Jenni Calder: “Ninety Years of Scottish PEN”

Talk delivered at 90th anniversary symposium at the University of Glasgow in March 2017, by Jenni Calder, former President of Scottish PEN.

April 13, 2017

Talk delivered at the University of Glasgow Scottish PEN symposium 28.03.17

The year is 1927, nine years since the end of a war that fractured Europe. What is happening in Scotland? Heavy industry is in decline. The year before, there had been a short-lived general strike which had left the country bruised and its workforce weakened. There is a slump in international trade. Unemployment is rising – by 1932 it will have reached nearly 28%. In the Glasgow and Clydeside area alone 200,000 are out of work. In the decade 1921-31, 300,000 people leave Scotland. In 1935, Edwin Muir famously wrote, ‘Scotland is gradually being emptied of its population, its spirit, its wealth, industry, art, intellect, and innate character.’ In that same year, the Saltire Society was founded.


What are Scotland’s writers doing in 1927? In 1926 Hugh MacDiarmid, a key figure in the founding of Scottish PEN, published A Drunk Man Looks at a Thistle. In 1927 he publishes The Lucky Bag. By that year, Edwin Muir has published two volumes of poetry and Compton Mackenzie is a well-established novelist. Naomi Mitchison has published three volumes of fiction and will soon publish three more. Marion Angus publishes her first volume of poetry in 1927. The following year Nan Shepherd will publish The Quarry Wood. In the 1920s William Soutar is publishing poetry and Eric Linklater his first two novels. Neil Gunn will soon publish Grey Coast and Morning Tide. And in 1927 one of the things Scottish writers are doing is forging the beginnings of a Scottish centre of PEN. Since then, Scottish PEN has been a crucial part of Scotland’s literary life and – just as important – it has engaged with literary life in many other parts of the world.

In 1921, in the aftermath of World War 1, Catherine Dawson Scott, English novelist, brought writers together to found PEN – Poets, Playwrights, Editors, Essayists, Novelists. It rapidly expanded, with centres established in many different countries. It grew into a vigorous campaigning organisation, defending freedom of expression, supporting writers under threat and fostering international co-operation.

On 16 May 1927, Hugh MacDiarmid wrote a letter to Neil Gunn proposing the setting up of a Scottish centre of PEN. The idea took hold, and MacDiarmid and Professor Herbert Grierson of the University of Edinburgh – an unlikely duo in many ways – supported by Gunn, Edwin and Willa Muir, Robert Cunninghame Graham, Helen Cruickshank, Compton Mackenzie, and other writers of the day, already distinguished or soon to become so, founded Scottish PEN. The birth of Scottish PEN was a radical act, culturally and politically. It made a statement about the distinctive identity of Scottish literature as well as championing the aims of what was now known as International PEN. It was an act not achieved without resistance. At the 1928 International PEN Congress in Oslo, Scottish PEN fought off claims that Scottish PEN did not represent a separate culture, with the French particularly vociferous in their opposition. The Scottish case was made by journalist and Scottish PEN president William Power, and it opened the door to other literary cultures. A few years later there were Yiddish and Flemish PEN centres.

In the 1930s the international political situation became increasingly troubling, with many writers the victims of dictatorial regimes. Fascism was casting its shadow. In 1933 the newly elected National Socialist government in Germany orchestrated a mass burning of books, which German PEN felt unable to condemn. PEN’s aspiration to promote goodwill across cultures and borders was under threat. It was facing what H G Wells, International PEN president 1933-36, called ‘the uproar and violence of contemporary affairs’ and it was clear that its role was more important than ever. Throughout the decade, Scottish PEN was growing. Writers who joined at this time included A J Cronin, Catherine Carswell, Nan Shepherd, Eric Linklater, Naomi Mitchison and William Soutar. It wasn’t an easy time for literary activity and a key supporter of both Scottish PEN and a number of struggling writers was Helen Cruickshank – described by MacDiarmid as a catalyst of the Scottish renaissance –  whose house in Corstorphine became a meeting place and refuge.

In June 1934, Scottish PEN hosted International PEN’s twelfth annual Congress, attended by writers from many of the existing centres. The hosting of the congress was a collective effort, with a large planning committee from Aberdeen, Banff, Moray and Inverness, Angus and Fife, as well as Glasgow and Edinburgh. This was an opportunity to demonstrate Scotland’s literary vigour at home and abroad, and a booklet was produced which included an essay on ‘Scottish literature in 1934’, anonymous but probably written by Compton Mackenzie. The essay claimed that ‘If Scotland has of late produced no poets of the first rank, she has certainly produced some great poems’ – a somewhat backhanded comment which may well have spurred MacDiarmid to write his vituperative verse ‘welcome to the PEN delegates’, which was less than complimentary about the state of Scottish letters at the time and targeted several fellow PEN members, including Compton Mackenzie. MacDiarmid’s wife Valda Grieve described the poem as a ‘stinker’.

At the time of the congress Herbert Grierson was president of Scottish PEN and William Power, editor of the Scots Observer and author of several books, was vice-president. Power is described as spearheading ‘that part of Scottish literary endeavour which has national and intellectual ambitions’. R B Cunninghame Graham was honorary president. The congress was seen as an opportunity to put contemporary Scottish writing on an international map, which is what Mackenzie’s essay sets out to do. It takes issue with the view that ‘during the last decade or so Scotland has produced nothing of moment in Literature’ and points out that these criticisms ‘have their origin in Scotland itself’ while ‘English and foreign writers…have expressed themselves in a greatly more appreciative manner regarding the possibility of an early revival of arts and letters in our midst’.

So in 1934 an expression of optimism regarding writing in Scotland, but in the years that followed other issues loomed. There was a growing sense of urgency as war approached. The urgency was intensified when during the Spanish Civil War PEN found itself unable to prevent the execution of Garcia Lorca by the Fascists. It did, however, bring pressure to bear to secure the release of Arthur Koestler, also a prisoner of the Fascists. PEN was at last able to demonstrate some muscle.

With the end of World War II the priorities were reconstruction and the repair of international relationships. PEN played an important role in helping to reconnect countries shattered by war. Scottish PEN was attracting new members, such as Sydney Goodsir Smith, Robin Jenkins, Sorley Maclean, Iain Crichton Smith, Edwin Morgan and George Bruce. Several PEN members wrote about their wartime experiences. Douglas Young, also a member and president for a time, was a conscientious objector and had vowed not to fight unless and until Scotland gained independence. Eric Linklater followed the Allied advance through Italy as a journalist, which led to his novel Private Angelo, published in 1945.

The first post-war International PEN Congress, in Zurich, was attended by Eric Linklater and Naomi Mitchison. In 1949 International PEN acquired consultative status at the United Nations, as ‘representative of the writers of the world’. It was in this context that in 1950 Scottish PEN again hosted International PEN’s annual Congress, well covered and well received in the Scottish press.

By the 1960s many writers in Scotland were increasingly concerned with issues of language and identity. Poets writing in Gaelic and Scots, such as Sorley Maclean, Iain Crichton Smith, J K Annand and Robert Garioch, all PEN members, encouraged a revival of interest in writing in Scotland’s neglected languages. In a world context, there was a growing concern with languages under threat. Scottish PEN, alongside Catalonian PEN, was instrumental in UNESCO’s adoption of a Declaration of Linguistic Rights.

1962 brought international writers, many of them PEN members, to Edinburgh to participate in a writers’ conference that attracted widespread press interest and was the scene of debate and controversy that had many reverberations. This, like the Edinburgh-based PEN congresses, placed Scottish writing firmly and appropriately in an international context, although there was much argument about what some characterised as provincialism.

It wasn’t until 1960 that International PEN formally constituted a Writers in Prison section as a response to the alarming growth in the silencing and imprisonment of writers. It developed strategies for campaigning on behalf of writers under threat, supporting them and their families, writing letters to the authorities and letters to the writers themselves. When in 1986 the Russian poet Irina Ratushinskaya was finally released from a Soviet labour camp she was handed a sackful of letters which had been sent by PEN members from all over the world. In the camp she hadn’t been allowed to receive them, but they nevertheless were a huge support when they were eventually given to her. In captivity, she wrote poems with a matchstick on bars of soap, and then memorised them.

Internationalism has always been at the heart of PEN’s ethos. It’s a tricky word these days, but it’s important to rescue it from any suggestion of globalisation, of threats to sovereignty, of undermining of identity. The need to repair international connections after two world wars and after the demise of the Iron Curtain in 1989 drove many of PEN’s concerns. That need is if anything likely to intensify as throughout the world divisions deepen and isolationism is increasingly seen as the answer to social and political challenges. Maintaining lines of communication and mutual support between writers and between readers is, I believe and PEN believes, a pillar of civilised existence.

Scottish PEN has played its part in linking Scotland with writers all over the world. Members regularly attend International PEN’s annual Congresses, which have been hosted by centres in Africa, Asia, Australia and the Americas as well as Europe. It has been held in Scotland three times, most recently in 1997 when the theme was cultural identity and diversity. And Scottish PEN regularly attends the biennial Writers in Prison conferences, and indeed hosted the 2008 conference in Glasgow which was attended by delegates from 30 PEN centres.  This year’s conference takes place in Lillehammer in Norway. The Scandinavians take the lead in campaigning on behalf of threatened writers and supporting writers forced into exile. Scotland has much to learn from them in this as in many other respects.

Also in 2008, the year of the Beijing Olympic Games, Australian PEN came up with an idea that caught the imagination of PEN centres around the world. Chinese poet and journalist Shi Tao was in prison for sharing information deemed harmful to the Chinese state. He wrote a poem about the Tiananmen Square massacre called ‘June’, which begins – ‘My whole life/Will never get past “June”/ June, when my heart died/ When my poetry died’.

The plan was that the poem would follow the Olympic torch in its progress round the world, translated into local languages as it travelled. In Scotland, it was translated into Gaelic by poet Rody Gorman and into Scots by Kate Armstrong. Shi Tao was released in 2013, fifteen months before the end of his sentence.  But plenty of other Chinese writers remain in jail, including the distinguished academic Liu Xiaobo, on whose behalf Scottish PEN has been campaigning since his imprisonment in 2009. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010, which he was unable to collect. At the ceremony his absence was marked by an empty chair, which in PEN centres throughout the world has become the symbol of writers prevented from participation in literary events and activities.

In recent decades, Scottish writing has burgeoned, and a younger generation of poets and novelists have become known beyond Scotland’s borders. Writers such as Ronald Frame, Kathleen Jamie, Bernard MacLaverty, William McIlvanney, Dilys Rose, Douglas Dunn, Aonghas MacNeacail, Stewart Conn, James Robertson, Ali Smith, A L Kennedy, Louise Welsh, Ian Rankin, Sandy McCall Smith, J K Rowling and many other Scottish PEN members have contributed to putting Scotland on the world map of fiction, drama and poetry. There is mutual strength in their support for Scottish PEN and Scottish PEN’s support for them. But of course, the majority of our 300-odd members aren’t the big names. They include academics, editors, translators, journalists, publishers, and many writers who will never make it into the best seller lists but who help to interpret the interlinking worlds we inhabit. And there is now a category of membership for readers. They all support PEN because they recognise that free expression is both crucial and vulnerable.

International concerns are hugely important – and we see increasingly how international issues impact life in Scotland. But we are equally committed to supporting and celebrating writing in Scotland, and to make Scottish voices heard across borders. Scottish PEN has produced three CDs of contemporary Scottish writing, Border Crossings and Departures and Arrivals (a double CD), featuring prose and poetry from 36 contemporary writers in Scotland. The CDs were distributed to PEN centres throughout the world. And we are about to publish an anthology of poetry and prose that brings together exiled writers now in Scotland and Scottish PEN members.

So where are we now? The activities of Scottish PEN are divided between the work of three core groups and major projects supported by external funding. The three groups are Writers at Risk, formerly the Writers in Prison committee, Writers in Exile and Women Writers. The Writers at Risk group has over the years been determinedly active in campaigning for writers under threat and in holding events to draw attention to free expression issues. If anything, its role in recent years has become increasingly vital, as the ways in which writers – and readers – can be repressed become both more overt and more insidious. In many parts of the world writers critical of authority or engaged in uncovering inconvenient truths face losing their jobs; in some places they face losing their lives. They are silenced by refusal to publish, by imprisonment, torture, forced exile and murder. Every year Scottish PEN marks the Day of the Imprisoned Writer with an event highlighting the predicament of threatened writers and journalists. Writers in Exile has worked with exiles and refugees, running translation workshops and helping writers new to Scotland to find a voice and an audience. They produce an online magazine which features their work alongside that of PEN members.

The Women Writers section of International PEN was formed in 1991 and Scottish PEN formed its own group soon after. A few years later the group produced a striking poster listing 100 Scottish women writers of the past, most neglected and some forgotten. The poster is currently being updated. With the University of Glasgow, Scottish PEN presents the annual Naomi Mitchison Memorial Lecture, and with the University of Edinburgh’s Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities, runs an all-day event to mark International Women’s Day. Over the last year, Scottish PEN has been a partner in IASH’s Dangerous Women Project.

Thanks to a grant from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation we have been able to appoint a Campaigns Officer who is working alongside other organisations to reform defamation law and address the issue of increased surveillance which poses an alarming threat to freedom of expression.

With the ominous rise of attacks on the written word it is more necessary than ever to protest against the repression of writers and the punishment of readers. We live in a world where books are banned and burned, where reading let alone writing can be seen as a criminal act, where writers can be killed for sharing experiences and ideas. And there are more stealthy ways in which writers and their publishers can be pressured into silence. Scottish PEN has for 90 years played its part in alerting the world to these threats, and in the last 20 years or so the organisation has had to become more focused, more robust, more alert to a changing world. Some milestones in that process of change stand out: the hosting of three International PEN congresses, the acquiring of an office in 2005 thanks to Edinburgh City Council, and the increase in funding support from the Scottish Arts Council and now Creative Scotland which has enabled Scottish PEN to develop its engagement with the literature community at home and overseas.

So back in 1927, what were they thinking, those writers whose names are now so familiar to anyone with an interest in Scottish literature? They looked at a problematic world that needed fixing. They looked at a Scotland that was struggling, economically, socially, culturally. They believed that collective effort could achieve more than individual effort. They believed that mutual support could only be good for the health of Scottish literary activity. That doesn’t mean that they always agreed – there was plenty of debate, plenty of controversy. But one thing they all agreed on was that Scotland needed a literary voice that was both national and international– or perhaps more accurately national and international voices. And of course, that is no less important now than it was 90 years ago.

TAGS: 90th anniversary heritage Hugh MacDiarmid PEN International Saltire Society Scotland Scottish culture Scottish PEN