Memories from PEN, a tribute to Josephine Pullein-Thompson

English PEN was saddened to learn of the death of our former president Josephine Pullein-Thompson in June 2014. Here her dear friend and fellow PEN member Elizabeth Paterson pays tribute to Josephine’s incredible energy and spirit

Apart from her writing, Josephine always had to have a cause to which to dedicate her energy and spirit. At the time when I got to know her (in the Seventies) PEN was beginning to take over her life. It was in her blood because her mother, the novelist Joanna Cannan, had been one of the early members, so she naturally gravitated to the English Centre when she settled in London and, as naturally, was swiftly elected to the Executive Committee and in due course appointed Organiser of the International Congress held in London in the bakingly hot summer of 1976, the brainchild of Peter Elstob (then acting as Secretary both of International PEN and English PEN to fill the vacuum left by the untimely death of David Carver). Thanks to her drive and ability to inspire her helpers as well as restraining Peter from his wilder schemes and keeping a firm eye on Stephen Spender, who, as President, lent great lustre to the proceedings but could not always be relied upon to be in the right place and delivering the right speech at the right time, the Congress was a great success and much enjoyed by the delegates, who did not realise that the efficient organisation owed much to Josephine’s experience at Pony Club camps.

The fact that she had no ear for foreign names didn’t bother her. She simply rechristened the troublesome ones by names which she could remember and pronounce. Fortunately the President of Hungarian PEN, the distinguished editor Ivan Boldizsar, never knew that, in the privacy of the office, he was transmuted into Dr. Balderdash.

As a result of her obvious qualifications for the job, Josephine was unanimously elected at the AGM in December 1976 as the first General Secretary of the English Centre, later to become President, whilst Peter remained International Secretary for another five years.

Because I was working in the PEN office when she took over and revolutionised the spirit and functioning of the organisation I know very well how much PEN meant to her and how much she did for it. She was occasionally to be heard describing the more tiresome members as ‘Monsters!’ but she took an affectionate interest in all her flock, even the monsters, and strove to make PEN meetings friendly affairs.   She revived the literary discussions which had been the mainstay of ‘The PEN Club; as it was originally known, and also invented, with the assistance of Norman Collins, the annual Writers’ Day, which attracted members from other PEN Centres, as well as many country members of English PEN who could not otherwise attend meetings. A well-known foreign writer gave the principal speech, followed by a native speaker and everyone enjoyed a good lunch, at the Cafe Royal or the Festival Hall.

Less formal occasions were the quarterly dinners which took place in the Studio of The London Sketch Club, our new landlords. Their premises, in Dilke Street, were less elegant than our original headquarters in Glebe House, which dilapidations had forced us to leave, but were friendly and informal and provided us with a kitchen where the food for the dinners could be heated up, and there was a well-stocked bar, where members could meet and chat.

Also memorable were the Summer Outings, on which we were taken by bus, with a picnic on board, to two places of literary interest within reach of London. There were hazards of course: bus drivers who got lost and had to be redirected by Josephine, who always carried a road atlas; rain on our picnic, which Josephine chose to ignore, simply telling us to put up our umbrellas; and marauding animals. When we picnicked in the park at Knowle we were attacked by the deer, who had designs on our sandwiches. I remember Josephine valiantly driving them off with the nearest weapon to hand, a fallen branch.

These more frivolous aspects of life at PEN in Josephine’s day did not detract from her commitment to the work of the Writers in Prison Committee, which she also reinvigorated and gave a great deal of time and effort to, but they did help to foster an atmosphere of literary exchange and good fellowship amongst the members such as the Founder, Mrs. Dawson Scott, had envisaged.

They also, of course, depended on her sacrificing a great deal of her time and energy so that when she left office it seemed to some members that, although the campaigns and protests on behalf of imprisoned writers continued, the heart had gone out of PEN and the spirit which had differentiated it from Amnesty and other campaigning organisations was no longer there. I think their expectations were unrealistic. No successor to Josephine, either as General Secretary or President, was going to be able or willing to give up as much time and energy to organising an attractive programme for English PEN members as she had done.

That’s not to say that she did not get a great deal of enjoyment from her life in PEN.   She was a regular attender at Congresses, paying half the travel expenses out of her own pocket, diligently attending the Assembly of Delegates as well as enjoying the social life and travel opportunities.

That was how I first got to know her, at the Israeli Congress in 1974,  strengthening our friendship at many subsequent meetings since it was part of my job to be in attendance. She was a dauntless traveller, as well as very good company. Before my day she had attended the 1966 Congress in New York on two sticks, still recovering from a badly broken leg, and was indebted to the Ivory Coast delegates for saving her from starvation by fetching her food from the buffet.

An added bonus to any Congress was the opportunity to  become tourists after our work was done and Josephine and I very often joined up with other friends such as Francis King, Peter Elstob, Tony Babington and Martin Tucker of American PEN, on post-Congress trips, which took us to such varied spots as French Canada,The Italian Lakes, the Brazilian Costa Verde and the Venezuelan jungle. On the Venezuelan trip in 1983 we were accompanied by Alex Blokh, the elegant French writer who had for years represented UNESCO at our Congresses and in 1981 had succeeded Peter as International Secretary. Due to some official engagement in Caracas, he was late joining us on the dusty air strip where we were waiting to board our rickety plane for departure to the interior, and when he did appear was still formally dressed, with a flower in his buttonhole and carrying a rolled umbrella. Drawing on her experience of children’s literature, Josephine compared him to the sissy French boy who featured in many English school stories. Luckily being an international civil servant had not deprived Alex of a sense of humour and he accepted her teasing with a good grace.

To sum up her relationship with PEN, I should say that, as well as enjoying the fellowship it involved, she gave herself unstintingly to upholding the principles of its Charter. She will be remembered with respect and affection by many of its members, not only in the English Centre, but all over the world, as well as by the imprisoned and persecuted writers whose cause she tirelessly championed.

Josephine’s family has very kindly requested that donations in her memory go to English PEN’s Writers at Risk programme. For further information, please contact Cat Lucas on cat@englishpen.org.

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