June 20th, 2008


Fuck your way to the revolution

I was a Little Red Schoolbook kid. At the age of eleven I read an article in the London Times about this revolutionary and shocking guide for children and begged my parents to get me a copy. Fashionably permissive, they agreed, and with true egalitarianism ordered a second copy for my brother. When I got sent off to boarding school in Scotland the manual was in my luggage. It didn't last long; housemaster Quack Mendl (once a famous cricketer) recognised the Schoolbook as a work of subversive literature. He confiscated it, and I never saw my copy again. It stayed with me, though; in 1998 I named an album after it.

The story of the Little Red Schoolbook -- told by Jolyon Jenkins in this week's In Living Memory on BBC Radio 4, available online for another five days, and also in a downloadable Australian documentary made in 2006, The Book That Shook the World -- is a dark tale of institutional paranoia, control freakery, authoritarian skulduggery and mistrust. It's a tale of conservatism at its worst.

What was it about the Little Red Schoolbook that caused all the hullaballoo? Well, quite a lot, actually. The book, written by two Danish educators, Soren Hansen and Jesper Jenson, talked about sex, drugs, rights, agitation, peaceful protest, abortion. It told kids how to get their way with the "paper tigers" who controlled their lives in the classroom and at home by organising collectively. It said that homosexuality and heterosexuality were equally valid options, and it said that nothing sexual was wrong if it didn't hurt anyone. It appealed to me because it was the first book I'd read which treated me, a child, as a responsible citizen able to act politically in the world. Its attitudes seemed as modern and as rational as Danish furniture. The book's tone was one of calm sanity, but the reaction to it was a kind of insanity -- an object lesson in how the authorities think, and why you shouldn't trust them.

Problems began immediately. The first set of Danish printers wouldn't print "den lille rode bog for skole-elever" (the little red book for school pupils). The Pope condemned it from the Vatican. British morality campaigner Mary Whitehouse alerted the Department of Public Prosecutions even before the first British edition hit the streets, and publisher Richard Handyside found his Stage 1 publishing house raided by Scotland Yard's Obscene Publications Squad. Handyside lost a magistrate's court case against the Crown, was fined £50, and appealed. Despite being defended by John Mortimer, Handyside lost the appeal too. Witnesses for the prosecution paraded (as the Radio 4 documentary shows) dubious "expertise"; one spinster testified that masturbation (which the book told children was harmless) actually made intercourse more difficult. All of this was completely unscientific, but it swung the case against Handyside and the book.

Even the European Court of Human Rights didn't support Handyside or the Danish authors. In 1976 it ruled in favour of the British government, finding that banning the book and charging Handyside was "not out of proportion in a democratic society".

So what did the Little Red Schoolbook say about sex? Here's a section of the chapter that so shocked the morality campaigners. "The usual word for a boy's sexual organ is cock or prick. The usual word for a girl's sexual organ is fanny or cunt. Many adults don't like these words because they say they're "rude". They prefer words like penis or vagina. When boys get sexually excited, their penis goes stiff. This is called having an erection or "getting a hard on". If a boy rubs his prick it starts feeling good and he reaches what is called orgasm. This is called masturbation or wanking. When a boy puts his stiff prick into a girl's vagina and moves it around this is called having intercourse or making love or sleeping together (even if they don't sleep at all). The usual word for intercourse is fucking."

The usual word for police vice squads seems to be "corrupt". That certainly turned out to be the case with Scotland Yard's Obscene Publications Squad. As this account reveals, "the Schoolbook raid was later proved to have been part of a wide-ranging criminal conspiracy involving members of Obscene Publications Squad, who targeted high-profile Underground publications like Oz, International Times (IT) and Frenz, in order to divert attention from the endemic corruption in the Squad. A later inquiry revealed that many senior members of the Metropolitan Police, including the head of the OPS, Detective Chief Inspector George Fenwick, were receiving regular and substantial payoffs from Soho pornographers in return for protection, and Fenwick was subsequently jailed for ten years as the “chief architect” of the corruption ring."

Today, there's a peculiarly mixed reaction to the book; it's considered laughably tame and obvious by some, more dangerous than ever by others. Hilary Benn, New Labour's Environment Secretary, actually contributed to the British edition of the book as a child, but declined to be interviewed by the BBC about his role. Publisher Richard Handyside thinks that if he released the same book today the reaction would be worse. The Danish authors, on the other hand, told the Australian film crew "People would just laugh. It wouldn't cause any trouble. Nothing would happen."

"It's a very attractive idea, a Freudian Marxist idea," says Australian contributor Beatrice Faust, describing the book's underlying premise. "If you released your sexuality you would somehow overwhelm or undermine capitalism... fuck your way to the revolution." Oddly enough -- if the contradictory reactions of the British publisher and the Danish authors are anything to go by -- in the years since 1971 that battle has been won... and lost.