Speech by Alistair Niven at PEN AGM 2007

Farewell speech as President of English PEN, 10 December 2007

Normally at the end of a four year spell as president, chief executive, captain or simply team-mate in any kind of organisation it is customary for the said official to stand before his members a pale shadow of the youthful figure he struck all that time ago. Exhausted, emaciated, burnt out and desperate for the exit door, he hands over to the poor sucker who has agreed to replace him and wishes her all the luck in the world.  I probably look all those things, exhausted, emaciated etc, but then I am four years older and travelled up to London this afternoon on what the kind lady in my station bookings office calls ‘a wise person’s card’, for which, when I began as President of English PEN, I was not eligible. However I may look though, I don’t feel any of those things. In the expression of the Ijaw people of Nigeria, my insides talk brightly to me.  

I feel four years younger for the experience of being your President, or if I am truthful with myself, three years younger, for the first year was hell.  It was a period of civil rebellion in our midst and if I cast an eye back on that unhappy time it is only to celebrate where we are at today by comparison. I felt then, and I feel now, that what happened at that time, culminating in a vote of no confidence in the Executive Committee, which though roundly defeated clearly betokened a lot of disquiet in the organisation, was desperately unfair to my immediate predecessors, Victoria Glendinning and Rachel Billington, who had worked their butts off on our behalf and whose connections in the literary world were unsurpassed. But the disquiet was based on something more than the silly ephemeral matter that was the occasion of the dispute. It was about the speed with which this organisation had professionalised its administration. There is no doubt that, had we not brought in a paid staff and improved access to what we were about, the Arts Council and other grants upon which we now depend would not have been available. I know that because I was once the villain at Great Peter Street who annually passed on the news to English PEN that we could not give money for anything other than International Writers’ Day, though that we supported regularly and well. In the process of ‘going professional’ some members thought that we had moved too fast and lost something of our voluntary spirit. These were the grounds for the suspicions that surrounded the Executive of 2003, even if, at the risk of mixing my metaphor illogically, they were unfounded grounds.

I still sometimes detect in PEN a fear that by accepting Arts Council money we have entered a Faustian pact which will eventually result in our eternal damnation. I think that PEN is mightier than any board. We need have no fear that we must dance to anyone else’s tune. I also resist the notion that we bring in grants by one door only so that we can pay the salaries of those who apply for the grants, like some mythic beast which eats its own body to stay alive. English PEN is flourishing at this moment because we have dedicated paid staff, and even a cursory look at the annual accounts will nail the absurdity that there is a disproportionate spend on fund-raising.

But back to four years ago. It was a horrid time, but it had its comic side. I rather enjoyed being called a Stalinist. It took one to know one. I just hope that four years later I have not morphed in to Mr. Bean – though I wouldn’t mind being Mr Benn for a while, a great supporter of English PEN whose contribution to our evening called The Right to Dissent a couple of years ago at the Players’ Theatre was one of the highlights of my period of office.  In the end our internal row of two years ago strengthened us. I said at the time that the members had looked over the edge of a cliff and not liked the alternative to turning back. Those who exploited members’ anxieties by washing our dirty linen in their newspaper columns lost any goodwill they might have had. We all grew up. And now I am sure there are many new members who have no idea what I am talking about because they only see a vibrant and progressive organisation hell bent on defending freedom of expression and upholding literature.

These we are doing so well. I take no credit for it. You have a marvellous staff now at English PEN. Jonathan Heawood was a real find, coming to us from the Fabian Society and having been Deputy Literary Editor of The Observer. Lo and behold, he is an administrator who writes and who reads books and who is married to an author, and who thus enjoys the respect of the writing world, which is not easily won.  Jonathan has been great to work with and I value his friendship. English PEN will flourish as long as he is at the helm.  

But the whole crew is good at the moment. There’s Simon Burt, who is surprising himself by his success in raising money for the Readers and Writers programme. This part of PEN is taking writers in to schools and prisons and it has recently determined to have a third string to its bow by working explicitly with refugees and migrants. My wife works once a week in a Refugee Centre and comes back each time with horror stories of obfuscating bureaucracy damaging the aspirations of people who often have no money at all, have forfeited their papers to a confidence trickster, and whose personal history in another continent has been tormented. If English PEN can alleviate that by providing moments of self-respect, aspiration and fellowship it will be doing something that goes to the heart of its founding mission. We already know that one of the main reasons why so many young British people end up in our overcrowded prisons is a failure in our education system – nothing in a complex democracy happens in isolation. Writers going in to prisons bring hope and experience to men and women who often feel that the outside world has given up on them. Thank you, Simon, and thank you to Lindsay Mackie, who chairs the Readers and Writers committee and who has brought new insights and concern to its deliberations.

Then there is Writers in Translation, a relatively new road for PEN to travel. Andrea Pisac, who runs the programme is, like Simon, a writer of short stories. Her first collection came out recently in Croatia. She really knows what she is doing and has been backed by a committee chaired by Amanda Hopkinson, Director of the British Centre for Literary Translation. They have made a formidable double act. We support the publication of books which without our subsidy might not otherwise see the light of day, and which benefit from our promotion of them through events and the cachet of our imprimatur. More ambitious plans are afoot in our translation programme, such as the proposed Writers in Translation world atlas.   

When I first went to the Arts Council twenty years ago I started up their translation fund. Translation is the only way that we can know the works of writers whose languages we cannot read, so as part of an international network of literary centres it is entirely appropriate that English PEN develops this work. This year José Eduardo Agualusa, Ismail Kadare, Fatos Kongoli, Alberto Mendez and Wojciech Tochman are among the writers whose books we are supporting. The Translation programme is sponsored by Bloomberg, who have been very generous to English PEN. We are most grateful.

Writers in Public owes almost everything to Deborah Mogach, its assiduous convenor, and to Sarah Hesketh, who replaced Alice O’Hanlon earlier in the year. They are alchemists, almost sinister in their ability to conjure gold before our eyes. Is there another organisation in Britain that could get three children’s laureates on to a platform together, or persuade the Prime Minister in one of his many worst weeks ever to write a two-page letter in support of our Burmese event, or which celebrated the centenaries of Auden and MacNeice with one of the liveliest and most intelligent discussions of the literary year? These are only recent examples. The programme has been constantly superb ever since Debby took it on. The move to the slightly less central Guardian Newsroom from the Adam Street Club has not affected audience attendances – rather the reverse.  The only disappointment is that the attendance of members is less good than one would like it to be. The general public turns up, but for some reason member participation is not great. Can we do something about this, because Debby and Sarah deserve our support.

And so to Writers in Prison. If we are particularly known for one activity it is of course our work on behalf of beleaguered authors around the world who have fallen foul of regimes because they expressed themselves in ways that gave offence to usually offensive governments. At the moment there are just over 40 ‘adopted’ cases of this kind whose cause is espoused by English PEN, but overall perhaps more than a thousand writers around the world detained or imprisoned for their dissidence. Aung San Suu Kyi may be the most famous of them, but please spare a thought and a prayer for those in detention from Angola to Uzbekistan, from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe. For all of us who heard him at our annual Writers in Prison Service in St. Bride’s, the writers’ church, Alan Johnston brought alive the terrors of solitary confinement. I know I could not endure it, the beatings, the mental torture, the knock on the door that could presage execution, the absolute denial of liberty. How does the human spirit survive such mockery? As my friend Jack Mapanje puts it,

                                                   ‘This is the moment
                   we dreaded; when we’d all descend into
                   the pit, alone; without a wife or a child
                   without mother; without paper or pencil
                   without a story (just three Bibles for
                   ninety men) without charge without trial.
                   This is the moment I never needed to see.’

English PEN alerts the world to these injustices, it writes to prisoners to tell them that they are not forgotten, it exhorts potentates and presidents to remember that prisoners too are part of a common humanity. Through our Books to Prisoners Committee we send out each year well over seventy packages of reading matter to detainees and prisoners around the world. Some of the worst abuses are in countries we know little of personally, such as Yemen, but they also take place in holiday destinations. How many honeymooners in the Maldives know that they are dancing and sexing alongside the living tombs of dissident Maldivians? Ophelia Field, herself a notable biographer, has been a marvellous recruit to English PEN and the partnership she has forged this year with Carole Seymour Jones and Ania Corless, who between them have been Chair and Acting Chair of the Writers in Prison Committee this year, has been a wonderful model of good practice, as the Arts Council likes to describe effective working friendships. Initially Ophelia stood in for Lucy Popescu in running the Writers in Prison work, but while on sabbatical leave Lucy decided to leave English PEN. Prisoners around the world acknowledged her determined efforts on their behalf. What better summary can one make when a long-serving member of staff departs than ‘they made a difference’. Lucy certainly did, improving the quality of many lives around the world.    

I mentioned Alice O’Hanlon a moment ago, our other departee this year. Alice had been our membership secretary, our Writers in Public factota, and the lynchpin of so much that was essential English PEN. She is now at the Royal Institute of British Architects, running their awards, but what a wonderful asset she was to our organisation. English PEN is lucky to have such people working for it early in their careers. Almost unbelievably we have found another in Sarah Hesketh. We have been so lucky, too, in the interns who have worked for us without drawing salaries and in order to gain experience. To them all, thank you.

It is customary at Annual General Meetings to leave the financial report to the Treasurer. I am happy to do so, but only on condition that I can thank Barry Kernon for all he does for us. Barry is the financial overseer of a lot of literary causes and is much loved by writers because he speaks our language and makes even the most innumerate among us feel they understand the mysteries of accounting and fund-raising. We are lucky in our accountant, too, Bernard Redhouse. Barry and Bernard come to meetings of the Management and Executive Committees and ensure that decisions affecting income and expenditure are taken with understanding. We have done better with our fund-raising this year, as the accounts show, but unfortunately you can never rest on your laurels. There is no better sight in the material world than seeing a significant donation drop out of an envelope, but sadly there seem to be times of the year when the envelopes get lost in the post and don’t turn up. Any links you may have or suggestions of whom to approach for funds will always be welcome, and please don’t die without remembering us in a legacy. Die then by all means, but not before.

A key to our fund-raising is the annual PEN Quiz, which this year has again raised well over £45,000.  Jeremy Paxman was our host and we thank him. The Quiz is a big event to arrange and without the support of its committee we would not get there.  We are also extraordinarily lucky to have Colman Getty’s great backing, which is in the form of financial sponsorship and very effective public relations expertise. I have to confess that at my table this year my team scored nought out of ten in the literary round. Since our number included Anthony Beevor and John Julius Norwich, who had helped set some of the questions, to say nothing of the likes of Artemis Cooper and Julian Fellowes, it was a rum do.  

As I now hand over to a new Chairperson I’d like to share a few hopes for English PEN. Four years ago I never thought that we could where we are now. The fact that we are so strong an organisation is partly because we have not shirked big challenges. Our success in spear-heading the Free Expression is No Offence campaign was, I think, generally restorative. We all know that without Lisa Appignanesi’s energy and commitment this would not have got off the ground, but it not only did that, it resulted in a defeat in both houses of Parliament that obliged a cavalier government to be more thoughtful about the subtle issues of race hatred in our society. We will need in the future to reflect on the merits of every campaign, whether it be related to race, religion or sexuality. Do we want to oppose proposed government legislation on homophobia, do we want to see the repeal of the blasphemy laws, do we in the name of free expression continue to uphold the rights of authors who express unpalatable views about the holocaust? These are tough and sometimes divisive issues, but they are a way of engaging our whole membership.   

I would like to see our membership increased, though it actually now stands at a record level. We need more young members and more recruits from minorities. We will need to attract them partly by broadening our work in the regions. I also hope that relations between the English centre and International PEN can be improved. It is deeply frustrating for Jonathan to apply to a potential donor in this country, only to find that International PEN got there first. We are working on a system of mutually informing each other about funding applications, but it has not been very effective so far. And while we are talking about International PEN, three of whose congresses I have attended as President of English PEN, I do earnestly hope that they can find a way of using delegates’ time better. This year in Dakar we spent a whole day electing four people to their executive committee, and it was the same at the congresses I went to in Tromsø and Berlin. Being more positive, I hope that International PEN’s literary festival in London in April, with which English PEN will co-operate, will be a great success and inspire London-based funders to give money on the basis of what they see to other PEN centres around the world which struggle for resources.

Next year’s news will be the challenge of settling into shared accommodation within the new Centre for Free Expression. I hope that by the A.G.M. we shall also have achieved charitable status without compromising our raison d’être. These are exciting prospects.

Now we are about to have a new President, the twenty-fourth, fifteen men and nine women, in a line that begins with John Galsworthy, J.B.Priestley and H.G.Wells. I want to say a word, however, about our current Deputy President. When I was elected I promised that I would have as my Deputy a writer of great reputation. Lisa Appignanesi has that, but she has so much else – passion, commitment, articulacy. How lucky I have been to have her and what a difference she has made to English PEN. She is prepared to continue serving PEN at a senior level, which is the best possible news. But I have been supported by so many wonderful writers and literary people on the Executive Committees of the past four years. There are too many to name individually now, but what a great lot they have been, with nothing too much trouble if it would help PEN. If among the writers who have unstintingly spoken up for PEN in recent years I make special mention of Harold Pinter and Doris Lessing, I hope it is obvious why. We honoured Harold with a dinner earlier this year and we shall do the same for Doris in January. To all who have worked for English PEN in the last four years, ‘I can no other answer make, but thanks and thanks and ever thanks.’ Sebastian’s words in Twelfth Night, my favourite play, bring this address to a close, for as always it is our greatest writer who should have the last word.   ‘The rest’, from me at least, ‘is silence’.


ALASTAIR NIVEN

 

Originally posted with the url: www.englishpen.org/membership/membersonly/committees/agm2007/presidentsaddress/

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