Obscene and over Here: National Sex and the Love Me Sailor Obscenity Case

By Moore, Nicole | Australian Literary Studies, October 2002 | Go to article overview

Obscene and over Here: National Sex and the Love Me Sailor Obscenity Case


Moore, Nicole, Australian Literary Studies


On March 13 1946, Robert Close sat on a wooden bench in the Victorian Supreme Court, and listened to his novel being read aloud. Copies had been distributed to the jury and the Crown prosecutor, Leo Little KC, stood in the middle of the room and read Love Me Sailor from beginning to end, until the end of the next day. A year before Close and his publisher, Ted Harris of Georgian House, had been charged with a criminal offence: `that they did, on or about the 16th of February 1945 publish the said book, being one containing obscene matter' (Case notes Victorian Law Reports). Specifically, they were charged with the rare offence of obscene libel; after three trials, a campaign of support from left literary circles, and further broad public interest in the case, they were found guilty. Close and Georgian House were fined, the book was immediately withdrawn from sale, and, in a moment without precedent or recurrence in Australia, Close was sentenced to a prison term. On his release, after serving ten days of what was originally a three-month sentence, Robert Close denounced Australia, and left for Europe and apparent literary and intellectual freedom, not returning for twenty-five years.

Love Me Sailor as a phenomenon has a definitive place in Australian cultural history, but Close and his book are now generally known only for the severity of his sentence, if they are remembered at all. The nature of the obscenity charges, the content, marketing and genre of the novel, and the circumstances of its banning are all due for some new discussion. The case of Love Me Sailor is variously revealing, not only of the ways in which sex and sexuality signed and were policed in post-war Australia, but of the importance of these signs to some high-stakes struggles over and in relation to public culture after the war. In this period in which A.A. Phillips identified `the cultural cringe', judicial decisions about literary obscenity can be seen to have actively articulated national boundaries.

In relation to the publishing trials of Come in Spinner (1950), her novel with Florence James, Dymphna Cusack declared that Australians were `basically wowsers', in this period, who hadn't read much foreign literature. Her comment seems to engage with a more widespread consensus: that Australian national identity was positively, even assertively, tied to its refusal of explicit sexual representation. Thus Cusack commented in an interview six months before she died, in 1981: `They would accept in London, Paris or Berlin what they wouldn't take here' (Cusack, `A Sense of Worth' 61). In the mid 1930s, the period of Australia's heaviest censorship, up to 5,000 books were on the prohibited imports list (Buckridge 174). l want to suggest, contra earlier discussions of the Close case, that the Australian state's extreme response to what it chose to define as literary obscenity was more clearly about the sex in the book than has been acknowledged, and that the nature of this objection is revealing in itself. The obscenity on trial in this case can figure as one index of local definitions of both sex and obscenity: in the informing discourses that prosecuted Close, sex stands in stark and illegal relation to the national character. With other cases, the Close affair evidences the role of sexuality in publicly mediating, for the various arms of the state, the relation between culture and nation, and in offering a focus for a moral consensus fortifying that relation.

Writing in Hope and Fear, John McLaren's account of the relation between politics and literature in postwar Australia, begins (like this essay) with the Close case, with the moment of Leo Little reading aloud. McLaren discusses the aborted first trial, Justice Martin's comments and his literary ignorance, and briefly considers the detail on which Love Me Sailor's obscenity was judged. Apart from its effect on Close, the importance of the case for McLaren is that it provided a precedent for using criminal law to suppress resistant writing in Australia.

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