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18 October 2004updated 24 Sep 2015 11:46am

Writers at war

The literary world loves a feud, but a fierce row is threatening English PEN's very existence. The c

By David Cox

Writers persecuted by oppressive regimes know they can count on help from at least one quarter. Since 1921, England’s literary lions have fought the oppression of their less fortunate peers through an organisation called English PEN, the first and most illustrious of what is now a global network of 130 writers’ centres in a hundred different countries. Today, the English centre’s luminaries include William Boyd, A S Byatt, Margaret Drabble, Antonia Fraser, Ben Okri, Harold Pinter and Tom Stoppard, yet its very survival is being threatened by a savage dispute.

Suspicion, distrust, backbiting, smear tactics, simple loathing and sometimes extremely unliterary abuse have come to characterise a struggle that has been waged until now behind the closed doors of London’s literary salons. The organisation’s president, Alastair Niven, has accused some members of being “determined to continue the discussion as though it were a war”. He has warned them that the conflict has already “hugely damaged our reputation with potential funders”. Since English PEN is now engulfed in a cash crisis, such damage could prove terminal.

As in the works of many of PEN’s members, money plays a major role in the drama, but so, too, do pride, pique and principle.

The origins of the present trouble date back to the three-year terms of Niven’s immediate predecessor, the biographer Victoria Glendinning, and her predecessor, the novelist Rachel Billington. Under these grandes dames, the organisation began to expand its horizons beyond the unglamorous world of torture and imprisonment towards more congenial, British-based activities. With this burgeoning agenda came a drive for growth. “We need larger and better premises; we need to expand our current projects and create new ones,” Glendinning declared.

When Niven took over last December, he pushed on with this “New PEN” mission, strengthening the grip of paid executives at the expense of ordinary writer-members. The pattern will be familiar to members of other voluntary organisations caught up in the fashion for professionalisation, with its attendant jargon of “programmes” and “governance issues”. Fresh initiatives were launched, such as the Writers in Translation programme, which stages parties to celebrate the work of overseas authors, even if they are in no danger at all. Among PEN’s more traditionalist members, concern began to develop.

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Nowhere was this more intense than on PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee. This body, involving just 26 of the organisation’s thousand-strong membership, is the cutting edge of its human rights campaigning. Committee members adopt individual imprisoned writers in such places as Burma, Cuba and China, and then support them with letters and campaign for their release. Every year, a few of these prisoners do get released, though WiPC members rarely have the satisfaction of knowing whether their efforts have played any part. Amnesty International was based on this PEN model.

What Niven and his executives saw as modernisation began to look, to some members of the WiPC, like the marginalisation of their efforts. “PEN is registered at Unesco as a non-governmental organisation,” one WiPC member told the New Statesman. “So is it to be essentially a human rights body, or a literary club which does a bit of good work on the side?” It was not long before such “Old PEN” stalwarts were able to add more concrete concerns to their growing disquiet.

Modernisation has not come cheap. Salaries for the growing numbers of paid staff amounted to £139,978 last year, not counting pension contributions. Another £20,000 was spent on public relations and £6,000 on publicists. Yet English PEN’s core income, its members’ subscriptions, yielded just £27,500. A one-off Arts Council grant of £45,000 will help bridge the gap, and some of the organisation’s archive is to be sold, yet by last spring financial meltdown was beginning to look like a real possibility. Fundraising became an ever bigger part of PEN’s activities, but fundraising itself added to the organisation’s costs.

One idea struck the management as a possible life-saver. If the organisation could gain charitable status, it would attract substantial tax advantages. Yet there was a problem; and it was not just the indignity of English PEN (motto: “Mightier than the sword”) going cap in hand to officialdom. Charities are subject to rules restricting their political activities, yet the WiPC conducts blatantly political campaigns: as recently as 11 October, members staged a demonstration outside the Uzbek embassy in London. WiPC activists began to fear that the management was trying to push through charitable status behind the members’ backs. They asked what would happen to WiPC activities if such status were accorded, and were told that PEN might hive off “political” operations. This led to fears that such operations would be starved of the funds which might then flow into the rest of the organisation.

So, things started to heat up. Old PEN members began to mutter about extravagance and incompetence, and some even questioned Niven’s credentials. Former presidents of English PEN include John Galsworthy, H G Wells, J B Priestley and Stephen Spender. Niven, however, hails from the Arts Council and the British Council rather than the garret, and some suggested that a mere arts-industry bureaucrat was unfit to head a great literary institution. The modernisers who supported Niven tried to fight back. At one tumultuous meeting of the WiPC, the historian Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, who is a member of Niven’s executive, sank theatrically to his knees and begged those present to accept the idea of charitable status, pointing to a £180,000 shortfall between PEN’s expenditure and income. Yet the ructions only worsened.

The chair of the WiPC, the novelist and critic Joan Smith, applied for the chairmanship of her committee’s global parent – WiPC International. Smith, who was seen as being in the vanguard of the Old PEN faction, was told that English PEN’s executive would not support her. Smith had to get Finnish PEN to back her instead.

Niven’s executive even toyed with the idea of what would have amounted to disbanding the WiPC, with its dedicated but stroppy veterans. Instead, there would be a “steering committee” of only six people, who would try to get PEN’s ordinary members to take over the WiPC’s generally thankless work. By the summer, “there was a lot of very unpleasant feeling around”, according to one long-standing member of PEN.

Matters swiftly came to a head. Old PEN forced a vote of confidence in the president and his executive committee. It did not go smoothly. The management demanded changes to a letter to be sent out by the Old PEN brigade to voters. These were conceded, but Old PEN activists in turn demanded changes to what they considered libellous remarks in the management’s own message. To their intense annoyance, they were rebuffed.

Meanwhile, in a separate letter to those who had called for the vote, Niven wrote that if they lost, he would expect them to “resign from any English PEN committee on which they currently sit, and, if they wish to remain as members of PEN, to pledge loyalty and support to the current regime”.

In the event, the president and his executive survived, but only by 69 votes. Many of the 1,000 members refused to vote at all, largely because they took a “plague on both your houses” attitude to the con-flict, according to Niven – who chose this moment to issue his warning about damage to funding prospects.

He pleaded for a return to “the spirit of fellowship which our wiser founders believed was the essence of the PEN ideal”. In a conciliatory move, he said that he accepted some of his critics’ points, such as the need to cut spending. And, in what was perhaps a surprising step for the head of an organisation devoted to freedom of expression, he also urged secrecy on all parties, with the words: “Quarrels within families should remain there.”

Though this injunction may have helped keep the bitterness under wraps, the defeated dissidents neither offered their resignations nor signed loyalty pledges. They carried on the fight, and they are carrying it on still.

At the same time, Niven and his supporters continue to pursue their own vision, and the money they hope will fund it. The next flashpoint may come next month, when a new chair of the WiPC must be elected, as Smith’s term ends in December. Concern persists that English PEN may in the end go under. Because the organisation is unincorporated, members would be responsible for its debts, and this is making impecunious older members feel distinctly edgy.

Those who support modernisation protest that all is well. Felipe Fernandez-Armesto insists that no one has anything to fear. “The future of English PEN,” he says, “will be thoroughly consistent with its traditions.” He adds: “There is no question but that PEN is on a sound financial footing, with an extremely effective professional staff, and that all of these people are working to make sure it will be even more effective in the future.”

Yet, as she prepares to step down as the head of the Writers in Prison Committee, Smith remains anxious. “Our worry all the way through,” she says, “has been that English PEN is living beyond its means, and we’re still not convinced that the measures which have been taken are sufficient to secure its long-term future. If the organisation is under threat, then so is the WiPC. Any threat to that would be a disaster not only for English PEN, but for all the 40 or 50 imprisoned writers around the world and their families who depend on its efforts.”

Someone who might agree with that is Mohamed Nash-eed, a journalist in the Maldives who has endured house arrest, torture and solitary confinement for offences such as illegal contact with foreigners.

“Throughout all these,” he says, “one friend that has always stood with me has been the English PEN Writers in Prison Committee. I am sure I will not be able to thank them enough.” But it may now take more than the gratitude of persecuted writers to ensure that such support remains at hand.

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