Ever been talked into doing something, or talked yourself into doing something that just grew and grew? So have I, but never anything like this.
David Webb (1931-2012)
It all started last year when I received a phone call from my lawyer. The anti-censorship activist David Webb had died, and as executor he was in the process of clearing his apartment at 68c Flood Street, Chelsea. Did I want to come along and help myself to anything that took my fancy prior to its contents being disposed of? I accepted with some reservation, then ended up going there four or five times.
I found a massive collection of theatrical ephemera and other material, most of which I offered to the British Library, and most of which it didn’t want, so I had the novel idea of building an on-line archive out of it, and after acquiring a scanner, set up The David Webb Virtual Archive.
There is still a bit of work left to do on that, but if I say so myself it is an impressive collection, and from my hosting statistics it is clear that it has received many visits and been heavily downloaded.
That was only the start of things though. For the last twenty-five years or so of his life, David Webb had run an anti-censorship organisation called NCROPA. Although I was at one time a member, I had never been active in it, and I assumed it was basically him and a few others, but mostly him. While he ran it in autocratic style, it had a committee, generated a lot of correspondence, and a great deal of other material.
Then somehow, I’m still not sure how, but somehow it was agreed that we – read Yours Truly – would not only set up a virtual archive of David Webb theatreabilia but another one devoted to NCROPA including correspondence and publications. Originally it was agreed that I should collect a couple of files at a time, scan them, then return them and collect a couple more. Somewhere down the line that idea was discarded, and I now have bundles of lever arch files and other documents cramping the stairs to my garret flat.
The NCROPA Virtual Archive was opened March 1, 2013, and to date contains over 800Mb of scanned documents including the complete correspondence for 1976 – the year the organisation was founded. I say complete, I’m actually scanning only a fraction of the correspondence, all the important stuff, or what I think is important. David Webb would often write to one person and copy the letter to several or many more, especially MPs, many of whom would simply acknowledge. There would be no point including every single document the organisation generated, which would in any case take until Domesday.
There will be a delay before any more large quantities of material are added because having obtained a scanner for free through Lewisham Freecycle, and scanned over 5Gb of material, I have literally burned it out. I should be picking up a new one on Monday from my local shop.
Censorship is an ever topical subject, but there is not much in the way of sexual censorship nowadays, so anyone unfamiliar with the Zeitgeist of Britain after the so-called Swinging Sixties might be surprised at some of the ludicrous campaigns the enemies of freedom embarked on here.
In 1976, the homosexual newspaper Gay News published a blasphemous poem The Love That Dares To Speak Its Name. This resulted in a successful prosecution for blasphemous libel, the last ever in the UK. This prosecution was initiated by Mary Whitehouse, a lady David Webb considered clearly to be the Devil Incarnate rather than the upstanding Christian woman she believed herself to be. Her later attempt to prosecute the play The Romans In Britain over what appeared to be an act of homosexual rape on stage resulted in farce, but there were many other prosecutions and police raids. In 1977-8, there was numerous raids on three private cinema clubs in the West End of London, and at times even “girlie mags” were snatched off the shelves of newsagent shops. NCROPA went in to bat for all these organisations and individuals, and David Webb as its founder and head honcho would write letter after letter to MPs, Government Ministers, media outlets and others.
A NCROPA sticker apparently printed around 1980.
There was also at times more than a little humour, most of it unintentional. In June 1982, the Labour MP Reg Race became the first person to use the dreaded F word in Parliament, but although it is supposed to be a verbatim transcript, the Editor of Hansard refused to print it. David Webb wrote to him and tried to goad him into using it, which he refused stoically to do. It has to be said though that one four letter word for which he had no use himself was tact, and he would often allude to Mrs Whitehouse and others in the most unflattering terms.
In 1991, the notorious Spanner case saw the conviction of 16 homosexual sado-masochists for acts of consensual assault on each other. So, sauce for the goose, Mr Webb began writing to senior police officers reporting other consensual assaults on their patches: boxing matches! He got nowhere with this one. What he saw as a double standard was even more blatant when a leading Moslem academic called for the murder of the apostate Salman Rushdie over the Satanic Verses affair. Again, no action was taken over his complaint. And when the police seized twelve thousand copies of an album by American rappers NWA, he took up the cudgels for them too.
Over the last few years, NCROPA did very little, but its sister organisation the Campaign Against Censorship is still active, and it is expected that sometime next year NCROPA will be incorporated into it. By that time I should have finished scanning what NCROPA papers I see fit and can manage; we hope then to find an archive that will take the whole lot, possibly the Public Record Office.
I hope that when this on-line archive is finished it will capture both the essence of NCROPA and the often petty minded bigotry and bureaucratic tyranny it fought against. Nowadays of course there is no sexual censorship to speak of, and we are drowning in filth, but anyone who is unhappy with this, including the loony feminists, can simply change the channel, or turn off their own Internet connections without interfering with everybody else’s.
A NCROPA poster. I found just the one of these in the NCROPA archive, so I would assume only a few were printed.
[The above article was first published April 26, 2013.]
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