ROSEMARY O’GRADY. Death of a Real-Life Publisher.

Oct 5, 2018

In June this year I posted in these pages a piece entitled  ‘ Meanings of War’. It reported the publication of new translations and editions of the German-language classic Simplicius Simplicissimus, first-published in its original German edition in 1669.

Now, The Times Literary Supplement has recorded the death of the publisher John Calder, aged ninety-one. It was the elegant, woodcut-illustrated version of Helmuth Weissenborn & Lesley Macdonald’s translation of the great work of protest against the atrocities of war which appeared, unabridged, from John Calder (Publishers) Ltd of London in 1964, a rarity, and treasured objet on pale plum paper, stitched not glued, and printed in Dublin. My own copy was a lucky find in an Adelaide bookshop soon after I had left school, before our nation’s controversial involvement in the undeclared war in Vietnam.

The TLS of end-of-summer this year recalls a 1968 ‘joke’ in bad taste in its Commentary section, pounced-upon by its victim, John Calder, admitted then and retold with approval now to mark Calder’s passing. The occasion was the publication, by Pan Macmillan, of ‘a series of books for young people’ to initiate readers in the so-called dawn of a New Permissiveness ‘about the real things in life.’ It made a cheap link of Calder’s name with the style of the new series. Calder objected to the linking of his house’s name with the rude facts of titles describing contemporary erotica, and persuasively-distinguished his own productions from those of the new mass-market. John Calder’s ‘List’ could boast such modern Illuminati as Samuel Beckett, William Burroughs, Robert Creeley and Margeurite Duras, Eugene Ionescu and Natalie Sarraute. It needed no bush.

It was in the same year, 1968, the year of eruptions in student protest worldwide, that John Calder ‘with legal assistance from John Mortimer’ defended Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hugh Selby Jr against charges brought under the Obscene Publications Act (UK). This was to be the last major censorship case of its kind in Britain, the TLS observes, and goes on to provide an example of what ‘literary life was like’ before the change in attitudes to censorship attained in the 1960s. Again, John Calder was at the heart of the story. 

A play, Early Morning, by Edward Bond, an author from Calder’s List, was scheduled to open at the Royal Court Theatre for a season of two performances. Only one took place. The publisher, speaking in the wake of the Last Exit to Brooklyn cause, used opening night to appeal for support for his campaign against censorship. He noticed, seated in the audience, the police officer who had informed in the Last Exit prosecution. The second performance of Bond’s play was ‘blocked’ by the theatre-licensee.

The appeal however, Calder would argue, had not been in vain. Whereas Bond’s play might, ordinarily, have sunk without trace for lack of interest, the notice taken of it by the vigilance of the Lord Chamberlain had created a ‘public interest’ in what Calder insisted was the public’s right to see Bond’s plays, or any others, as a matter of principle, which is to say, as John Milton did: of Liberty. The farcical situation created by official intervention, said Calder, ‘falsifies our standards.’ It was not long afterwards that the Lord Chamberlain’s role as official censor was abolished.

All that was fifty years ago. I think of the days and energies spent in opposition to censorship, and the war in Vietnam, and of the liberalising impulses of that time, with some trepidation today. I cannot publish, here, what prompts me to reflect this way, because the causes are subject to non-publication orders made by judicial officers. The settings for these dramas and containments are courts, and it will take more than a scrupulous gentleman publisher speaking from an apron to the gods to turnaround the present vogue for restraint upon media personnel by authorities charged with the conduct of fair trials. A situation, seen by many as Orwellian, limits what citizens may be told about what is passing daily in the nation’s courts – and this is justified as being in the public interest.

The TLS has broached the issue of orthodoxy and what we are willing to accept by way of censorship in the public interest or for the good of civilization. 

‘ If the intellectual liberty which without a doubt has been one of the distinguishing marks of western civilization means anything at all, it means that everyone shall have the right to say and to print what he believes to be the truth, provided only that it does not harm the rest of the community in some quite unmistakable way.’

I wonder, uncomfortably, as we entrust a growing number of decisions to prohibit publication of court-proceedings to sole decisionmakers, whether or not something has been lost. I wonder if we are not engaged in a type of falsification of our standards in the name of security and equality. I mourn the passing of an audacious, civilized publisher who might, reasonably, advocate for liberty.

Rosemary O’Grady is a lawyer and writer.

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