John Calder who organised the writerâ€™s conference in 1962 now bears a passing resemblance to Mr Grainger of the British sitcom â€˜Are you being servedâ€™. At the start of the session Calder even appeared to be asleep in his chair.
Asked if he was free (or words to that effect), the transformation was startling. He opened with an impassioned plea for Home Office inundation on behalf of writer Aleksander Stefanovic who had attended the conference in 1962. Stefanovic was refused a visa to travel to EIBF 2012. Fifty years ago the same writerâ€™s presence upset the official Yugoslav representative Petar Å egedin. Plus Ã§a change!
The programme notes promised a disentanglement of myth from reality. Thankfully Calder and his erstwhile assistant Jim Haynes eschewed that particular snake pit for a fairly straightforward anecdotal review of the events of 1962. The audience loved it and demonstrated a modern tabloid obsession with the tiny details of what MacDiarmid really said to Trocchi or Rebecca West to Mary McCarthy.
Still, there were a couple of bubbles burst along the way. Some fans of Hugh MacDiarmid will not want to hear that he was â€˜conventional in many waysâ€™ and â€˜did not like all this frank discussionâ€™. Again, those who remember Malcolm Muggeridge in his â€˜abstinence for allâ€™ years will be diverted by the fact that he was to be the continuing chairman in 1962, but departed early â€˜because Sonia Orwell said noâ€™.
The stories came in irresistible sequence. Sonia Orwell hit Calder over the head with a wine bottle in an Edinburgh restaurant only for him to recover and carry on with the meal. In Haynes bookshop, a woman from â€˜moral rearmamentâ€™ used tongs to pick up a copy of Lady Chatterleyâ€™s Lover before taking it outside and setting it alight. If these were unexpected, the opposition of the Scottish press to the conference was predictable - Magnus Magnusson and couple of others excepted. Letters to the Scotsman urging â€˜money for drains not for cultureâ€™ sound depressingly familiar even today.
The Q and A session raised more general themes. Calder believes that political rather than moral censorship is the issue of today. Asked about the relationship between â€˜festival format and bun fightingâ€™, Haynes said that â€˜62 was about ideas in general rather than promoting a particular object for sale. Calder wants a single system of education so that we can be more like France and less like Northern Ireland.
Presumably some of these things will be revisited at this yearâ€™s fiftieth anniversary conference. The absence of Stefanovic and the withdrawal of James Kelman (citing British Council sponsorship) should also fuel debate.