1962 International Writers Conference, Edinburgh: an edited history
Written by Drs Angela Bartie and Eleanor Bell, University of Strathclyde
‘People jumping up to confess they were homosexuals; a registered heroin addict leading the young Scottish opposition to the literary tyranny of the communist Hugh MacDiarmid… An English woman novelist describing her communications with her dead daughter, a Dutch homosexual, former male nurse, now a Catholic convert, seeking someone to baptize him; a bearded Sikh with hair down to his waist declaring on the platform that homosexuals were incapable of love, just as (he said) hermaphrodites were incapable of orgasm (Stephen Spender, in the chair, murmured that he should have thought they could have two)… Excerpt from a letter Mary McCarthy wrote to Hannah Arendt describing the 1962 International Writers’ Conference in Edinburgh (28/09/62)
In August 1962, a five-day Writers’ Conference took place as part of the Edinburgh International Festival of Music and Drama. It was organised by publisher John Calder, in conjunction with Jim Haynes (then running Edinburgh’s Paperback Bookshop) and Sonia Brownell (commissioning editor of a publishing house and the widow of George Orwell). Together they produced a line-up of writers that included Americans Norman Mailer, Henry Miller, Mary McCarthy, and William Burroughs, Scots Hugh MacDiarmid, Muriel Spark, Edwin Morgan and Alexander Trocchi, English Lawrence Durrell and Stephen Spender, Austrian Erich Fried, and Indian Khushwant Singh.
This conference attracted a huge audience that filled the 2300-capacity McEwan Hall every day and was reported widely in the media, both at home and abroad. Each of the five days explored a different theme: Differences of Approach, Scottish Writing Today, Is Commitment Necessary?, Censorship Today, and the Future of the Novel. The week before the conference, Calder told the press ‘we are imposing no prohibitions on the free expression of opinion, however controversial or unusual’. The frank discussions of love, sex and homosexuality (as well as drug-taking) at both the Conference and its daily press conferences were certainly shocking. Its impact was felt in many other ways too; not least in the way it effectively launched the career of William Burroughs, who was largely unknown at the time. In Scottish circles, the famous clash between Alexander Trocchi and Hugh MacDiarmid has helped to redefine debates about Scottish national cultural identity. The Conference has also been cited as the starting point for many other large gatherings and conferences (e.g. the Albert Hall Poetry Reading of 1965, which characterized the counterculture in Sixties Britain) and even the existence of the major book festivals that we have today.
In September 1962, John Calder told the Herald that ‘the conference was an experience in adult education. The gamble was to see if we could interest an average public in ideas, the combination of observation and philosophy that compose the writer’s tool-kit. We succeeded because there is a great hunger for education and for an understanding of the world we inhabit.’
Day one: contrasts of approach Chair: Malcolm Muggeridge
Questions for day one (From original conference programme):
‘In this first discussion novelists will be asked to explain how they approach their work and why they try to write in a certain way. Some novelists are principally interested in the ‘content’ of their novels, in the ideas, the plot and the characters that they create, and regard ‘style’ as less important. Others see style as determining the nature of the content itself. The audience will hear the views of different authors on this and related problems.’
Selected Highlights:In her speech, Mary McCarthy gives public support for William Burroughs’Naked Lunch. Burroughs later acknowledges that this support, and his participation in the Writers’ Conference, helped to launch his career. McCarthy also comments ‘With the French novel I think the really – the new novel – is really simply a form of dressmaking… All the French novelists have taken simply to this kind of vogueishness, this couturier novel writing, but I don’t think has much to do with novels – with the novel taken as a serious thing… I would except Nathalie Sarraute from this…’ Colin MacInnes takes issue with Mary McCarthy later. Henry Miller’s writing, he feels, reflects universal issues. His Paris does not reflect man in exile, but man in the world. Dame Rebecca West totally disagrees with Angus Wilson’s views of tradition – the novel is not as conservative as he has depicted – often it has been radical – e.g. Jane Austen (‘Jane Austen wrote novels in which her manner was that of a perfect lady, but what she was saying was to hell with Samuel Richardson and to hell with Clarissa. She said it like a lady, but the intention was strictly revolutionary.’) Muriel Spark strongly disagreed with Lawrence Durrell’s points that literature should change people – ‘I think that for a novelist to try and change anybody, for anyone to try and change anybody, is horrible.’
Day two: scottish writing today Chair: David Daiches
Questions for day two (From original conference programme):
‘What is the strength of Scottish writing today and how is it related to the Scottish literary tradition? Should Scottish writers deal principally with Scottish themes, and if they do, what market do they have outside Scotland? Has there been a Scottish Renaissance in recent years, and how successful have been the attempts to use Lallans as a literary language?’
Selected Highlights: Walter Keir comments ‘There is hardly any Scottish literature worth talking about… The Scottish writer of the moment… he is far too worried about national identity… Here as far as I can see it, parochial, provincial, you may not know it, but we are attending the wake of Scottish literature.’ Edwin Morganagrees, stating that Scottish writers ‘can use English if they want, and still, I think, very readily express something that is purely Scottish. But they should be interested in what is going on not only in Europe, but also in America.’Alexander Trocchi famously states that he was right to leave Scotland. The whole atmosphere ‘seems to me to be turgid, petty, provincial, the stale porridge, Bible class nonsense.’ MacDiarmid, whom he has a ‘certain love and respect for’, is nonetheless ‘an old fossil’. Hugh MacDiarmid retorts ‘MrTrocchi seems to imagine that the burning questions in the world today are lesbianism, homosexuality and matters of that kind. I don’t think so at all. I am a Communist, and a Scottish Nationalist and I ask Mr Trocchi and others, where in any of the literature they are referring to… are the crucial burning questions of the day being dealt with, as they have been dealt with in Scottish literature, if you knew enough about it’ to which Trocchiresponds, ‘We have been exerting our nationalism in Scotland as long as I can remember, and I am damned sick of it.’
Day three: commitment Chair: Stephen Spender
Questions for day three (From original conference programme):
‘Should the writers use his work as a platform for his political beliefs or his views on religion and other matters? Many believe that the novelist has a social duty to expose the evils of his time and to convert the reader to his opinions. Others believe that the novelist must be above such problems if he is to create a work of art, although he may be committed outside his work. The problem of commitment divides writers sharply and is one of the principal points of conflict in contemporary literature.’
Selected Highlights: Norman Mailer noted ‘it was particularly brave and true to his commitment’ for Trocchi to appear in McEwan Hall and attack Scottish writing. LP Hartleynoted that he preferred the term ‘dedication’ to ‘commitment’, largely due to the political connotations of the latter. John Amirthanayagan argued that the problem of commitment was artificial – as soon as any writer begins to write as a human being, they are committed. MacDiarmid announced he was ‘the only fully committed writer present at this conference’. Khushwant Singhstated that very few writers on the platform had succeeded in putting across their commitment in their writing, also asking that writers ‘become a little more confessional and tell us about their personal commitments – not of their political, and other commitments.’ He put across his own four personal commitments (obsessions): to solitude, to love, to death, and to truth. Having described the relationship between love and the desire to resolve the ‘inner solitude’, he went on to state that love could really only exist between heterosexual couples of the same approximate age: ‘I feel that the sort of love I am talking of is denied to the homo-sexual’. GK Van Het Reve later responds: ‘As you have just heard from one of the former speakers I cannot experience real love. I think I will have to cope with it – I can only say God forgive people who can dare to say such stupid things’. Dame Rebecca West later comments ‘I would like to suggest to the organisers of this conference that if they wish to organize another writers’ conference, they should have two conferences going on at perhaps the same time. One a writers’ conference. The other a conference at which people could thrash out whether they were homo-sexuals, or hetero-sexual, or whatever.’
Day four: censorship Chair: Mary McCarthy
Questions for day four (From original conference programme):
‘Opinions on what may or may not be published differ widely. In Great Britain the censorship laws have recently been revised and previously banned books such as ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ can now be published. In America there has been an even greater relaxation of censorship and the same applies to many other countries, but there are still others where the trend is towards more censorship. Moral and political censorship will be discussed and writers will say how much censorship they think is desirable and where existing restrictions should be removed.’
Selected Highlights: Mary McCarthy begins by stating her belief that most writers and audience will be against censorship, and that it is much harder to argue the case forcensorship than against. William Burroughs comments that all censorship is essentially thought control, but that the main reason usually given for censorship is ‘the necessity of protecting children’; yet they are ‘already subjected to a daily barrage of word and image, much of it deliberately calculated to arouse personal desires without satisfying them. That is what advertising is all about’. One of the arguments Norman Mailer cites forcensorship is that works like those by Miller and Burroughs weaken the young: ‘It makes them sophisticated, it makes them too civilised, it makes them insufficiently warlike…sexual literature, you see, does weaken warlike potential because it tends to drain it.’ Stephen Spender intervenes to comment that he feels the discussion is getting too complicated, that the basis for censorship is that readers can be influenced by what they read; that writers, if they believe that literature does good, should also admit that it does harm; that readers could be influenced by what they read in a book (one example he gives is of a reader of Goethe’s novel Vortex apparently committing suicide ‘as a result of the suicide of Goethe’s hero’).
Day five: the novel and the future Chair: Khushwant Singh
Questions for day five (From original conference programme):
‘Many new trends in the novel have appeared in recent years and many types of ‘avant-garde’ novel have established themselves in critical and intellectual circles. Has the traditional novel really written itself out and will the public accept the new trends? Where are these trends leading us and why do so many contemporary novelists appear to create difficulties for their own sake? Will the novel perhaps disappear altogether and be replaced by some other literary form? These questions probe not only into the contemporary novel, but into all aspects of contemporary life and may point towards a solution to many of the problems of our time.’
Selected Highlights: Raynor Heppenstall notes that ‘junkie sex novel which is very much the American novel of the present… is beginning to feel already a little belongs to the past.’ Alexander Trocchi feels he’s being personally attacked ‘when there is all this mention of drugs and sex’, before arguing that the novel and the painting are old categories that are on their way out, which ‘flourished until the end of the nineteenth century at which time the most vital writers and painters began to feel them as limits other than a source of inspiration. Ergo a spate of experimentation at the beginning of the twentieth century. The fantastic anarchic disorder of modern art and the anti-novel.’ Robert Jungk disagrees with Trocchi, going on to argue that the novelist has failed ‘in this task of trying to make the horrible realities of our life more accessible to everyone… He has failed in developing new visions for a new world and new facts’. Later,Stephen Spender says, ‘I would like to point out that everything that Mr Trocchi has said has been said in 1905. … I am not saying this maliciously at all, because I have happened to study a great deal of the documents of expressionists [who thought that] the fragmentation of values in the modern world should be reflected by fragmentation in modern writing. This is exactly what the futurists were saying, what people were saying before the First World War. It led to a completely dead end and in fact I think the history of modern literature since 1914-1920 or so is the attempt to recover from this point of view.’
For more on the 1962 International Writers’ Conference, see A Bartie & E Bell, The International Writers’ Conference Revisited: 1962 (Cargo Publishing, 2012).
Photographs (c) Alan Daiches. With permission of the National Library of Scotland and the Daiches Family.
"F R O M C A L I F O R N I A T O T H E N E W Y O R K I S L A N D,
T H I S L A N D W A S M A D E F O R Y O U A N D M E."
Trotskyist never gave up quest for socialist society
Radical ... Bob Gould earlier this year. Photo: Dallas Kilponen
Founder of the anti-Vietnam War movement in Australia. Lifelong member of the Labor Party and Trotskyist. Bookseller. Bibliophile. Historian. Union agitator. Anti-censorship battler. Bohemian. Irish Catholic. Polemicist.
Even Charles Dickens would have had trouble inventing a character as remarkable as BobGould. Add to that list, a founder of Labor for Refugees, as a contingent of Afghan refugees at his funeral last Thursday bore witness.
There were Labor rebels of Irish descent on both sides of Gould's family. His mother, Ethel, was the daughter of Dick O'Halloran, who ran as an anti-conscription Labor candidate in the state election of 1917.
His father, Steve Gould, after fighting in both Gallipoli and on the Western Front, where he lost an arm, became a close lieutenant of the radical Labor premier Jack Lang in the 1920s. He was eventually expelled from the Labor Party along with Lang for opposing conscription during World War II.
By then, Steve described himself as a Marxist Catholic. This family background must have shaped Bob's politics but he gave as much - if not more - credit to the brothers at St Patrick's, Strathfield, for inculcating in him a critical and social democratic cast of mind.
Gould came to political life as a teenager in a turbulent time. Joining the Labor Party at 17, he was blooded in the Great Labor Split of 1955, lining up with the anti-Groupers in the Labor Party against the forces loyal to B.A. Santamaria. By this time, he was a member of both the Labor and Communist parties. Khrushchev's secret speech on Stalin's crimes in 1956 quickly disillusioned him about the Communist Party and he left it to join the local Trotskyist group led by Nick Origlass.
In the '60s, Gould came into his own. In Sydney, he was both the prophet and enabler of this decade of revolt and change. He not only formed the Vietnam Action Group, which organised and spearheaded the street protests against the war and conscription, he foresaw that movement as a harbinger of wider youth radicalisation and cultural change.
This inspired him to open the Third World Bookshop in Goulburn Street in 1967 to feed the growing appetite among young people for countercultural music, posters and literature imported principally from the US.
Upstairs, he let out a floor to the Independent Filmmakers Cooperative, where New Wave directors showed their first works. It was from this shop, and the later one in George Street, that he fought censorship battles and defied police raids when he sold Portnoy's Complaint and posters by Aubrey Beardsley and - believe it or not - posters of Michelangelo's David.
Gould remained immersed in Labor politics. He was on hand in 1966 to help Wayne Haylen and Barry Robinson capture Peter Kocan after he shot the Labor leader Arthur Calwell as he left an anti-Vietnam War meeting in Mosman.
A few years later, he combined with Paul Keating at a NSW Labor Party conference to have the expulsion of Jack Lang lifted. He was a Socialist Left delegate to the 1971 federal Labor conference in Hobart, where he successfully moved for the abolition of ASIO (a success overturned soon after when delegates realised what they had done).
For decades, he remained equally immersed in the exotic world of the Trotskyist groupuscules, sometimes leaving them peaceably but often excluded because of his refusal to be silenced.
In the last 15 years of his life, Gould decided to reap the benefits of a lifetime of voracious reading, activism and research with a series of essays dictated to his second wife, Janet Bonser, and published on the OzLeft website.
Typical was an Open Letter to Keith Windschuttle, prompted by the swing to the right of a comrade and writer he had previously admired. It is a picaresque 25,000-word survey of anti-Stalinist intellectuals of the left and right in the 20th century, covering everything from the gulags to the origins of civilisation, with an account of his school days thrown in. It is an education in itself, full of surprises, like his love for Mary McCarthy and staunch defences of Orwell, Koestler, Steinbeck and Woody Guthrie.
His daughter, Natalie, says her father was first and last a Trotskyist yet his hero was Lenin. He read all the latest revelations from the Kremlin archives about Lenin but they never shook his appreciation of his daring in thought and action.
Gould was well aware that the evolution of the Soviet Union and its allies had long ago ruined the attractive power of socialism but that did not stop him from searching for ways and means to renew the quest for a socialist society of the free and equal.
Green shoots elsewhere, whether in Egypt or Spain, did not overexcite him. He was to the end more interested in what was happening inside the Labor Party, the unions, the Greens and the remaining Trotskyist groups in Australia.
Bob Gould is survived by long-time friend and lover Jenny Haines, second wife Janet Bonser, first wife Mairi Wilson and daughter Natalie.
In honor of Mary McCarthy, the lady and her work, we’ve asked one of our McCarthy Prizewinners to say a few words. Take it away, Mr. Mullins.
“Winning Sarabande’s Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction was the break I needed at a critical time in my career as a writer. I’d worked on Greetings from Below for eight years, and I was in my thirties, and I felt that if I didn’t publish the collection, after toiling for so long, I might give up on the whole endeavor of writing fiction. Then Sarabande called with the good news, and everything changed. I soon got a job teaching creative writing. And I had the confidence to begin a new book, a novel. The fact that the prize carries the name Mary McCarthy means a lot. The Company She Keeps was a significant inspiration for Greetings from Below—each of which is a novel in stories. I’ve always been a fan of McCarthy’s work, and it’s been a tremendous honor to hold a prize named for such an inimitable writer.”
—David Phillip Mullins, author of Greetings from Below Winner of the 2009 Mary McCarthy Prize in Fiction
Mary McCarthy was born 100 years ago today. McCarthy's first book was the semi-autobiographical The Company She Keeps (1942), describing the swirl of ideas, politics, and love found in New York City by a young woman fresh out of college. McCarthy came to New York in 1933, fresh out of Vassar; her linked, tell-almost-all stories "could, for once, rightly be called a sensation," says Elizabeth Hardwicke, "for candor, for the brilliant lightning flashes of wit, for the bravado, the confidence, and the splendor of the prose style":
They are often about the clash of theory and practice, taste and ideology. Rich as they are in period details, they transcend the issues, the brand names, the intellectual fads. In "The Portrait of the Artist as a Yale Man," we have the conflict between abstract ideas and self-advancement, between probity and the wish to embrace the new and fashionable. About a young couple, she writes: "Every social assertion Nancy and Jim made carried its own negation with it, like an Hegelian thesis. Thus it was always being said by Nancy that someone was a Communist but a terribly nice man, while Jim was remarking that someone else worked for Young and Rubicam but was astonishingly liberal."
Hardwicke's comments are in her Introduction to McCarthy's last book, the unfinished and posthumously published Intellectual Memoirs (1992). This is a sort of bookend to McCarthy's first book, in that the author returns to her 1930s New York life, this time providing entirely unmasked portraits of her men (Edmund Wilson, Philip Rahv, and others) and times.
McCarthy was in the public eye throughout her fifty years as a writer -- in all, twenty-eight books of fiction, essays, and commentary -- and would keep company or cross swords with many of the twentieth century's most influential figures. Hardwicke does not mention Lillian Hellman, the most famous of the latter group (and born yesterday -- June 20, 1905), but she does not avoid McCarthy's taste for such open, if partisan, combat. And if McCarthy could be "in her writing, sometimes a scourge, a Savonarola," she could not be what's worse, a bystander or double-talker:
...Mary did not understand even the practical usefulness of an occasional resort to the devious. Her indiscretions were always open and forthright and in many ways one could say she was "like an open book." Of course, everything interesting depends upon which book is open.
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.
While traveling in a remote part of western Nebraska — away from the news media except for little local papers — I saw a friend’s e-mail suddenly change from its harmless subject to the appended line, “Sad about Nora Ephron.”
One of those moments when the mind does its inadequate best to fend off the truth. “What’s sad about Nora? Surely not … ”
We sat, facing each other, dismay bordering on panic. The setting: “The Dick Cavett Show,” somewhere in the early ’70s. Nora and I are talking. My producer, sheet-white, had just delivered the news during a commercial that my next guest, a famously eccentric genius actor with a legendary thirst, had, in a gesture of professional shabbiness, gotten “tired” of waiting backstage and had left. (His initials are Nicol Williamson.)
Nora and I, having used up all our good stuff and at the point where I was supposed to say, “My next guest…”, now faced what felt like a Sahara-wide half-hour of remaining airtime to fill. We set forth on our trek.
It may sound improbable that two such, ahem, engrossing people couldn’t fill the time as if tumbling from a log, At this distance, it seems crazy to me, too. But it’s a peculiarity of such a show that it somehow doesn’t work that way. We had, in the elegant phrase, shot our wad. I wish I could make that convincingly clear. It’s a little like asking a singer or dancer, wiping their brow after having successfully done the expected performance they were geared for, to do two or three more right now just like it. The mind has moved on. It’s weird and shows again how just “sitting and talking” on TV is not remotely like doing the same thing in real life.
After what seemed like an hour of gasping for air, lurches and restarts and awful pauses, we had killed only 10 minutes. Only 20 to go.
Each time I looked at the studio clock it seemed to have the same time it had before. Had the hands been welded in place? In a state of stunned disbelief we somehow dragged ourselves, and what felt like at least two tacklers — and any remaining viewers — to the finish line. As the closing theme song mercifully sneaked in and the eon-length show faded from the screen, we, at least figuratively and maybe in fact, fell into each other’s arms like two survivors pulled from a mine.
And agreed to meet the next day to plot the slow death by poison of Nicol Williamson.
Courtesy of the AuthorNora Ephron on “The Dick Cavett Show” in February 1971.
Years later, Nora pointed out that at all our subsequent encounters, before cordial greetings, each gave a little involuntary shudder upon seeing the other. Like friends who’d survived a long-ago car crash together.
All that aside, I did one good thing for Nora and her arsenal of talents. I gave her a play to write.
It had to do with the notorious incident on my PBS show when I had lightheartedly asked Mary McCarthy, who’d talked about underpraised writers, to name some overrated writers.
That’s when she delivered her famous remark about Lillian Hellman that “every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’” It flowered into a notorious lawsuit about which much has been written. Including a Broadway play Nora managed to construct from the wreckage.
In the world of letters it was generally held that, by suing, Hellman had disgraced herself and betrayed her own principles about free speech and criticism. Nora saw Hellman’s actions as “a kind of dance of death.” An effort to, in fact, shorten McCarthy’s life; which, in my opinion, the anguish and costs of Hellman’s monumental lawsuit undoubtedly did. (It amused Nora that the late Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and my hard-drinking friend Jean Stafford always referred to Lillian as “Old Scaly Bird.”)
But that same Nora found the appallingly spiteful Hellman to be a vastly entertaining friend who made her laugh. She called her, in a chat we did for the now defunct magazine Show People, “too much fun to hate.”
In that same staged restaurant “conversation,” Nora told me she was startled to read in her morning paper just what in fact had happened the night before on the Cavett program.
“One of the rare nights when you missed my show, Nora?” I asked.
“One of the rare nights when I missed your show,” came the reply, with a wry line reading that Eve Arden might have envied.
Intrigued and inspired, Nora turned all this unwieldy and psychologically complex matter into an entertaining play, “Imaginary Friends.” The longstanding hatred between these two competitive women who became famous at the same time (1929) had all the seeds of drama. Nora stated at our magazine interview lunch what could hardly be called a trivial factor: “They had a lot to fight about. One was beautiful and one was not.”
I told Nora, in a merry jest, that I had tried out for the part of “Dick Cavett” in her play but had been turned down.
“We wanted someone younger.” (Laughter all around.)
I loved making Nora laugh out loud. We talked about Hellman’s “Julia,” a tale apparently bogus from tip to toe. In it, Lillian claimed to have risked her life during a dangerous period in Germany by smuggling a vast number of German marks — hidden in her hat — to Julia.
I said that owing to the value of the mark at that particular time in Deutschland, to have smuggled, chapeau-wise, the amount Lillian claimed, her hat would have had to be the size of a Volkswagen. Nora’s laugh was my reward.
For a sample of Nora at her deadliest best, and for your entertainment, I shall now ask my operatives to guide you to what I would put in a Nora time capsule. It’s a review in this newspaper from 1972 of three books about and by gossip columnists. Before you go there, let me whet your appetite by the last bit of Nora’s review of the columnist Sheilah Graham’s memoir about her sex life. Its title — and could you have guessed? — “A State of Heat.”
Nora wrote, “I’m afraid I may have made ‘A State of Heat’ sound like one of those ‘so-bad-it’s-good’ things. I don’t mean to. It’s as close to being unpublishable as anything can be these days. Sheilah Graham has been in on a pass for years as a result of her affair with Fitzgerald: it’s about time it ran out.”
I don’t know how to close this. If there is that so-called better place, then Nora’s surely in it.