PEN Key Figures: David Carver

David Carver was the Secretary of International PEN from Herman’s Ould’s death in 1951 until his own in May 1974.

A musician and singer by trade, Carver proved as dedicated a Secretary to PEN as Ould, but his approach to the organisation was completely different.

While Ould was ever the diplomat, influencing PEN members almost without their knowing through his friendship and good humour, Carver was slightly more high-handed in his management style.

Although International Presidents often had limited time in which to serve, the International Secretary position was so onerous that once a candidate agreed, they held the position until they were forced to withdraw due to ill-health (or instincts of self-preservation!)

In this role they provided a central point for Centres around the world, as well as acting as a secretary to English PEN, organising all of the international events and overseeing PEN’s dealings with international organisations such as the UN.

This meant that figures such as Ould and Carver had a very significant influence on shaping PEN, often over several decades, and provided a steadying influence and sense of continuity through the choppy political waters of the twentieth century.

Never afraid to wade into national or even international politics, Carver was in many ways the ideal personality to shepherd to organisation through the Cold War years.

During his tenure as International Secretary, Carver spent a good deal of time making peace between Communist elements within PEN and other member Centres.

He was highly involved, in the 1950s and 1960s, with President Arthur Miller, in encouraging the Soviet Writers Union to form a Russian PEN Centre.

During this time he visited Russia and even took part in talks with key Soviet officials about the possibility of Russia joining the organisation.

He arranged for Soviet observers to attend the PEN Congress in New York in 1966, and encouraged a continuing dialogue between the Russians and other members of PEN.

However, he soon lost patience with the Russians, writing an incendiary piece for the Russian newspaper Investia , about his frustrations at dealing with Alexei Surkov, the head of the Soviet Writers Union.

In 1961 even spoke out on the BBC – blaming Surkov for the detainment by the Russian authorities of Boris Pasternak’s mistress Olga Ivinskaya and almost causing an international crisis!

Carver was highly effective and a great many key advancements in the management and policy of PEN were brought in under his instruction, such as building PEN’s status as a key advisor to UNESCO, organising the first international conference in Africa (in Ivory Coast in 1967), building better links to PEN India and to the other Asian Centres and organising some of the most high profile free expression campaigns – such as the campaign to free Wole Soyinka, the boycott of South Africa by PEN’s playwrights and PEN’s centrality to the International Year of Human Rights in 1968.

 

Photos from Edinburgh Congress 1950 (Tatler Sept 6 1950)

At the Dublin International PEN Congress in 1953 (Photograph Courtesy of the Harry Ransom Centre, University of Texas)

 

He and his wife Blanche, were regular attendees of all of PEN’s events and conferences and both were well-loved by members from all over the world.

Carver was a somewhat dominant personality and whilst his bullishness in the face of adversity meant he was often not an ideal mediator during the heady days of the Cold War, his skillset could not have been more suited to dealing with the political intrigue and crises of those years.

Not only did he keep the organisation together during this time, his determination to become involved in political processes, from writing to Eastern European dictators to clandestine meetings with Russian spies, actually served PEN remarkably well.

He was replaced following his death in 1974 by Peter Elstob.