PINK 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.”
One 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.