Michael Longley on Poetry and Propaganda

Last month I was honoured to be in the audience as the Northern Irish poet Michael Longley received the 2017 PEN Pinter Prize, and to hear his address, ‘Songs for Dead Children: Poetry in Violent Times.’ The entire event, including Longley’s speech, is available to listen to online.

The speech is a generous and lyrical discussion of how poets and artists can respond, with the appropriate outrage and humanity, to violent acts. Longley makes a eloquent point about the importance of literature to the ideas of free speech and democracy: Continue reading “Michael Longley on Poetry and Propaganda”

The Writer in the World

Flyer for Creative Writing Soiree

In March, I was honoured and delighted to be asked to give the keynote speech at the University of Roehampton’s Creative Writing Soiree, an annual evening of fiction, memoir and poetry readings done by the English and Creative Writing students. The suggested title of my talk was ‘The Writer in the World’ which gave me the chance to speak about creativity, literature and the work of English PEN in broader and grander terms than the speeches I am usually asked to give.

I confess to being quite pleased with the end result. Not, I must stress, in the delivery, which comes across as extemporised rather than pre-planned. But rather, the broad idea of what it means to be a ‘writer in the world’ and the pragmatic suggestions for how one might go about living as such a writer.

The speech included a potted history of English PEN, some thoughts on the moral obligations of free speech, my earliest memories of learning to read, and the grind and grit required to be ‘creative’. Its a good statement of what I believe. Continue reading “The Writer in the World”

#FreeRaif: Ensaf Haidar visits London

Today I was honoured to meet Ensaf Haidar – author, activist and wife of imprisoned Saudi blogger Raif Badawi.

Raif Badawi was arrested in June 2012 and charged with ‘setting up a liberal website’. He was sentenced to 1000 lashes and 10 years imprisonment. His case is one of the most egregious human rights abuses in the world right now… and yet the British Government maintains cordial relations with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabi. Continue reading “#FreeRaif: Ensaf Haidar visits London”

A Room of One’s Own? Safe spaces as an enabler of free speech

On 23rd March I was delighted to take part in a debate at Goldsmiths College, hosted by the Goldsmiths Student PEN society, on the subject of ‘safe spaces’. It was an opportunity for me to iterate an argument I have been putting forward for a while: that perhaps ‘safe spaces’ are not the anti-intellectual, anti-free speech innovations that many free speech advocates take them to be.

You can listen to a recording of my speech on the player below, or on SoundCloud. The Goldsmiths PEN Facebook group carries photos of the event and full audio.

I will append the text of what I said to this post when I get a chance. I also plan to write a short summary of the debate and where I think it takes us. Despite my arguing, on this occasion, for the principle of safe spaces, I think the other speakers’ critiques of the particular wording of the Goldsmiths SU Safe Space policy was very persuasive. Continue reading “A Room of One’s Own? Safe spaces as an enabler of free speech”

A Better Debate About No Platform? My Speech At the Leeds Beckett Festival of Politics and International Relations

This is an edited transcript of my speech to the Leeds Beckett Festival of Politics and International Relations Festival, delivered on 15th November 2016.  This first appeared on the Leeds Beckett University Politics and Applied Global Ethics (PAGE) blog.  You can listen to the unalloyed version of the speech on SoundCloud or via the player below.

Some Arguments Against No Platform

I want to first set out my views on No Platform policies. In short, I think they’re bad for free speech and they’re bad for the people they seek to protect.

The idea of No Platform is that it seeks to avoid giving someone the credibility of speaking at a prestigious institution. Those who call for No Platform claim it is not a form of censorship, because the person is subjected to the No Platform rule can always take their words elsewhere. Moreover (they say), legal protections for free speech relate to the government, and since the government is not involved in choosing who speaks at a university there is no real issue. Why can’t we choose who does and does not speak on our campus? Continue reading “A Better Debate About No Platform? My Speech At the Leeds Beckett Festival of Politics and International Relations”

Empathising With Trump Voters

Trump supporters

On 9th November, the morning after the U.S. Presidential election, my friend Mark posted this to Facebook.

This morning makes me understand what it must feel like for those people who look at the political landscape, look at the establishment, look at the leader and say, ‘I don’t recognise this; it doesn’t speak to me; it doesn’t represent my situation. It doesn’t represent anyone I know.’ It’s a feeling of despair and dislocation. It’s the same feeling that makes people crave something different. Choose anything that’s different. Even a man like Donald Trump.

In the week since the election there have been thousands of op-eds and ‘hot-takes’ published on why Trump won the electoral college and the mindset of his voters.  But surprisingly, I have not seen this particular sentiment—empathising directly with how such people are feeling—anywhere else.  At least, not expressed so clearly. Continue reading “Empathising With Trump Voters”

The Exposure of Elena Ferrante: A Writer-on-Writer Attack on Free Speech

La Frantumaglia cover detail

The Italian journalist Claudio Gatti has caused controversy this week, with the publication of an article that claims to reveal the true identiy of the celebrated novelist Elena Ferrante.  Published in English on the New York Review of Books blog, and simultaneously in German, Italian and French, the article sets out the evidence Gatti has found that points to a particular woman, who he names.1

Anonymity and pseudonymity are often a pre-requisite for freedom of expression.  Whistle-blowers usually need to keep their names away from whatever they have told journalists, lest they lose their jobs or even their liberty.  This is the main reason why English PEN, for whom I work, campaigns so vigorously against draconian surveillance laws and for better protections for those handling journalistic material. Continue reading “The Exposure of Elena Ferrante: A Writer-on-Writer Attack on Free Speech”

Can Courage be Learnt?

Mazen Darwish

The author Malcolm Gladwell wrote the popular book Outliers: The Story of Success.  ‘Outliers’ is term he gives to incredibly successful people, but I’ve used the same word to describe that particular sub-genus of political activist, who persists in challenging authority when others are intimidated into silence.  These people are often sued, imprisoned, attacked and even murdered because of what they write. It is my great privilege to work with and on behalf of such people at English PEN.  They are compelling because they are so unusual in their societies (a fact that makes them even more vulnerable as people in power seek to make a public example of them). What makes such a person?

Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast series Revisionist History has only recently been launched but it’s already in the Top 10 downloads on iTunes. Episode 03 ‘The Big Man Can’t Shoot‘ revisits the idea of what makes some people take different decisions to others, told through the fascinating story of two basketball players.  It gives some insight into what makes both types of ‘outlier’—the successful sportsman; and the tenacious political activist.

The episode asks why barely any professional basketball players shoot free throws underhand. It’s a technique that is proven to yield more points for a player… but it’s also deemed ‘cissy’ or a ‘grandma shot’.  Social pressures prevent basketball players from making a simple change to improve their game!

The reason for this bad choice is not ignorance.  Basketball player Wilt Chamberlin said he knew he was better shooting underarm than over, but he chose the inferior technique anyway.

Gladwell explains that we all have a psychological threshold that must be met before we change our behaviour.  Towards the end of the episode he describes what’s going on in our heads when we make these kinds of choices:

He doesn’t care! The kind of person who would let bad things be said about him in his own autobiography is the kind of person who would shoot a free throw that other people think looks ridiculous. … Someone who puts the responsibility of mastering the task at hand ahead of all social considerations. Who would rather be right than liked.

It takes courage to be good. Social courage. To be honest with yourself, to do things the right way.

To my mind, the idea that someone like Lydia Cacho or Liu Xiaobo or Mazen Darwish has ‘courage’ is true, but also slightly trite, because it only describes what they have done, not why or indeed how. Courage is difficult behaviour to discuss because it is unclear whether it can be learnt or whether it is innate.

Malcolm Gladwell’s contributions here offer arguments for both.  First, his discussions of a low psychological ‘threshold’ that can inspires radical behaviour (or a high threshold that can discourage it) implies that something innate. It’s just a part of our personality that we acquire at an early age. However, as he describes elsewhere in Outliers, a great deal of talent can actually be acquired through practice (specifically, focused practice).

Perhaps courage, as displayed by the political activists and writers I work with, can be similarly taught!? I wonder what this looks like in practice?


Photo: Syrian journalist and activist Mazen Darwish (right), recipient of the 2014 PEN Pinter Prize for an International Writer of Courage.  Darwish spent 4 years detained without trial in Syria. © Robert Sharp

Podcast: Anjan Sundaram – Bad News

Earlier this year I recorded a podcast with the award-winning journalist Anjan Sundaram. We discussed his wonderful book Bad News: Last Journalists in a Dictatorship, an account of the extinction of press freedom in Rwanda.

This week the podcast and an edited transcript of part of the discussion was posted in the PEN Atlas section of the English PEN website.  You can listen to it on SoundCloud or via the player below. Continue reading “Podcast: Anjan Sundaram – Bad News”

Talking Free Speech and Literature Across Borders with Lunar Poetry

My colleague Cat Lucas and I sat down with Paul McMenemy, editor of the Lunar Poetry Magazine, to tell their podcast listeners about the work of English PEN. We discussed imprisoned Saudi poet Ashraf Fayad, how blogging is the 21st century version of pamphleteering, and how British poets might show solidarity with embattled writers while developing their own creative practice at the same time.

You can listen on the Lunar Poetry website, via YouTube or judt hit the play button on the embedded podcast below. Continue reading “Talking Free Speech and Literature Across Borders with Lunar Poetry”