Bob Gould interviewed by James Valentine on the seizure by police of the Bill Henson photographic display, ABC Radio, May 20, 2008
James Valentine: The raid on the Roslyn Oxley Gallery at Paddington to remove the Bill Henson photographs from the wall has been a true talking point. Some defend that position passionately and that’s what always happens at these moments when suddenly art, literature, the movies, television confronts a group in society that says that is not acceptable, that’s got to go. This is of, course not, the first time it has happened , so I thought this is a good chance to present a little bit of archive material, on the various other things that have been censored, banned and caused confusion in society, in Australia It’s a Sydney-Melbourne thing isn’t it? Sydney has the bookshops and galleries, and it’s where these things tend to happen.
Four Corners File: Censorship by the individual states has been with us for as long as there have been police officers. Federal censorship began in 1901, the year of Queen Victoria’s death and like Victoria the founding fathers soon had cause not to be amused. The first book to offend the customs department was, needless to say, by a French author. For most people since then it has been this department that has been the symbol of book censorship in Australia.
But only since 1958 have we been able to know what books from abroad are prohibited. Works that have been listed in the Commonwealth Gazette include The Strap Returns, New Notes on Flagellation, by an anonymous author , Pleasures and Follies of a Good-natured Libertine, White Thighs by Francis Lengel, and the 120 Days of Sodom by AF Prasad, but they also include a number of books held by many to be among the most important works of modern fiction, and this is where the first dispute begins. Two of the most famous titles to have been on the prohibited list are Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Lolita. Both of these were still banned in Australia while they were freely on sale in many countries abroad. For many people they were test cases of censorship.
James Valentine: And of course James Joyce’s Ulysses was also on that list for a very long time of banned books in Australia. Let’s listen to this from about 1970, and this was a great case. It caused a great to-do in Australia. It was a publication of Phillip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint.
ABC Reporter, 1970: Today has been police crackdown day down on the book Portnoy’s Complaint in Sydney. Police have raided at least three bookshops including Angus and Robertsons. This was the scene when they raided the Third World Bookshop, owned by well-known Sydney radical, Mr Bob Gould. (The editor of the report at the ABC in 1970 got things a bit wrong at this stage. The reporter actually went on to interview Jim Thorburn at the Pocket Bookshop in Pitt Street.)
ABC Reporter: Sir, I am from ABC News, what do you intend to do with these books?
Response: No comment at this stage sir, if you don’t mind.
ABC Reporter: Mr Thornton, I believe the police have been here this morning?
Thorburn: Yes, that is correct.
ABC Reporter: What did they do when they came?
Thorburn: They were very nice about it. Thank you very much.
ABC Reporter: Have you been depraved by selling this book?
Thorburn: I don’t think so, whatever depraved might mean.
ABC Reporter: Do you think you are doing any harm by selling it?
Thorburn: I don’t think so.
ABC Reporter: Did the police indicate whether they would be taking any action against you?
Thorburn: They merely said they were not censors, they were policemen doing a job, and I would receive a summons later.
James Valentine: That was at the time of the publication of Portnoy’s Complaint, which was banned in Australia at the time. Young Sydney radical Bob Gould is still a young Sydney radical, and joins us on the line. He runs of course, Gould’s Bookstore in Newtown.
Bob Gould: I am finding this matter of the Henson photos a bit of a reprise of the past.
Do you always get that feeling when these sort of things come up, well here we go again, it’s no different to the Portnoy’s, it’s no different to any number of moments that this has happened?
It is a bit different because, basically, we won the fight against unreasonable censorship way back then and this is part of an attempt to throw out the legacies of the 1960s and all the social conquests of the past 30 years. There’s a sort of bad, bleak wind blowing back to the dismal past, or so it seems to me.
Now it wasn’t just books that police raided your premises to try and obtain. They were after visual material at other points as well.
The visual material is the most interesting of the lot. In general I am opposed to censorship but there are some things I don’t sell. I don’t carry The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, I don’t carry snuff movies, I don’t carry child pornography, but I carry just about everything that it seems reasonable to carry, and a lot of it revolves around the visual arts.
I don’t particularly like Bill Henson’s work but the core argument that seems to be involved is that the portrayal of the human body is by itself obscene. That’s nuts! That was at the heart of past raids. I was busted in the 1970s for Beardsley posters. A book by Brian Reid The Complete Works of Beardsley was unbanned by the censor and I got the bright idea of producing eight Beardsley posters, four of them had those rather elegant pricks in them. I didn’t reprint the rather gross ones out of the Beardsley book and we were nicely selling our posters — I forget what we were charging — for a few months. Then we were suddenly raided one Saturday morning
For those who don’t know, Bob, this is the Aubrey Beardsley?
Yes, Aubrey Beardsley.
And what were the works?
They were the ones we chose to print as posters. The one I liked the most was Cinesius pursuing Mirenia with a view to Coition, which was a big seller, and you didn’t realise he had an enormous prick chasing this damsel, and it’s really an exciting, rather erotic, thing. It makes a good poster. We also had the old Personality Posters of Michaelangelo’s David.
When we were raided, the coppers doing the raid took the Beardsley posters. They had to knock down the door because we always took precautions, and so there was tremendous publicity about them knocking down the door to get at the posters, and the constable said to the old serrgeant: “We should take that too, sarge?” And he looked at Mchaelanglelo’s David, and the sarge said: “Yeah take that too.”
The raid caused an enormous sensation. Lightning has struck in the same place twice, because that year Benier won the Cartoonist’s Award for a cartoon in The Daily Mirror, showing coppers carting off the Archibald Fountain which on closer examination was a David statue, and I notice that Bill Leak had an exactly similar motif in The Australian on Monday. The second time round is grotesgue!
So what kind of material might you have right now that, if you take the Henson photographs as the standard, we should come and raid you as well? Do you still have magazines that are put out by naturists? By nudists?
Naturist magazines are a good case in point. Naturist magazines have never been busted. I’ve had naturist magazines in my shops for 40 years. And, wisely, authorities shy away from that because naturist magazines have families including kids.
Yeah cavorting in the nude..
So, what: eight, 10, 12 year old kids in the buff?
Without any overtly erotic kind of thing, and the coppers have never seriously tried to ban them because that raises the question of the human form as an artistic motif too brutally. If you say that the naked human form is crook, you would have to blow up Copenhagen Harbour with the kid pissing in the harbour. You would have to bomb the Sistine Chapel (in fact it was Leonardo, I think, who painted it, but some other artist was forced by the Pope to put some things over the pricks of the cherubs). You would have to blow up all of the old classic cathedrals.
All of Roman and Greek Antiquity has to go doesn’t it?
That would seem to be the case if you say that about the naked human form.
What about all of those Norman Lindsays? They are full of leering Satans and big-busted nudes?
Exactly. They were banned in Australia for a very long time, and it’s absurd! Now there are some complex questions raised. I am against censorship but I don’t ridicule people’s concern about pedophilia, that’s a real current social concern, but it seems to me that the problem of pedophilia and the problem of the naked human form are quite different.
In the 1970s there was an American photographer called David Hamilton who used to have Edwardian nudes of youngish girls of indeterminate age who were naked, and they sold millions. They were enormously popular in the 1970s. I didn’t particularly like his work. My aesthetic tastes don’t run to that sort of ethereal stuff but the idea of banning the human form because the subject might be under-age, raises the question whether the human body is itself obscene. That’s crazy!