Article written and published in the autumn of 2007 for the Artist’s Book Yearbook 08/09.
Stories for Bedtime…A True Crime of Passion
By David Ferry
“The nations morals are like teeth: the more decayed they are the more it hurts to touch them.”
George Bernard Shaw, introduction to The Shewing Up of Blanco Posnet.
“Hurry up, and come quickly Dick, for Fanny is getting impatient…” etc.
In fact almost anything can be taken to the extremes of the double entendre and from there, to public offence, political corrective infill and nationalistic awfulness.
Stories for Bedtime was made in 2006 and exists as a limited edition artist’s book by the contemporary artist Celia Warnants (writing and creating in this instance under the pseudonym of Edith Fryton). Celia made this book during her undergraduate studies in a British university art school. She became fascinated at the depiction of assumed childlike innocence in our modern times where every type of human avarice and perversion pervades. This seems to me to be a particularly prevalent subject to tackle in a seat of learning and I would always like to believe that the art institution and fine art studies in particular are the last bastions of liberal, eclectic and fantasy-laden learning left in an increasingly corporate landslide of devalued, overpopulated and expensive higher education.
Expecting the normal euphoria and celebrations that naturally come along at the end of a three year course of study Celia was very surprised when, with no prior warning, her entire undergraduate art school degree show was cordoned off, taken down, and ultimately confiscated by the C.I.D. This happened in a middle England cathedral city, and is a scary reminder of an ongoing assault of social and public righteousness that beggar’s belief. This incident took place only very recently. In this remarkable tale of ‘so called book art crime’, I want to set the scene, with the conditions and analogies, of which, most of us, will already be very familiar with.
Enid Blyton began writing her particular brand of children’s stories in the 1940’s, and she continued with a cascade of writing, for decades to come. It is a fact, according to the online information service, Wikipedia, that more than 400 million copies of her novels and stories have been sold globally. Her accounts of adventure and righting the wrongs of the localised universe, were loved by many a ‘story before bedtime’, parent, grandparent and guardian the world over. Her books have been translated into more than ninety different languages. The Famous Five series the Secret Seven series, The Naughtiest Girl series (an ironic title in this scenario!), appealed to, and entertained generations of children from all walks of life (even though most readers did not share the particular social and geographical background of the characters in the books)! Indeed the visions of righting village wrongs, amidst the perfect English summer of nostalgic and romantic myth, go a long way to describe the essentially xenophobic and empire-centric characters of these novels. Burglars, smugglers, robbers, thieves and cheats, not forgetting the misplaced and the foreign looking, they all came in for intense scrutiny from the gangs of children on holiday with their aunt. No surprise then, that Blyton’s writings were the subject of frequent reports (from the 1980’s onwards) that various public children’s libraries had removed some of her work from their shelves. Are these libraries any better without Dame Slap, Dick, Fanny, the naughty Golliwogs, or the equivalent of the modern asylum seeker to entertain and tease us, or is it our imagination that converts these characters into that very adult something else? Was Blyton addressing a type of social and political view that was camouflaged in the guise of these innocent children’s adventure stories? Perhaps they are absolutely innocent of all thought crime and it is our basic human nature that converts this innocence into the puerile or the nationalistic. But far worse I believe, is the disposal of this material into the politically correct filing cabinet, as though we are not allowed to make our own minds up. Once affirmative action hits the library, the gallery and the museum, our culture is in peril.
Curiously then, and in a way highly related, (if we naturally accept that the book is an interactive device, capable of great subversion) that in 1962 the British playwright and novelist, Joe Orton, and his companion Kenneth Halliwell were prosecuted, fined, and jailed for six months for the theft and malicious damage of public library books. In what can now in my view only be regarded as acts of great creativity coupled with sublime intervention, Orton and Halliwell stole books from their local library and would in the comfort of their small bedsit in Islington; subtly modify the graphics and introduction texts of the dust jackets. They returned the modified or defiled books back to the shelves and waited in great anticipation for the unwitting public to discover the ‘man trap’ of their intervention and ‘change of use’ of the books. In one example, a volume of poems by John Betjeman was returned to the library with a new dust jacket featuring a photograph of an almost naked heavily tattooed middle-aged man. In another a photograph of a monkey was collaged onto a book of roses. These and many other incidents were reported in the national newspaper, the Daily Mirror, under the headline “Gorilla in the Roses”. In the subsequent trial, they admitted over seventy such ‘realignment crimes’ and these ‘wrong doings’ were cited and judged as being clear evidence of malicious damage to public property, it seemed that the law could not be allowed to see or was willing to understand a true act of creative interaction with this pre-existing material called a book. Ironically, the self-same books that Orton and Halliwell vandalised have now become the most valued items (or art objects) in the Islington Library Service’s collection. Time has allowed these acts to ascend to art. I was always told that things get better with time, it was a maxim for looking forward to growing up and getting wiser.
So, to get back to our main subject, Celia’s degree Show had already been up a week before the C.I.D in the form of a Detective Constable and a Detective Sergeant came to look at, judge and ultimately condemn an art act. Following a tip off, (or rather a phone call to the Chief of Police) that offensive and apparently paedophilic material was currently on public display. The unknown caller from the cathedral city demanded that tough action be taken. Actually the caller referred to Celia as being, quote “a disgusting pervert who ought to be locked up”. It transpired that the C.I.D. had actually been monitoring the show for some time before pouncing on the ‘offending material’, “we wanted to witness public reaction to the images…” the Sergeant said, “…small children have been observed looking at this material and were disgusted.” A bewildered Celia had to stand and watch as the official plastic bags were brought out in which to collect the vital evidence. On reaction to being cited as ‘a disgusting pervert’, Celia asked what seemed the very reasonable question of “why”. The reply was clear “Because it is alleged that you have broken up to seven points of law, two of which are the Obscene Publications Act 1964 and The Indecent Displays Act 1959”. A further discussion ensued in which Celia defended her work on the grounds that she had not actually described any untoward acts happening to the children, only inferred as such, and in this way was critically and contextually putting the subtext of the original Blyton novels in a contemporary fine art language for reappraisal and rereading. The response from the C.I.D. officers was simple and direct “…reading between the lines Ms Warnants, you can see how this could cause offence. We are taking your work to the Crown Prosecution Service so they can make a ruling as to whether the police have a case against you and if this is the situation you will be arrested, taken to court and prosecuted… Do not leave the country” were the final words of wisdom from the two plain-clothes officers as they left with the plastic bags bulging with the entire contents of her degree show.
On advice, Celia contacted a solicitor, whose main response to the scenario was that, at best, it was, “ridiculous” but pursued the case on Celia’s behalf anyway. Following initial letters from the solicitor to the police, nothing happened for months. During this time of course, Celia was going through the many ramifications of the situation none of which could have been particularly positive. More time passed and Celia eventually received a text message on her mobile phone. The text went something like this ‘The Crown Prosecution Service has considered the material seized, and after careful consideration has concluded that it will not be pursuing a prosecution against you. Your artwork is available for collection from the police station property office. This office is open Monday to Friday 0900 to 1600, but closed for lunch between 1300 and 1400 hours.’ I guess that during the lunch hour the imbibing of lashings of ginger beer ensues! Or maybe it is just time for a rest between trying to find the inferred in the interplay that exists between what can be classified as art and classified as perversion in the realm of the law!
Celia quite rightly wanted to have confirmation in writing that her work was now legal and justifiable art, this is a breakdown of the e-mail she received in response to that request. “Celia, it is a subjective matter. It depends on how the artwork is displayed and who has access to its viewing. It is not illegal to possess such material, although it may be illegal to sell or distribute it. It is not possible to provide what you have requested as a different CPS (Crown Prosecution Service) may decide to prosecute; the law on such matters is not as simple as stating that something is or is not illegal.” Celia enquired of her own University’s Legal Services as to her position who responded by saying that they were ‘not really equipped to deal with circumstances like this’. The same University, however, gave Celia the license, opportunity and guidance to create the artwork in the first place and awarded Celia with a very high marking Honours Degree. The University went on to purchase works by Celia for their permanent collection of artists’ books. Similar works by her have been exhibited at the recent Manchester University and BABE, Bristol Artist’s Book Fairs, at Saddlers Wells, The RCA Secret Postcard exhibition and in a private gallery in Mayfair. The University was also considering using one of Celia’s works for publicity (that was of course until this ‘incident’ occurred!).
So what exactly do we conclude, and take forward from these stories of double meanings, subversion and knife-edge debate? The offended of the cathedral city probably thought they were acting out of the public good when the Chief of Police was called, but on the other hand, so was the art institution when it encouraged and tutored Celia to create such a tightrope of satirical double-take on the Blyton corpus, in the first place.
The answer is probably impossible to articulate as there probably is no answer! The maxim of time and age developing into wisdom has clearly been derailed in this scenario. For myself, I think I will conclude with this wonderful refrain from the pen of Joe Orton:
“You can’t be a rationalist in an irrational world. It isn’t rational.”
Celia Warnants is currently a Postgraduate Printmaking student at the Royal College of Art, London. She continues to make art and be taught art.
Enid Blyton (1897-1968) continues to be read the world over. In 2007 Blyton was the fifth most popular author in the world, according to the Index Translationum which measured over 3300 of translations of her works, coming in after Lenin but ahead of Shakespeare.
Joe Orton’s (1933-1967) plays continue to be performed worldwide. His books, made together with Kenneth Halliwell (1926-1967) continue be displayed and exhibited. The books carry on fascinating and challenging alike.
The ‘offended of cathedral city’ (age(s) unknown) probably continue to believe that they operate on the moral high ground (despite some mirror reverse psychology, perhaps)!
David Ferry is currently the subject leader of Printmaking in a British University Art School. He continues to make, encourage and teach art.
Subversive and challenging art continues to be made world-wide despite a seemingly global hysteria for institutional and governmental politically correct behaviour in all aspects of citizenship and creative enterprise.