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 forty 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.

More important, PEN established a Writers in Prison Committee, now called Writers at Risk, which upholds the principle of freedom of expression and helps those writers who are imprisoned for their beliefs. Every year, hundreds of writers are imprisoned, persecuted, attacked, threatened, exiled or even murdered as a result of their work. PEN seeks to defend and support them and their families, to pressurise governments where the right to freedom of expression is under attack, and to help bring about the necessary changes to make freedom of expression a reality around the world. 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. In more recent years, presidents have included Victoria Glendinning, Maureen Freely, Philippe Sands and Gillian Slovo.

The PEN Pinter Prize was established in 2009 in memory of Nobel-Laureate playwright Harold Pinter. The PEN Pinter Prize is awarded annually to a writer resident in the United Kingdom, the Republic of Ireland, the Commonwealth or former Commonwealth who, in the words of Harold Pinter’s Nobel speech, casts an ‘unflinching, unswerving’ gaze upon the world, and shows a ‘fierce intellectual determination … to define the real truth of our lives and our societies’. The winner must the author of a significant body of plays, poetry, essays, or fiction of outstanding literary merit, written in English. The prize is shared with an international writer of courage selected by English PEN’s Writers at Risk Committee in association with the winner. This half of the prize is awarded to someone who has been persecuted for speaking out about their beliefs.

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: