Sunday, 15 March 2009

The Swinging Sixties

"The Swinging Sixties" by Brian Masters: A Review
This is a portrait of the decade, painted by one who lived through those years as a young man; as such, although basically a reflection the cultural changes of those times, it is also enlivened by the use of personal anecdote; this is often brought in to support his arguments and analysis.
The basic thesis of the book is that "the spirit of the Sixties threw out the servility, the apologies, the guilt, and celebrated with loud fanfares the qualities of affability, of tact and of tolerance."
Although he admits that this change was marred, to some extent, by the later legacies of the decade, Brian Masters argues that the benefits outweighed the consequences.
In support of this, he gives particular mention to the "decline of puritan values", with these being replaced by "a more open morality", marked by less attention being made to formal modes of conduct; he considers how this effected changes in the areas of censorship, public life, law reform, theatre, and popular music. He also looks at the changing public relations of the royal family, and the CND marches.
One of the most interesting and amusing chapters is entitled "Retreat of the Censor". This concerns the celebrated trial of Penguin books for promulgating editions of D.H. Lawrence's novel "Lady Chatterley's Lover"; the book was banned because it was considered to be "indecent and obscene". At the trial, the defence called upon "eminent academics who would underwrite its literary worth, and one schoolgirl who would declare that she had not been depraved or corrupted by reading it." The prosecution, unable to find a single expert to support his case, confined himself to a ludicrous opening speech (in which he asked the semi-literate working class jurors: "is this a book that you would wish your wife or your servants to read?") and a statistical summary of "the number of times certain offensive words had occurred in the text".
Ostensibly, this was a battle between those who saw themselves as champions of free speech, freeing literature from the shackles of an outdated morality, and those who saw themselves as the guardian of moral values. But what was the truth behind this picture?
Penguin books, despite their insistence that they were simply "making the great classics of the world available in cheap editions", had printed a massive number of copies of the book. It is clear that their motivations were not unconnected with profit; they had "tactfully sent a dozen copies to the DPP as a statement of intent", which triggered the trial, and gave them the attendant publicity to sell out all these copies after the trial.
The self-same "experts" who had declared "Lady Chatterley" to be a literary masterpiece consequently went on to defend - with much the same arguments - William Burrough's "The Naked Lunch"; this is a book which Masters describes as "one of the most crassly written and unpleasant novels in circulation". It is likely that the motives of the experts were honourable enough: they thought that they were fighting for a freedom in print, not dissimilar in principle to the freedom of speech.
However, the methods used brought disrepute upon literary judgement, even if they did gain the desired end.
But what of the defence? It appears that the principle concern was the fact that copies of "Lady Chatterley" might be available in a "cheap condition"; in other words, they would be accessible by the masses. Subsequent trials under the "Obscene Publications Act" regarding books confirm this hypothesis. Hardbacks, out of the pocket of the average man, although flouting the law, did not give rise to legal proceedings. It is apparent that they were safe for sale because they would only be available to the rich, and it was assumed that the rich were incorruptible! This sort of hypocrisy (allied to class-prejudice) motivated the defence of censorship, and all the claim of highest moral principles was, in general, a smokescreen for the paternalistic imposition of values on one class by another. The guardians of moral values do not seem to have held truth as a value worthy of defence!
This is an interesting book, but it may make the reader somewhat cynical; in such an eventuality, it would be suitable to recall the maxim: a cynic is what an idealist calls a realist!

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