#100PENMembers No. 76: Naomi Mitchison

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!          

The card enclosed with Mitchison’s bottles for the PEN cellar in honour of her book Lobsters on the Agenda (1952)

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.

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