Publish & Be Damned Apartheid’s theological fascists

A tape measure came with the job of swimming pool superintendent in Bloemfontein, unofficial bible belt capital under South Africa’s apartheid regime. The city council, you see, had passed a by-law prohibiting people of opposite sex to lie closer than 30 cm from one another while wearing bathing suits, to discourage any hanky-panky.

Everything reminded these theological fascists of sex and they could not be vigilant enough lest the beast rear its ugly head. A photograph I took showing fingers tenderly entwining was deemed by the prosecutor in the censorship courts to represent sexual penetration, and therefore ruled undesirable.

Sexual repression was engraved in the statute books. Censorship of the media was rigorously enforced by special courts, and I had the dubious distinction of having two of my books dragged before them on nine separate occasions - bannings, appeals, unbannings, counter appeals, bannings...

My first photo book, entitled “Gentlewoman” (later published by a big New York publisher) was even discussed in the senate, my cause having been taken up by a few sympathetic senators. While doddering fossils on the back benches were glad of the titillating diversion from humdrum legislating, the end result of the debate was never seriously in doubt. The public had to be protected from enjoying themselves and thereby incurring the Wrath of God. They weren’t yet into ordering a hundred lashes for riding pillion, but they were working towards it.

Well now, to publish a photographic book on lovemaking in that climate was tantamount to putting your head in the lion’s mouth. And yet I was convinced I could do it if I planned the operation skilfully.

But why was I bothering? Because I was convinced God had made no mistake when designing us in such a way that we could experience great pleasure copulating. He must have realised that in order to procreate (that being the sole function of nature) He had to make sex really delicious, otherwise who would bother with all that puffing and panting?

Yet sex is more than a mere tool of nature: for thousands of years tantrists have known that by riding the wave of sexual energy with great awareness, exploring the mysterious depths of six-hour valley orgasms, they could rise to another level of consciousness and be in touch with their spiritual nature. Yes, Sex is a Sacrament, and I wanted to portray it poetically, not scientifically or medically or pornographically.

The renowned psychologist (and Nobel peace prize nominee) Carl Rogers, wrote later when endorsing my book "Touch Love": “In beautiful photographs and poetic words, this book celebrates the tender and delicate, and the strong and powerful aspects of sexual love. It is an appreciation of the wonder of loving flesh touching loving flesh. It is done with both sensitivity and passion. Those who have been put off by books on sexual techniques, described in almost mechanical fashion, will find here the richly sensuous beauty of our sexual nature. ‘Touch Love’ makes a significant contribution to our living and loving.”

So, to work on my book “Touch Love”. I knew what I was taking on because of the trouble “Gentlewoman” had run into - and by comparison to “Touch Love” it had been mild, a tender accolade of the femininity in women. The most “undesirable” thing I had portrayed there was a pregnant woman, naked.

What I regarded as far less desirable was something the guardians of our morals had done to my cover girl. They removed her and her baby from their hotel room, to prevent these people of mixed race from sleeping in the same space as a pure White man who happened to be husband and father of the child. Cathy Whiting was a famous international model, her beauty given an extra tang by being one-eighth American “Red Indian” (her daughter therefore only one-sixteenth “Red Indian”, but it was sufficient to stir their bile.). Her husband was Leonard Whiting, the actor who had played Romeo in Franco Zefferelli’s film, and who was doing a poetry-reading tour of South Africa at the time.

”Gentlewoman” was still embroiled with the censors when I started work on “Touch Love”. If I published the book myself and sold sufficient copies clandestinely to cover my costs, I would at least elude the bailiff. I had offered the book to the South African publisher of “Gentlewoman”, but, predictably, he had declined it. I decided to distribute “Touch Love” through a large mail order firm operating just within the law, selling saucy books. I had reconciled myself to the realisation that most of my readers would be buying the book for the wrong reasons: with “Playboy” and “Penthouse” never getting past Customs, my book would be the raunchiest available. Though to be honest, it’s not a one-handed book at all.

I gave a guarantee to the mail order company that they would not have to pay for any unsold copies, should the authorities get wind of our scheme and pounce. Immediately prior to printing, they would send a circular to customers on their mailing list, notifying them that they could now place their orders.

The printers, open-minded immigrants from Europe, had recently launched their company and were open to any business they could get. They had also guaranteed me an unheard-of turn-around time of eight days, meaning that if we were on the point of selling out the first printing, they would have the second ready and bound only eight days after receiving the go-ahead. (That was the closest we got to print-on-demand over 30 years ago.)

There was to be no advertising or promotion of the book until we had saturated the mail order firm’s clientele. Of the 10,000 members, around 2000 bought “Touch Love”. Now to get on the rooftops and shout...

The English-language press were eager allies, only too willing to cock a snook at their arch enemy, the Apartheid regime. I was counting on the wheels of bureaucracy grinding at their usual snail’s pace, to allow me to sell lots and lots of copies before the sluice was shut. In the event we lasted three months, printing three times. We sold 5500 copies, and had 1500 in stock. For a coffee-table book in that tiny market (few “non-Whites” had the money to buy luxury goods) “Touch Love” was a runaway best-seller and we were exuberant.

Then came the hangover: the Censor Board hearings. My two key witnesses were an eminent medically-trained sex therapist; and the man who had written the foreword to the book, Professor Len Holdstock, Reader in Neuropsychology at the University of the Witwatersrand (he later moved to the Free University in Amsterdam). And who was on the bench? Of the seven judges (yes, seven), one turned out to be the former headmaster of my old Alma Mater, Pretoria Boys' High School.

He had found a stimulating alternative to sitting out his retirement behind the geraniums. The main thing I remembered him for was getting missionary minstrels from an organisation he belonged to called The Moral Rearmament Movement, to serenade us little sinners in the school hall:

“When you point a finger at the other,
remember there are three
pointing back at thee...”

As he sat there pointing his accusing finger at me (figuratively), I thought to remind him of this, but in the interests of my cause, I kept my mouth shut. Before the hearing started he ushered me proudly into the office of the Chairman of the Censorship Board who held out a hand and said: "So, Abernethy, this is a former pupil of yours." It would not have surprised me if the chairman had asked me to forgive him, as custom demanded, before he brought the axe down on my neck. To be fair to my former headmaster, I have a sneeking suspicion he was one of those on my side, because the verdict was split 4-3 against me.

The exact sequence of events is lost in the fog of my ageing memory. I think we appealed and lost again, because to the best of my knowledge “Touch Love” is banned to this day. What I do remember clearly is that they had left me a tiny loophole which turned out to be larger, much larger than they had foreseen: if a doctor ordered the book for medical or therapeutic purposes, only then was I permitted to sell him/her a copy. But advertising was verboten!

There were 14,000 doctors on the South African medical register at the time, and there was no law forbidding me from informing them by letter of their right to buy “Touch Love” - for medical reasons, of course. But 14,000 hand-written letters? No way. So I photocopied a master letter 14,000 times and posted them.

Who would have guessed how conscientious the doctors were in their application of sexual therapy. Bless them. In one month I sold a further 1,000 copies. Then the phone rang...

I stood on the carpet in the large office of this senior government bullfrog as he inflated before my eyes in a fit of almost apoplectic rage.

“Do you realise,” he squeezed out of his clenched jaw, “that since the banning of your book, you have sold as many copies as the average poet sells of a volume in his entire life! Do you? Do you!”

I did, and had celebrated the fact. But standing there on the carpet, I did my best to look surprised.

“Really? My goodness gracious me. Who would have believed-”

“And you advertised! You know we can lock you up for that-”

“Adver- Advertised? No. Never.”

“You did you did you did!”

“I only wrote a letter-”

“That was no letter. That was an advertising brochure. A slick advertising leaflet.”

“I have a copy right here. Look, it says “Dear Sir/Madame, I hereby would like to bring to your attention your right to purchase-”

“I know what the bl- What the so-called letter says. The point is it says it 14,000 times! That makes it a brochure.”

“You mean that if I write the same letter to two doctors, I have to word them differently? By law?”

He could not trust himself to speak any more, apart from hissing “you’ll be hearing from us” as he shooed me out of his office.

I was concerned. He knew more of what had happened in the past month than I had told him, so was I being watched? I know our phone had been tapped in the past when my children were involved in a campaign calling for equal education for all races.

So far I had encountered my former headmaster on this rocky path, now it was the turn of a former head pupil of the school. He was, after all, a Progressive Party Member of Parliament. I told him what had transpired with the bullfrog and he promised to keep an eye on things while I was overseas for two months, seeking new markets for my book.

But one thing led to another, and another, and I have never been back.

Note: if you want to view an 8-minute film of the book, now entitled "Immaculate Conception", click on