Beyond belief by Patrick Mullins (extract)

Protecting the innocent through censorship has been a fraught and — in hindsight —  sometimes comic endeavour.  

Illustration by Nicholas Beckett –

Illustration by Nicholas Beckett – 

It began with a desire for protection. In the mid-1940s a Tasmanian woman saw her teenage son reading a novel and was so aghast when she read it for herself that she gave it to a friend. The friend, also aghast, took it to a meeting of a local political group of which she was general secretary. The group advised going right to the top by complaining to the minister for customs, who would get the book removed from libraries and bookstores where other teenagers might find it.  

The robust and breezy Labor senator in charge of censorship in Australia was of a similar mind about the book, but was unable to act under federal law. So he told the woman to approach the man responsible for censorship in New South Wales, where the book had been published. The state’s chief secretary referred the complaint to the crown solicitor, who handed the matter to police. A few weeks later, an officer of the vice squad served a summons on Angus & Robertson to answer a charge of publishing an obscene work. 

At issue was We Were the Rats, a novel that centres on a group of Australian soldiers taking part in the heroic defence of the Libyan port of Tobruk in 1941. It was the work of military journalist Lawson Glassop, who had been so inspired by reports of the siege that he waylaid weary diggers on leave in Cairo to pump them for colour and information.  

Much of the early part of the novel was ‘based on fact’, said Glassop, and his characters were ‘real people’, faithfully portrayed. Moreover, the book was an act of service, of homage: ‘The Australian infantryman is a great soldier and I have tried to make this book his saga.’ Good sales were accompanied by widespread critical acclaim when the novel was published in October 1944. Responding to criticism of several ribald passages, Glassop leaned heavily on his assertion of the novel’s verisimilitude: ‘If people are offended their argument is with the men of the AIF, not with me.’  

But the authorities’ argument was with his publishers, who were brought to court a year and a half later, in April 1946, to answer the charge. At issue, according to detective-sergeant Roy Munro, were five passages that were offensive ‘to delicacy and chastity’. The most critical concerned a scene in which a soldier reads aloud from a ‘perv novel’ — that is, erotica — to shivers of outrage and horror from his peers: ‘Oh Jesus,’ groans one. Says another: ‘I hope that’s the end.’  

That Angus & Robertson was being prosecuted for the dirtiness of a passage depicting horrified reactions to erotica was but one example of the farce that followed. Another was the merciless cross-examination of Munro by a defence counsel probing the police sergeant’s ability to judge literature. Did Munro know Shakespeare’s first name? No. Did he know who Byron was? Did he know of Chaucer, or Shelley? Did he even know what ‘pornographic’ meant?  

Much as this underscored the defence’s case that the police were philistines, it did nothing to sway the magistrate’s mind as to the obscenity of the passages cited. Angus & Robertson was found guilty and fined £10. At the appeal in June, both prosecutor and judge agreed that the novel attained ‘great heights in literary art’ and was true to life. But again a guilty verdict was inescapable: the passages with the erotica were obscene and would corrupt anyone whose mind was open to immoral influences. ‘I think these pages are plain filth,’ said the judge, ‘obscene in fact and in law.’ 

Glassop clung to his claim to truth and railed against the ‘imbecility’ of these findings. What was truly lamentable was the fact that the laws that netted We Were the Rats were amended by state parliament just a month before Angus & Robertson’s conviction. The new exemption for ‘literary works’ came too late to save Glassop’s novel. 

Dr Patrick Mullins is the author of Tiberius with a Telephone (2018), which won the Douglas Stewart Prize of the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards and the National Biography Award. His most recent book The Trials of Portnoy was shortlisted for the 2021 Douglas Stewart Prize.  

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