- The International Writers’ Conference Revisited: Edinburgh, 1962 Edited by Angela Bartie and Eleanor Bell
Henry Miller, addressing the opening day of the International Writers’ Conference held in Edinburgh in late August 1962, startled his audience by confessing that the primary reason for his visit to the city had been to view the works of contemporary Scottish painters on display in the Royal Academy. Continuing, he announced that he wished ‘to God [that] at the Conference we would talk about painting rather than the novel which I think is already dead approximately a hundred years; … we are beating a dead horse here and I hope that something else will come up at the conference, music, painting, dancing … to get us really stimulated.’ He finished his brief intervention with the brusque observation, ‘You must be tired of speeches, and I am going to stop. Thank you’ (p. 51).
Angela Bartie and Eleanor Bell’s splendid book, published to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Conference, serves as testimony to the extent to which Miller misread the status of the novel (and of writing, more generally) and the significance of the gathering itself. 1962 was a pivotal year in British and, more widely, Western culture, with the Cuban Missile Crisis and the first entry of the Beatles on the Top Twenty — two seminal moments in the arrival of ‘The Sixties’ — occurring in the couple of months immediately after the event. The fact that the jury in the Lady Chatterley Trial of 1960 had found in favour of the defendant indicated the ways in which the cultural landscape was already being transformed, although such changes were far from universally embraced. In such a context, it is not hard to see why the Conference itself was such a sensation: the publisher John Calder, Sonia Brownell (widow of George Orwell) and local bookshop owner, Jim Haynes, assembled an impressively international cast of writers, including the Scots, Hugh MacDiarmid, Edwin Morgan and Muriel Spark, and the Americans, Normal Mailer and Mary McCarthy. In addition to these established figures, those invited included William Burroughs and Alexander Trocchi, two near-unknowns, who emerged from the conference as budding literary superstars.
While there was considerable freedom for discussions to pursue whatever interests emerged at any given moment, the Conference was also structured carefully, with each of the five days exploring a particular theme, ranging [End Page 138] through Contrasts of Approach, Scottish Writing Today, Commitment, Censorship, and the Future of the Novel. Probably the best-known episode came on day two, when Trocchi lambasted Scottish culture and reiterated that he had been correct to leave the country. He claimed that ‘the whole atmosphere seems to me to be turgid, petty, provincial, the stale porridge, Bible-class nonsense. It makes me ashamed to sit here in front of my collaborators in this Conference, those writers who have come from other parts of the world, and to consider the level of this debate’ (p. 11). He then entered into a heated debate with MacDiarmid, whom he labelled ‘an old fossil’, ridiculing the latter’s (kilt-wearing) nationalism and concluding, ‘I want no uniformity …, not even a kilt’ (p. 71).
Bartie and Bell have done a fine job of recreating both the context for and the excitement surrounding the Conference. Their book is structured both as historical record and as multi-angled commentary on the event. There is useful detail, such as the list of Conference delegates, notes from the Conference programme, reflections by the organisers and participants such as Andrew Hook, and reproductions of contemporary press clippings. In addition, there are ‘highlights’ of each day, as well as summaries of who spoke and of key debates. The eight sections lead from preparation, through each of the five days, to responses from the immediate aftermath of the Conference and, finally, a retrospective gaze from the perspective of half a century later. Accompanying this is an impressively wide array of visual material: for example, there’s a wonderful picture of a former church missionary using a pair...