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This item is taken from PN Review 42, Volume 11 Number 4, March - April 1985.

IN PNR 35, Michèle Roberts compared receiving a bad review in this magazine with 'the censorship and punishment dealt out to dissident poets by an authoritarian regime'. The 'ignorant and frightened' reviewer was an analogous force of repression, a typical figure of a kind to which feminist writers in Britain are accustomed. In his reply, Dick Davis characterized the tone of Ms Roberts's letter as that 'of someone to whom rhetoric is more comforting and more important than truth'.

Such rhetoric is not peculiar to Ms Roberts. But it has only recently become clear just how common it is. The terrifying-or, paradoxically, flattering-claim that radical writers in Britain are being, or are about to be, subjected to censorship similar in kind, if not yet in degree, to that exercised on dissident writers under authoritarian regimes, has gained remarkable currency. Few literary festivals are staged without a 'discussion' of the theme. Some find the rhetoric plausible. The more it is believed, the more 'the odds is gone'. Our response to the actual enemies of expression in Britain depends on our ability to discriminate between forms of 'repression' different in kind. Those who prefer the dramatic terms of confrontation between writer and political authority, terms borrowed from authoritarian environments, to the boring foe who makes do without truncheon, tear-gas cannister or plastic bullet-the foe in the market-place, the VAT office, the writer's union, the copyright department-may in the end prove to be in collusion with our particular, native foe.

In her lively 'Letter from New York' in PNR 41, Gwyneth Lewis lists foreign writers who have been refused entry visas to the United States on political grounds. Such action is regrettable as much for tactical as for human reasons-but it is quite different from the suppression of their works. Books by the writers she lists are disseminated, reviewed, read and discussed in the United States. The American media have access to the writers and broadcast their words to American viewers and listeners. While protesting against their physical exclusion from the United States, Americans with an eye to liberty continue to distinguish between this injustice and the less mild strategies which constitute censorship elsewhere, with the concomitant inconvenience of suppression, imprisonment and torture in the writer's native land.

The October issue of Index on Censorship includes an 'Opinion' article by the publisher John Calder, 'The Return of the Censors'. It is a locus classicus in this debate, not for what but for how it says, for its sentiments, not its arguments. Featured in a serious magazine, it asks to be taken seriously.

One does not have to be a friend of Mrs Thatcher to recoil from the apocalyptic projections or the analyses that impel John Calder to his conclusions.

Education has, since the advent of the first Thatcher government, had to suffer ever increasing cuts on all levels. Higher education and research is [sic] on the way out, while on the primary level, the tendency is to reduce education back to the three Rs, with literacy declining rapidly as fewer teachers deal with larger classes. Unemployment rises as school-leavers, with no concept of culture or how to employ leisure, are thrown out into the streets, without any prospects for the future. The result will of course be increasing vandalism, crime, drug addiction, and anti-social behaviour. And this will give the government the excuse to increase the powers and the harshness of the police, while those still employed in ever-worsening conditions become servile and incapable of expressing their voice.

Useless to question the assertions about higher education, or to recall that the origins of the crisis in education can be traced back three decades, that the stress on the three Rs might be expected in the medium term to lead to increased literacy. Useless too to point out that school leavers have a culture, if not a 'concept of culture', which is not entirely dependant on schooling and state provision. The social problems certainly exist, but are they a function of current government policy or have they a longer history related to the nature of our present society itself? Are Mr Calder's own expectations of the state not similarly derived?

Elsewhere in his article he stigmatizes the popular press: it 'trivializes everything and never tries to increase the sophistication of its readership'. That may have something to do with the social ills he lists. Television too might be answerable, but in an essay on native censorship it would be bad tactics to suggest that the media at large may be a force for corruption. He specifically denies that the word can corrupt: 'No one admits that he has been corrupted by seeing or reading anything, unless he considers the acquisition of knowledge or information to be corrupting. That is certainly the attitude of the philistine branch of the Tory party in Britain, of the regimes of Eastern Europe, South Africa, etc.' Yet his assertion that the popular press trivializes stands. Surely this is a form of corruption, an effect of language and image? But he leaves himself a let-out clause and it is, of course, literary (if not quite comprehensible): 'The ability to read the Sun rather than the Guardian cannot be called literacy in any meaningful way.' The would-be libertarian argument stumbles over its own system of values.

Even John Calder's opening sentence is dubious. 'Freedom of expression,' he writes, 'depends on the outlook and attitude of the government of the day, and it is closely linked to two phenomena, education and affluence.' Freedom to publish-and Calder is after all a publisher who has had to defend some of his books against charges of obscenity-may to some extent depend on these factors: non-interference by government and the courts and a developed readership with buying power. But the freedom to write, the primary freedom of expression, is not so circumscribed. Nor, indeed, is the freedom to publish in Britain entirely dependant on readership or affluence. John Calder's enterprise, like PNR and Index on Censorship, is subsidized with public money and is thus in some degree free of the constraints imposed by market and even by educational considerations.

I recommend John Calder's article as a distillation of bien pensant liberal sentiments, borrowing its fears and its analyses from experiences largely remote from our own, and sincerely motivated by a strong distrust of current political arrangements. He asserts that the present government 'is de-educating the country in order to increase the divide between the proletariat and the middle classes that had become blurred during the last 25 years'. 'A literate population is always dangerous to an authoritarian government. People who cannot read easily do not think about the choices open to them in life because they are not educated to receive information and evaluate it.' What John Calder means is 'the right information'-the Guardian rather than the Sun. Radical leaders would disagree: people who 'cannot read' can consult their interests and, yes, can even think. They can be lead in various directions away from the liberties we still enjoy. An illiterate population is rather more dangerous, at times when 'the economy moves into depression', than a literate one.

I wish it were possible for writers, readers and publishers to work up a lather about the problems that beset British literary culture, some of which have been the subject of articles and editorials in PNR. But there is little chance of this: our problems are largely technical and legalistic, not romantic and apocalyptic. We are of course free to declare ourselves persecuted and at peril if we wish-but it is a rather worthless luxury when we borrow alien devils and fail to identify our own.

This item is taken from PN Review 42, Volume 11 Number 4, March - April 1985.

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