Monday, 19 September 2011

Business Unusual

It occurs that I haven’t yet written anything about the actual business of PEN Congress in these blogs, which might leave the impression we were simply on a jaunt.  Actually the sessions, occasionally fascinating, can be pretty gruelling as we work through reports and resolutions, and Linda’s experience with WWF1 really helped as we discussed, debated and networked with others around the hall.  We made good contacts with Chinese poet Yang Lian who may be coming to work at Dundee University next year, and Katlin, the delegate from Estonian PEN, we hope will visit Moniack Mhor near Inverness in the spring.  Linda also got a pledge from Jordanian PEN to contribute to our online PENning magazine which Linda and Anne Clarke run through the Scottish PEN website – a marvellous piece of work – so watch out for the next edition.

We also met with Feggie Myphasi, the delegate from Malawian PEN, who told of us her voluntary work training teachers to use literature as part of children’s language and personal development.  It seems absurd to us, but previous Malawian governments had excluded study of literature from the school curriculum and since its reintroduction a decade ago there has been almost no investment in literary books or in equipping the teachers to encourage literature.  Scottish PEN helped to fund a pilot project with Malawian PEN about six years ago and this is what had got Feggie started, though they are desperately in need of more support.   Both Linda and I were very impressed by this bright and tenacious young woman, and have undertaken to look at ways Scottish PEN might be able to help again, though we stressed the funding we gave last time was part of a very special circumstance at that time and that we would be unlikely to match the previous level of support.  Nevertheless we will try: books and even small donations can go a long, long way to build literacy, and without literacy any notion of free expression or genuine participation in democracy is almost impossible.  The brilliant Margie Orford of South African PEN gave a stirring presentation on this very subject, and it has to be a real priority for development of PEN across the world.

Today was the final day of work and Scottish PEN moved two motions on the floor, and both passed comfortably, though not without opposition.  The first called for a working group to review the size and workings of the Board in order to make it more efficient and more representative, while the second motion was pushing for movement on the major fundraising proposal we presented and which was agreed in Brussels.  It is a detailed idea to forge collaborations with major artists to produce around a dozen emblematic empty chairs for a major art exhibit, which would then be sold to collectors and galleries to generate unrestricted funds for PEN International.  This latter proposal was really a pulling together of a lot of things going on around PEN internationally, hopefully to capitalise on the opportunity afforded by the fact the organisation is about to reach the venerable age of 90.  Scotland’s recent association with this potent symbol of free expression means we’re at risk of becoming known as the Chairs ‘R’ Us PEN centre within the international network but, hey, there’s worse things.

Linda attended a controversial emergency meeting of the Committee of Women Writers which passed a motion of no confidence in its convenor, an unprecedented move within PEN we’ll no doubt hear more about.  Later – and if you’ll forgive the slip into Glaswegian for a moment – there was a bit of a rammy over a daft rumour put about by one total heid-the-ba’ that the Writers for Peace conference was being moved away from Bled in Slovenia.  It was nonsense, but I confess a dark little part of me would have quite liked to see a Writers for Peace rumble.

PEN International started a new Executive Director on 1st August and she was introduced to Congress for the first time this week.  Laura McVeigh is a clever, vivacious and, I thought, quite steely young woman who wisely took a background role at the top table this week, preferring to spend her time mixing with the delegates and getting to know people.  The right way to introduce yourself, most agreed, and she certainly takes the best wishes of everyone at PEN around the world for the formidable task she has taken on.   I for one believe she’ll do very well.

Drew Campbell

1 Are you troubled by the image of the demure Linda Cracknell putting Hulk Hogan in a headlock at a bout of the WWF (World Wrestling Federation)?  Well, rest easy sports fans, the WWF above simply refers to the fact our Linda used to work for the World Wildlife Fund.

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