Youth shall now despise.’
Well, Tom and Jack survived, though ghosts of their former selves, so that in the 1890s, Joseph Jacobs, trying to collect the discarded folk stories, was moved to cry: ‘Who says the English have no fairy tales of their own?’
While Jacobs was attempting at the eleventh hour to rescue the folk tale from this enforced obscurity, another operation was underway, as calculated and forceful as the attack on the oral tradition.
This was the creation of the ‘school story’, the literature of the newly developed private, boarding school network. The ‘school story’ which was at its maximum influence from the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century was an extraordinary concoction. It contained impressive stories, it contained a lot of spoof stories, and a vast mass of trash.
But, basically, though spread universally through the land through the medium of thousands of school and Sunday school prize givings, it reflected the lives of only seven per cent of the nation’s children. You could have tragic, dramatic, comic school stories, you could have sentimental school stories, you could have what you liked provided you had boarding school stories. The school story reader had as much choice as the early Ford owner had in the colour of their cars.
It was not a formal act of censorship, any more than the attempted replacement of the oral tradition was, but it was an exercise in cultural control through the book, which any totalitarian state censor might envy. And so effective was it that in the 1960s when I first wrote day school stories, I was told quite often by publishing people that ‘they’ (the day school children) did not want ‘to read about themselves’. Or more elegantly ‘we don’t want to rub their noses in it.’ They were wrong, but it took time to demonstrate that they were wrong. Nor was the school story unique in its exclusiveness.
Thirty years ago, we had in this country a much admired and beautifully produced children’s literature but one in which most children, working-class, black, female, were often inadequately, patronisingly or even derogatively portrayed.
But these past three decades have seen the situation transformed, thanks to the response of old and new writers to new needs and demands expressed by the children, their teachers, their parents, and librarians.
Not all the new writing is to everyone’s taste. It has been an explosion and explosions are rarely selective. So once again, we hear voices from those in authority, or those who would be in authority, for control over `what our children read’.
At all times of great social, technological change, there is a battle of ideas, with society’s young minds at the centre. Passions are unleashed. Parents are anxious, and encouraged to be anxious about what writers are up to with their young readers. Fear goes with lack of information. One angry mother, who had neither watched nor read Grange Hill, told me in a radio phone-in: ‘We have sewers round our way but we keep them underground.’
Her answer to her anxieties was a ban to protect her own children. She used what power she had, to match the power she saw flowing from my pen. Unscrupulous politicians play upon such genuinely felt concerns. As a nun-teacher in Northern Ireland told me: ‘We generally get trouble with books like yours just before the local elections.’
As our literature opens up to embrace all manner of children, not just those deemed to represent the others like the Lone Pine set, or the chaps at St Dominics, so writers and others engaged in the book business resist any attempts to control or restrict what is written.
But we are not talking only of freedom, but of power.
When a senior HMI told me at a teachers’ conference that I ‘was alienating the child from the parent, and the teacher from the pupil’, I was angered. But I kept my temper and profited from the occasion to give him a magisterial telling off.
When the applause died down (what teacher could resist a telling off for an officious HMI?) sober reflection made me consider what a sense of power the attack had given me. It meant my writing counted for something. And in rightly protecting my integrity and freedom as a writer I was also protecting my power to influence others from those who sought to limit it.
I think writers should always resist attempts to control them, but not shut ears and minds to attempts to influence them, question them or even call them to account. I feel that I will not write anything I am not prepared to defend publicly to parents or any other genuinely interested party.
Writers are like auxiliary aunts and uncles, the friendly, detached, but not un-committed adult to whom boy or girl can turn for an alternative and enriching view of life. Let it be so. Though let’s not be the Christmas visitor who bounces the kids up and down till they are sick on the carpet, then waves goodbye and leaves the parent to clear up the mess.
Our freedom is not separable from the freedoms of the children for whom we write and the people who care for them. We need to make allies, not opponents of these people, whether they be parents, teachers, librarians or whoever.
I suppose I am looking for a re-creation in terms of our present age of the at-one feeling between the storytellers and their audience.
Books are the stuff of life. Books are liberating. They are a source of wonder and power. We owe their readers our honesty, our commitment, and our care.
Robert Leeson is the author of numerous books for children including The Third Class Genie, Silver’s Revenge, It’s My Life and several Grange Hill stories. The ideas in this article are explored at greater length in his Reading and Righting (Collins, 0 00 184413 X, £6.95; 0 00 184415 6, 14.95 pbk).