Swashbuckling adventures from a veteran pen

Postcards from Abroad
July 27, 2001

I should first declare an interest in the subject of this book, Pen, the international literary organisation, founded in 1921 by English novelist Amy Scott Dawson. I worked in its London headquarters for six years in the 1990s alongside Elizabeth Paterson, who was considered the backbone of the organisation. Her minutes of Pen congresses were legendary and made sense of what was frequently a mess of speeches and culture clashes, which is why I was looking forward to this book to get the inside view on her 29 years in the organisation, which she describes as "an addiction".

She retired in 1997, but the book ends in 1988 with the words:

"I did go on for another nine years, but during that time Pen became in a way a victim of its own success, larger and more divided." Sadly, this is the part that I believe would have made much more interesting reading: with the fall of the Berlin Wall came an explosion in the number of Pen centres being founded, accompanied by all manner of linguistic and nationalist battles. The Rushdie case threw up arguments about cultural relativism, and the Yugoslav situation generated a seemingly endless but gripping debate at one congress.

Much as I like to read about well-known writers, their travels and how much they have to drink (a lot), I would have been more interested to learn about the political, literary and cultural debates inside the organisation in an era that saw the Vietnam war, Cambodia's killing fields, feminism, the international campaign against apartheid and the rise and fall of military dictatorships across Latin America. Paterson's account tends to focus more on the human side, which is funny, sad and quirky in turns. She admits she wrote the book for "self-indulgent" reasons, so she has no need to apologise that its focus is on friendship and an enviable life spent travelling the world and meeting some of its most unconventional inhabitants. There are copious references to alcohol and sumptuous dinners and writers such as David Carver, the pompous, bon vivant international secretary of Pen in the late 1960s and early 1970s. There are also descriptions of hair-raising adventures, for example, being helicoptered to a beach house in the Philippines on the orders of Imelda Marcos and kept under armed guard.

The politics mentioned concern mainly East-West divisions, with Communist writers blocking resolutions condemning the lack of freedom of expression in their countries, the problems faced by Polish Pen, following the imposition of military rule and, in the final pages, the debate over whether Pen should hold its congress in South Korea, given the country's woeful record for imprisoning writers.

Maybe during the cold war, politics or wider cultural debates did not trouble Pen much. Maybe friendship was what it was all about: the picture painted is very much of a global gentleman's club full of eccentrics - with manservants, platoons of double-barrelled ladies, "country members" and all manner of barons popping up throughout the pages of the book. The set-piece international congresses, which at one point were held twice a year, were clearly a huge feat of organisation. Most were in Europe or Taiwan or Rio. An occasional other conference is mentioned, such as on the oral tradition in Senegal, but there is little mention of Pen's problems in attracting and keeping active members in Africa, the Indian subcontinent, the Middle East and Latin America. Nevertheless, the book is well written and lively and the character sketches are fine, with a wealth of material from members such as swashbuckling adventurer and one-time international Pen secretary Peter Elstob, a veteran of the Spanish civil war.

There are many good people in Pen, but the book describes without condemning some whose commitment to Pen's charter on freedom of expression was dubious. At a 1987 congress in Puerto Rico, the Chilean representative refused to condemn the imprisonment, torture and killing of writers and journalists under Pinochet. This caused a bit of a stir and brought calls for the Chilean centre's suspension. But it was smoothed over by Francis King, president of Pen, who apparently suggested it might just be a personal view, praised the woman for defending an unpopular and misguided view and got her to reaffirm her commitment to the Pen charter. Very diplomatic. But despite the presence of many writers in Chile committed to defending freedom of expression, Chilean Pen never made any stand on behalf of Pinochet's victims throughout my time there. The same diplomacy ruled when the Israeli Pen centre tried to censor a Writers in Prison committee report on Palestinian writers, despite protests from other centres. Sometimes, it seems the charter counts for little. What is important is that the show goes on.

Mandy Garner is features editor, The THES .

Postcards from Abroad

Author - Elizabeth Paterson
ISBN - 0 953 73987 2
Publisher - Sinclair-Stevenson
Price - £9.99
Pages - 184

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