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

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