Monday, 5 March 2012

Recollections of early days at Scottish Pen and of a Writing Life

I felt very honoured to be invited to become the next Honorary President of Scottish Pen and was delighted to accept.

I published my first adult novel, Liam's Daughter, set in Ireland and France,in 1963. When my second one, The Prevailing Wind, firmly placed in the Marchmont district of Edinburgh, came out the following year the publisher, Hodder and Stoughton, decided to give me a party in a venue in Queen Street. This event helped to change my life.

I was young, I had two children under the age of three, with another due later that year, I lived in the small village of Temple, twelve miles from the city, which I seldom left, and I knew nothing of 'the writing life'. I had met briefly only a single author,one of Scotland's finest novelists, Robin Jenkins, who was a friend of a man in the village. I lacked people to talk to.

Two other Hodder authors were invited to my event. Nigel Tranter, who was then president of Scottish Pen, and James Allan Ford, a member of the committee. They descended on me immediately crying 'You must join Scottish Pen!' I had never heard of it. I joined and my life opened up.

Pen predominantly meant friendship for me. Friendship with other writers to whom I could talk and exchange ideas. We met in Gladstone's Land, a magical atmospheric place in which to gather. Many of those writers I met in the sixties are no longer with us, sadly some whose names would not even be recognised by members today. Oswald Wynd, Tranter, Jim Ford, Marie Muir, Lavinia Derwent, Cherry Drummond in whose castle, Megginch, we had many summer parties, Ronald Johnston, Cliff Hanley, Douglas Young, John Calder, and others whose names escape me. We had evenings with special guests. MacDiarmid. Helen Cruikshank. Chinua Achebe. Heinrich Boll. Saul Bellow. I remember vividly the evening with Bellow. Half a dozen of us sat in a small circle with him in the back room at Gladstone's Land. He talked and we listened, entranced. One person who was a stalwart member then and still remains so is Mary Baxter, who has given so much to Pen over the years.

In the late 60s a group of us from Scottish Pen and the Society of Authors got together and initiated a festival for writers which we ran during the Edinburgh International Festival. We felt writers had been ignored. We began in a modest way, with one event per morning for one week. None of the authors got paid in the early years. We were mostly Scottish. With the help of some finance from SAC we rented a room in the Carlton Hotel to begin with, moved on to the Balmoral, then the George, and finally, for a few years, to the Roxburgh. We drew in some well known names. Martin Amis,  Antonia Fraser, Salman Rushdie (before he became famous) Rose Tremaine, Jane Gardam, amongst others. The festivals were small, intimate and friendly.

At the beginning of the 80s I was chairing the book festival committee as well as serving as a council member of SAC and its literature committee, now defunct. The idea of holding a festival - a more official, well-funded one - in Charlotte Square gardens gradually grew out of our events in the Roxburgh, and so in 1983 the Edinburgh Book Festival, as we know it today, was born.

When I look back on those years I don't know how I got time to bring up three children, serve on various committees and write books, but somehow or other I did. In 1970 I published The Twelfth Day of July, set at the time of the Troubles in Northern Ireland and was launched as a children's writer. I continued to write adult novels as well as plays for television. In those days producers actually approached you and invited you to write for them. I learned the ropes by writing first for the soap High Living and went on to write for one-off play slots like Play for Today that no longer exist. I was then invited to dramatise my four novels about a Glasgow girl called Maggie in 18 episodes, which went out on BBC Two over two years.

When I got my first contract from Hodder I was asked if I would be prepared to give talks in bookshops or libraries and give press and radio interviews. Totally naive, I answered no to all of them! How times have changed! You wouldn't be taken on by a publisher now unless you were prepared to 'support' your book. Writers are expected to go out and sell themselves, which is something I deplore. I am glad I started a career as a writer when I did. Times were saner then to my mind. Writers were valued for the quality of their work as well as how many books they could sell. I continue to write. How can I stop? I began when I was eleven years old. Writers never retire.

Scottish Pen has changed in many ways since I first became a member. More emphasis is placed on supporting Writers in Prison, which is admirable. I am fully in support of that and have been happy to read at EIBF events in support of it when I have been able to.

A writer's life is full of ups and downs, highs and lows, but I feel fortunate to have been free to write what I want to write  and not to have the restrictions placed upon me that so many less fortunate writers in other parts of the world have.

Joan Lingard

Read more about Joan Lingard at her website

Friday, 2 March 2012


The Nobel Peace Prize is generally accepted as one of the highest honours a human being can win, a recognition of exceptional courage or integrity, affirmation that you have lived your life honourably and decently. But sometimes it's even more than that. It's currency.
Publisher Ragip Zarakolu is currently in a high security prison in Turkey, along with terrorists, drug dealers and other scary people. After his arrest at the end of October last year, he was deprived of the lifeblood of every literary person¾books. But now that he has been nominated for the Nobel, the authorities are realising they were perhaps a little hasty. He has been given permission to visit the library and to use a computer once a week.

In prison, values tend to be the reverse of those in society and the tougher the criminal you are, the more kudos you get, but the Nobel nomination has boosted Ragip's standing and he is now looked upon as a leading figure in the prison.

'Everybody knew about the nomination, and that changed the conditions remarkably,' says Eugene Schoulgin of PEN International, who campaigns tirelessly on his behalf. 'Even the guards wanted to assure the visitors that they took good care of him.'

It's hard to under-estimate how important such affirmation from the world outside is to a political prisoner like Ragip. Letters of support and friendship from all over the world have helped keep his spirits up, though he often has to wait to receive them as the prison censors mail and there isn't always an officer on hand to translate them.

F-Type prisons like Koceali, where Ragip was moved from Istanbul, have been criticised by both Amnesty International and the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey for their harsh regime. Prisoners are often kept in isolation and many are subjected to 'harsh and arbitrary disciplinary punishments.'

Ragip appears to be allowed to associate with other inmates¾ he sent out photos of himself with two of them¾and has access to a small radio. The prisoners are able to watch television for short periods in the evening and the prison pipes its own music channel into the cells. Sometimes it's even Ragip's much loved classical music. 'He said that when he listened to Bach's Brandenburg concerto he cried for the first time since his imprisonment. (If you start to cry listening to the Brandenburg you are actually in a worse shape than you think, if you ask me!),' jokes Eugene Schoulgin.

Most of us would cry long before we heard Bach. It seems surreal to us that in a purportedly civilised society someone can be locked up arbitrarily for protesting about injustice, as Ragip did about the Kurds. Few writers or publishers in Britain would be able to stand it, and given the amount of self-censorship that goes on for economic reasons in UK newspapers, you can bet that few would continue to speak out. (If you don't agree, just check out the comparative number of articles about foreign affairs and about celebrities.)       

The irony is that here we actually hire professional rabble-rousers to express strong opinions. Can you imagine how Jeremy Clarkson would cope if his obnoxious comments about striking public sector workers had led to detention in prison? How many times would Jeremy Paxman have challenged Michael Howard in his famous interview on Newsnight if he knew it would lead to being accused of insulting the British state?

But then neither of the two Jeremys is ever likely to be in line for the Nobel.

To support a petition calling for the release of Ragip Zarakolu please follow this link:

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Elizabeth Jennings

Elizabeth Jennings (1926 – 2001) was a beautiful poem-maker, always low-key, careful construction, often with rhyme and metre, and deep-seated passion.
I have several of her books of poems, mostly published by Carcanet, and her Collected Poems 1967, published by Macmillan.

Tessa Ransford

Here are the last few lines of a poem called ‘Against the Dark’:
Nobody really knows where poems come from
But I believe they must praise
Even when grief is threatening, even when hope
Seems as far as the furthest star.
Poetry uses me; I am its willing scope
And proud practitioner

and from the sestet of Michelangelo’s sonnet XXX1V
It is the same with me when fierce desires
Reduce me to pale ashes, dry and cold:
I am not lost but find new life indeed.
If I can rise from ashes which seem dead
And come unscathed from these consuming fires
I am not forged from iron but from gold.

Photograph courtesy of Elizabeth Jennings website, where you can find out more about her life and her work