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Great Hill, West Pennine Moors

Great Hill, West Pennine Moors

I was sitting in the cross shelter on the top of Great Hill on Friday, sharing the view and passing the time of day with another walker. He was in his late middle age, what I’d describe as a robust pedestrian and a good sort. He was knowledgeable about the area and about the bird-life. I’ve never met him before and I knew him for all of ten minutes, but we got on well. Such encounters with strangers on hilltops are not unusual. The mere fact that you’re there means you already have a lot in common.

It’s a very beautiful spot, Great Hill, in a low moorland windswept sort of way. It’s about 1250 feet high, and miles away from the roads or any form of habitation. There were larks a plenty and a couple of curlew plaintively piping. To the north, we could see as far as Pendle and beyond to the Dales. Westwards we had the Lancashire plain and the sea. To the south lay Winter Hill, all of it crisply delineated in the mid-morning sunshine, and shimmering over the long moorland causeway known as Spitler’s Edge. This is a very beautiful patch of territory, otherwise known as the Western Pennines, and not twenty minutes drive from where I live, also not twenty minutes drive for a couple of million other souls as well, and unfortunately suffering from the stress of it.

Suddenly my new found companion advised me never to be in the area after 9:00 pm, that there were far too many unsavoury goings on these days. If it wasn’t boy racers killing themselves and others on the narrow moorland roads, he said, it was people up to goodness knows what on the public carparks.

“You know,” he said. “Those unsavoury parties and such-like.”

He explained those “unsavoury parties” were the reason the Higher House car-park at Rivington is now locked at night by a sophisticated electric rolling gate – or at least it was until the trolls came up and stole the solar panel that charged its batteries. Another car-park in the area, he informed me, is now padlocked at all times – no one can use it, day or night.

With a worldly sigh, he set his hat upon his head and bade me good morning. It was a curious encounter, possibly daemonic, and one that’s had me thinking ever since.

great hill summit

As I watched him ambling away, I reflected on other stories I’d heard about these nefarious goings on, and how they are increasingly interfering with people’s innocent enjoyment of the countryside. I suppose I take it personally because it’s my back yard and I grew up treasuring what it has to offer – its beauty, its wide open space, its antiquarian oddities, and its walking of course – so a part of me does resent this rather rude intrusion of what I call the grey world and its creeping ugliness.

It spreads like litter.

And of course the West Pennines isn’t the only area under siege by such unsavoury goings on.

Imagine:

An elderly lady and her husband drive to a local beauty-spot. There’s a pleasant car-park under the trees, a shimmering lake in the distance, a shapely green hill rising beyond. It’s all sunshine and blue skies – a midday week, about lunchtime. They park their vehicle, unpack a picnic and are about to pour coffee from the flask when a man walks by in a pin-stripe suit, carrying his trousers, neatly folded, over his arm – only his shirt tails to spare his modesty.

They used to bring their children here for picnics on Sundays, they’d go walking and playing hide and seek in the woods. It’s a public car-park, a handy public loo, but unknown to them it’s also become what the police have unofficially designated a public sex area, in this case mainly for gays, looking for anonymous encounters. The street smart call it “Cottaging”. The police call it a public nuisance, but don’t want to be seen as homophobic, so unless someone gets hurt or there are drugs involved it’s mostly tolerated.

Then imagine:

A young woman takes her dog out for a walk, early evening. It’s another car-park, another beauty spot. She’s followed by a man who begins making lewd remarks, so she beats a hasty retreat, understandably in some distress. As she drives away he calls her stuck up for not wanting to have sex with him. When she calls the police, she’s told the area is a well known “Dogging” location, Dogging being a euphemism for what might be loosely termed public sex. People drive for miles to these spots and rendezvous for anonymous intercourse, this time of the heterosexual variety.

The young woman didn’t know all this of course, not being familiar with that sort of thing.

In an attempt to curb the problem, and I’m sorry dear Doggers and Cottagers, but you are a problem, the council locks the carparks at night, unless they run out of money and can’t afford to pay a warden, in which case they simply shut the car-parks altogether and the amenity is denied to others who merely want to walk or picnic and generally enjoy the greenery and the scenery on their doorstep. But because that green is within spitting distance of a conurbation, the grey tide washes up a thick line of unsavoury detritus.

I’m not sure how these things take hold, nor how the innocent among us are supposed to know that lay-by or car-park where we habitually leave our car of a summer’s eve, while we take a couple of hours out across the moors and enjoy the sunset, is now a public sex area. It’s a very British phenomenon – apparently – this dogging thing, but it’s all rather sordid too, and though it’s not like me to moralise, I really don’t like the thought of it in my back yard.

Of course, it’s not a good idea, sex with strangers, but even less so with lots of strangers. It’s a sure way to catch an STD for a start, possibly a fatal one, but that never stopped anyone from doing it, so moralising and pointing out the public health implications is never going to solve it. The other problem is it also creates bad feeling among the locals – these immoral urbanites travelling out to our rural idyll to perform their beastly functions. And there’s a resentment too that the innocent ones had better be locked indoors, with the curtains drawn by dusk, because there’ll soon be trolls about and there’s never a burly copper around to see them off.

Anyway, I came down from Great Hill, returning via the woods at Brinscall, then along the Goit to White Coppice. I saw more curlew and lark, heard cuckoo and woodpecker, and found what I believe to be an unmarked standing stone, though possibly a Victorian facsimile. It was a beautiful day, a pleasant walk, a beautiful area, an area well known to me, an area well known also, apparently, for dogging.

standing stone

As an interesting, though not entirely unrelated aside, today I took the good Lady Graeme out in the MX5. (We might as well enjoy it while the sun shines) We drove to Saint Annes on Sea and had a picnic by Fairhaven Lake. We used to go there a lot with the children, but today’s journey was considerably enhanced by travelling in an open top car. In fact it was a delight, and it was also wonderful to see my teacher wife smiling again after weeks of stress during the build up to yet another school inspection. On our return, my good lady, one eye on the wing mirror, asked me if I was aware the car behind the car behind us was a police car.

I was not.

I wasn’t speeding, but that aggressive looking Hyundai cruiser was suddenly an intimidating presence and, driving that MX5 I felt like I had a target on my back. I have been indicted for my carelessness before (SP30) – there were extenuating circumstances, but I didn’t argue them. I have also been falsely accused by a traffic officer of using a mobile phone when driving. I was not using it, and was able to prove to his satisfaction I had not been using it, but was given a stern warning for using it anyway. I was also once stopped and asked, with blistering sarcasm, if indicators were optional on my car, sir. It’s unfortunate but my only contact with the boys and girls in blue is when I’m behind the wheel of a car, and my confidence in them is tainted by that experience. I recognise it as a neurosis, and could perhaps use some desensitisation therapy, but I no longer feel protected and served. Instead I feel vulnerable.

So, if you were the traffic officer two cars behind when a blue Mazda MX5 pulled into the petrol station at the Warton filling station this afternoon, I admit I wasn’t really pulling in for petrol. I was merely wanting you off my tail because you were spoiling my day out with my wife. And by the way, did you know, as I write there are people committing acts of public indecency in nearby beauty spots, frightening the life out of old ladies and young women, and horses too?

What’s that? You do?

Clearly one is less likely to attract the attention of the constabulary these days cavorting in public areas without one’s trousers than one is when merely driving from A to B.

The material world is endlessly fascinating. While it so often seems bent on self destruction, I seem able to watch it these days from the detached perspective of a mostly docile middle age, but it doesn’t stop me from occasionally getting my dander up when the unconscious among us use what few bits of beautiful English green we have left to us for wiping their bottoms on.

Except, reading back on all of this it sounds like rather a long editorial from the Daily Mail – World going to hell in a handcart, public morals shot to pieces, and the police doing nothing about it. But in truth, though I am aware of what goes on, I have never personally witnessed such public indecency as I speak of here, and I don’t lay awake at night worrying about it,  so the West Pennines remain for me another country, and long may it remain so. Policemen are also human beings and do a decent job that many, myself included, would be incapable of. Yes, I’m paranoid about traffic policemen, I break out all nervous and sweaty when one settles on my tail – which is precisely why I imagine I attract them –  when all the guy’s probably thinking is “please let there be no more calls before I finish my shift”. If I could learn to love them, I would no longer care so much when one settles on my tail. That’s going to be quite a challenge, probably beyond me, but its been an interesting weekend’s journey from my first sitting down on Great Hill on Friday morning.

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Censored! Navigating the rules on obscenity.

There’s an interesting thing going on at the moment between Smashwords – the online seller of independently authored ebooks, and the payment facilitating company, Paypal. Paypal, themselves under pressure from the major credit card companies who underpin Paypal’s business, have asked Smashwords to pull every title from its files that contains anything they (Paypal) consider to be obscene. In particular they’re talking about (deep breath and close one’s eyes) bestiality, incest, rape or underaged sex.

If Smashwords doesn’t comply then Paypal will sever all links with Smashwords. Smashwords uses Paypal as a means of paying its authors their download royalties. Smashwords is understandably concerned by this as it will mean they can no longer process payments to any authors – even the ones who don’t write the smutty stuff. It’s argued by Smashwords that while the topics highlighted are unpleasant and socially unacceptable, this is effectively a form of censorship, and to be honest, though it troubles me that such material is available through outlets like Smashwords, it’s difficult to see it any other way.

Credit card companies, and Paypal are privately owned financial institutions and have, in modern times, risen to become the life-blood of online international commerce. But that doesn’t mean they, and their shareholders, are qualified to decide what is obscene. That’s for elected governments and their legislators. Every country has its local laws defining what you can and cannot write, and it is these legal standards that should be our guidelines. However obscenity laws are always open to interpretation, and also seem increasingly ineffective in our globalised online world. But we cannot allow corporate culture to become the guardians of human culture, or we forfeit our souls. The difficulty is that what constitutes “obscene” changes with the times and the shifting social mores – which are arguably shaped by what people see, hear and read in the first place. It’s a complex equation, iterative and probably non-linear, verging on the chaotic – definitely not the sort of thing that can be modelled by the simplistic algorithms of the business world.

D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s lover was famously banned for obscenity in 1928, and only released in 1960 after a landmark trial in which one of one of the prosecution’s arguments was: would you like your wife or servants to read such a book? The implication was that a reading of Lady Chatterly would encourage wives and servants to cross the social divide and make love to each other more often – clearly something that was unacceptable in those days, but a little outdated now. If you read it now, you’ll perhaps agree that the language and the sexual acts depicted in this story were certainly daring for the times, but those acts were between consenting adults involved in a powerfully emotional relationship, and wouldn’t cause any problems with the censor now.

Perhaps that’s the safest way forward then: only write about what’s legal, according to your local laws. If in doubt, check it out, or leave it out. But is that good enough?

No, it’s not.

Many books rely on a crime being committed in order to kick start the plot – like detective fiction for example. Murder is a nasty business and not something we’d want to encourage, but it’s depicted all the time in seemingly ever more grizzly detail – both the act of killing itself and the subsequent probing analysis on the mortuary slab. Yuk! If you’re watching TV tonight – count how many murders there are.

Clearly the test of criminality is insufficient.

Is it just a question of sexual crimes then?

No.

Themes of rape are unfortunately also a regular feature of even pre-watershed soap opera. The writers of these dramas claim they wish to depict real life issues, of which sadly, rape is one. But why don’t soap operas also deal regularly with themes of bestiality, incest or underage non-consensual sex – which are also real life issues? Why should these be hidden away in a dark cupboard?

Is it a question of how they’re portrayed then? Must the perpetrator always get their come-uppance? Is it the apparent glorification of bad things that’s the problem?

Ah! Now we’re getting somewhere.

There’s clearly a social dynamic here – certain things are still on the back burner, waiting their time before people are generally comfortable discussing them. Rape is in the open, but the other taboos are not. And if you’re an independent author who wants to push these things into the public eye, then it’s how you treat them that’s the important thing in determining the kind of reception you’ll get.

I think the key phrase here is “prurient interest”. Is your treatment of the subject matter aimed solely at sexually arousing the reader? If this is the case then it might be said you’re trying to convert someone to your way of thinking by engaging their emotions. And if your way of thinking is to condone illegal acts by making them look in any way pleasurable, or acceptable, you’re straying into dangerous territory and you should think very seriously about what you’re doing.

In the UK the law on obscenity is covered by the Obscene Publications Act of 1959. This is the same act that was used to challenge Penguin books, who were determined to publish the unexpurgated version of Lady Chatterly in 1960. The Act isn’t an easy one to read. It speaks in a convoluted legalese about the likelihood of a reader being corrupted, and balances this against the literary merit of the work. To a layman it seems very much open to interpretation. It does however try to focus on the intent of the work and its likely effect, then leaves it to a jury to decide. I have to say though, for a writer trying to explore what he can or cannot write, it’s not very helpful.

What then are we poor indies, intent on pushing the edgy boundaries, to do?

Well, in America there’s a legal mechanism called the Miller Test. This is a test applied in three parts and asks: Is the material aimed solely at the prurient interest? Does the material contain anything that a normal person is likely to find offensive? And finally, is the work without any literary or artistic merit? Material answering “yes” to all three parts is considered obscene and you can probably be burned for it. If it answers “no” to any one of the three parts, then you’ll probably get away with it. Although a little easier to follow than the UK law, in practice the Miller Test is still open to interpretation, and relies on a jury at the end of the day to provide the input on what is and is not socially acceptable.

I sometimes find my own stories listed on Feedbooks, side by side with books whose covers depict nude ladies in provocative poses. Their titles are unambiguously pornographic. Now, I’m not a prude and my only real concern here is they probably make my own work look lame and tame and uninteresting. But how does this material get past the Miller Test? And what about my own work? How does that compare? What about that final love scene in the Lavender and the Rose? Gulp!

All right – so I had to download and read one of Feedbook’s free “erotic” titles for research purposes. Let’s call it Young Ladies in Love, by Tessa Tuttle – it being an account of the seduction of a straight girl by a Lesbian girl, both contemporary consenting American adults in their twenties. The plot consisted of a series of loosely linked and explicitly depicted encounters between the protagonists and ended, somewhat abruptly, with a message from the author directing you to their paid website where you could download the full story for a fee. (I didn’t bother) There wasn’t any character development to speak of, other than the straight girl becoming more Sapphically inclined.

On the other hand, in the Lavender and the Rose – well, it’s a complicated story,… some might say incomprehensible,… but there are some love scenes in it – of the consenting heterosexual kind, also some Tantric stuff, and a climactic (is that the best word?) bisexual denouement between the three main characters – two women and a guy. Strewth!

Okay – to the Miller test: Michael Graeme and Tessa Tuttle in the dock.

Part one: Does the work cater purely to the prurient interest? Tessa Tuttle’s Young Ladies in Love? Self evidently, yes.

Michael Graeme, how plead you regarding the Lavender and the Rose? Not guilty your honour. Explain? The Lavender and the Rose is two hundred thousand words long, the descriptive sexual content less than five percent. My readers would most likely nod off between love scenes.

Michael Graeme you are released. Phew.

Tessa Tuttle you remain in the dock.

Tessa Tuttle. Does your work contain scenes that a normal person would find offensive? Chief witness for the prosecution: Michael Graeme – well, em,.. no your honour. I found nothing offensive – just frank descriptions of girls making love. Counsel for the prosecution: But what makes you think you’re normal, Michael Graeme? It sounds pretty filthy to me. Are you not simply a dangerous libertarian? I’m sure some people would find the thought of two ladies making love repulsive.

Hm.

Tessa Tuttle, you’re not out of the woods yet, and remain in the dock. We’d better move on to test three in order to settle the matter.

Tessa Tuttle, is your work entirely without literary merit? Witness for the prosecution, Michael Graeme: Absolutely without any merit whatsoever, your honour. Tessa Tuttle protests: Michael Graeme, you’re a highbrow snob. I claim my work is very artistic. Is the act of any form of imaginative creation not in itself artistic?

Hm.

Tessa Tuttle,… you argue your case very well. And you’ve convinced the jury of your artistic integrity. You are released.

So, my own work doesn’t disturb the ripples on the Miller Test pond very much, thank goodness. Even Tessa Tuttle, purveyor of charmingly low grade prurient smut escapes. But clearly there are other works that wouldn’t. Test two would be most open to interpretation by a jury, representing a cross section of society, who would be capable of reaching a consensus on what was considered obscene. I think Paypal’s proscribed bestiality, rape, incest and underage sex would all fare very badly here, especially if the overall work also catered solely to the prurient interest. But test three, the question of what constitutes art is still troubling. It’s like asking someone the meaning of life? Can any one of us reasonably answer?

Having said that, I quite like the Miller Test, but obviously most of us would rather not end up in court in order to be subjected to its rigour, or to have our rude scenes read out to our faces, in public. Blush!

My advice to independent authors then is not to write anything you’d be ashamed to let your mother read. That goes for your blogs as well as your books. But since I don’t follow my own advice on this I have to go a stage further. When writing your love scenes make sure that what your fictional protagonists get up to is within the law in your local area, and if it isn’t, make sure any sex and violence you depict isn’t glorified, and isn’t the raison d’etre of your whole book – thereby appealing purely to the prurient interest of your reader. If you want to write prurient stuff – and many do – then that’s okay too, but definitely don’t have your characters doing anything you could get arrested for in real life – according to your local laws.

But to return to the question: should we indys or even bloggers not be allowed to write what we want online? The answer has to be no. The online world twenty years ago was anarchic, and peopled by bright techy characters who generally knew what they were doing, policed by people who didn’t and were running to catch up. That’s changing now. We’re trying to connect the entire world. It’s a social experiment, and some of that anarchy is going to get smoothed out in the cause of the greater good. No matter what we feel as individual authors, we have to subordinate ourselves to the law, and stop thinking we can hide behind the apparent anonymity of the internet. Because we can’t. Write something that fails the Miller Test, or which the Crown Proscution Service thinks it can successfully challenge under the Obscene Publications Act, and they will find you, and they will drag you before a jury of your peers.

Jung tells us we all have a darker side, dark corners of the unconscious wherin we hide all those things we’d perhaps be ashamed of airing in public. Jung tells us it’s better to have those things in the light, where we can look them in the eye and acknowledge them as part of ourselves. That way they lose their power to make us act in socially unacceptable ways. But he wasn’t talking about publishing our demons for all the world to see. If you’re plagued by dark demons doing unspeakable things to animals or non-consenting human beings, then by all means write about them, but keep your musings private. Don’t put them online where your demons might damage someone else. Obscenity is like a penis. (Michael blushes) We all know that half the population has one, but it’s socially unacceptable to go waving it about in public. If it’s something you feel you really must do in order to preserve your creative integrity, then seriously, you have to be very careful who you show it to.

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