English PEN

Rachel chaired a discussion with authors and ex-prisoners, Erwin James and Wilbert Rideau, at a PEN meeting.

PEN was founded in 1926. It’s an international organisation of writers who now have 140 centres round the world.

I joined English PEN over thirty years ago. It was immediately interesting to become part of a writers’ club. There were evenings in which writers’ talked about themselves and their books. These days that’s a commonplace activity, with book festivals and bookshops providing so many events that it’s hard to choose. But back in the eighties there was still very few places to meet other writers and explain work in progress. There were no reading groups and creative writing groups or courses were only just starting.

Even more important to me, PEN established a Writers in Prison Committee which upholds the principle of freedom of expression and helps those writers who are imprisoned for their beliefs. Recently PEN has extended their work with prisoners to running a Prison Writing Competition which last year received 500 entries from 80 prisons. For years I wrote letters, demonstrated and went on PEN conferences in places such as Finland, Edinburgh, Moscow and Warsaw.English PEN Presidents during those years included,Michael Holroyd, Ronald Harwood. and my sister, Antonia Fraser. In 1998 I was elected President myself and served for three years. During that time, together with the late Siobhan Dowd, we started a new programme: The Readers and Writers Programme. This sends books and their authors into prisons and other places which lack resources to encourage reading.Recently PEN has extended their work with prisoners to running a Prison Writing competition which last year received 500 entries from 80 prisons.

I couldn’t recommend joining PEN more highly – both for selfish reasons and because it’s a great thing to be part of an organisation that stands up for basic freedoms and helps less fortunate writers.

You can get more information on their website:
www.EnglishPEN.org