Saturday, November 11, 2006

"Society ... will have no place for me"

posted by k

I was at school when I picked up the green Penguin by Peter Wildeblood with the title Against the Law. The book is probably out of print now and entirely forgotten, but it was influential in its day.

Peter Wildeblood had been jailed with others for offences termed "gross indecency" - consensual sex with adult men - and he wrote this account of his experiences, including his trial and imprisonment, with reflections on the law that criminalised male homosexuality.

Fortunately the book is dated now. Peter Wildeblood's sex life would no longer be a crime. And his book contributed to the public debate which led to the change in the law.

Under new laws being proposed by the government, Peter Wildeblood would not have been able to publish his restrained and thoughtful memoir. It is suggested that criminals should not be able to make money by publishing anything that deals with their crimes. It is sometimes suggested that criminals should be forbidden from publishing any account of their crimes, or speaking publicly about them.

It may seem like a good idea at first. Why should Jeffrey Archer make more money from his autobiography? Why should Jonathan Aitken be able to pour out his heart to us in a document of remorse and religious conversion? And, if Blair and Bush are ever tried for war crimes, we have the tanatalising possiblity that their memoirs too might be banned.

But writing about crime does have value: to politicians, historians, criminologists and others. As human beings we may wish or need to understand what drives criminals if we are ever to look for changes in our society.

Some of the books banned by this law may be deeply unpleasant. Others, like Peter Wildeblood's, are important contributions to debate.

I hope the law will be too difficult to frame. Will Waterstone's be banned from selling Nelson Mandela's A Long Walk to Freedom? Will Gandhi's Autobiography: The Story of my Experiments with Truth suddenly become a banned book? Will students be forbidden to read Oscar Wilde's The Ballad of Reading Gaol and De Profundis or John Bunyan's Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners. Perhaps the Bible will be left untouched since we don't know if St. Paul made a profit from the letters he wrote in prison.

I'm not too worried about the books I've listed. There will be an exemption - or it will be left to the discretion of the Home Secretary or his subordinates. But we mustn't silence a future Mandela or Gandhi or Bunyan or Wilde.

We must take great care not to stifle knowledge, debate and freedom.

see also Duncan Campbell in the Guardian


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