The work of Scottish PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee(WIPC) is often more frustrating than satisfying. We campaign on behalf of imprisoned and persecuted writers, many of whom have been jailed for talking about their governments in much the same way that many of us rage about David Cameron’s old Etonian Cabinet or the bedroom tax or Tony Blair’s promotion of war.
And although as writers we believe fervently in words, all too often we feel we’re casting them to the winds. Few of the governments we write to reply or pay any attention to our criticism. In fact some of them just weigh the letters they receive on behalf of dissidents - they don’t actually read them.
So sometimes you think it’s hardly worth the effort of writing a letter and certainly not worth the postage and sometimes you feel as if nothing you do will ever change a thing. But once in a while something happens to remind you that even if you can’t change the world, you can reach other people in it and they in their turn can reach others and eventually, if enough of you keep reaching out, then change can come.
Or as chaos theory has it, the flapping of a butterfly’s wings can change the course of a hurricane.
This week, our event at the Edinburgh International Book Festival as part of the Amnesty International Imprisoned Writers series, chaired by Regi Claire, led to one of those moments when suddenly progress seems possible.
One of the tools we use in WIPC is campaign cards, which we send to the country’s embassy in the UK. I was trying to order them off the internet but was having problems with the firm’s website so called them. The operator patiently negotiated his way through my ranting and sorted it all out. Then he startled me by thanking us for the work we do. He thought it was important. When I asked him about his interest, he turned out to be an activist himself, campaigning on behalf of Tunisia.
It seemed like serendipity that it was that particular operator I’d spoken to and natural then, in considering what country to focus on for our events at this year’s Festival, to choose Tunisia. Here was where the Arab Spring kicked off, in December 2010, leading to the ousting of PresidentZine El Abidine Ben Aliand a new constitution for Tunisia. Here was where the inspiration came for a wave of protest in countries throughout the Middle East, in Egypt and Syria and Jordan and Iraq, among others.
But the progress made in Tunisia after the fall of Ben Ali was illusory. Although some banned books started being freely circulated, publishers and broadcasters have been jailed for blasphemy, many civilians have been tried in military courts for ‘defaming’ the military, and journalists have been subject to violent attacks by the police. The country is an important reminder that there can be no complacency where freedom of expression is concerned. Although things have progressed there, Tunisia is still in the lowest third in the world for it, only 126 out of 180 countries on the 2015 Index for Press Freedom.
And, in June this summer, a 23 year old engineer called Seifeddine Rezgui strafed a beach in Sousse with shots from an AK47, killing 38 holidaymakers and wounding 39 more in the name of Islamic State.
Tunisia, where the government was already cracking down on free expression in the name of the fight against terrorism, looked like a good choice to highlight at the Edinburgh Festival.
Among the readings we chose for our event was one by a remarkable young woman called Lina Ben Mhenni, a teacher of linguistics at Tunis University, whose blog, A Tunisian Girl, was one of the few during Ben Ali’s regime to be published under the blogger’s real name rather than a pseudonym. Mhenni was one of the few bloggers to report when government forces massacred protesters in Kasserine and Regueb, two major cities in Tunisia’s heartlands. Her courage as a journalist is matched by her courage as a person - she has lupus and has had a kidney transplant, yet continues to battle for democracy in her country. She won the Deutsche Welle International Blog Award and El Mundo’s International Journalism Prize and was nominated for the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize.
In another of those serendipitous turn of events, a former civil servant living in Edinburgh saw her on the BBC news and admired her commitment and her bravery. Iain Allan decided to email her. ’I like the idea that you can use the internet to speak to people on the other side of the world,’ he says. He and his partner had been on holiday to Tunisia and seen a number of Tunisian films at the film house, but had no particular personal connection to the country. He just wanted to tell her what he thought. Lina replied to him though they didn’t have an extensive correspondence.
Still, when he saw that Tunisia was to be featured in the Edinburgh Festival programme, he contacted her again to let her know. She in her turn sent a message to us at the Festival. From a problem in ordering cards off the internet to an international book festival… a fluttering of butterfly wings has started.
This is Lina Ben Mhenni’s message:
I am so happy to see that a panel in the Edinburgh Festival is dedicated to my country, Tunisia. My happiness was even greater when I knew that the panel was organised by Amnesty International. I grew up amongst the militants of Amnesty as my father is one of the founders of its Tunisian section. Amnesty activities were banned in Tunisia and some of the meetings were held in our house. It is thanks to Amnesty that I became aware of the injustices in the world.
Well, it is true that the situation in Tunisia is relatively good in comparison to what is happening in other countries of the so-called Arab Spring but let me say that when it comes to Human Rights things did not really change. Until today people are jailed for their opinions, some people die after being tortured in arrest stations or prisons…
Using the pretext of the fight against terrorism, security forces are back to their old repressive practices. This is very dangerous and would probably lead to the return of the police state.
Today we are talking about reconciliation without really paying attention to the establishment of a transitional justice process. Reconciliation in the way they want to do it is synonym (sic) to impunity. All the people who were involved with the regime of Ben Ali will benefit from it. It is true that we drafted a new constitution applauded by the entire world but what is the benefit behind having a good constitution which is just ink on paper? It should be put into practice.
Well, I won’t take much more of your time and end my message by inviting you to visit my country. Today we need your support more than ever. It is true that tourists lost their lives in my country but what happened in Tunisia happens everywhere. The majority of Tunisians are really sorry for the big human losses and we are trying our best to get rid of terrorism but we need your support. Again my condolences to the families of the victims and I hope to see you in Tunisia.
Lina Ben Mhenni
I am the daughter of Dido, Kahina, Aziza Othmana, Saida Manoubia and my mom who gave birth twice and I won’t kneel down.
THE DELICIOUS INGREDIENTS OF A
First, take one stylish hostess, Anna Burnside, in fabulous wedges that she confides are the sensible alternative to her 'mad shoes,' and pink cropped trousers that match her kettle.
Throw in a bunch of mixed professionals, including journalists, social workers, a film producer and a gardener.
Stir in home made pea soup, runny soft Brie, countless nibbles and copious amounts of drink and conversation and you have the recipe for a splendid evening.
I'd never been to a literary salon before and was honoured to be invited to talk about my novel, Myra, Beyond Saddleworth, in the divine Ms Anna's elegant flat in the West End of Glasgow. Not being familiar with salons and how they're conducted, I was a bit flummoxed to be asked to do a reading but luckily I'd appeared at Glasgow's Aye Write Festival the week before and still had the print-out of the extract I'd chosen. I'd like to say it was forward thinking that led to its presence in my handbag, but alas it was blotched with either coffee or wine stains (my two staples) and had an email address scrawled on the back. I'm sure I'll remember soon why I was to contact the lady.
A literary salon, according to Wikipedia, 'is a gathering of people under the roof of an inspiring host, held partly to amuse one another and partly to refine the taste and increase the knowledge of the participants through conversation.' They've rather fallen out of fashion since their heyday in 18th century France but this is perhaps the moment for their revival, when the literati are mulling over the paradox that women are the main consumers of fiction, yet wield much less power than men. A recent breakdown of the gender balance of literary magazines showed an astonishing bias towards men, with a magazine such as the London Review of Books, for example, featuring 174 female book reviewers, authors reviewed and bylines compared to 574 male. No wonder Spare Rib is making a comeback.
The glittering French salons gave women the opportunity to shine. The most famous were run by fashionable hostesses famed for their erudition and brilliant conversation. Just like us Weegies really, though Ms Anna, the Glaswegian Mme de Staël, confessed that some colleagues at the magazine where she was working found her 'strong meat' because of her lack of inhibition in expressing her opinions. They clearly hadn't encountered the irrepressible Maggie Lennon, who was also there that night.
Anna eschewed the French tradition of lounging on her bed with her guests around her and instead brought out an eclectic collection of funky modern chairs. The other Jean Rafferty (Jean Bond Rafferty), an American who lives in Paris and whose invites to fashion shows I'm always receiving, would no doubt have been able to identify them. I just know they weren't IKEA.
It's an interesting process for writers to be in such an intimate setting with their readers. I've appeared at a couple of literary festivals and there's almost a protective veil between you and the audience—you're on a platform, you have a chairperson to moderate. I know Ms Anna would have jumped in if things had got heated, but this was a more democratic forum. And there was wine!
'I was very stern with them,' she told me. 'I insisted they all had to read the book beforehand.'
The result was a group of people genuinely addressing the issues of the novel—why did the Moors Murderers do it? why were they so reviled when subsequent serial killers have killed far more people? was their background enough to explain their actions?
The group were, of course, all women—they rather than men seem to have embraced the novel as an art form, perhaps because it doesn't require specialisation. In general women, no matter how elevated they become in their chosen profession, are still involved in the minutiae of domestic and family life. They're the ones who get off the red-eye from New York and still spoon yoghhurt into the kids or drive them into school. They never get too far from reality, so stories of human beings seem viscerally important to them in a way they don't seem to be with men.
Fiction ranges through every level of human activity, from philosophy to morality to passion to shoes. You can refract science or religion or love through its lens; you can use it to reflect on literary form or to reflect on eternity. That's what makes it such a useful vehicle for discussing big issues, the nature of reality.
And some small ones. Our inspiring hostess Anna Burnside led the discussion into unexpected areas, such as when did M take the wig* off after she met the priest who became her lover? And wasn't he hot? She also produced the most delicious banana bread which, like Proust's madeleine, stirred distant memories—in my case, that of chewing a bar of banana split toffee and jumping over puddles after I'd got my pocket money.
The whole thing was a delightful experience and I look forward to the next one, which will feature a male writer whose name Anna would not disclose. That's the other ingredient of the successful literary salon, a pinch of spice—and that Ms A has in abundance.
* M didn't sleep with the priest at their first meeting. The next time they met she brazened it out and turned up with her normal brown hair. He, being a hot male, wasn't looking that far north anyway.
** Men and haircuts: they're dimly aware you've changed something but they're not sure what.
I carried Spare Rib everywhere with me in the 1970s. I worked as a theatre stage manager then and fought for the right to dismantle stage sets like the men—and to earn overtime like the men. Once I even had to threaten to resign for the privilege. We were on tour and every woman on the set, even Hazel, the slight wardrobe assistant, lifted the steel girders down from our West Side Story set and trotted out to the lorry with them. The theatre manager watched in amazement and boasted about how proud he was of 'his girls.' I really liked him, but the complexities of our victory were not lost on me.
Spare Rib gave women a language to talk about how the world treated them. It gave them facts and ideas and I loved it. Perhaps too much. Once, when I was furious at a work colleague, I hurled the worst insult I could think of at him. 'You're so... so... patriarchal,' I yelled.
So the news that the iconic magazine is being re-launched by Charlotte Raven is thrilling to me. I long ago stopped reading women's magazines as they seem to be full of eating disorders, recipes, fashion and shoes. Even Marie Claire, which under Glenda Bailey was both exciting and glamorous, became tired and predictable.
Women today don't understand just how backward things were in the days of the original Spare Rib, particularly outside London. On the day my brother got married, there was a gap between the service and the reception and I went to a Glasgow pub with my two younger brothers, one of whom was under age. I was in my mid-twenties by then. As we walked in the door, the barman shouted at me. 'You get out. We don't allow women in here.'
So when I hear people criticising today's young women for their drunken binges I don't agree that it's a misuse of women's equality for them to behave in a laddish manner, I'm simply grateful that they have the choice. I rejoice that the deadly concept of being a lady has been tossed away with their bras, their decorum and anything else they care to dispense with.
Many of the issues we fought for then have been resolved, but many are still with us. Sometimes it feels as if each generation has to learn anew that men and women are equal. Up until a few years ago I taught a journalism course in a Glasgow university. One day I heard the students talking about a woman as a slut, a term I thought had disappeared about two decades ago.
'I suppose you mean sexually active,' I said, but they just shrugged.
'No, a slut,' said one of them.
If we're still so wedded to the idea of female continence as one of the bulwarks of our civilisation, then we haven't come as far as we think we have. Actually, we haven't come as far as we think we have anyway. More men may wash the dishes or change the baby's nappy, but women still do the bulk of domestic work and their wages are still lagging behind men's. The UK is only 18th for gender equality among developed nations and women's unemployment is currently rising towards a 25 year high. Men's, on the other hand, is decreasing. Sixty percent of new jobs in the private sector since the beginning of 2010 went to them.
These continuing inequalities are basic and obvious and the reporting of them in the end just blurs into more of the same. What the original Spare Rib used to do was explore why things happened and put them in a context, whether philosophical or political. They told you about women all over the world, helped you understand the world. There was none of the metropolitan smart-mouthing that you get in today's broadsheets, none of the liberalism lite that's so prevalent in the formerly left-wing qualities. The writers were earnest and passionate and angry and full of life. They weren't distanced or cynical. There was no irony and they didn't pose as cool. They cared about women's equality and they were right.
No magazine can re-create itself in its original form and I wouldn't want it to. I may have great nostalgia for the Spare Rib of old but I don't want it back. The world is a more sophisticated place and it needs a more sophisticated women's magazine. We all absorb information from all sorts of different sources so what's needed is not more information but a more intelligent way through it all. I'm sick of articles casting women either as victims or super-achievers—life for most of us does not fall into such simple patterns. I want us to admit the ambiguities, acknowledge that not all women are saints and not all men are bastards.
I'm so excited I've pledged money I can't really afford to become a founder member. Bring on George Galloway serving drinks at the opening party, bring on the Raven razzamatazz and the dancing feminists. But above all, bring on that first issue. I just can't wait to see what the new Spare Rib will be.
The day I met Ken Russell I got thrown out of the Westbury Hotel in London. These events were not coincidental. Just before, we had done an interview in Wheeler's fish restaurant. I don't remember what we ate, just that it was fish of some kind with no accompaniments. Except three bottles of champagne, that is.
The interview was fascinating. I didn't want it to end and Ken Russell had never met a bottle of champagne he wanted to end, so we were there for hours, talking about his films, the different actors he'd worked with, the current Hollywood gossip. He told me many of the stories he told all the journalists and some he didn't and was funny, sweet and entertaining in equal measures.
I've never thought fish was a suitable basis for embarking on a drinking marathon, particularly a single unadorned fillet. (Ken R was on a diet and I wouldn't have dreamt of eating more than my companion.) Later he said that I had suggested the third bottle of champagne, which was no doubt true. It was one of the few times when I couldn't have cared less how much I was running up in the way of expenses.
After the interview I was meeting John Sandilands, a great writer whose speciality for some years, by his own admission, had been the perfection of writer's block. He was something of a mentor to me at the beginning of my career, me and five other writers whom he wanted to make famous. I don't remember who four of them were, but he succeeded with Craig Brown at least.
I'm not sure how I found my way to the Westbury, but I do remember clutching the inevitable placcie bag with my notebook and tape recorder in it.It was surprisingly difficult to negotiate my way through the tables of polite ladies drinking tea; it was difficult just staying upright. As I emerged triumphant and was about to head for the bar, I was stopped by the poshest person in the place, the maitre d', who asked me who I was looking for. He steered me by the arm towards Sandilands. 'Would you please escort this lady from the premises?' he said.
My mortification was unbounded but Sandilands just looked wistful. 'I wish I still had the ability to get as drunk as that,' he sighed.
It turned out that my own poor tolerance for alcohol was matched only by that of Ken Russell. He headed back towards his flat, where his then wife Vivian (the second of four) was waiting for him to go out to a glittering showbiz party. It was Liza Minelli's birthday and Vivian was pretty excited, had spent ages getting ready. Ken R walked into the flat, then collapsed headlong on to the floor.
There was further catastrophic fallout from our interview for the great director. He had mentioned the sexual swinging that went on in the small town where he lived in the Lake District. The dentist and the butcher's wife (or whichever permutation of the local citizenry he'd outed) were furious and threatened to take him to court for libel. The row ran and ran in the Daily Mail, though I don't think it ever made it to court. There's only so much faking a pair of swingers can do.
It was a privilege to meet such a great artist, even if it was a somewhat rollicking encounter. There are not many film directors who can go from the lurid to the intensely spiritual as he did and I still think The Music Lovers is one of the most moving films I've ever seen.Just a shame poor Liza with a Z had to miss out on his birthday congratulations that year.