Hugh MacDiarmid had recently published A Drunk Man Looks at a Thistle (1926) when he proposed setting up a Scottish PEN centre in Edinburgh in 1927. Along with Professor Herbert Grierson and novelist Neil Gunn, MacDiarmid’s aspiration soon bore fruit, and he became Scottish PEN President in the late 1920s.
As well as being the key figure in the Scottish literary Renaissance, he was always politically active, and viewed PEN as a means with which to further his Communist and Scottish nationalist politics. He stood as a candidate for the Scottish National Party in 1945 and 1950, and would become a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1964. He was seen as a dangerous figure by the British government, and was watched by British Intelligence Services from 1931 to 1943.
The Edinburgh centre was to be an important one. It not only promoted the distinctive features of Scottish writing as what they called a ‘national’ literature, it also hosted key congresses in 1934 and 1950; both of which were significant in the history of International PEN. At the 1934 Ediburgh Congress, PEN would commit the organisation to defending free expression.
It was at the 1950 Congress, however, that MacDiarmid’s angry interventions caused a stir. The Congress was an acrimonious one, with members feeling the full force of Cold War divisions. New York playwright Robert Sherwood opened the proceedings with a rambling speech discussing his activities in the war, the diminishing popularity of the theatre in the age of the cinema, his personal liking for ‘pretty legs’ on the stage, the reason why the Americans had dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, the Soviet’s ‘incredible intransigence’, the meaning of the word ‘freedom’ and the situation in Korea. It was at this point that MacDiarmid, heckling from the audience, called out “stick to your subject,” and angrily left the Congress Hall.
While not the first PEN member to have stormed out of a meeting, his actions prompted an agonised debate within PEN about freedom of speech in the context of the Cold War.
Delegate, St. John Ervine, stated ‘I don’t like those angry little men who hurl themselves through the door. Was somebody saying something with which they don’t agree? Those are the most dangerous people in the world.’
He was not the only member to criticise what they saw as MacDiarmid’s angry refusal to listen to a contrary opinion. However, two days later, the PEN International Executive Committee called an emergency meeting to discuss Sherwood’s belligerent pro-US and anti-Soviet rhetoric, which had gone down badly with many people at the Congress, and the fall-out from MacDiarmid’s actions.
Mrs Watts, Dawson-Scott’s daughter, addressed the hall and invoked her status as ‘the daughter of the Founder of PEN’. She asked the ‘assembly here whether they are prepared to allow the remarks of Mr. Robert Sherwood to go out to the world.’ Dutch writer Jilmar Johannes Backer, however, argued that PEN should not take any action because ‘a member is free to offer his opinion’ and this opinion did not ‘mean that it is the opinion of the meeting.’ Macdiarmid countered this. He welcomed Watts’ comments, questioning why Sherwood and his anti-Soviet views, had been given the floor in the first place, and also stipulating that, while he was not in favour of eliminating political discussion, he did think that if something is expressed others should be able to air opposing views.
The debate captured some key Cold War literary tensions within PEN. While PEN had always been an organisation with members of different political views, the Cold War weaponization of free speech would divide members and centres for the next few decades.