Leeds, obscenity and the law

Leeds author Mick McCann – who wrote How Leeds Changed the World and others writes about public decency, Keith Waterhouse and a whole load of other stuff for South Leeds Life.

There have been a number of Leeds events and people who tested and pushed at the boundaries of ‘public decency’ and a couple of things that recently brought them to mind.

The first was when a TV channel apologised for the language and turned off the mics on the Leeds United fans during a game at the Emirates and the second was an up-roar at a book reading.

Both left me wondering whether in Leeds we have a penchant for swearing. Do we swear more in Leeds than do the people of Newcastle, Liverpool or Sheffield? I reckon not.

OK, so this is quite a trivial question but some of the historical Leeds-related prodding at the restrictions of taste has had a profound effect on freedom of expression, what is acceptable for the British public to see, hear or read and altered the cultural/social landscape of Britain and beyond.

Acceptable cultural expression is negotiable and changeable. During the first stage run of Hunslet’s Keith Waterhouse’s Billy Liar (1960) the repeated use of the word ‘bloody’ was sometimes met with audience booing.

In the film version (1963) the line ‘What you wanted me to do that night’ was removed by the censor and the film was one of the first times celluloid captured the word ‘pissed’, seen as particularly daring as it was spoken by an older women, Billy’s mother. 

Today I don’t know anyone, over the age of eight, who would wince at the use of the words ‘bloody’ or ‘pissed’.

In life what is and isn’t offensive is quite arbitrary, it’s agreed, except we often don’t agree and the etiquette of language often means that the most easily offended sets the bar and polite people tend to tailor their language to the most judgemental. 

It’s also massively variable. Many of us are schizophrenic, automatically selecting the colour of our language according to the situation, be it Headmistress or close friend – context matters.

When the poem V by Leeds poet and playwright Tony Harrison was due to be aired by Channel 4 in 1987 there was wide press coverage and outrage at, in the words of the poem, ‘a repertoire of blunt four-letter curses’ including repeated use of the ‘c’ word.

A group of Tory MPs put forward a Commons Early Day Motion in response, entitled Television Obscenity, to try to stop the broadcast, the poem was aired and the boundaries stretched. The swearing is not celebrated, not gratuitous but captured a time, place and attitude. An accurate report….if part imagined.

 The urge to write this came after a discussion in Ossett following a reading from my first two books to a book group.

The room split between those who were upset by the ‘colourful’ language contained and those who thought it crucial and ‘authentic’. I explained that as a youth in East Leeds, during the ‘70s, those words were all around and removing them would be akin to removing ‘thou’ from Shakespeare or, in the second book, that under pressure and in a life shattering crisis someone like me would swear….more than once.

To be fair, in my second book, I did use ‘the C word’ as a proper noun to describe the mysterious antagonist/s but in those awful circumstances I certainly would.

It was about context. (Incidentally, the first time the ‘f’ word was used on British television was 13th November 1965, by Kenneth Tynan, on BBC-3, a satirical show which Leeds’ Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall wrote for.)

Although it was streaming through my head, I resisted calling to my defence The Lady Chatterley trial which redefined the British cultural landscape and transformed our social space.

(Now I’m not meaning to compare myself to D.H Lawrence, obviously, that would be ridiculous….he can’t touch my prose.)

Due to its graphic sex scenes and frequent use of the ‘f’ word, Lady Chatterley’s Lover had been banned for over 30 years and in 1960 Penguin Books were put on trial for publishing it.

The ‘star witness’ for the defence in the trial was sociologist and academic Richard Hoggart who was Leeds born, bred and educated and, like Lawrence, from a working class background. He argued that the ‘f’ word was common parlance and he’d heard it three times on the way to the court.

Before the winning of this famous case the only things seen as fit for publication were books suitable for 14-year-old school girls and shocking lines such as “and that night they were not divided” in connection to two women were enough to have a book banned.

Although that trial was won, it was not until the Oz trial of 1971 that the subjective proviso of ‘no literary merit’ was removed from the law but there was a very important intervening court case for the arts between the two more famous ones.

In 1953 Stass Paraskos arrived in Leeds from Cyprus to work as a cook but ended up training at Leeds College of Art where he later taught. In 1966 his Leeds exhibition of paintings was broken up by the Rossers and a number of nude paintings (seemingly of men) removed.

They were deemed ‘lewd and obscene’ and Stass was charged under the 1838 Vagrancy Act.

The trial was big news and seen as a battle cry for the freedom of the arts. Prominent cultural figures such as Herbert Read and Norbert Lynton came to Leeds to appear for the defence and testify against censorship.

Even the then Home Secretary, Roy Jenkins, offered his support and, although the case was lost and Stass found guilty, it was seen as an important steppingstone between the Lady Chatterley and Oz trials. One of the illegal, ‘offending’ pictures is now on show at the Tate, London.

There’s no swearing in mi last thing, I fought my urges as I wanted the book on the achievements of Leeds to be accessible to children.

What I did do – to illustrate how perception of ‘acceptable’ language changes – was list some words that Chris Moyles uses on one of the BBC’s top radio shows. If the BBC broadcasts the words to an early morning, family audience of 7-8 million people, they’d obviously be fine for schools. Well no, I checked with a couple of teachers and they’re absolutely not acceptable for Primary schools….erm, context?

Taste and offence is largely subjective. Two of the women at the book club were particularly angry with me about the language in my second book – which is absolutely fine, we’re all different – but both let slip that their partners had read the book in a couple of days, ‘they couldn’t put it down’, the language was obviously not a barrier.

I did wonder why they didn’t quiz their partners and suspected that away from the book club social space their everyday life may also contain some colourful language but perhaps they see books as different. I should have checked if they liked films, comedy or dramas with ‘bad’ language in.

Perhaps I should have called to my defence Waterhouse and Billy Liar, Hoggart and Lady Chatterley, Chris Moyles, ar’Stass and his fine art, Tony Harrison and Channel 4 and maybe even not worried about appearing a pretentious twerp.