Bollocks! Bollocks! Bollocks!

I was going to write some serious pieces on Those Cases which bloggers have been fervently debating recently, but I chanced across this topic the other day, and thought it was too much fun to miss.

The year is 1977 and Virgin Records has just released The Sex Pistols’ only studio album, lovingly entitled Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols. It shoots to No. 1 in the albums’ charts one week after its UK release.

One of their punk album’s tracks, “God Save The Queen” is released during Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee. It is promptly banned by the BBC and the regulator of independent local radio. That doesn’t stop the single soaring to No. 2 in the singles charts, however.

The Sex Pistols are known for searing lyrics. But there is a backlash. Capital Radio decide to ban a Pistols’ single, “Holidays in the Sun”, which likened Belsen to a holiday camp.

PC Plod and Constable Knapweed dutifully tour branches of Virgin record stores, advising managers that the album cover is indecent because of the word “bollocks”, and demanding that it be removed from public display. This leads to a merry dance whereby each time the coppers depart the stores, the album reappears in the store windows.

Finally, Nottingham police lose patience and arrest the store manager there for displaying indecent advertisements, contrary to the Indecent Advertisements Act 1889. Section 3 of that Act provides:

 Whoever affixes to or inscribes on any house, building, wall, hoarding, gate, fence, pillar, post, board, tree, or any other thing whatsoever so as to be visible to a person being in or passing along any street, public highway, or footpath, and whoever affixes to or inscribes on any public urinal, or delivers or attempts to deliver, or exhibits, to any inhabitant or to any person being in or passing along any street, public highway, or footpath, or throws down the area of any house, or exhibits to public view in the window of any house or shop, any picture or printed or written matter which is of an indecent or obscene nature, shall, on summary conviction in manner provided by the Summary Jurisdiction Acts, be liable to a penalty not exceeding forty shillings, or, in the discretion of the Court, to imprisonment for any term not exceeding one month, with or without hard labour. [bold emphasis added]

Chris Seale, the manager, and Virgin Records are both charged.

 

What happens next?

The case, which goes before Nottingham Magistrates’ court, becomes a cause célèbre. Unsurprisingly, Richard Branson throws his weight behind his artists, whom he had recently signed to his label.  Virgin instruct the legendary John Mortimer QC to defend them.

Mortimer is famous for defending in obscenity trials. In 1968, he had successfully defended a prosecution of the novel Last Exit to Brooklyn. In 1971, he appeared in the famous Oz trial. And in 1976, he defended Gay News over a controversial poem, “The Love that Dares to Speak its Name”.

The trial is heard on 24 November 1977. NME covers the case, publishing an in-depth feature entitled “Art & Culture on trial”. The prosecution argue that the word meant “testicles” and is by definition indecent or obscene.

Mortimer advances a two-prong defence. He points out that a number of newspapers had quoted the album’s title, but none of them had been prosecuted. Why not?

But he has an even stronger card to play. He produces an expert witness, a professor of English at Nottingham University who is also, amusingly given the circumstances, a former vicar. Professor Kingsley explains to the court that the word “bollocks”:

 had been used from the year 1,000 to describe a small ball (or things of a similar shape) and that it has appeared in Medieval Bibles, veterinary books and literature through the ages. He also revealed (not surprisingly) that it also served as part of place names throughout the UK. Eyebrows were raised when Kingsley said that the term had been used to describe the clergy of the previous century. In that connotation it was used in a similar fashion as the word rubbish and used to describe a clergyman that spoke nonsense. 

He offers the court his opinion that in the context of the album’s cover, the word “bollocks” meant “nonsense” and not “testicles”. Mortimer raises a laugh in court, asking Kingsley whether residents of Maidenhead found their locale’s name objectionable.

The prosecution counsel asks Kingsley if The Dictionary of Slang (1961), which Kingsley had cited, should also include the words fuck, cunt, and shit. Kingsley replies: “If the word fuck does not appear in the dictionary, it should”.

 

Over 30

Another witness is a journalist named Caroline Coon. The prosecution asks her: “Are you familiar with the word fuck, Ms Coon?” She replies: “I’m a grown woman. I’m over 30 and I would like to think I know what it means”. Prosecution counsel hastily interjects: “I find that hard to believe…that you are over 30, that is”.

In his closing speech, Mortimer goes for the jugular. He argues that the whole case is a judicial fiasco, and that the only reason why it was brought was because the authorities  didn’t like The Sex Pistols:

One wonders what the world is to think about a judicial system which has to spend its time to consider a word that is used to describe a load of nonsense, balderdash. One wonders why a word which has been dignified by writers from the Middle Ages in the translation of the Bible to the works of George Orwell and Dylan Thomas, and which you may find in the dictionary, should be singled out as criminal because it is on a record by the Sex Pistols.

It was because it was The Sex Pistols and not Donald Duck or Kathleen Ferrier that this prosecution has been brought.

Bollocks may be rude or impolite, but to say something is a load of bollocks and suffer a criminal prosecution for it?

He cites other cases. In one in 1968, a man was arrested for indecency after reciting an Allen Ginsberg poem, one of whose lines was: “go fuck yourself with an atom bomb”. That case was dismissed.  In another case the Lord Chief Justice, no less, ruled that the word fuck was commonly used in the divisional court. If fuck could be deemed not indecent, Mortimer says, then how could bollocks be indecent?

The magistrates get the message and, albeit somewhat grudgingly, acquit both defendants. In the Chair’s words:

Much as my colleagues and I wholeheartedly deplore the vulgar exploitation of the worst instincts of human nature for the purchases of commercial profits by both you and your company, we must reluctantly find you not guilty of each of the four charges.

A jubilant Johnny Rotten told reporters: “Great! Bollocks is legal. Bollocks! Bollocks! Bollocks!

Good times. Is British society still as grown-up now as it was then, I wonder?

 

Sources

https://dangerousminds.net/comments/rumpole_novelist_john_mortimer_defends_sex_pistols_in_bollocks_trial_1977

 

https://www.leftlion.co.uk/read/2017/november/never-mind-the-bollocks-court-case-sex-pistols-nottingham/

 

http://www.philjens.plus.com/pistols/pistols/press_cuttings_nmtb_04.html

2 Comments

  1. Caroline Coon was also a witness at the Oz trial. I suspect she was familiar with the word ‘fuck’ then as well…

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    1. Brilliant! I didn’t know that – thank you. Splendid name too.

      Liked by 1 person

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