The Writers and Free Expression project explores the role writers play in defending free expression in today’s globally interconnected world. Focusing on writers organisations, most significantly International PEN, the project considers the history of writers’ activism since 1921 and the current challenges writers face in defending free expression. The project brings together scholars, writers and activists with particular expertise in three geo-political areas, the UK, South Africa and India, to investigate these questions in their international dimensions.
György(George) Konrád was a Hungarian novelist and essayist who led PEN International from 1990-1993.
A Hungarian Jew, Konrád and his sister had escaped their hometown of Berettyóújfalu after his parents were taken to Austria to a concentration camp.
The children spent World War Two in a Swiss sponsored safehouse in Budapest and the family were re-united after the war. They were the only Jewish Berettyóújfaluto survive the Holocaust.
The experience left Konrád with a lifelong distrust of the sort of populism and totalitarian politics which characterised both fascism and communism and he was critical of these political systems throughout his life.
He served in the Hungarian National Guard during the 1956 uprising against the Soviet Union.
In addition to his own novel-writing, he also worked in publishing, editing the work of others from Gogol to Balzac, and immersing himself in the literary culture of Europe. However, he remained dedicated to politics publishing ‘The Intellectuals on the Road to Class Power’ in 1974 which resulted in his arrest and imprisonment for incitement against the state. His work was viewed as highly dangerous and subversive in Hungary and his writing was banned in his home country until 1989.
Konrád ’s first PEN Congress as President was in Paris in 1991. This was a crucial event in many ways as the organisation struggled still to address the Rushdie case and to deal with the aftermath of the Cold War.
He described the organisation he had come to lead as itself the institutionalisation of a cause, free expression, whose task of ‘defending colleagues in prison as also a kind of self-defence.’
He addressed the Cold War directly in his speech arguing that PEN must always ‘support the fundamental freedom of literature’ because ‘literature had always suffered from dictatorship and authoritarianism.’ He argued that PEN Centres must detach themselves from the national because ‘in the past individual writers in East Europe had regarded the P.E.N. Centres there with some suspicion as being in the service of cultural diplomacy’, or of trying to advocate for the national political regime or ideology rather than for writers themselves.
During this period, PEN was trying to move outside Europe and develop more global networks. It organised a series of meetings regionalised meetings to unite East and West across the Middle East, India and Asia.
It was also in the midst of one of the biggest free expression cases of its history – that of #100PENMembers’ Salman Rushdie.
As PEN International’s President Konrád wrote to the UN Secretary General and to the President of Iran to reiterate PEN’s stance on the case as Rushdie reached 1000 days under threat of death. He also attended the meeting in February 1992 to further make the case.
Konrád – as PEN International Director Carles Torner remembers – welcomed Salman Rushdie to the PEN Congress in Santiago de Compostela in 1993 by telling him: ‘You represent all writers around the world who have been punished, sentenced, even to death, because they wrote what they wrote.’
Following his time at PEN Konrád served as President of Berlin’s Academy of Arts but he is remembered by his colleagues in PEN for the literary and political activism which characterised his life.
Maureen Freely is a novelist, translator and free expression campaigner and a former President of English PEN.
Born in New Jersey, US, but spending her formative years in Turkey, Freely is one of the most important translators of Turkish literature working today. This job, she admits, places her at a curious cultural crossroad between East and West but also in a complex position with relation to Turkey’s increasing hostility to the West and to its liberal and democratic values.
Freely came to translation after many years as a journalist. She is a champion of translators both in the public eye and within PEN itself describing how ‘when I translate, I become a shadow novelist. When I am shadowing [Turkish novelist and #100PENMembers Orhan] Pamuk, what I want to do most is capture the music of his language as I hear it.’
She is Professor of English and Comparative Literary Studies at Warwick University and regularly writes about Turkish literature, the politics of translation and PEN itself for the British national press.
Freely has been involved with English PEN for decades, focussing her campaigning on free expression in Turkey, where she regularly took part in fact-finding missions and attending trials of writers who fell foul of the country’s strict censorship laws.
She served as President of English PEN from 2014-18, she said: ‘English PEN has been amazingly effective in recent years. It has worked with like-minded organisations to reform libel law, bring clarity to the debate on press reform, and champion the rights and needs of writers in the digital age. For it does not just campaign for writers. It is interested in their ideas, their friendship, and their work.’
It is this notion of international friendship and cooperation which underpins all of Freely’s work, both professionally and with PEN itself: In an article for the Guardian in 2014, Freely wrote, ‘[t]his, for me, is the essence of PEN. We do not just campaign for writers. We share our ideas and our work, and in doing so, we do often make friends. We argue a great deal, too, of course. But if a Turkish writer wants to complain about the missionary mentality that we at PEN sometimes exhibit when we swoop in from London or Oslo or New York to attend a trial that shows Turkey at its absolute worst, that writer can tell me what he or she thinks, and I shall have to think about it, and if I want to figure out how to do things better, I will not go back to head office to construct a more robust strategy, I will go back to talk to my friend, and other writers we both think might have something to add.
‘In an age when human rights work is as marketised as any other line of work, an organisation grounded in friendship becomes more important than ever.’
Yang Lian is a Chinese poet and essayist, a founder-member of the Independent Chinese PEN Centre and an active member of the board of PEN International.
In 1974, as a teenager growing up in communist China, he was sent to Changping country near Beijing to undergo ‘re-education through labour’, where he undertook a range of hard physical tasks such as digging graves.
His poetry became well-known in the West in the 1980s when his sequence ‘Noriland’ was criticised by the Chinese authorities.
This was part of a drive by the Chinese authorities to curb the influence of Western liberal ideas within the Chinese populace.
Associated with the so-called “misty poets”, Yang Lian’s work was seen as challenging to the Chinese regime because it refused to engage in Communist propaganda:
On his website, he tells Villa La Pietraabout these early experiences: ‘the reasons we had been called misty or ménglóng to me was very simple: because, as I have said, we tried to use our own language to express our own feelings, but an ‘our own language’ means to use the words and the language we can feel, which we can understand, which we feel is linked to our real experience.’
‘In this sense, all those huge political empty words like “socialism”, “capitalism”, “history”, “materialism” and so on are empty concepts not real feelings.’
He was out of the country visiting the University of Auckland in 1989 when the Tiannanmen Square massacre took place and was involved in protests against the actions of the Chinese government. His work was blacklisted after 4 June 1989 and two collections awaiting publication were pulped. Since then he has lived in exile in New Zealand.
He remains outspoken on issues of censorship in China and elsewhere, describing a worsening in state censorship in his home country which he attributes to a slide backward in recent years, as ‘the government [is] trying to pursue the communist tradition of controlling expression and thoughts’ in an interview with Deutsche Wellewebsite.
His own work is still censored in China and Chinese territories. As recently as 2011, Lian’s ‘The Narrative Poem,’ an autobiographical work, only survived one day in China’s bookshops before all 3,000 copies were withdrawn and destroyed because one part of the poem referred to the Tiananmen Square massacre.
As the poet himself describes in a recent interview, ‘Since the crackdown of the democratic movement and the massacre in June 1989 is still taboo, the poem was registered and watched very closely. The publishing company Huaxia got a warning directly from the government. The very sad result was that the book died.’
‘The awful fact that the book was destroyed actually was a kind of approval of the depth and power of poetry which also meant that even in a time when people said nobody reads poetry, poems were indeed being read.’
Lian has been an active member of the board of PEN International since 2008, advising on PEN’s Free the Word festival events and working as artistic director on the seminar series Unique Mother Tongue.
In 2012 he read and discussed his work at the PEN America Centre
Radclyffe Hall was one of a group of feminist writers, including May Sinclair, Rebecca West, Vera Brittain and Violet Hunt, who were among PEN’s earliest members. She was a pivotal novelist of the twentieth century, breaking cultural taboos in her championing of queer and lesbian perspectives and stories.
Known to her loved ones as John, Hall was famous for her tailored masculine suits and her love of beautiful women. Hall’s barrier-breaking book The Well of Loneliness was revolutionary in its portrayal of lesbian and queer communities, lives and friendships and was banned as obscene in Britain in 1928.
Whilst Hall had been a member of PEN for many years, whenThe Well of Loneliness was put on trial in London in 1928, PEN members including Storm Jameson rushed to her aid, both on paper and in person as potential witnesses at the trial. The trial, meanwhile, spurred E.M. Forster to join English PEN a month later.
Hall said, ‘I have put my pen at the service of some of the most persecuted and misunderstood people in the world.’
The book, published by Jonathan Cape, was condemned by James Douglas, the Editor of the Daily Express as ‘not fit to be sold by any bookseller of to be borrowed from any public library.
Famously, he declared that, ‘I would rather give a healthy boy or a healthy girl a phial of prussic acid than this novel.’
Douglas’s article prompted the British authorities to intervene, citing what they saw as the obscenity of Hall’s compassionate portrayal of what was referred to at the time as ‘sexual inversion’.
The novel tells the story of Stephen, a writer growing up queer in a hostile society and building their identity. Stephen – like Hall – wears men’s clothes and pursues passionate love affairs with women. The novel was seen as problematic because it portrayed life from Stephen’s perspective in a highly sympathetic and compelling story, which sought to represent a non-sensationalised queer experience. The novel is at once joyous in its depictions of queer and homosexual love and harrowing in its articulation of Stephen’s feelings of alienation and despair at society’s treatment of her and her friends. Despite the obscenity charge, the novel contains no explicit descriptions of sex.
The trial – prompted by Douglas’s pleas to the highly conservative Home Secretary – took place on the 9 November 1928.
The judge ruled that writers could not testify as experts and Hall’s friends and supporters from PEN were forced to sit in silence as the book was banned.
Woolf wrote afterwards: ‘Writers produce literature, and they cannot produce great literature until they have free minds. The free mind has access to all knowledge and speculation of its age, and nothing cramps it like a taboo.’
The Well of Loneliness ended up becoming a global bestseller – it has been translated into 14 languages. In France and America, accusations of obscenity did not result in censorship.
The trial and the treatment of Hall’s novel awoke writers to the ways in which censorship could be used to suppress minority voices and cultures, illustrating the link between freedom of expression and rights to sexual freedom.
Naomi Mitchison was a Scottish novelist and poet, who was involved with Scottish and English PEN throughout her life.
She donated to the PEN Refugee Fund in 1943 and attended multitudes of fundraising events and talks. Scottish PEN hold an annual Naomi Mitchison Memorial Lecture in her honour, with past speakers including Val McDermid and Zoe Wicomb.
A lifelong pacifist, Mitchison often reprimanded PEN on its stance on international matters. In 1951 she wrote to International Secretary David Carver ‘I could wish that Miss Wedgewood [President of English PEN] and Mr Charles Morgan [President of PEN International] were not so scared of the word peace. Words are what we make them. Perhaps they would care to re-read the famous chorus in praise of peace in the Acharnians of Aristophanes. He thought peace was his business, even peace with the nasty Spartans.’
She was extremely well-travelled and often coordinated with PEN when undertaking extensive trips across Asia or the Middle East.
On one such trip in 1953 she met Indian PEN members and addressed ‘a very big meeting of the Karachi PEN about translation’. They held a party for her afterwards where she describes befriending the Indian author Ahmed Ali and helping him with his new book Twilight in New Dehli.
On another trip to India in 1958, she wrote fondly of addressing a group of poets under a mango tree and because ‘poetry is much esteemed in India’ writing her own poem for the assembled PEN members. She described how, ‘in honour’ of her hosts she decided ‘to put in rather more similes than usual for Urdu poetry seems to be stiff…with elaborate and much-loved similes.’
Her poem begins: ‘Bird-house of poets under the green arms of a city/ Where bulbul and koel long have nested…’ She remarks, ‘lucky me, clever old Muse, to lead me to such a bird-house of poets in the administrative capital of Uttar Predesh.’
She also consulted with David Carver about who to contact at Hebrew PEN when she visited Israel and for the contact details of the head of Eygptian PEN, when she was in Cairo. As Carver assured her, he is ‘a most delightful young man and will be very pleased to meet you if you are in Cairo.’
She was particularly keen on PEN’s internationalism and on many of her trips spoke of the importance of translation in promoting international understanding. She often wrote to recommend that PEN set up centres in places that she had visited and worked to put the English office in touch with writers wishing to revive or set up PEN Centres in China, Russia and Iraq.
Mitchison was also a keen contributor to the PEN cellar. On the rare occasions that English PEN had a physical home – such as Glebe House in South-West London – they tried to keep up a modest bar for guests. Writers like Mitchison would often send bottles of sherry or gin when they enjoyed particular success with a book publication. The greatest contributor – according to the many gift labels in evidence in the PEN archives – was Enid Blyton but Mitchison may very well have been a close second!
A lifelong member of PEN, Mitchison’s gregarious personality and sense of adventure made her the ideal PEN member. She certainly can be said to personify the organisation’s commitment to internationalism and global cooperation.
Lisa Appignanesi, novelist, academic and free speech campaigner who was President of English PEN.
Well-known for studies such as Freud’s Women (2005) and Mad, Bad and Sad: A History of Women and the Mind Doctors (2008), Appignanesi was has also served as Chair of the Royal Society of Literature.
She became Deputy President of English PEN in 2004 and President in 2008.
During this time she led the No Offence campaign which raised awareness of potential free expression implications of t the UK government’s Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006.
Declaring PEN’s victory in the case, Appignanesi said: ‘The No Offence campaign celebrated its victory in amending the Government’s Racial and Religious Hatred Bill at the Garrick Club on 13 March 2006.
‘This is perhaps the first time in British Parliamentary History that a Bill contains a declaratory amendment: one which fully spells out the right of free speech.
‘The campaign’s work is done, but English PEN’s larger role in deliberating on Free Expression in our 21st century goes on. We are putting in place a Commission on Free Speech. Any thoughts on this or help with funding is welcome. Watch this space.’
Her tenure as President and Deputy President of English PEN coincided with a number of free expression events, which illuminated the re-casting of free expression in an interconnected world.
One was the Charlie Hebdo affair, which showcased the complexities of free expression in a multicultural, multifaith and interrelated world.
As Appignanesi told the Irish Times in 2006: ‘Such is the speed of communications now, anything that is said here has repercussions in places where the context is very, very different.’
‘One could say that learning how to live in a society together is the best form of restriction on the offensive kinds of expression. But when legislation comes from above, in other words, criminalises speech, that’s something else, and we have to be very wary.’
Appignanesi also launched a report into Libel Reform in the UK entitled ‘Free Speech is Not For Sale’ which aimed to rid Britain of obsolete libel and blasphemy laws, which could be used to suppress free speech and expression.
She was responsible for setting up the PEN Pinter Prize, in honour of ‘the spirit of’#100PENMembers Harold Pinter. The award was designed to reward a writer who displayed ‘fierce intellectual determination… to define the real truth of our lives and our societies.’
The Prize is unique in that, as well as awarding £1,000 to the winner, it allows the winner to award a further £1,000 to a writer in prison elsewhere in the world.
When the prize was launched Appignanesi praised Pinter as a writer who was ‘actively engaged in defending the value of the whole enterprise of literature, too often threatened by those who would silence the always unpredictable force of words and ideas.’Whilst free expression campaigning has evolved significantly in the age of the culture wars and the deployment of free speech discourse by right wing media, Appignanesi’s tenure at English PEN helped to establish the organisation at the forefront of the highly politicised and globalised free expression debates of the twenty-first century.
Arnold Zweig was a German writer, pacifist and socialist, who took a leading role in the East German PEN Centre following World War Two.
Zweig was very active in Communist East German politics alongside his PEN duties, serving as a member of parliament and a delegate to the World Peace Council as well as a cultural advisor to the Communist Party.
He was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize in 1958 for his anti-war novels and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in Literature seven times.
Following the expulsion of the German PEN Centre at the 1933 Congress, and the setting up of the German Centre in Exile by Heinrich Mann in 1934, the Centre was re-founded in Gottingen in 1948. However, when East and West Germany were created as separate states in 1949, two centres were created to represent the Soviet East and the West.
The split continued after reunification and a united Centre was finally formed in 1998.
Zweig was often a difficult delegate at PEN Congresses, where he sought to put forward the concerns of the Communist PEN centres and to contest charges that those Centres based in Soviet countries were complicit in the censorship and imprisonment of writers and therefore in contravention of the organisation’s rules.
In 1960, he wrote to PEN International Secretary David Carver that West Berlin had been giving temporary passports to citizens from the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) to allow them to travel to countries in the West which did not recognise the G.D.R. and its Communist affiliations. However, political tensions had placed new restrictions on travel between East and West Germany which all but prevented international travel for most citizens of the G.D.R. and, of course, prevented East German members from attending PEN Congresses and meetings. Zweig asks that PEN ‘should use its influence to stop the restriction.’
However, PEN, as it turned out, had limited influence in this area and the East German Centre missed a good many conferences in the early 1960s. Correspondence from Zweig during this period is peppered with his frustrations at being represented, in effect, by the hostile West German Centre and unable to answer in person their accusations about censorship and writers’ rights in the Communist East. Zweig suggested repeatedly that PEN should hold Congresses in more neutral countries but his protests fall on deaf ears.
Despite hostilities between Zweig and the rest of PEN, even Carver himself, the letters remain friendly, reiterating invitations to visit and petitions of friendship even whilst implying institutional bias.
He wrote in 1966 to Carver and Arthur Miller, describing his regret at not being able to attend the New York Congress of that year as ‘being almost eighty years of age I am not very fit to travel so far afield.’
He reminisced about attending the 1939 New York PEN Congress ‘the clarion call of the best writers in the world no less than Ernst Toller’s suicide in a New York hotel.’
However, his letter was not apolitical. Despite his charm and good wishes, he went on that ‘though being a bit shaky I might have risked the journey to New York if I had not been expected to assume for this very purpose the status of a stateless individual, a condition all the more humiliating to me who has ended his days of exile and is proud to be citizen of the German Democratic Republic.’
Zweig was indeed in ill-health during the early 1960s and died in 1968.
Today we focus on one of PEN’s most famous early members. Rabindranath Tagore was the first non-European writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature with his collection of poems Gitanjali in 1913.
The Prize, which had only been running for twelve years, had already succeeded in becoming globally prestigious, and an editorial of The Indian PEN in 1936 actually credits the Nobel prize to Tagore for having made India a “sovereign literary state”. His poems, which were presented to the Nobel Prize committee in his own translation, with a supportive preface by W. B. Yeats, were lauded for their transnational appeal.
Six months after the creation of PEN, in April 1922, Tagore was one of the first writers to be asked by John Galsworthy to become an honorary member of the London PEN centre. His name, and the cultural capital associated with it, was used by PEN to promote the organisation during its early years when it attempted to create as many global centres as possible. As Dawson Scott put it, the ‘countries to which’ the honorary members belonged ‘felt a thrill of interest which presently showed itself in a willingness to form centres’, with Tagore telling her that he ‘hoped to found a centre in India’.
He also participated in PEN activities throughout the 1920s and 1930s, delivering dinner speeches at London PEN in 1924 and in New York, and spending a week as the guest of Prague PEN in 1927.
When the Indian Centre was founded in 1933 by the Colombian-born Theosophist Sophia Wadia in Bombay, Rabindranath Tagore enthusiastically accepted to be the first national president of the All-India Centre. And the first ever issue of The Indian PEN (7th March 1934) carried his message: ‘I wish all success to this venture and hope that it will quickly lead to the creation of other centres throughout the country, where literary men will meet in an atmosphere of mutual understanding and goodwill, and raise the voice of the spirit above all the confused din of warring ‘schools’ and coteries that so often mars the harmony of the world of letters.’
In the years following the founding of the Indian centre and until Tagore’s death in 1941, the Indian PEN regularly carried his messages and his texts. In 1940 for instance, the journal carried ‘Great Indians’ Messages’ to the International Congress scheduled in Stockholm (subsequently cancelled due to the outbreak of the war), in which Tagore urged writers to transcend national barriers and realise that the ‘problems of human freedom… which stir in all our lands are at bottom the same’.
At the death of Tagore, The Indian PEN carried a long tribute by Sophia Wadia.
In Tagore, in whom, she argued, the three letters of the PEN ‘the Poet, the Essayist, the Novelist’ were wonderfully combined, she recognized a Nationalist insofar as he was first and foremost a ‘citizen of the world’ and Internationalist whose patriotism could be encapsulated in the following words: ‘No community, no nation, no race can grow in harmony and in truth if it injures a single limb of the body of humanity’.
Rabindranath Tagore also presided over the first All India Progressive Writers Conference in Calcutta held in 1938. That year he had an impassioned debate with Yone Noguchi about the Sino-Japanese conflict, with Tagore criticizing Noguchi’s nationalism: ‘It is sad to think that the passion of collective militarism may on occasion helplessly overwhelm even the creative artist, that genuine intellectual power should be led to offer its dignity and truth to be sacrificed at the shrine of the dark gods of war.’
Suzanne Nossel is a human rights advocate, author and the Chief Executive Officer of PEN America.
She has led PEN America since 2013 and previously worked for Amnesty International and for the US State Department. During her tenure she has overseen the unification of PEN America with the Los Angeles-based PEN Center USA and the establishment of a Washington D.C. office to drive policy in the capital.
She is the author of Dare to Speak: Defending Free Speech for All (2020), a set of principles to chart a course for free speech in the twenty-first century and one which crucially promotes equity and inclusion.
The book stresses the role and responsibility of the individual in maintaining free-speech and offers practical advice on speaking publicly including ‘How to be a Conscientious Speaker’ and ‘Good Apologies’.
As well as the book, in her role as CEO at PEN America she has taken a public stand on Free Speech issues in America, particularly around the use of the idea of free speech to support, in many cases, the repression of certain viewpoints and media outlets. She told the Quarantine Tapes podcast in November 2020 that: ‘the primary threat in this country, I believe, has been this administration, which has run roughshod over the First Amendment, threatening and retaliating against journalists for critical coverage. We’re responding right now to an announcement that they may be sanctioning some of the partner organizations we work with, very respectable organizations like Oxfam and Human Rights Watch, that this administration is smearing as not credible.’
She also highlighted the importance of ‘writers and intellectuals to help us process the trauma of the last four years and particularly this year, and analyze it and begin to bridge across some of these divisions.’
Most recently, she has supported the awarding of the 2021 PEN/Benenson Courage Award to Darnella Frazer, the young woman who documented the killing of George Floyd on her mobile phone. The tape helped to direct the world’s attention toward the ongoing tide of police violence against African Americans, sparking protests across the world. The evidence on the tape helped to lead to the successful prosecution of Floyd’s killer in a landmark ruling that many hope will help to begin to address the issue of police violence against black citizens in the US.
Nossel said of the award which was given in December 2020: ‘With nothing more than a cell phone and sheer guts, Darnella changed the course of history in this country, sparking a bold movement demanding an end to systemic anti-Black racism and violence at the hands of police,
‘With remarkable steadiness, Darnella carried out the expressive act of bearing witness, and allowing hundreds of millions around the world to see what she saw. Without Darnella’s presence of mind and readiness to risk her own safety and wellbeing, we may never have known the truth about George Floyd’s murder. We are proud to recognize her exceptional courage with this award.’
Nossel’s strategic and thoughtful leadership continues to keep PEN America at the forefront of free speech debates nationally and internationally.
Today we feature one of English PEN’s most unsung heroes, a successful writer who served diligently on PEN Committees for decades and whose heroic war work alone earns her a place in our list.
Noel Streatfeild is chiefly known as a writer of children’s stories, including the highly popular novel Ballet Shoes but also wrote adult novels including Saplings (1945), which became a ten-part BBC Radio series in 2004.
An active PEN member during the war, in 1940 Streatfeild was a signatory of ‘To the Conscience of the World’, English PEN’s plea to the world to take action over the Nazi threat to Europe. She also served on PEN’s Refugee Sub-Committee from 1941, alongside Storm Jameson, Hermon Ould and other key members of the time.
In July 1941 Streatfeild was asked to join PEN’s Reception and Social Committee. She was a stalwart member, organising parties and events for hundreds of refugee writers in London and helping to plan the infamous 1941 wartime Congress.
During the Congress, Streatfeild worked tirelessly as a hostess, providing teas and sandwiches and overseeing the practical running of the Congress, even hosting delegates in her home.
However, Streatfeild’s war work was not confined to her activities with PEN. In one letter, International Secretary Hermon Ould writes to commiserate with Streatfeild about the bombing of her flat in Piccadilly in 1941. The letter typifies Streatfeild’s wartime behaviour, as Ould writes: ‘I expect you were out looking after other people at the time.’
Alongside her work with PEN, Streatfeild also worked for the Women’s Volunteer Service throughout the war, among other societies and charities. She writes to Ould in 1943: [y]ou say, what has become of me. I don’t know if you ever knew it but in times of national stress I hie [sic] me to the Borough of Deptford where, since the war began, I have been in charge of the feeding of the populace for the W.V.S from mobile canteens.’ Streatfeild, in typically gallant style, had made for Deptford at 5:30am as bombs fell, working with other volunteers to feed an estimated 11,000 civilian homeless, 12,000 civil defence and providing tea for a further 10,000 people held in air-raid shelters overnight. As Ould wrote in reply, Streatfeild was a ‘real heroine’, an observation she demurely ignored.
After the war, Streatfeild continued as a reliable and diligent committee member – a skillset somewhat rare in PEN circles as evidenced by the amendment she put forward in 1945 proposing the dismissal of ‘any member of the Committee who has not attended 50 per cent’!
She also wrote reports for PEN News on PEN Congresses, updating members on what had taken place intellectually, socially and in terms of the tricky politics of the organisation.
She was still on the Executive Committee of English PEN in 1950 when Ould wrote to her to discuss the newly minted ‘Declaration of Human Rights’, which was to be a key point of consideration at that year’s Congress in Edinburgh, where Streatfeild was one of the English delegates. She received an OBE for her work as a children’s author in 1983.
Though perhaps not as high profile as other PEN Members, the hard work behind the scenes of Streatfeild and women like her – such as Irene Rathbone, Janet Chance, Inez Holden and Margaret Kennedy – have kept the organisation going over the last century.