Customary Practice: I fought the law (well, kinda)

For the past few years, as readers know, I’ve been engaged in a sparring duel with the monolithic sensibilities of HM Customs & Excise. They keep opening parcels I’m sent from overseas, and I keep writing sarcastic articles about them. However, the balance in this relationship of Mutually Assured Distrust was shaken last October, when I returned from Scotland to find the letter opposite waiting for me.

I knew what it was immediately — it had to happen eventually, I suppose – ­but was surprised at how calm I felt. There was a time when such a letter would have had me frantically shipping half my possessions to a lock-up garage in Lewisham, but those days of paranoia are long past. I knew I was safe because of the word “knowingly” — as in, “knowingly concerned in importing prohibited items”. This time, for once, I was absolutely innocent, simply because I hadn’t expected ‘Funeral Party’, the magazine in question, to pose any significant threat on the Customs and Excise front. Let’s be honest, I am not so stupid as have severely dodgy material sent to me — at least, not in my own name, to my home address.

I’d first come across ‘Funeral Party’ on the Internet, where one of the editors had posted an ad (above) in the cult movies newsgroup. It sounded interesting, so I wrote, offering to trade some TCs for a copy. This was accepted, and it was dispatched by sea mail, to cut back on postage costs. The weeks casually drifted past, and I all but forgot about it — sea mail being what it is, I wasn’t holding my breath. However, the next thing to turn up was the letter from Customs, saying they weren’t going to let me have it at all.

The most aggravating thing was the total lack of information, beyond that ‘Funeral Party’ was “considered to be indecent or obscene”. Now, this might be sufficient for a copy of ‘Debbie Does Dallas’, but in this case scarcely counts as adequate data on which to judge whether or not to mount a court case. A swift re-read of the ad threw up a few possibilities: Peter Sotos and H.R.Giger were perhaps names familiar to the Customs boys. But this was all speculation, I wrote back requesting more detailed information, in order to make a decision. On the off-chance, I also requested a copy of the guidelines used to determine whether material is indecent. Two weeks passed, with nothing save notice that my letter had been forwarded to Headquarters, who’d made the original decision. Then, the reply came back:

“The magazine contains a cartoon on pages 100 and 101 which includes a graphic and explicit depiction of the buggery of a mutilated body. Although the depiction is in cartoon form, such images are still considered to be obscene. In addition, the magazine contains other questionable pictures at pages 19, 25, 39, 98 and 105. To varying degrees, all of these images depict the tying of people in unnatural positions or sexual acts where actual penetration is shown. Taken together, these depictions are considered to justify seizure of the magazine as obscene and therefore a prohibited import under s42 of the Customs Consolidation Act 1876.”

My first reaction was to take them to court. Very obviously, they had taken the material completely out of context: only seven of the 100+ pages were even “questionable”, and two of those were a cartoon! I got back to the publisher, Shade Rape, and asked him for his opinion:

100 and 101 – This is so pathetic. From a very well-known Spanish comic book artist named Miguel Angel Martin. He does children’s strips and strips for the daily paper in Madrid.  He also likes to do these bizarre violence and disease stories that are drawn in extremely simple shapes (but distinctly his style). There is one panel where this is occurring and you only see one line to suggest the male character’s penis. Two round lines suggest a butt. 

19 – A still from a Richard Kern movie, I forget which one. The still, in this instance, is used for a flyer promoting a film screening in Seattle. The date and address of the show are printed on the flyer, and also includes right on the image, set diagonally, “Warning!  Guaranteed Politically Incorrect.”  These flyers were just pasted on lampposts.  This is so dumb.

25 – A still from Jim VanBebber’s ‘The Last Days of John Martin.’ I knew very little about printing when we ran this book and I ended up setting the photos a little too dark, for me at least (no one else sees what I mean). A couple people have commented on this image. The film is legally available here through Film Threat Video on a tape which also contains Jim’s more recent short feature ‘My Sweet Satan,’ and a very early one he produced and Mike King, his cinematographer, directed called ‘Doper,’ about, you guessed it, potheads.

39 – A Chas. Balun video box cover. This is on display in video stores. It’s a fucking drawing.

98 – Now, this one is weird.  Dame Darcy did this drawing.  She has a comic book called ‘Meat Cake.’  The girl in this drawing is lying dead in a pool of blood with flowers coming out of her mouth, chest and vagina.  I just don’t get it.  Darcy’s also put out records and sells handmade dolls to a store here, Danse Macabre, and to Courtney Love.

105 – A Timothy Patrick Butler illustration.

Ya know Jim, it’s really funny writing this because as I put the book together I really felt that it was very tame.  I actually thought about a commercial audience.  Reading what I’ve been writing, this seems like the book we’ve all been looking for! It’s much like Shock Xpress but more varied.  Lot o’ film but also art, comics, performance, etc.”

We clearly had a difference of opinion here, but without a copy of ‘Funeral Party’ to look at myself, I was left high and dry — how could I now prepare an adequate defence without being able to see the magazine? I came very close to getting it: one major mail-order outlet had bought copies when visiting the States, but their copies had already been sold. In the end, with Christmas looming, the four weeks Customs allowed for an appeal slid gently past. Presumably, ‘Funeral Party’ went into the incinerator, alongside ‘Teenie Pissie #27’ or whatever.

However, neither I nor the publisher were quite finished. At the start of March, through alternative lines of supply, a copy of the magazine finally made its way into my hands. Civilisation has not collapsed. Life has gone on. And Customs’ action has completely backfired, because the seizure has guaranteed that more people see it. If they hadn’t bothered, it would probably only have been myself and Lino; instead, I’ve already shown it to people at work, canvassing their opinions. Even among the relatively staid people I work with, most thought it “strange”, but no-one found it obscene, and so far, nobody has become a serial killer.

Additionally, scattered throughout this article are a selection of the “questionable” and “obscene” images, so you can make up your own mind. According to Customs, this should corrupt at least some of you. Please write in if you feel notably more depraved as a result of viewing these illustrations. Bear in mind that they were spread out through a 112-page book, rather than shown in the ‘concentrated’ form here.

Personally, I was  disappointed: not with ‘Funeral Party’ itself (well-produced, resembling a perfect-bound issue of ‘Divinity’ or ‘Headpress’, with many interesting interviews and articles). No, the letdown was the “graphic and explicit depiction of the buggery of a mutilated body“. It’s shown on the left. I’m baffled as to how they are so sure it’s buggery, but am prepared to bow to C&E’s apparent experience in this area. However, it requires a major redefinition of “graphic” and “explicit” to make them fit this particular cartoon. The standards applied by Customs seem to me to be those of a Puritan era. Personally, I see more obscene things on the nightly news.]

With regard to the rest of the “questionable” illustrations — which, as Shade points out include a video sleeve, an event flyer, and a photo from a film set — it’s clear that Customs haven’t a clue. About the only one I might be inclined to accept is the truly bizarre illustration at the top of the next page, though at less than three inches square, it is scarcely obvious, and the surreal and fantastical nature leave it in the same realms as H.R.Giger.

Overall, had I known back in November just how “obscene” the magazine was i.e. not very, I might well have gone to court, and think I would have had a fair chance of winning, though in terms of time and effort, it’s been a lot easier just to bypass them.

So what lessons are to be learned. Firstly, don’t believe a word Customs say — but you should know that already! Next, don’t send stuff sea-mail, it seems to increase the chance of examination. Presumably Customs think that they can delay a surface package by a week without anyone noticing, while doing the same to an air-mail package would be obvious. Better still, use a courier. If the package is moderately heavy, the cost isn’t much more than posting it, and delivery takes about two days, leaving Customs with almost no chance to interfere.

Let’s also take a look at what Customs say they are looking for, in their answer to the “bonus question” in my letter to them. It starts thus: “there are no guidelines available to the public on what constitutes indecent or obscene material“. That’s a lot of help. This does tie in with what happened when a friend tried to import a laser-disc, but had it stopped by Customs, who said it was on their banned list. When he asked for a copy of this, he was told it wasn’t a physical list, just that certain film titles were illegal as far as they were concerned. At least this silence makes it easy to plead ignorance; it must be all but impossible for anyone here to knowingly import  obscene material in, when no-one will  explain what obscene means.                  

[Last issue, it was octopii. This time, it’s roses]

However, the letter does go on:

“A useful ‘rule of thumb’ for importers is that if a depiction of a sexual act is sufficiently explicit that it is clearly actually taking place (eg. if penetration can actually be seen during intercourse) then it is likely that a court would consider it to be obscene. This applies to drawn as well as photographic material. Depictions of people bound (especially if gags are also used) are taken very seriously by the courts, particularly if the victim is a woman, with courts prepared to condemn comparatively ‘tame’ material of this kind. I trust that this has clarified the position”.

I suspect the last sentence may be a rare display of irony, since to my mind, the explanation just confused things even more! The drawing they claimed was obscene doesn’t actually qualify by their own “rule of thumb”, since it’s impossible to tell from the image in question whether anything is “actually” taking place. This is leaving aside the little matter of whether anything can be said to “actually” happen when it’s not “actually” real, just lines on paper.

Interesting to note that the above comments fail completely to mention violent material. It appears that you can import anything you want as long as no-one has sex or is tied up. I think I shall keep the letter to hand, so that when they come to batter my door down after I try and import, say, ‘Blood Feast’, I’ll just smile, say “No bondage or sex”, and they’ll go away again. Why do I suspect this might not be how it would work in practice?

My cynicism about Customs and Excise grows stronger every time I have to deal with them. It’s impossible to work out who they think they are protecting, and from what. In these days of global communication and travel, they’re rapidly becoming an anachronism, a bunch of King Canutes floundering helplessly against an incoming tide of cheap booze, electronic smut, and American horror magazines. It was with great delight that I read about Knockabout Comics, who recently went into battle with C&E after they seized a shipment of comics. It turned out Knockabout had actually previously printed the same comics in this country with no problems. Ker-ching! Six thousand pounds costs against the boys in (navy) blue. This goes to show that it can be done, if Customs’ cynical exaggeration and narrow-mindedness don’t succeed in getting you to back down. Next time, I might not be so easily cowed…