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This item is taken from PN Review 44, Volume 11 Number 6, July - August 1985.

THE Roman censor, Dr Johnson says, was an officer with "the power of correcting manners". Today, we have the Customs & Excise instead. Though not conceived as a moral instrument, it can be perverted to moral ends. PNR 43 reported on the way it was used to impede the trade of 'Gay's the Word' bookshop, to impound stock and eventually to bring prosecutions. The action was taken against books imported from the United States. Some of the titles in question have been published in Britain without attracting prosecution under the obscenity laws. Nor, it appears, will the British publishers be prosecuted.

Even those hostile to gay, political, ethnic or occultist bookshops cannot condone this harrassment. If improper or subversive material is on sale, it should be identified and tried under the appropriate laws. Our manners are corrected by discussion, debate, example; justice should be visibly done. Our manners are coarsened when we are compelled, not to judge, but to defend the right to judgement under the appropriate laws.

The Customs & Excise has political uses, too. Since the Falkland conflict, British booksellers have been forbidden to import Argentinian books. British libraries and those individuals familiar with the procedures can order books directly from Argentinian booksellers. But British booksellers who stock Latin American titles have had trade consignments from Argentina impounded, as R. F. Cutler (of that most seductive bookshop, Grant & Cutler Ltd., Buckingham Street, London) outlined in The Times of 7 February:

Argentina has long been important in the publishing of books in Spanish. During the Franco era some major Spanish poets, dramatists, political and other writers, Lorca among them, were published there because they could not be published in Spain. Even now some of their works still come from Buenos Aires. Furthermore, a number of leading authors from all over Latin America prefer to be published in Argentina, where they get a wider distribution. There is also Argentina's own important literature -from writers such as Güiraldes, Sarmiento, Cortázar, Puig and Borges. Ought such books, Nobel prizewinners among them, to be banned from the shelves of British booksellers?

There is no suggestion that books from Argentina encourage sexual or political deviancy. They are tainted only by their provenance. The continued ban cannot be justified on commercial or any but the most abstract political grounds. Yet we approach the third anniversary of this cultural exclusion zone, policed by the Customs & Excise.

The Department of Trade called the situation an 'irony' -giving "a potential advantage to our Argentinian competitors" -and has done nothing about it. The Department of Education claimed in July 1984 that it had no evidence that the ban had had any "adverse effect on the education of British students and scholars of Latin America" -hardly a surprising view since so much British education appears to be conducted without new books, because of 'inevitable economies' and the reduction of 'non-essential' educational costs.

The Foreign Office wants to avoid "sending the wrong signals" to Argentina. What would a relaxation of this self-punishing ban suggest to Westminster-watchers in Buenos Aires? That Britain was preparing to surrender the islands-airstrip, sheep and all-to the mainland? Or-if it signalled anything other than a return of commercial sense-might it not hint that communications of a basic (if politically marginal) kind were opening up once more?

The over-riding argument is not commercial or political. It is cultural. Sad that the cultural argument weighs no more heavily at the Foreign Office than it does at the Treasury. Even if no student was affected by the ban, even if no British interests were harmed, it would still be unacceptable. It is one of those gestures which had its moment of significance but has fossilized, a frozen piece of rhetoric, now risible.

And yet, until Argentina does whatever the British government wants it to do-and what it cannot do for very pressing domestic reasons-the Customs & Excise will forbid cultural communication. Behind the shield of the ban, the small-mindedness that disfigured popular reactions to the Falkland conflict can flourish. "The English are definite and practical," wrote Heine in 1832; "all things of the spirit materialize with them, until their thoughts, their lives, and they themselves become one single fact with rights that cannot be denied." The right, in this case, to spit into the wind.

Während die Kleine von Himmelslust

Now while the seraphs sang their songs
Of love and heavenly peace
My baggage was inspected by
The customs and police.

They turned my cases upside-down;
They had to make quite sure
I hadn't any whiskey or
Forbidden literature.

Poor idiots, looking in my case,
You're hopelessly misled:
The contraband you're looking for
Is carried in my head.

I have there many articles
Which, I am bound to state,
It is your job as patriots
To tax or confiscate.

I also carry other things
That you would think your pigeon-
The principles and blue-prints of
A curious new religion.

My head is full, I warn you,
Of the most disgraceful books,
And if I chose to take them out
You would not like their looks.

For in the Devil's library
There are not books more beastly;
Some of them are as dangerous as
The works of J. B. Priestley.

A fellow-passenger remarked,
Watching the police with pride,
"These gentlemen ensured that we
Were fully unified.

"They give us outward unity
Under their manly grip;
Spiritual unity we get,
Of course, from censorship.

"Identity of thought we get
From that fine institution-
Which gives us an unshakeable,
If stupid, constitution."
HEINE (translated by C. H. Sisson)

This item is taken from PN Review 44, Volume 11 Number 6, July - August 1985.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to
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