It is with great sadness that we announce the death on Sunday 3 July of Francis King CBE. The President of English PEN from 1979-1985, Francis went on to serve as International President, as well as acting as Chair of the Trustees for the JR Ackerley Trust. He was awarded the Golden PEN award in 2000 for a lifetime’s achievement in literature and in 2010 published his fiftieth novel, Cold Snap. The thoughts of everyone at English PEN are with Francis’ friends and family at this time.
Jonathan Heawood, Director of English PEN, paid tribute to Francis, saying: ‘Francis was the backbone of PEN’s work for many years. His commitment to literature, and to the world community of writers, was unwavering. Despite his ill-health in recent years, he continued to work tenaciously on behalf of these values. His death is not only a very sad occasion for all who knew him; it is the end of an era.’
We would welcome other tributes to Francis. If you would like to share your memories please email them to firstname.lastname@example.org
Alastair Niven, President of English PEN 2004-2007
‘I am really shaken by the news of Francis’s death. He defined civilised values for me. His home was hospitable, his cooking superb, his friendship warm and supportive, his intelligence keen and informed. Like Forster, he was a touchstone of common sense attitudes to sexuality and morality. I am personally grateful to him for his wise advice when I first became President of English PEN. Above all, he was a fine writer of wit, poise and erudition. My fun moment with him was announcing the annual PEN prizes from the balcony overlooking Tom Stacey’s garden in Kensington when we likened ourselves to Romeo and Romeo. That sense of fun won’t be forgotten, but nor will Francis or his fiction. English PEN should be very proud that we meant as much to him as he did to us.’
Lisa Appignanesi, President of English PEN 2008-2010
‘I was greatly saddened to hear of Francis King’s death. Though I hardly knew him, I always greatly admired his elegant fictions and appreciated his spirited wit and chuckles. Under his stewardship, the PEN Ackerley Prize became an award of singular prestige. He will be much missed.’
Victoria Glendinning, President of English PEN 2001-2003
‘He was a wonderful writer and a dedicated one – more than thirty novels, and lots of short stories, and poems, and non-fiction. The first novel of his that I read was The Waves Behind the Boat when it came out in 1967, and was thenceforth captivated. He never won the Booker, though The Nick of Time was longlisted, as was The Domestic Animal for The Lost Man Booker. His literary reputation in his last years was as high as it had ever been. He was a very good friend to PEN, and to other important causes like the plight of refugees. But he was quiet and modest, and though he had vehement convictions, he did not trumpet them. When I think about Francis, I think how kind and humane he was, and how nice it always was being in his company, and how pleased I was, entering a room full of people and seeing that Francis was there. I am very sad that won’t happen ever again.’
‘From the moment in 1979 when Francis started attending meetings of the Assembly of Delegates as President of English PEN he was much in demand by other delegations for his skill at rephrasing their resolutions into clear and concise English. They also soon discovered that his years of working abroad for The British Council had made him a brilliant speaker whose lectures were not only stimulating and to the point, but pitched so that everyone in the hall could hear and understand them. Since they also discovered his endless kindness and patience, it was no surprise that he was elected International President at the New York Congress in 1986.
He was a firm but fair Chairman of the Assembly and showed some of the steel in his character at the Cambridge Conference in 1988. The Russian poet Nizametdin Akhmetov, recently freed from a Soviet psychiatric institution, had been invited by the English Centre as a Guest of Honour and rose in the Assembly to make a moving speech about the beauties of spring and the need to forgive one’s enemies. Since this was still in the bad old days of the Cold War, one of the Bulgarian delegates immediately objected, as he had clearly been primed beforehand to do, that the speech was a political gesture. Francis, from the Chair, replied crisply that the Bulgarian objection would be noted and went on to point out that Akhmetov had spoken not as a Soviet prisoner but as representing all prisoners for freedom of expression everywhere.
Francis of course also enjoyed Congress life and appreciated the unintentional humour arising in any international gathering. He described this best in his very funny novel “Visiting Cards” which was published in 1990. Its setting is an imaginary Far Eastern country called Malindi which bears more than a passing resemblance to South Korea, where the PEN Congress of 1988 had been held, and its disaster-prone hero is Amos Kingsley who, as it turns out, has been elected President of a body called The World Association of Authors because of a confusion with Kingsley Amis.
Francis will be much missed by old friends from all over the world who still remember the grace and humour he brought to his role in International PEN.‘
Michael Holroyd, President of English PEN 1986-7
“Francis was one of the most entertaining of friends. I remember how hard he worked as president of English and International PEN, how enjoyable he made the meetings and conferences (no mean feat!), and how easy he made all this hard work appear. He was an active campaigner on behalf of writers not only in PEN but also at the Society of Authors, the Writers Action Group and the British Council. For twenty-eight years I was a fellow judge of the Ackerley Prize for autobiography which he chaired. Without the money which he privately donated, the prize would never have survived or gained its current status. Francis was a most professional novelist and critic: sharp, witty, astute, sometimes wicked, always elegant. The world will be a less vivid place without him.”
“I met Francis in the late seventies through his friend Alex Keller and then later came to know him better through PEN. Francis had a gift for friendship and combined mischievousness with compassion. He tended to like difficult women and often observed that he also had a soft spot for `rogues’. He was completely unsnobbish and modest, making little of his considerable achievements as a writer. I recall his quiet courage, and his unflagging curiosity about the lives of others. Last year, after undergoing several gruelling and humiliating skin treatments in hospital, he gave a fascinating account of the different characters of the nurses involved. I will miss him greatly.”
“One of my friends was the great nephew of JR Ackerley, for whom of course Francis was the literary executor. Francis was an extraordinary lunch companion, of course, and since my friends introduced me as a writer struggling to get Arts Council support, Francis was kind enough to read some of my writing and he later wrote a rather wonderful reference for me to try to help me get through the doors of the arts Council in my local area. I wasn’t successful at that time, but I have just received a grant from New Writing South to enable me to develop my poetry. Francis also gave me an introduction to the editor of The Spectator, being kind enough to suggest which of several poems might be best to send to him. Again, nothing came of this, but it gave me that moment of excitement hoping that this might be my chance for the oxygen of publicity.
Francis was very happy to offer help to someone perhaps in the same position he once was, because as he told us over lunch, it was an Arts Council award that first helped him to become a full-time novelist. I don’t think he ever forgot this, and he had the good grace to offer the hand of friendship to someone like myself who was also struggling with that serpent.“
Francis King CBE
The family has gathered, the struggle ceased
but sadness should not cloud the day.
Your life must end, but it has been long
and filled with so many friends along the way
who have already sung their song.
I like to think that you will soon be drinking tea
with many of them, Japanese style
– and how you will admire the waiters!
You were kind to me, and read my words
for which I am so grateful. Better still
you said you liked them, and wrote as much
to those that gave you your first start
for which I’m truly humbled.
But then, you are a gentleman, and a nearly-knight
though a sword, in truth, wouldn’t suit you quite
for it would clash with your convictions.
The conversations over tea
would be well worth overhearing.
Such a literary gathering it will be
and a library’s worth of worthies.
Besides, so many shelves across the world
will keep your memory fresh
for you chose for your profession
one in which death is only the beginning.
‘Francis King: Novelist, reviewer and drama critic whose fiction was tinged with melancholy’ (The Guardian, Sunday 3 July)
Originally posted with the url: www.englishpen.org/news/_1696