The Obscenity Charge:


The week before Bold As Love was published I was in California, camping out seven thousand feet up in the South Sierra, at a place called Redwood Meadow.

Tuesday August 7th, the campers rose when they were tired of listening to the cawing of the ravens, breakfasted on Yuban coffee and a supermarket pack of bears' claws and spent a peaceful morning watching the squirrels, avoiding resin-attack from the giant Douglas Fir, playing baseball with a tennis ball in our private paddock. About lunchtime, we drove 12 miles to the nearest payphone, at a folksy climbers' saloon called the Ponderosa, so Gabs could have his favourite BLT and I could check my message service.


The news I got when I called was really remarkable. Message from Oisin Murphy-Lawless at Gollancz, says I should call David Pringle urgently.

What on earth can this be about? What could be URGENT? Maybe it's nice! So I called David, (I think it must have been about 10pm or so in England). Wow. Apparently David had a letter (this was on 13th July) complaining that "The Saltbox" (the episode from the opening chapter of BAL, that David published in the July issue of Interzone) was a shocking incitement to paedophiles, and threatening to report it to the police. Naturally he ignored this, and went on holiday. Soon as he returned however (August 2nd) the police, in the form of a rather apologetic policewoman, turned up, and took away several copies of the July issue. "It's not a subscriber," David assured me, "Just someone who picked up the magazine at a newsagent's apparently."

So, not nice. I was gobsmacked. You can't be serious! David stopped being reassuring "I had no qualms about the content of the story," he says, but he can't be sure that the police will agree, and cites a mood of hysteria in England after a tasteless "spoof" on child pornography/violent abuse, on the tv and involving the hoodwinking of celebrities. Oooh, nightmare scenario… How come it was Oisin who left me the message, I wondered. I contacted Gollancz, David says, and told them all about it.

Yikes! What do my publishers think? What's the meaning of that laconic little note from Oisin, if he knew what this was about????

I have four e-mail messages, allegedly new. For some reason the usual Stephen Hawkings voice is not going to read them to me…

This is when I staggered into the saloon, clutching at my heart, interupting the BLT to gasp, "Pardners, I'm done for, you got to get me to some internet access…." And away we zoomed, hard and straight down twisty mountain roads, losing height so fast our ears kept popping, scattering mule deer, wild turkeys and red-tailed hawks, down into the golden-burned range land and the neat little burg of Springville, where it was 105F in the shade and not a sign of life on the toasted streets, until I spotted the office of the South Sierra Messenger, where a young fellow was standing in the doorway eating a sandwich. He led me into the back room, where the paper's editor and proprietor, Claudia Elliott, immediately and without question let me sit down in front of her fine machine. God bless her. Minutes later, I discovered that I had a newsletter from Lonely Planet, the text of the Oisin communication, and a couple of old messages I'd already seen. No opinion from my publishers, on the subject of this Obscene Publications affair, and police siezure of the first chapter of a book that's supposed to be coming out next week.

It has to mean they think it's nothing, my compadres assured me. Yeah, well, let's hope that's what it means. But it would have been, like, human kindness to have sent me a three word note to that effect… I sent a circumspect e-mail to Jo Fletcher, and we left the South Sierra Messenger, with sincere thanks.

Later I sent her my latest Ann Halam teenage sf/horror for a souvenir. I thought of sending Bold As Love but, er, it has a countercultural Muslim Terrorist Dictator for a hero. I'm not sure how that would go down.

We drove up the mountain again, and my team administered peptalks, followed by hefty mescalito margaritas with lime and salt but no ice. Cooked our food, cancelled the travel scrabble as a mark of respect; and I spent an uneasy night.

7am the next morning (beautiful morning, wonderful light on the Needles and the Dome rocks) I drove to the Ponderosa, and started trying to get through to someone at Gollancz while it was still business hours. Finally I spoke to Jo. "Malcolm's not worried," she told me breezily. 'Everything's going ahead as planned.'

Oh Good.

So then we had the full breakfast, with French Toast and maple syrup. Not as great as the all-time best breakfast at the Totem Café in Lone Pine, Owen's Valley; but pretty stylish.

I stayed away from payphones after that.

Episode Two

Back in England on the 14th August, I found that a largeish cheque from an American University had bounced, plunging my current account into a deep hole that was getting deeper by the hour. I spent the day transferring funds, taking emergency action on my Visa bill, and begging the officials of the High Street Clearing Bank I grace with my custom to stop their terrible machine. (It'll be months before I sort that out completely).

At last I called David for a local-call debriefing. I was bracing myself for more bad news -as someone seemed to have started a fashion. But no, the news is relatively good. Nothing's happened. Well, er, where do we go from here? Wouldn't you like to know what's going on, David? It transpired David has temporarily mislaid the small piece of paper on which he jotted down the policewoman's name. "She said she'd be in touch in a day or two," he explained, "and I believed her. She seemed fairly apologetic about the whole thing. I just didn't think I'd need her name…" Easily done.

He was able to set my mind at rest, however, on the point that had really been bothering me. I was never really afraid we'd get prosecuted. That was only a bizarre nightmare. I was afraid this complaint was malicious. No one could possibly find The Saltbox obscene, so I must have picked up a stalker. I've had brushes with horrid "fans" before. I know it can happen. Someone's got it in for me, maybe he knows my address??? (not being sexist, David already told me it was a bloke.) But it doesn't seem like it. We have the name and address (which I don't think I'llpublish here), and the short letter reads like a genuine indignant casual reader, far away from Brighton, who picked up a sci-fi magazine expecting harmless bland fantasy, and got a nasty little shock. "The Saltbox" is a dark fairytale, but it's cast, as my fairytales always are, as a very real observation of the way we live now.
And maybe, just possibly, he over-reacted a little.

That's it. I expect there'll be no follow on.

It's a bizarre thing to have happen to you. I don't know what to make of it. I'm posting "The Saltbox" here (fire icon), so you can read it, if you like, and make up your own minds