Kathrine Talbot, Elsa Corbluth
Alex McAdam Clark, Giles Gordon, C.A.R Hills
Suzi Robinson, Mansel Stimpson
et al


Suzi Robinson’s copy of PEN New Fiction 2 is on its way to me from London. It was supposed to arrive yesterday but Suzi has told me that it was classed as a small packet rather than a letter, which means it can take a bit longer. Not sure why she went for this option for an object of such sentimental value, but I’m just incredibly grateful she sent it at all.

There’s the postman now. And he’s got a p-p-packet in his hands. I mustn’t get too excited, after all books to do with the PEN project are arriving at the rate of one per day, but I do run down the stairs.

is the PEN book. Suzi’s covering postcard reads:



I pick up the book whose jacket is protected by a transparent sleeve, and begin to flick through the pages, noting the signatures… Hang on a minute, should I not savor this process? Let’s slow down. Let’s use the contents’ page to guide me. The first signature in the book is on the second story:


Good old Gary. Though he writes under the name of Robert Edric and he has sent me a beautiful edition - so signed - of his book The Mermaids.

Gary’s autograph presumably means that D J Taylor’s will also be here. I can visualize Suzi approaching Gary and David who would be standing together in a corner of the venue having just met each other.

David: “You look as if you might have a shelf of books in you.”

Gary: “To be honest, I feel I’m a two-shelfer. Just got to make up my mind what name should be printed on the spines. Robert Edric or Gary Armitage?”

David: “I know a man who had the same quandary. Or at least he wanted to spare his parents blushes over the seedy nature of
Down and Out in Paris and London. And so Eric Blair became George Orwell.”

Gary: “Funny you should mention him…”


And the pair are off and running. Soon they are comparing notes about how to set fiction in the United States without leaving the UK.


There are only eleven signatures in all. But the funny thing is, most are contributors I already know about. Frances Fyfield has signed the book and so has Ralph Goldswain. I consider putting their signatures together since Ralph remembers having a laugh with Frances in 1987, and Frances particularly admires Ralph’s story in 2016.


Then I realise that Ralph’s signature is going to be needed in a scene involving Charles later on in this chapter. So I do the sensible thing: I hold back my trump card.


Suzi doesn’t seem to have spotted Wendy Brandmark talking to ‘Josephine Pullein-Thompson’. Strange that, I’m sure Wendy would have looked every inch the young writer, and I suspect she would have welcomed the distraction from Pullein-Thompson’s name badge.

Also missing are the autographs of Dan Corry and Connie Bensley, whose chapters are coming up soon. Dan was a close friend of Connie’s son, and I’m told that the two chatted at the PEN party. Connie wrote in her diary that she couldn’t write about the PEN party again as she’d already done that in so many letters to friends.

Nor has Suzi obtained the signature of Bill Thompson (PEN name: Thomas McCarthy), who I know I talked to. Perhaps Bill refused to co-operate with Suzi’s request. No, I mustn’t extrapolate from my own recent experience with this PEN Pal, which is still raw.

The group I was attached to was the biggest subset of contributors, and Suzi has managed to get three signatures from it. C.A.R. Hills, (PEN name: David Welsh), Peter Parker and Mansel Stimpson. But again I’ll hold back on their actual signatures for now, just as I’m holding back on Stimpson’s and Parker’s chapters.

So that’s seven of the eleven signatures, all of whom I already know a fair bit about.

True, Ian Rankin hasn’t signed Suzi’s book and it makes me wonder if he was really there. At the moment, all I have is Ralph’s word for that.

What about this though?



Kathrine Talbot, born in Germany in 1921, died in 2006 and I calculate that her signature is that of a 66-year-old. Could one sense this from the shaky writing? Not that 66 is old. Not these days.

Talbot’s story, set on the Isle of Man during the Second World War when she would have been in her early twenties, ends with a Frau Meyer realizing that the fellow refugee she shares a double bed with has just been told that her husband has died. Thus, she reckons, she will be sleeping with both another woman and the ghost of a man that night.

It’s an evocative story but seems like a throwback to another time. The majority of
PEN New Fiction 2 is a reflection of the 1970s and 1980s, not the 1940s. Neither history nor the future is invoked in the pages of the anthology, as one can surmise from a listing of the dates that occur in the text: 1973, 1974, 1966, 1967, the eighties… Above all, each of the stories reflects some life experience of the writer, however obliquely. Indeed, the stories are remarkably parochial given that Midnight’s Children, Money and Flaubert’s Parrot had all been published to huge acclaim by members of the Granta-promoted class of ’83 a couple of years before the submission deadline for PEN New Fiction 2.

Another name that comes with a signature that I haven’t given any consideration to so far is Elsa Corbluth, so I will do now. Actually, I will take a break before getting stuck into Elsa. I can see the arrival of this particular copy of the anthology is going to inspire a lot of research, so I’ll take my time with it all.

Let’s close this section with the image of young Suzi Robinson circulating at the PEN party on the lookout for writers. What a humble thing to do. Generous too, as it allowed each contributor to feel like a proper author for at least the few seconds they were signing their name above their story.




Elsa’s story is narrated by a man. He’s the dean of a cathedral, and after delivering a service he’s chatting to members of the congregation over tea. One woman tells him about the death of her daughter, who was burnt to death when someone set fire to the night shelter she was working in. The dean does his best to reassure the mother, invoking God’s infinite wisdom. However, he is left a bit shaken by the conversation and tells his assistant not to be so rigorous in inviting strangers to tea after his services in future.

So what kind of story is that? A satirical character sketch? A piece of anti-church writing? Perhaps, but it becomes a deeply auto-biographical piece when it is realized that Elsa Corbluth’s daughter died on Saint Patrick’s Night in 1980, in exactly the circumstances described by the dean’s visitor.


In Elsa’s biographical note in the PEN anthology, it’s mentioned that she had a volume of poetry about to be published by Peterloo Poets. This appeared in 1988 and is called St Patrick’s Night, a collection of poems attempting to deal with her daughter’s death.

One poem is called ‘God calls in Chester Cathedral,’ which makes clear that all the specifics of the PEN story relate to an actual incident. Well, two actual incidents. First, the hostel fire. Second, the cathedral tea party.

So let’s go into the poem. The sermon at Chester Cathedral that Evensong is on Matthew. The canon is a P.G. Wodehouse fan. She recommends an R.S. Thomas poem to him. She confronts him with her daughter’s burning. The next verse reads in full:

The Canon, kindly, used the usual clichés. I forget them,
except the one about ideals: “She died with her ideals intact”.
(I thought of Lorca’s Bernarda: “My daughter died a virgin”).
I was sorry for him, cornered, so I pulled my punches,
said only, “I have shopped around, in tiny churches and in cathedrals,
but haven’t met this God, this “good” in what happened,
Life is good/ God is life. Death is for the old, tired, finished,
not for eighteen. Not for Christ at thirty”.
I let him shake my hand and close the conversation:
“Thank you for telling me.”

After they separate, instead of following the dean or canon, as the PEN story does, the poem sticks with her thoughts:

‘Walking across the cobbles, breathing the green evening,
God, I had my conviction. How many years of study does it take to make a Canon, dress in God’s black fabric?
deal words like Christmas games and dispense tea
in flowery cups?’

Elsa Corbluth has had several more collections of poetry published over the years. The Planet Iceland (2002)), The Hill Speaks (2008) and Out There (2010). So she’s had some visibility as a poet. In 2011 a collection called Eighteen to Eighty was published, containing poems that don’t appear in any of her other collections. The first poem was written when she was 18, the last when she was 80.


In the middle of the collection is the following poem, written in 1981. Written while angry with God, I’d say, but also written when she’d achieved some distance from the raw pain of the loss of her daughter.

One can visualize it being read by a middle-aged woman to the Canon of Chester Cathedral, standing in his black cassock, holding a cup and saucer decorated with a grapevine pattern.

He smiles politely: “What is your poem called?”

She replies: “AFTER THE (Mission Hostel) PARTY”

“Do begin.”

“Ten women residents with no warning sign
One choked upon the smoke, then there were nine.

“Nine women residents in a hazy state:
Flames beat back one of them, then there were eight.

“Eight women residents looking up to Heaven:
Jesus came down for one and then there were seven.

“Seven women residents, cats on hot bricks:
No fire alarms to sound, so then there were six.

“Six women residents, just about alive,
Found no extinguishers, so then there were five…”

The woman breaks off from reciting her poem in order to inform the dean that he would appear to be wetting himself.

The dean looks down at his cup, which, sure enough, is at an alarming tilt. By way of explanation, he says: “So many women residents. Dear me...”

“Five women residents making for the door:
One saw the mouth of hell and then there were four.


“Four women residents, down on bended knee,
One made her peace with God and then there were three.

“Three women residents, nothing they could do:
One jumped from a window, then there were two.

“Two women residents, one who had begun
To work for the others, stopped, then there was one.

“One teenage co-worker, holy as a nun,
Stayed in her holy sleep, and then there were none...”

Interesting that Elsa turned up on the night of the book launch. Obviously she was born in 1930 or 1931, so she would have been 56 or 57 in January 1987. I can imagine her looking round at the young contributors and feeling a pang of regret that her daughter would never experience the joy of seeing her work in print.

Look a little closer, Elsa. Most of your fellow contributors are knocking back alcohol at too fast a rate to be experiencing anything other than a chemical high. But then that’s maybe just ‘by the way’. You would have been delighted to see Eilidh there talking and laughing, whether it was the wine or the knowledge that she had a story in print that was animating her.

I wonder if Elsa would have been tidily dressed on the night of the PEN party, her greying hair held back by a patterned headscarf. I can imagine her looking round for Allan Massie, the nearest there would have been to a dean on the occasion, and being disappointed that he wasn’t present. (For that is the conclusion I have come to.) Because she may not have been able to resist saying something to him, something about having made a piece of fiction out of her own blood and tears. And thanking him for selecting it for the anthology and thereby giving her daughter a posterity of sorts.

I don’t think I talked to Elsa that night. For what would a mature middle-aged woman have in common with a young man so full of himself and his interests as I no doubt would have been? Now I’m the same age as Elsa was then, I would like to think we could converse.


Accordingly, I get in touch with the publisher of her last collection of poetry. Alas, I won’t be communicating directly with Elsa even now. An editor at Bardic Media informs me that she died in 2014.

So that’s that. Except, to say that I’ve just realised that Elsa Corbluth’s last book,
Eighteen to Eighty is poignantly titled. Eighteen is how old her daughter was when she died. Eighty was Elsa’s own age after a long, creative life. Eighty minus eighteen being the years that Elsa calculated Eilidh had missed out on as at the year of her final book’s publication.

But in 1987, when 27-year-old Suzi collected 57-year-old Elsa’s signature in her copy of the anthology, it wouldn’t yet have been clear how many years Eilidh had lost out on.

Elsa: “What year were you born, my dear?”

Suzi: “1960.”

Elsa: “Just two years before my daughter, that must make you one of the youngest authors in the anthology. Which is your story? I will read it with special interest.”

Suzi: “’Half-Day Closing’. Can’t wait to read yours too. I’m going to read the stories of all those who’ve signed my book before I read any of the others.”

Elsa: ”Off you go and get more signatures then.”




Though clearly she was present, I don’t remember meeting Sandra McAdam Clark on the night of the PEN party. Let me try to put over the gist of her short story.

In October, a woman rents a room on the sea-front in a little town on the east coast of England. She is in exile from her own country where there is a war going on. One day a local woman comes round collecting for the British Legion. “There are other wars now,” the foreigner tells her.

When the locals discuss her in her absence, they are critical. Though a young man speaks up on her behalf, pointing out what she’s been through and that she’s doing what she can to help friends and family stuck in the war zone.

And that’s it. A low-key portrait of what it feels like to be in exile, driven out from your own country by war. It’s about how people in your place of exile either try to understand your position or they don’t.

A timeless piece. Or, at least, relevant today, when there is so much discussion of the war in Syria, focussing on whether Britain should give refuge to those who have been displaced by it.

What else has Sandra McAdam Clark written since? Well, I don’t know. She is one of the contributors that have disappeared without trace.


The PEN biographical note tells us that she contributed to an anthology of lesbian feminist writing, but that hasn’t enabled me to trace her. The note also states that she worked in medical administration and was active in her trade union. That hasn’t helped either.

Hang on a minute. Although I haven’t had any joy from Googling ‘Sandra’ McAdam Clark, why don’t I try using ‘Alexandra’ instead, since when signing the book she’s written A. McAdam Clark.

Only one thing catches my eye. On a tribute page created for Dorothy Dunnett after her death in 2001, there is an entry posted by an Alexandra McAdam Clark. It reads:

‘I was introduced to Dorothy Dunnett by a friend in the 1970s and have been an admirer of her work ever since: her fantastic historical research, strong women characters and perception of gender, class, world events are breathtaking. I feel a loss and my condolences to her family and friends.’

I feel that might well have been written by the author of ‘The Foreigner’. Alexandra’s email address is reproduced so why don’t I look that up?

The initials mrc in her email address stand for medical research council. On her page on the site, French-British nationality is mentioned as is trade union affiliation. All as per the back of the PEN book. Accordingly, I write to Alexandra. A day later this arrives:

Hello Duncan,
Good to hear from you and I have a copy of the book and re-read the stories. I liked most of them including yours!

The launch event was a long time ago so can’t remember much about it but I know I enjoyed it.


Since then I became very involved in work, leading five trade unions and negotiating on behalf of colleagues in a scientific public sector organisation.

I did not really have time to keep on writing. However, I have now set up my own workplace mediation practice, have more timewas about to start writing again (never too late is my motto) when your e-mail arrived. Quite a coincidence and I got a boost from it.  I wish you well with your project and your writing which if I have the correct Duncan is very successful. Sorry also to hear about the writer in prison.
Best wishes, Alex
Alex goes into the Suzi Robinson category. That is, contributors who may have been distracted by other kinds of work but who have never lost sight of their interest in creative writing.

Again, I wonder what Suzi and Alex might have said to each other as Suzi’s copy of the book was being passed between them. One had written a story about a woman finding herself in exile, thinking with sadness about her friends back home. While the other’s protagonist roamed the streets on the lookout for words with which to express her sense of loss.

I’m sure they would have appreciated each other’s stories. What a different book
PEN Pals would be if either of them had written it.




Time I considered my own contribution to PEN2. Which Alex and Suzi have been kind enough to mention in passing.

A character called Stare Crow visits an accountancy firm in the City of London. The business meeting he has is with the senior partner, whose office displays several identical framed copies of a photograph of a hopping race in which members of the accountancy firm are taking part.

During the meeting, the senior partner has to call upon the assistance of some of the junior accountants that took part in the hopping race. These employees have been hiding from their responsibilities in the pub. What they have to say about their work is hopeless and absurd. Especially pathetic is the employee who no longer has any accountancy duties as such, but simply cleans the toilets.

After the meeting Stare Crow exits the office. The story ends with this perspective:

‘Crow emerged from the building, stepped onto the City street and into the cold February air. He was in a high good humour. Such a comedy of manners as he had witnessed brought a smile to his mouth and a pace to his pulse.

‘He thought back through the afternoon. He had enjoyed the photo. He thought it through. Work imposed rules of behavior on people. The effort to abide by the rules could result in psychological conflict. In this case creativity had been engendered, a form of beauty and madness made manifest. Crow’s eye brightened and his pace quickened.


‘There had been a time when Crow had looked for a more vigorous interaction with the world. Adventures in strange places, affairs with intriguing women. But for some long time now, self-analysis, self-control and self-development had become his life. For such he required little. A little isolation, the odd meeting, and the occasional word exchanged in trust or humour or friendship.

‘Crow smiled again as he recalled the delivery of a Robert Nisbett sentence. While smiling he was walking. Walking quickly to the station from where a train would bear him away to the lands he’d been raised in.

‘It was snowing. The snow had been falling thickly and the pavements had quickly become white. Most surfaces presenting a near-perpendicular angle to the falling snow had become white. The air was cool and clear. Sights appeared sharp and noises sounded crisp. Across the way two children were playing in the snow. Their red, plastic anoraks and happy laughs jingled in the air. Stare turned in their direction and spoke aloud a few, true, simple words about the weather.’

I should say that ‘A Business Meeting’ was the very first piece of fiction I wrote. Which was within a few months of giving up my career in accountancy before it had really started, at the age of 25.

Just as Elsa was for years obsessed with her daughter’s death, so I was with the miserable time I’d spent working for Dixon Wilson and Co. In both cases, writing helped us transform negative experience into something more positive. That’s no longer my motivation for writing, but it’s certainly where I came from.

And now? Now my writing is a day-to day celebration of the fact that this round peg made it out of that terribly square hole.

What happens to writers? This sums it up for me:


1) Something horrible happens.
2) By writing about it, it seems less horrible.

By writing about it again, it almost seems like a stroke of luck, that horrible thing, (providing it wasn’t too horrible in the first place, as in Elsa’s case).
4) Something good happens.
5) By writing about it, it seems even better.
6) By writing about it again and again it almost seems like it was just a start, that good thing, if there even was an initial good thing separate from the text, the subsequent fun becoming impossibly tangled with the initial impetus.

What about mission? Do I hope to change the world through my writing? Once I got an audience (for a while) I did begin to think of that side of things. So when I was writing ‘Adventures in Contemporary Art’ for the Independent on Sunday, I was hoping to turn a few people on to what art has to offer. And later I was trying to point a few people in the direction of Enid Blyton and Evelyn Waugh. But I wouldn’t make too much of it. I’ve always been writing for myself, first and relentlessly foremost.

Of course, the golden rule (of writing if not accountancy) is ‘show, don’t tell’. So let’s see if I can conform to that, as for three long years I conformed to the principle of double-entry book keeping.

Actually, it’s not so much ‘show, don’t tell’, but ‘keep going with a blend of showing and telling’. So that’s what I intend to do. I intend to go with the flow.


An email has arrived from fellow PEN2 contributor Mansel Stimpson, which I must include here even at the risk of overloading my narrative.

Dear Duncan,

As explained on the phone I had a diary from 1987 and, as agreed, I set out below the relevant passage about the launch of PEN 2.   As you will see you even got a brief mention yourself!   


All Good Wishes, Mansel

Mansel’s diary entry for the day of the launch, then. But first the signature he gave to Suzi that night:


DIARY 21st JANUARY 1987:

‘I meet Charles on the way to the PEN reception and he introduces me to his friend Geoffrey Cush who has a book coming out this year. I'm also introduced to Peter Parker whom he knows: an obviously knowledgeable man who writes for Books & Bookmen and knows his subject.. Francis King is not present, mainly the PEN ladies and a youth in a large hat with a Mexican manner who sells copies of the collection still minus its cover at the door - authors buy at half price since these are copies other than the free one which will be sent.’

I don’t know about Geoffrey Cush. Francis King was the president of PEN at the time. I don’t know why he wasn’t at the launch. Another noticable absentee then.

Soon I will be writing about Peter Parker. But the time is not yet right. However, here is his signature as given to Suzi Robinson the night he met Mansel Stimpson:



OK back to Mansel’s diary entry:

‘I am not surprised to find that the name of the bar in my story is still the wrong one as well as it being the wrong version - although it is nice to be in a ‘real’ book. £14.95 seems exorbitant as the selling price. Sandwiches, sausages on sticks, sausage rolls and chicken balls provide the food but the £4.50 demanded for guests is only justified for those who drink a lot and can ask for presumably limitless refills.

‘Authors have labels with their names.  Others too are unhappy about having no proofs and finding changes in their texts not incorporated.  An elderly woman poet is up from Dorset having now turned to short stories too. One woman, a solicitor, is odd: uses her mother's maiden name but laments mothers recognising and disapproving of anything which might be a reflection of them.  Of her story, she says: it's dreadful, all her stories are dreadful. Could she mean this or is it self-protection?’

‘Charles’s group and a Scot, Duncan McLaren, go to a pub and I tag along.  Duncan is always saying “I'm going to have another drink”. Charles discloses that he has stolen a copy of the book -  it’s  not clear whether he planned this or felt he better do it because, when talking to Ralph Goldswain with the book in his hand, Goldswain had assumed he was being asked to autograph it and had signed it before Charles could stop him.’


Charles may not have wanted his own book signed at the launch, but he didn’t mind signing Suzi’s copy for her:


This reminds me that Charles has asked me to go through the manuscript of PEN Pals and change 'Charles Hills' to 'C.A.R. Hills' as often as possible. Something I'm happy to do, not least because the Beast of Brixton has been so helpful in so many ways. What’s in a name anyway?

‘I take details of agents from authors present before Charles and I walk back to Sloane Square.’

And that’s it: end of Mansel Stimpson’s diary entry. Odd that this written record, together with Charles's memory, has added most to the picture of 'the night of the party'. Why should those two gay men have a fuller recollection than the rest of us? Perhaps because they'd already faced up to fundamental aspects of their identities and so were able to relax and be objective about whom they met and what was said that night. I wonder if, in due course, Peter Parker too will add detail and clarity to the picture.

OK that’s it. All I wanted from Mansel Stimpson for now was his clear-eyed diary entry. Logged.



In Mansel Stimpson’s diary entry he mentions Charles stealing a book because Ralph Goldswain inadvertently signed his copy of PEN New Fiction 2.

Let’s not forget that my own copy was originally signed by two contributors: Suzi Robinson and Ralph Goldswain.

So what does that imply? Obviously Suzi came over to ask people to sign her book when Charles and I were standing next to Ralph. After Suzi asked him to sign her book…


…I probably thought it would be rude not to ask them both to sign mine as well, so I did that.



PEN_0002 - Version 2

And then Ralph probably thought it would be rude if he didn’t sign the other book that was open close by him. And so he signed Charles’s book as well. Or maybe he was paying Charles back for the insult that he recalls Charles making to his face that evening.

Alas, no third Goldswain squiggle, but I’ve now had a chance to put Ralph’s recollection to Charles and recently he wrote to me from Brixton as follows:


Oh, I was so tactless when I was young! Fancy coming straight out and telling Ralph Goldswain he was dull and unspiritual. I have no real memory of this but do not doubt that I said it. When I admire someone, I often feel that I have to be particularly hard on them, or at least that they could take the alarming frankness that is the counterweight to my timidity and frequent desire to flatter and please.

I am pretty sure that I have the copy without dust-jacket of the book that Ralph Goldswain must have signed in my house in Altura in the Algarve, and I could easily retrieve it (if the house has not been squatted or otherwise trashed in my absence, something I sometimes fear) because it is in a pile of books really by me or with contributions by myself (in the early 1980s, I published a series of 10 project books for schools) on the main table in the lounge. I have no idea when I will go back to Altura, it all depends on what circumstances I face in London after getting out of prison in June, I will certainly look up the book when I go, but it might be too late for yours.

Let’s see if I can conjure up a telling glimpse of the PEN party. There is me (on the lookout for another drink) on one side of big Ralph, and there is Charles (on the lookout for another book) standing on the other. At that moment we must both have been holding our jacketless copies of PEN New Fiction 2.

That is the money shot! A great moment for Ralph, I reckon. Plus it shows Charles and I pretty close to the centre of the PEN party. And that money shot is courtesy of the combined resources of, in particular, Suzi Robinson, Mansel Stimpson, Ralph Goldswain, C.A.R. Hills and myself.

And Jeff New? (PEN name: William New) I suspect he was there that evening as I’ve underlined his name in my jacketless copy of the book. And Charles remembers him, or thinks he does, even though Mansel doesn’t mention him in his diary entry. How did Jeff himself put it? He put it like this:

I go to ONE -- ONE! -- wretched literary evening, 35 years ago, stand about talking to nobody, leave after fifteen minutes, and as a result end up years later being mistaken for Eugene de Ponsonby, Promising Prize Prat and 38 D-cup TIT!


So yes, Jeff’s there in the background, behind the group consisting of Ralph, Charles and me. He’s uneasy about the ‘William New’ nametag on his lapel. But he’s there.

We should take a collective bow, we really should. Let me see if I can organise that.


It’s the night of the party. Over to a scrawled letter that C.A.R. Hills has written in his prison cell:

‘English PEN shared its rather old-fashioned premises of those days with the Sketch Club, and perhaps you remember that there was a frieze of cartoons of old Sketch Club members around the slightly bleak walls.’

Well, I don’t remember. But I can imagine it, thanks to Charles. And thanks to Google I can see that Dilke Street is located in Chelsea, a block away from the river. The nearest tube station is Sloane Square, which is how I would have travelled from my rented bedsit in north London.

Now that I’m here, and have been for a while, let my eye sweep round the room from where I stand on a raised platform. You see, in the absence of Allan Massie and Francis King, someone has to say something to the good people who have turned up this January evening in 1987. Otherwise this is just another night spent drinking and chatting. And it seems like that someone has to be me. I clear my throat and say: “Ladies and Gentlemen. A warm welcome from English PEN, the Arts Council and Quartet Books.”

Everyone looks my way. Which is fine by me.

“It’s been my pleasure to circulate round the room this evening talking to some of my fellow contributors, who seem a spirited and varied bunch.”


“He means you and me, Peter,” says a heckler. But it’s only dear Charles, so I smile and carry on, holding up my jacketless copy of PEN New Fiction 2”.

“I’ve made a few notes as I’ve been going around, and Elsa has helped me turn those notes into a poem, which with her permission I’m going to read aloud.”

I turn to the book’s end pages. “OK. This is called
AFTER THE (PEN) PARTY and it’s a poem for the thirty-two PEN contributors, plus Eilidh Corbluth.”

The room falls silent. I dive into this silence:

“Ten unread authors with one book to sign
Rankin wrote ‘Rebus’, then there were nine.”

“Nine unread authors, in a hazy state:
The police clapped Hills in irons, then there were eight.

“Eight unread authors, looking up to Heaven:
Private Eye smiled down on Taylor, then there were seven.

“Seven unread authors, cats on hot bricks:
Brandmark stuck to American roots, then there were six.

“Six unread authors, just about alive,
Goldswain sucked up to Shakespeare, then there were five.

“Five unread authors, making for the door:
A TV exec fell for Fyfield, then there were four.

“Four unread authors, down on bended knee,
Parker sneezed
‘Isherwood!’ then there were three.

“Three unread authors, nothing they could do:
Armitage became Edric, then there were two.

“Two unread authors, one who had begun
To put together
Satires, then there was one.

“One unread author, name of Robinson
Signed up with Amazon, then there were none.


As I close the book and look up and around, I see that the room is empty. I suppose everyone must have slipped off to the pub. Those old members of the Sketch Club seem to be laughing down at me from high up on the walls. When will I learn that to keep eye contact with a live audience is not an optional extra?

Or maybe word got around that I didn’t intend to give Alex a verse and everyone walked off with her in sympathy.

Or maybe they thought that it was OK for Elsa Corbluth to write a poem like that in the aftermath of her daughter’s death, but bang out of order for me to reprise it.

Or the audience may have felt that I was getting too concerned with a sub-set of PEN contributors and that I hadn’t yet tried hard enough to be inclusive. After all, 32 individuals contributed to the anthology, not a banker’s dozen.

Or maybe they realized I was performing for my own benefit. Feeling superfluous to requirements, the audience just got up and fucked off.

One might have thought that this humiliation would have spoilt the whole evening for me. But to do so would be to misunderstand my relationship to my work. As I leave the PEN building, I’m in a high good humour. I notice that it’s been snowing. Sights appear sharp and noises sound crisp. Across the way two children are playing in the snow. Their red plastic anoraks and happy laughs jingle in the air. The J.W. New and C.A.R. Hills of the future? I turn in their direction and say aloud a few, true, simple words about the weather.


After the PEN party, Elsa Corbluth and Alex McAdam Clark are travelling in the tube together. Topic of conversation: the importance of having an organised union in today’s work places.


Alex says to Elsa: “The trade movement inspired me although trade unions are constantly denigrated, so in some ways it is a relief not to be as active in a trade union as I was. Mediation is a really forward- thinking practice, especially in the workplace that I specialise in. We don’t ever aspire to take over the trade union role but work with trade unions to enable colleagues to actually recover some dignity and empowerment at work.”

Suddenly they notice Margaret Thatcher sitting in a corner of the carriage. For some reason the two socialist writers engage the Tory Prime Minister in conversation, a conversation that goes extremely badly, and at the end of which, standing on the platform at Victoria, Thatcher fixes her fellow travellers with a look that is not at all benevolent and remarks with an awful gravity, “I regret that when we began this conversation I did not take the opportunity to enquire your names.”

Elsa and Alex supply them, happily recalling being asked by Suzi to write those same names earlier in the evening.

“Ms Corbluth, Ms McAdam Clark,” Thatcher hisses back, “I wish you


I’ve just realized something. Fellow contributor Giles Gordon wasn’t there that night. Why the hell not? He worked in central London as a literary agent. His story was top of the list…

Oh, I get it. At least a scenario has come to mind. You see I’m recalling that in Mansel Stimpson’s diary entry for that night he records taking down details of literary agents recommended to him by at least two fellow authors. No doubt there would have been a lot of that going on.

With this in mind, my imagination places Giles Gordon in the opulent surroundings of the Garrick Club near Leicester Square. He and one of the authors he represents - none other than Allan Massie - have met there for lunch.


“What time is the PEN do?”

“6.30 ‘til 8.30.”

“We can have a good long lunch then.”

They discuss Massie’s last novel,
Augustus. The book, set in imperial Roman times, has sold well. Should his next novel be some kind of follow up? It’s an important decision and it needs to be discussed. The afternoon wears on.

Later, they revert to the launch of
PEN New Fiction 2. Massie has a jacketless copy of PEN New Fiction 2. They look at the contents page together.

Massie asks: “’People who live near the Heath’. Any relation to
The Folk That Live on the Hill.”

“Careful, Allan, he’s a member here.”

Massie glances around the splendid interior in which most other diners seem to look like Sir Kingsley Amis.

Gordon tells his friend that he’s flattered to see his own story at the top of the list but wonders why it’s there. Massie explains that one reason that's been done is to draw other contributors’ attention to the fact that that they have a top literary agent in their midst.

“Why have you - or Quartet - done that?” asks Gordon.

“We're hoping that some of the younger writers may approach you this evening. Of course, Ian Rankin and Gary Armitage already have agents. However, Kara Lind, Suzi Robinson and Carol Barker have written intriguing stories and are just starting out on careers. William New is a bold and original new voice. David Welsh is a dark horse we will surely be hearing more from. And there is something about Duncan McLaren’s near-primitive style that I can’t get out of my mind. Of course, Wendy Brandmark has arguably more…”

“Allan, Allan. Let me stop you there.”


“What’s wrong?”

“There’s no way I can face it.”

“Face what?”

Gordon flicks to the back of the book as he tries to put over his point: “William New mentions that he has two unpublished collections of stories… McLaren says that he has recently completed a novel… ‘A Mugging’ is Welsh’s first
accepted story, the implication being that there’s plenty more looking for a publisher…”

“What’s your point?”

“I’ll be walking into a room containing up to 30 authors, most of whom will be desperate for representation. It’s too much.”

“But you’ve told me how much you enjoy the parties for those anthologies that you edit.
Best Stories of the Year.”

“Totally different. Most of the contributors we choose for that are established names. They have agents already. True, I might take the opportunity to try and persuade a household name to come over to my stable. But tonight will be something else altogether. Do you know how difficult it is to launch an unknown author? And time spent on a new author - or several new authors as you seem to be implying - comes out of the time I would be able to invest in my established authors. Such as yourself.”

Allan ponders what he’s been told. Finally, he suggests: “Don’t wear a name-tag.”

“I’ll already feel name-tagged to the max.” Giles taps his chest every time he says a name: “Sue Townsend, Peter Ackroyd, Vikram Seth, Fay Weldon, Prince Andrew, Prince Charles….”

“I’m not sure I follow.”

“I represent successful authors! The more switched-on contributors are likely to make a bee-line in my direction.”


The editor sips from his first class merlot. Then says: “Maybe we should give it a miss. Besides, it says on the invite ‘wine and snacks’ will be served. I think we might be better off with what’s on offer here.”

And that may explain why neither Allan Massie nor Giles Gordon was in attendance at the launch.

(Caveat: I have no idea where Allan Massie was that night. He has chosen not to reply to my messages to him. Perhaps he wasn’t paid in full for his editing role and so had to cut his losses. Perhaps neither the publisher, Quartet, nor the Arts Council offered to pay for his trip to London from the Borders and for a night’s accommodation. Perhaps, in his late seventies, he isn't in the best of health these days. Who knows? Anyway, gratitude should always be my main emotion to him for having selected my story in the first place.)


I end this chapter as I began it, with a copy of PEN New Fiction 2 to hand. Not Suzi Robinson’s copy but my own jacketless copy that was given to me on 21 January 1987.

You see, a close study of Mansel Stimpson’s diary entry of that day has revealed something else that I hadn’t noticed before.

We only got our hands on the book when we arrived at the launch. So my saying in an earlier chapter that I’d already read the book and that my favourite story was by William New, and that I’d been looking out for his nametag that evening, can’t be right. I must have read his story
after the launch itself.

Studying that copy of the book closely, what do I find? I’ve underlined in pencil eight names on the contents page. The same eight names are underlined in the biography section at the back of the book. In the book itself, there are only pencil marks against two of the stories: William New’s and D.J. Taylor’s.

So what explains these marks? On the night I met and talked to eight of my fellow contributors and successfully picked up all but one of their names. On the way home from the launch I read the stories of DJ Taylor and William New, making marks as I did so and even writing two sentences in the pages of the latter. One of which reads:


He has come up quick against the fire of life.

I suspect that the same night I decided to underline the names of those I met, making the one mistake. What would explain the error?

First, I don’t think C.A.R. Hills would have been wearing his David Welsh nametag at the launch, already regretting that he had not used his real name.

Second, a quick flick through the book in the train may have been enough for me to realize that it was the William New story that I was most attracted to. And I linked up the intriguing personality revealed by the story to the idiosyncratic behavior of the man in the raincoat at the launch.

That’s to say the guy who, when I suggested we go on from the launch party to the pub, waved his umbrella in the air and shouted joyfully: “Verily let us henceforward to licensed premises where the convivialities can continue!”

And so I muddled up the individuals I now know as Charles Hills and Jeff New.

I may even have read all the stories before underlining Willam New’s name, because all the stories have a pencil tick on the contents page. And that really is all the markings that I made to this copy of the book at the time. In addition, Suzi Robinson and Ralph Goldswain signed the book. (And thirty years later Ian Rankin added his signature and hangman motif to it.)

But let two related things be clearly said:

1) It was Charles, not Jeff, I met that night, and was royally entertained by.

2) It was Jeff’s story, and not Charles’s, that got my juices flowing.

So now we know.



Enough time has passed for my letter containing the text of Mansel’s diary entry to get to Brixton’s G Wing and for Charles’s reply to get back to me. The Beast writes:

‘Dear Duncan, You have done some splendid detective work, and Gogol’s Overcoat seems as near as dammit to prove that I am the author of the sub-Wildean quote. My memory of the scene in the pub is definitely that I was sitting with just two youngish men. The reason I remember this so clearly is that I was longing to join the larger group sitting a little away from us, and you now add substance to this summary by revealing that the group would have included Peter Parker and Christopher Potter, and therefore other people I would have identified at the time as glamorous and interesting (luckily, I don’t find anyone glamorous now, nor even very interesting, which saves a lot of grief). It now seems almost certain one of these young men was yourself, and I still believe that the other was Jeff New, because I cannot otherwise account for why I would have gone on to read his story.’

The letter goes on to say things that I will include elsewhere in PEN Pals, but for now let me return to that night of the party. We’ve all moved on from the PEN HQ to a pub. Charles is sitting with his two copies of PEN New Fiction 2, one signed by Ralph Goldswain and one unsullied by human hands, and with the straights. Which is to say myself and, I suspect, Bill Thompson. Tears of boredom are running down Charles’s cheeks because he wants to be jiving with the young male blades. That’s to say Geoffrey Cush, Peter Parker, Christopher Potter and – the slightly older - Mansel Stimpson.

Me: “Verily, why don’t you fuck off to your pals, Charles, as you seem to think we’ve nothing in common?”

The Beast: “May I say, Duncan, for someone who has written such a sweet, sensitive and funny story, your reddening, sweating face reveals you to be at heart nothing more than a drunken boor.”


“Right, I’m going to have another drink. May see you later. Possibly quite a lot later.”

“Say in about thirty years time?”

January, 2017?”

“It’s a date.”


It seems I’m not quite done with the PEN party yet. This is just in from Ian Rankin:

‘Do you have the date of that party? I'd like to check my diary again.’

I tell him the date. To which Ian responds:

‘Wednesday Jan 21 1987 - I say in my diary I wrote a short story. Nothing about a party. I'd say if I'd been there it would have merited a mention.’

The only evidence I have that Ian Rankin was at the launch was the recollection from Ralph Goldswain that he talked to him there. So I put this in an email to one PEN contributor and am soon writing to another as follows:

‘Ralph agrees it was probably another time that he talked to you. You both have stories in PEN New Fiction 2 and he reckons you may have discussed this at a writing group or in a pub before you went back to live in Scotland. 

‘So you didn't go to the PEN2 party as you were writing a short story. Just goes to show what you implied before: hard work and honing the craft come before networking.’

Am I done with the PEN party now? I shouldn’t think so. That’s not how these things work.

What happens to writers? They never let go. (They turn water into wine. They dance on air.)


pen pals - Version 4

Part two