A Message from the President: A New Commitment and Fellowship

A Statement from the President of English PEN, concerning Tromso, and other matters:

Message from the President

Alastair Niven

One of the pleasures of being President of English PEN is that it is expected of you that you will attend the annual Congress of our parent body, International PEN. I did so in mid September, when the representatives of over 70 branches assembled in Tromsø, the most northerly city in the world. I had been there before and so relished the prospect of going back to such an attractive Arctic place, particularly as there was a prospect of an horrendously expensive but irresistible post-Congress tour to Spitzbergen. Spitzbergen is the size of Great Britain and has 3,000 human inhabitants and 3,000 man-hungry polar bears. Fortunately I did not encounter my opposite number there and nor did I find anyone who had heard of Philip Pullman, who sets His Dark Materials in that region, under its Nordic name Svalbard. I am sure it is only a matter of time before the expanding local tourist agencies realise what a good marketing tool they have in this superb trilogy, but I am pleased to have visited before they do.

The Congress was a great success and strangely moving. To old hands who have attended many Congresses it may have been a familiar mix, but for a newcomer like me I encountered real fellowship and a humbling capacity to think on behalf of others less fortunate than the participants. Inevitably a lot of time was spent on elections, constitutional discussions, resolutions and technicalities, but throughout the event there was also a rich interchange of cultures and experiences. We all knew that some of the resolutions we passed might end up in a tyrant’s waste paper basket and that others were inadequately commonplace – how, for example, can any simple form of words express the sentiments of all reasonable people about events in Beslan? But over meal after meal, in session after session, PEN members spoke up in the name of justice and humanity, free speech and creativity. Few worldwide organisations combine words with actions so effectively.

In the poll for a new Chairperson of the International Writers in Prison Committee our own WiPC Chair, Joan Smith, was a candidate. Though she did not make the run-off between two final candidates, she made an excellent presentation. I would like to thank her for all her hard work during her period in the chair of our own Writers in Prison Committee, which is now drawing to an end. There have been many achievements in this period, leading to the release of writers unjustly incarcerated, as well as inevitable disappointments.

We are also saying goodbye to Rachel Billington, who has been chairing our extraordinarily active Readers and Writers Committee. Rachel is, of course, a past President. Her support for English PEN will, I am sure, continue in lots of different ways. In the New Statesman recently, in a remarkably unkind and ill-informed article, she and our immediate past President, Victoria Glendinning, were described as grandes dames. Neither has ever struck me as at all grande, though I think it is about time they were officially made dames.

Rachel was, of course, greatly helped by having Jo Paterson running the Readers and Writers Programme.  Jo has left us to join Toynbee Hall, but her achievement with our education programme will be long-lasting.  We have also said goodbye to Diana Reich, though we hope she will be able to undertake some special projects for us from time to time.  Diana was Susie Nicklin’s predecessor as Director and then became Artistic Director.  That post now disappears under our planned cost-saving re-structuring, but not because Diana was anything other than superb in it, raising funds for the Centre’s work and enhancing our public profile.

We are now approaching our Annual General Meeting, which is on 9th December. I hope to welcome a lot of members to it, but we have also conscientiously this year tried to embrace our members who live outside London and who cannot easily come to the capital for meetings. Key elections will, whenever practical, be held by ballot so as not to disenfranchise any member who wants to vote.

As I write I am thinking of two stalwart members of English PEN whom we shall all particularly miss. Anthony Babington and Bernice Rubens were pillars of the Centre. Anthony’s memorial service on 25th October and Bernice’s funeral on 15th October were occasions linked by sadness and celebration for lives well lived. Both had a moral view of the world, based on sharing rather than exclusion. Bernice Rubens’s books will be long read, of course, but my tribute to her is personal because I knew her over a long period. She was kind, charitable and tough, a great lady as well as a terrific writer.

This has not been an easy year for English PEN. The confidence motion against the Executive Committee, though convincingly rejected, was an own goal. Mischievous commentary in the press left those who bothered to read it a little bewildered, though on the whole it had the effect of rallying support for the Centre rather than undermining it. What I detect now, however, is a renewal of that sense of commitment and fellowship that I encountered in Norway and which led most of us to join PEN in the first place. It is a good feeling and I hope not misplaced.

Originally posted with the url: www.englishpen.org/news/_945

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