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Shakespeare & Russell Brand: Guantánamo Bay’s banned books are pretty random…

“Alas, poor Yorick!”

While right-wingers clamor on about the insidiousness of Sharia Law and the threat of imminent Islamofascism, our own government is pretty set on keeping certain books away from certain people. Last week, The Guardian published a seemingly random list of books that have been banned from Guantánamo Bay. The incomplete list was supplied by Clive Stafford Smith, who directs Reprieve, a legal charity the provides free legal support to particularly disenfranchised prisoners.

Now actual journalists have done an amazing job exposing Guantánamo, so I won’t go into the multitude of illegal procedures they regularly execute, much less point out the countless absurd incarcerations (okay, maybe that 15 year old Canadian kid). I would, however, like to go over this list and attempt to divine exactly what is so objectionable about each book, leaving out the explicitly anti-Guantánamo non-fiction.

Let’s take a crack at it, shall we?

Martin Amis, Money: Actually, the complete title of this 1984 novel, with the post-script, is Money: A Suicide Note. The protagonist is a vulgar British hedonist who comes to America and embraces it fully. He eventually has a psychotic break and loses everything, and thought the “suicide” in the book is metaphorical, the book pretty clearly condemns Western decadence and warns of its pitfalls. Not too much of a a stretch to imagine why they’d ban this one.

R. Beckett, The New Dinkum Aussie Dictionary: This is a humor book on Australian colloquialisms. No fuckin’ clue. Anybody know? Does it have a “Death to America” entry? 
Russell Brand, Booky Wook Two: I know Brand’s a leftist, but seriously?

Professor Alan Dershowitz, Blasphemy: How the Religious Right is Hijacking the Declaration of Independence: A weird choice, since Dershowitz is speaking out against religious extremism, and he’s probably now most famous as an Israeli apologist and Islamophobe. Isn’t that what the US government wants prisoners to internalize? Perhaps it’s the denouncement of Christian extremism they wish to censor?

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Crime & Punishment: On the surface, it’s about a man who kills people, but it’s not really a pro-murder book. My only guess is that they read the title and panicked. 

Frederick Douglass, The African American Slave: Books about liberation probably raise a red flag. But seriously, if anti-slavery politics are too potentially subversive, you might not be running a wholesome operation.

Frederick Forsyth, The Kill List : This is a shitty suspense novel about top secret agents killing Muslim terrorists. It’s by a guy whose books are advertised on the subway. Again, don’t see why they don’ want to give them right-wing, Islamophobic propaganda.

John Grisham,The Innocent Man:Grisham’s first non-fiction book, about a man on death row for rape and murder, who was exonerated by DNA evidence after 11 years in prison. Grisham actually wrote an article in the New York Times and got this unbanned. I rarely have a chance to say this, but… hey, good job, John Grisham.

EM Naguib, Puss in Boots,  Cinderella, Jack & the Beanstalk, Beauty and the Beast: Can’t even find this, but Naguid is an Arabic name. Maybe they’re Arab interpretations of fairy tales?

Wilfred Owen, Futility: This is a 1918 poem about the death of a British soldier, and his fellow soldiers’ futile attempts to revive him. No idea on this one. If anything, this is a very “don’t get yourself killed for war” kind of poem. Is “Billy Don’t Be a Hero” banned on Guantánamo Bay’s in-house AM radio station?

Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice: Maybe because of Shylock, the Jewish moneylender? Not sure exactly where they’re going with this one.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Gulag Archipelago : A book about a Soviet forced labor camp, by a guy who was interned in a forced labor camp. Decidedly anti-forced labor camp. Maybe that’s it.

Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Again, the abolition of slavery was apparently too risky a political concept for the prisoners.

Scott Turow, Presumed Innocent: A novel about a man accused of killing his lover. It’s a crime thriller/courtroom drama. It was made into a movie with Harrison Ford. I have no damned idea why it would be banned.

So there you have it. What counts as potentially incendiary literature in Guantánamo Bay? Apparently absolutely fucking anything.

Posted by Amber Frost | Leave a comment
Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship and Videotape

In 1984 the British government drew up a list of 72 films which it deemed so reprehensible that they should be banned. Anyone found in possession of a copy, or actively distributing one of the films, could face a prison sentence. This was in the very early days of video, when distribution of movies on VHS was unregulated, and the new medium could be found in almost every small local corner shop. This is the story covered by the fantastic documentary Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship and Videotape by British horror director Jake West, which was released late last year in the UK.

More than just a look at the films that were banned by the UK Government in 1984, it’s an examination of the political climate of the era, and the moral panic whipped up by national newspapers, busy looking for an easy scapegoat for society’s problems (and probably a bit worried that their own medium was under threat). The most fascinating part, for me, are the interviews with the dubious, so-called “moral leaders” that decided the public couldn’t handle this type of thing in the first place. A quarter of a century later and society has relegated them to a status of mockery, yet they still cling dearly to the notion that they were doing something right and protecting stupid people from themselves, not just furthering their own mealy-mouthed careers. Sociopathic politicians aren’t just a new phenomena, you know.


Interestingly, one of the prime movers in the the banning of these films was a man called Peter Kruger, who was the head of Scotland Yard’s Obscene Publications Unit. It may be just one huge coincidence, but almost a year later saw the release of Wes Craven’s A Nightmare On Elm Street, and the unleashing of one of the greatest horror characters of all time, Freddy Krueger. Was this Craven’s own F.U. to the British board of censors? Perhaps not, but it doesn’t take a wild leap of the imagination to draw this conclusion - Craven is a smart, politically aware man whose own Last House On The Left ended up on the list of 72 banned films.

The three-disc DVD set, called Video Nasties - the Definitive Guide, comes with the documentary itself, and split over a further two discs a guide to all 72 films on the list (almost half of which were unbanned at the time) with commentary from British horror critics like Kim Newman, Alan Jones and Stephen Thrower. It also comes lovingly packaged in a fake video cassette box with artwork by Graham Humphreys, who created the now iconic British sleeve for The Evil Dead (another banned film on the list). So far only available in the UK, for anyone with a multi-region DVD player the film can be found on and comes highly recommended. This documentary is not just for horror buffs, it is for anyone with an interest in politics, culture, and how liberal ideals can be thwarted by a select, self-interested few.

Posted by Niall O'Conghaile | Leave a comment