Archive for November, 2012

Ovid and Free Speech

As it’s been a year since I posted about my translation of the Heroides by Ovid, a quick update – the book now has a name (‘Ovid’s Heroines’) a release date (May 30th), and a cover (an image of Lee Miller in Cocteau’s Blood of a Poet, by Man Ray):

Also an Amazon page if you’re really keen and want to preorder.  I’ve been putting together a lecture/show that I’m hoping to tour to promote the book – a talk about the poet, his text, and the myths he based the poems on, accompanied by images and extracts (which I’m learning by heart to give the full dramatic effect). I already have a couple of dates penciled in for next year, and if your festival or poetry night is interested in booking me, do get in touch at poetclare [at] hotmail.com

Doing final edits to the manuscript this week I’ve been reminded again what a wonderfully free writer Ovid seems – his Heroides is such a subversive text: it doesn’t seem to care about the concerns of patriarchy or authority; about giving offense or being in ‘good taste’.  But of course, Rome didn’t have freedom of speech, and he was eventually exiled from his beloved Rome to Tomis on the Black Sea in 8AD, for what he refers to as: ‘a poem and a mistake’.   Jo Shapcott’s ‘The  Gypsies’ Tales of Ovid, After Pushkin’  has haunted me with its depiction of his final years: ‘He grieved out loud, thought warm thoughts about death, / every daylight minute, paced beside the Danube, / shouted at the ice, watched his tears drop, steaming, / yelled words to himself about his home, his city’.

I’ve been thinking about freedom of speech a lot lately, for various reasons – doing some work for PEN; reading Salman Rushdie’s engrossing memoir of the time he lived under the fatwa, Joseph Anton.  And then there has been so much in the news: two men sentenced for offensive posts on facebook about April Jones; Azhar Ahmed for writing that soldiers involved in the war in Afghanistan should die and go to hell; Barry Thew for wearing an anti-police t-shirt; a teenager for burning a poppy.  Don’t get me wrong – these men are mainly rancid.  But unfortunately, this means that many of us are happy to look away whilst they are arrested or imprisoned. It’s glamorous to defend Pussy Riot, but not one of The Sun’s ‘SICK Social Media Scumbags.’

Ultimately though, we have to swallow our distaste and say these arrests are wrong, because no one should be arrested for an image or something they have written.  The rule can’t be: ‘we have freedom of speech (apart from when you say something we don’t like).’  Magistrate Bill Hudson, sentencing Matthew Woods for his posts about April Jones, said: “we felt there was no other sentence this court could have passed which conveys to you the abhorrence that many in society feel this crime should receive.”  This is wrong.  It is the rule of the mob.  Legal decisions should not be made based on how ‘many’ people ‘feel’ disgusted.

And it’s the beginning of a slide into darkness: a 16-year-old boy was recently arrested under the Public Order act for holding a placard reading ‘Scientology is a dangerous cult’, on the grounds that it might insult scientologists.  Any religion is just a set of ideas, and the right to critique an idea is essential to a free society. The fact you really, really, really think it’s true should be irrelevant.  I really, really, really think evolution is true, but no one’s suggested locking up Creationists to protect my feelings.

Where will it stop?  Could a bad-taste joke about Jimmy Saville lead to an arrest if it offended his victims?  What about a lyric that says ‘F**k the Police’?  I have a poem that satirizes Mormonism in Changeling – would it be an offense to public order if I wrote it on a placard, or read it where Mormons were present?  Is there really such a difference between Russia arresting Pussy Riot for the ‘distress’ they caused the religious by performing in a Cathedral, and the UK arresting the poppy-burner?  Both, after all, hijacked symbols of moral authority.  The poppy-burner won’t end up in a gulag, of course, but the impulse to stamp out such behavior is the same.  And then this climate means we start to self-censor too – the publishing world becomes more cautious about dark humour or references to faith.  I find it hard to believe The Satanic Verses would be published now.

It’s depressing.  I’m starting to think this isn’t about defending our freedom of speech, so much as realizing we don’t actually have it anymore.  We weren’t paying attention, and now it’s gone.

As writers and readers, anyway, we need to make a stand.  Support PEN and Liberty and Article 19.  Start speaking up for the rights of the scumbags as well as the saints, before another Ovid or Rushdie has to suffer to show what is at stake.

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