Jonathan Steffen
Ian Rankin

Jonathan Steffen? He is the only contributor to
PEN New Fiction 2 not to have a biographical note to his name at the back of the anthology. So in my opening email to him I ask why not. And I go on to say:

Your story, 'Meeting the Majors', is set in Berlin. Have you been watching the Channel 4 drama Deutschland 83? No British majors in it so far, but some fun with high-ranking American and West German military men. I enjoyed reading your story and an exchange between young 'Jonathan Steffen' and the wife of a major comes to mind in this context:

Over dessert Mrs Savory asked me: "Have you published anything?"
"One or two pieces," I replied. "In literary magazines." My 'one or two' in fact meant 'one'. The printing error on page sixteen still caused me pain. 

Evelyn Waugh would be proud of having written that.

At the start of your story 'you' state that you had 'a burning ambition to become the Christopher Isherwood of the eighties'. How have your actual literary ambitions evolved over the decades? Peter Parker, one of our fellow contributors to PEN2, spent many years writing Isherwood. Have you read his 900-pager?


As usual, I end my email with a reference to the very contrasting fortunes of a couple of our fellow contributors. And off it goes.

Initial research suggests that Jonathan Steffen is a particularly urbane individual. I have absolutely no doubt that he will reply.

Dear Duncan,
What a very pleasant surprise to receive your email! And how nice to think that Evelyn Waugh might have approved of that line!
Well, to answer your questions, I haven’t been watching
Deutschland 83, I’m afraid, and I don’t know Peter Parker’s biography of Christopher Isherwood. Nor did I attend that launch event, I’m sad to say – possibly because I may have been on a Hawthornden Fellowship in Scotland at the time.
I spent 16 years in Heidelberg after that trip to Berlin, as it happens, learning German from scratch and eventually becoming a translator and interpreter. I taught at the University of Heidelberg for a while. I returned to the UK for family reasons almost 20 years ago and moved back to Cambridge (where, like yourself, I studied) three years ago. Nowadays I work as a freelance writer and editor, while at the same time writing poetry, songs and essays. You can find information about the commercial side of my existence at and the artistic side at Unfortunately you won’t find any references to book sales in the millions, but I have managed to stay on the right side of the law and the three points I once had on my driving license have long since elapsed, I’m very glad to say.
I would be very honored to contribute to your book, so please do get in touch. I still have a copy of
PEN New Fiction 2, and I’ll take pleasure in reacquainting myself with it when I’m back home this evening.
As for the polo, I took it up myself three years ago – something I would never have predicted from the perspective of Berlin in 1982.

Evelyn Waugh would, I’m sure, have appreciated the irony.
All the best from Cambridge, Jonathan


Why the polo mention? In the story, ‘Meeting the Majors’, a character called Jonathan has effectively invited himself to a dinner party held by a British major and his wife in West Berlin. The only other guests are two fellow majors and their wives. At one point, the host, Major Savory, tells a long story about polo players and parachutists competing for the same bit of ground where a regiment was stationed in West Germany. A parachutist landed in the middle of a polo match and the captain of one of the teams threatened to knock his head off with a polo mallet if he ever did it again. The same fate that Jonathan might fear if he ever landed up at another military dinner party?

Before I get round to replying, Jonathan writes again:

Dear Duncan,
My apologies, but prior to answering your email yesterday I had not looked at
PEN New Fiction 2 for years. I didn’t realize when answering you that you were also a contributor. I’ve re-read your story with pleasure. I think that the world of work is very under-represented in contemporary fiction. Very unusual morality tale, which puts me strangely in mind of Ben Jonson.
No idea why the publication carries no biography of me, but very interesting to go through all the names. I note the presence of Penelope Shuttle, who was the second wife of Peter Redgrove. I used to play with Peter Redgrove’s sons by his first marriage when I was a little boy growing up in Leeds.
All the best, Jonathan

As I say, Jonathan is a very urbane communicator. I’m beginning to really look forward to where our email exchange might take us. Though at the moment I’ve absolutely no idea where that might be.

Hi Jonathan,

Very glad to hear from you yesterday and today.


Re your work comments. When I left Cambridge with a mediocre degree in geography in 1979, I had no idea what to do next, but I thought I should get some experience of the world of work. My time as an accountant told me in no uncertain fashion that I was not cut out for corporate life. 'A Business Meeting' illustrates that quite well, I think. And so I gradually moved towards my real interests, in books and visual art. Judging by 'Meeting the Majors' you were almost in the same predicament. Except that, although you were aware of a gulf between your values and ‘theirs’, you seem to have found a way of bridging that gap. I say that because, as you observe, you are now part of that elite polo-playing world! A world that is hand-in-hand with wealth and power (as were the majors).   

As evidenced by your two very different websites, I think it's admirable that you've managed to both get along with the majors and retain links with your own individual creative side. I imagine this causes a certain amount of existential angst from time to time, but that could well be projection on my part. We all react differently to stress and opportunity. Certainly, all the contributors to PEN seem to have developed in different ways, and it's a privilege for me to be getting some insight into this. 

Today's post brought a signed book from Robert Edric (G.E. Armitage in the list of contributors), who has published a book a year since 1987. Today also, Penelope Shuttle flew to Madeira for a fortnight's holiday where she has promised to read the scan of her own story and tell me how she feels about it now. And this afternoon I am supposed to be speaking to Mansel Stimpson whose book about discovering his gayness in the 80s was only just published in 2014. However, I may have to put Mansel off as I'm suffering from the recurrence of a urine infection which is making it very hard to concentrate on anything. But I wanted to get this off to you now. Perhaps I can give you a call next week when I hope to be feeling better?

But do email me again if you will, I find this often gives a better record of what the various writers think than me summarising and paraphrasing phone calls.

Best wishes, Duncan


PS I’ve been enjoying reading about your creative exploits. How did you get all the photographers on board for Exposure
The postscript refers to a book that Jonathan has edited and published whereby each of forty of his poems is printed on a right hand page, while a photograph that in some way complements the poem appears on the facing page. Each double-page spread amounts to a sophisticated statement about what it is to love another human being.

Hi Duncan,
Well, the world keeps getting smaller and smaller. We were actually contemporaries at Cambridge (I was there from 1978 to 1981).
I know that playing polo goes in the same perceptual categories as driving racing cars and owning yachts, but it’s actually a little different. There are a lot of very well-heeled people in the sport, it’s true, but there are plenty of others (like myself) who would throw their last sixpence at anything with four legs and a tail.
Actually, the polo club has been very supportive of my artistic work, as you’ll see from the attached flyer. The clubhouse here was recently renovated, and I was asked to put on a concert to christen it. I don’t think anyone made any money out of the event (myself or the club!), but we all had a good time, and I put together a band for the evening which I hope will continue performing together.
As for
Exposure, that was a process of reaching out to local photographers when I lived in Windsor and then, when the project had gathered some steam, contacting photographers around the world and asking if they’d like to get involved in the book. In some cases I approached complete strangers and asked for the use of a specific photo that I had found on the internet. Other photographers opened up their catalogues to me and invited me to take my pick. Everyone was very helpful. One photographer even did a photo-shoot to illustrate a particular poem and then, when I had my doubts about the resulting picture, went off and did another. It was an amazingly collaborative process, and very enjoyable.


Sorry to hear that you’re unwell. Do be careful with that condition! It would be very nice to talk next week, if you’re feeling better then.
I also attach my CV for your reference. It’s very corporate (for which my apologies), but it will give you an idea of what I’ve been up to all this time.
All the best, Jonathan

Over to me. Not sure I want to follow up the class comments just yet. (By what route did Jonathan get to Cambridge University? Is he really suggesting that polo can be a poor man’s pursuit?) So I’ll hold back for now. Something I can do simply by reining in my shining steed and giving his neck an encouraging rub.


Exposure experience sounds like my PEN one. First, me taking the initiative. Then, going along for the ride where other creatives have pointed me. Ultimately, 'Amazingly collaborative experience and very enjoyable,' just about sums it up.

What has your experience with agents and/or publishers been over the decades? Did you try to get them interested? Did you persist? Disappointments? Successes? Brave efforts? It's the sort of thing the book's readership will want to know. Perhaps literary publishing just didn't interest you as much as more commercial/corporate opportunities did? Or perhaps there was pressure on you to make money, after all you have two children.

I shied away - like a polo pony? -  from your Ben Jonson reference re 'A Business Meeting', because I haven't read him. But I do know that he wrote at the same time as the 'A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse,' chap from Stratford. Do you know why you made the connection?

Best, Duncan

The above email was sent on the 17th of February, 2016. As was the one below. On which day, Peter Parker, Val Warner, Mansel Stiimpson and Deborah Singmaster, mounted and spurred, all had me madly darting about in the most free-flowing of PEN polo games.


Hi Duncan,
I could sing you an extremely long song about agents and publishers, which is my personal version of the extremely long song that most other authors are likely to sing you if you ask them the same question. Might do that on the telephone next week, if you have plenty of cotton wool to hand.
You are right in surmising that I have been under financial pressure for much of my life, and that this has influenced a lot of my choices. Ironically, I have become not just a professional writer but also an editor, translator and publisher, so I can see the entire publishing industry nowadays from a variety of perspectives that were not available to me during my twenties and thirties. And of course the publishing industry itself has undergone a pretty traumatic revolution in the past couple of decades. Still, I console myself with the thought that neither Balzac nor Zola had it easy, and that de Maupassant went mad from syphilis, so I’m doing not too badly on balance.
As for the Jonson reference, I was thinking mainly of
Volpone, which is a comedy of manners (a phrase you use in the story). The connection was probably triggered by the somewhat architectonic structure of the plot and by the symbolic nature of some of the names, plus the story’s concern with financial affairs. But it’s only a fleeting comparison.
All the best, Jonathan

Gosh, I am enjoying this game. Trouble is, you need complete control of your horse. Ditto your mallet. And an inkling of where the ball has been, where it is in the present moment, and – more importantly – where it’s likely to be in a few strides time.

Hi Jonathan,

Architectonic is dead right for that story of mine. I'm constantly thinking about the architectonic qualities of the current work: how to write about so many authors and keep an aesthetically pleasing and reader-friendly structure.


I spoke to our fellow PEN-man, Mansel Stimpson, yesterday. One thing he said was that his story, 'A Mouthful of Sushi', was an actual event which he had not fictionalised at all. So the time I had spent pondering the significance of Eric - the troubled gay character that Andrew/Mansel visits in the story - getting in the wrong train, one taking him away from the city centre rather than further into it, may have been wasted! Anyway, it made me wonder just how much fiction there was in your Berlin experience with the majors. Not much, I guess. But you may have pushed and pulled things a little. I'd be interested to know.

Have a good weekend. May your polo pony have the heart of a lion and eyes on either side of its tail.


But Jonathan and I aren’t finished with Friday the 19th.

Hi Duncan,
Good to hear from you, and I hope you’re feeling a little better today.
Interesting that Mansel Stimpson’s story was not a piece of fiction. I shall have to reread it (and the whole book, I think!). This includes my own story, which I must look at again before we speak. You are right in surmising that it was based on a genuine experience. It formed part of an autobiographical novel called
The Border that I was regrettably unable to complete because I was too close to some of the subject matter. I wrote large sections of it in different versions, and there may be other parts worth salvaging, but the manuscript has stayed firmly in the bottom drawer for many years. The three things that came out of it were ‘Meeting the Majors’, a poem called ‘Unter den Linden’, which was published by Acumen and republished in my collection Exposure (Falcon Editions 2012), and a song entitled ‘Letter from the East’ which I recorded on my album The Road in Our Feet.


Here is a link to ‘Letter from the East’ in YouTube. The film was made by my 15 year-old son, Dominic:
I attach a copy of ‘Unter den Linden’ as well. Hope these fragments are of some interest.
Found out last night, by the way, that Winston Churchill advised all fighter pilots in the Second World War to play polo so as to develop their ability to see what was coming from behind them.
All the best, Jonathan
By the afternoon I write back:

Hi Jonathan,

Well, I do like that poem, the film and the song. It makes me wonder what kind of book
The Border was. Maybe the Jonathan Steffen of 'Meeting the Majors' wandered out of that weird dinner party and fell in love the next day with a woman from the east. But then how did the woman, if she was from the East, end up in England? And why wasn't Jonathan 'free' to simply return to England to be with her? That's the sort of storyline that is thrown up by these fragments. Leaving lots of space for the reader/listener/viewer. Which I like. No doubt the manuscript that is lying in a bottom drawer somewhere tells a completely different story.

A few weeks ago I was telling another PEN contributor what David Bowie had meant to me. He was in Berlin shortly before you. His
Heroes has the same romantic pull to it as your 'Unter den Linden'. And his 2014 video tribute to late seventies Berlin, 'Where are We Now?', is perhaps worth looking at in relation to 'Letter from the East'.

It might even move you, as 'Unter den Linden' moved me.

What did you think of DB?

Best, Duncan

Hi Duncan,


Yes, you’re right about what happened … I realise, reading your email, that ‘Letter from the East’ should actually be sung by a woman. It would make much more sense with a woman’s voice.
Anyway, the world’s getting smaller and smaller by the hour, it seems. I wouldn’t normally mention it, but I was known as “the David Bowie bloke” during my first term at King’s, probably because I wore my collar up and radiated urban angst.
Heroes was a very important album to me, and I was actually going to use a quotation from it to preface my novel. So I was very much a young man of my times …
I love much of Bowie’s work, especially the sound he created on
Station to Station (‘Stay’, ‘Wild is the Wind’) and ‘Ashes to Ashes’. When ‘Where Are We Now?’ was released, I felt that a part of my own life had been taken out of a drawer, examined and understood. It’s a terrifically moving song, and thank you very much for bringing it into this conversation. Bowie wrote of Dylan “And you sat behind a million pairs of eyes/ And told them how they saw,” but the words apply equally to himself.
I’ve just re-read ‘Meeting the Majors’, and I must confess that I laughed out loud a few times. I think I saw them from the perspective of a somewhat angry young man and didn’t do them full justice, though. In my present existence I happen to know a former colonel who served in Bosnia in the 1990s (a polo player), and he’s one of the most intelligent and articulate people I’ve ever met, and one of the most cultured, too. Well, the arrogance of youth, etc., etc.
All the best for the weekend,

But we’re still not finished with Friday the 19th:

Dear Jonathan,

Yes, David was certainly the artist for much of our generation.

It was marvellous when he came back to life in Jan 2014. And leaving us the way he did, with those last two ambitious and mightily moving videos ‘Blackstar’ and ‘Lazarus’, was marvellous too. But there will be no more such marvels


This is what I wrote to Suzi Robinson, one of our fellow contributors to PEN 2, about a month ago: 'He was a major influence on me too from 'Starman' onwards. On my request, a copy of my first book, Personal Deliverywas sent to him. By some miracle it got there. He reviewed it very favorably on BowieNet, his own server, which was one of his playthings at the time. In that review he asked to see an earlier work of mine, Chinese Illustrations of the Path to Immortalitywhich I'd mentioned as being unpublished - and unpublishable - in my biographical note. I should say that this was in late 1998, a year or two after he had released ‘Outside’ and ‘Earthling’ and was interested in both contemporary art and publishing, his publishing house being '21'. Anyway, I sent off a copy of the manuscript and thought I'd never hear anything more. One day, after not having had a phone call from anyone for about a week, such was my London bedsit lifestyle in those days, the phone rang when I was in the bath. Hungry for human contact, I got out of the bath, wrapped the big orange towel round myself, and answered it. "Hi, this is David Bowie."  He tried to put me at my ease but my heart was beating so fast that he must have been able to hear my heavy breathing. Acknowledging my agitation and how common such a reaction to him was, he told me he went around as anonymously as possible under the name 'Steve'. He told me he'd like to publish Chinese Illustrations if it was still 'free'. I pulled myself together and asked him how much of the manuscript he'd actually read. He told me he'd read the first two chapters and loved its quietness and sense of calm. Well, it was in chapter two that I paid a little tribute to Bowie via the lyrics of 'Rebel Rebel', and so maybe that had influenced his opinion. I told him I'd be delighted if '21' was to publish the work but that I doubted his co-directors, a more conservative bunch, including the director of a Cork Street gallery and the editor of Modern Painterswould be up for it. He said that I should leave that with himBefore the call ended, David offered me his email address but I turned that down on the basis that I didn't have a computer and thought that email was an elitist form of communication. (Doh!)

'Since then I've been torn between hoping I'd get to speak to him again and telling myself that I was incredibly lucky to get a call from the person on the planet that I'd always most aspired to having a one-to-one with. 

'I guess I have to accept I won't be getting that second call.

'From Starman to stardust. Rise in Peace, David Bowie.'


That's got me thinking again about your Unter Den Linden, Jonathan.

'(the breeze)Tugging at our faces just as love was tugging at our hearts,' puts me in mind of the title you mention
, 'Wild is the Wind'. 

'Permanent Green Light' is another great line. I’ve always given DB one of them, if that’s not tautological

Have a good weekend yourself. Duncan

I wonder how Jonathan is going to react to my last mail. I don’t have to wait long to find out. Six minutes, actually:

Hi Duncan,
I’m going home to tell my girlfriend.


I spend the weekend reading The Falls by Ian Rankin. Let me try and précis the novel in a way that suggests its appeal before revealing why this section is relevant at this juncture.

A female student at Edinburgh University, the daughter of a banker, disappears. Detectives Rebus and Siobahn interview her on-off boyfriend, a guy who was violent as a teenager but who seems to have settled down. Rebus then spends much of the book following up a coffin clue. A little coffin was found at The Falls, close to the missing woman’s family home. Little coffins were also found in respect of people killed over a thirty-year period and this needs following up with the help of a junior colleague and a retired coroner. Also, Rebus is told by a museum curator (that he goes on to have an affair with), that sixteen tiny coffins were found on Arthur’s Seat at the time of the Burke and Hare murders. The coffin motif turns out to be red herring as far as the missing student is concerned, but the investigation itself is fascinating. All the people Rebus meets and interacts with. All the black history he uncovers.


Meanwhile Siobahn is following up another lead. It seems that the missing girl was playing an online game. ‘Quizmaster’, contacted by email, refuses to identify him- or her-self but agrees to let Siobahn play the same game that the missing student was in the middle of playing. With help from colleagues, Siobahn solves the cryptic clues, the penultimate one leading to the discovery of the student’s body on Arthur’s Seat. A final clue reads: ‘Add Camus to ME Smith, they’re boxing where the sun don’t shine, and Frank Finlay’s the referee.’ It’s Rebus who uncovers that Camus wrote The Fall and that Mark E Smith is lead singer to The Fall, meaning that the clue points to The Falls, plural, where the dead student was to be buried (hence boxing). Sure enough, in the graveyard (where the sun don’t shine), Siobahn finds a note on the grave of Francis Campbell Finlay setting up a meeting with the Quizmaster. The latter turns out to be the boyfriend, so everything has come round in a big circle. Not that the book was really a whodunnit. With only about a page of back-story and a page or two of interview, the reader doesn’t care either way about the boyfriend. And how can one take seriously the evil of a young man who knows both the novels of Camus and the artistry of Mark E Smith? All the interest in the novel is in the interaction of Rebus and Siobahn with themselves and other people. In other words the book is a ‘police procedural’.

It’s written so vividly that I can still recall the large cast of characters. How large? The missing girl’s mother and father and the latter’s partner at the bank and his PA. That’s 4. The boyfriend and his mother and father. 7. The missing student’s male friend and a girl she’d known when living at The Falls. 9. The old coroner and two active coroners. 12. The museum curator and her colleague. 14. The crazy woman who found the coffin at The Falls. 15. The sleazy journalist. 16. The senior cop that Rebus used to have an affair with. 17. Her boss. 18. Two of Siobahn’s colleagues who were also in line for a press liaison job. 20. The detective who helped Siobahn with the computer trail. 21. The guy who owned the game shop. 22.


That’s 22 plates that Ian Rankin keeps spinning throughout his book. If he can do it, so can I. Actually, by my latest calculation, Jonathan Steffen is plate 28.

An odd detail to The Falls. The boyfriend’s name is David Costello. Background information about him is supplied from Dublin by a Declan Macmanus. Rebus realizes that this was Elvis Costello’s real name. It almost makes you ask the question ‘why David?’ The book, like all of Rankin’s writing, is adorned with references to musicians and their music.

Rebus’s Scotland, Rankin goes through the history of his musical obsessions. First, T. Rex and Alice Cooper. Then David Bowie and Roxy Music. Punk came along when Rankin was seventeen, and the confidence instilled by it never left him. I can relate to absolutely all of that.

Near the end of the chapter ‘Does Rebus like the Cure?’ Rankin tells the reader that his books have brought him closer to musicians. He’s received emails from REM, Hawkwind and Pete Townsend. And after singer-songwriter Jackie Leven contacted Rankin they collaborated together on an album
Jackie Leven Said.

In 2012, Ian Rankin was asked to name his 13 favourite albums. Used to providing lists of his preferred music, the author obliged. The list includes albums by the aforementioned Hawkwind, Jackie Leven, The Cure, as well as David Bowie’s Outside.

I did ask Ian Rankin about David Bowie in my first email to him. He didn’t answer that point, perhaps because he knew that some information was already in the public realm. In the article I refer to above, Rankin says about Outside: ‘It's the David Bowie album that nobody likes. What I liked about it is it's a murder mystery. At it's heart it's a very noirish private eye story. A murder has happened and it's to do with the art community and art galleries, it's in an alternative universe that isn't quite our universe. Bits of narration come in, different characters. It's almost like a rock opera or a film. But it doesn't tie up at the end - apparently there's supposed to be a part two, but I don't think he's ever going to make it. It's an open-ended mystery. I went through the lyrics with a fine toothcomb trying to work out what is the plot and whodunit and the rest of it. I've not worked it out. I'm waiting for the call.’


Waiting for the call from David Bowie? If only in this strictly limited sense, I would appear to be one up on Ian Rankin.


It’s a few weeks later before I write again to Jonathan Steffen, upping the ante. Because what I do is send him the first fifteen chapters of PEN PALS. The work is still at a delicate stage of research and composition, so I guess I must trust my fellow contributor’s judgement. I’m also looking for a way to take things to another level in this chapter.

Dear Duncan,
Many thanks for sending me these chapters. I feel very privileged, and have already read the first four with considerable interest and pleasure. I love your presentation of the book as a case study in what happens to writers, and I think that your concern for the human story behind the published output is really quite unusual, and certainly presented in a very refreshing light.
I am increasingly intrigued by your approach. You mention at one point your interest in pattern, which comes through very clearly, but the word that I would apply to your technique is actually fermentation. You take known material, add a dash of something else, and observe as the original content is transformed into an utterly different state, purer in some ways but also incapable of a reverse transformation. In the process you create new pockets of reality in the source material, but also new pockets of fiction. It’s a very interesting way of dealing with your subject-matter, and is doubly compelling because you make the reader an accessory to your ruminations and recombinations.
Will read more of your book later today. In the meanwhile, I think that you’re really onto something with your revivification of the term ‘pen pal’.


All the best, Jonathan

If Jonathan keeps this up he’ll soon be my number one pen pal. In which case, I predict a riot at H.M.P. Brixton!

But hang on a minute, what was it David Bowie said about an earlier book of mine? I think this is an opportunity to quote the last paragraph of his review:

As every chapter had a different, albeit referential, thread, I kept it for its ‘chapter at bedtime’ value. After a few days I looked forward to the nightly tour of D.M.s thought process and found I’d hit upon what is probably a very obvious thing. That this is a superb little book on how and why artists think the way they do. It’s about that process of assimilation, contemplation and, finally, expression, that we all do in some form or another. An excellent book. A call to arms for those who have been cowered by the cult of anti-intellectualism. Sorry, I mean “finkin an’ at”.

What DB meant to say in conclusion was ‘fermentation and that’. Why do I say so? Because if I can revisit what JS said:

‘You take known material (assimilation), add a dash of something else (contemplation), and observe as the original content is transformed into an utterly different state (expression), purer in some ways but also incapable of a reverse transformation. In the process you create new pockets of reality in the source material, but also new pockets of fiction.’

Fermentation is my middle name! And, of course, it was David Bowie’s middle name too. And roll on the next communication from Jonathan Fermentation Steffen.

Dear Duncan,


Many thanks again for giving me the opportunity to read your MS of PEN Pals. I've read all the fifteen chapters now, and have thoroughly enjoyed them. The content is by turns amusing, instructive, and poignant, and I think that you are doing writers as a whole a considerable service by investigating the fates of the Class of '87 as you do.

I hope that this book is well promoted when it is eventually published and that it receives the level of attention it deserves. If you want me to help you try to arrange a launch event at Heffers in Cambridge, just let me know; I'm sure they'd be interested.

May I point out one small factual error in Chapter Fourteen? You mention me as having gone to an expensive fee-paying school. I did indeed go to a public school, but my fees were not paid by my parents: I won a scholarship in the 11-Plus exam. My parents would not have been able to afford to send me to a public school, nor would they have dreamt of doing so had not the scholarship possibility been available. It was the Local Educational Authority that funded my secondary education. Perhaps you could modify the relevant passage slightly?

Another thing you might want to check when you do a final edit is the quotations from the German, which would appear to have a couple of typos. Hope you don't mind my mentioning this.

Anyway, a terrific effort and a great job done, and I can't wait to meet all the other contributors at the launch party - which I definitely will attend this time! I also look forward to reading the chapter about my own contribution.

All the best, Jonathan

The chapter about Jonathan’s contribution? Time I got stuck into the guts of that.

I already know that his love of books predated secondary school. Jonathan’s told me that as soon as he learned to read and write – at primary school, at the age of five – he wanted to be an author. The fact that his mother was a librarian made the world of books seem both glamorous and familiar to him, and both his parents encouraged their son to read, and also to write and draw and paint. So he reckons that his drive to write is not attributable to any of the schools he attended, nor indeed to the experience of going to Cambridge, although of course his education was to help him in many ways in the long run.


At Solihull School (Jonathan is an Old Silhillian!) two English masters in particular played a role in his development. At King’s College, Cambridge, he won the King’s College James Prize and the Cambridge University T.R. Henn Prize, both for creative writing, and graduated with an honours degree in English. He was then awarded a Harper-Wood Travelling Studentship for English Poetry and Literature by St. John’s College, Cambridge – and it was this that was to take him to West Berlin for his meeting with the majors.

But that was a long time ago, and although Jonathan has continued to read, write, take photographs, and compose and perform music, as evidenced by his personal website, I’ve decided that the best way forward is through Jonathan’s work website. Why? Because he’s invested so much of his mature life – his energy and his intelligence - in it. What happened to Jonathan Steffen the writer? He became a Clydesdale ghost.

Every page on Jonathan Steffen Limited features a photograph of a horse. On the ‘Welcome’ page beside a picture of a chess knight is the information:

‘Jonathan Steffen Limited is an international consultancy based in Cambridge. We specialize in corporate and marketing communications, corporate culture, and corporate history.’

We? The next page is titled ‘Our Story’. The bridled head of a splendid horse is shown alongside the following information. ‘Jonathan Steffen is a writer, editor and communication strategist. He has worked in international corporate and marketing communications for 25 years, advising organizations covering the spectrum from blue-chips to start-ups. Jonathan heads a Cambridge-based team of specialists who deliver original thinking, robust research and crisp copy.’

Of course, those last three qualities are exactly what I’m trying to deliver in


On the next page, Jonathan asks: ‘Perhaps you have an important speech or presentation to deliver. Perhaps you need to get out an urgent press release, or craft a complex article for a specialist publication. Or perhaps you need an authoritative company report or an engaging corporate history.’

I feel I need all these things in relation to
PEN PALS, or will do once the book is actually published and I’m looking to promote it. And I feel JS may be just the man to help me with that little lot.

On the page called ‘Portfolio’, which features a polo pony blurred with speed, is a bullet-pointed list of major publications that Jonathan Steffen Limited has written, edited and published. Heading the list is
Tomorrow’s Answers Today: The history of AkzoNobel since 1646.

Now Google tells me that AkzoNobel is a huge company, based in Amsterdam. Not only does it have nearly 50,000 employees but in 2014 it was the most profitable company in the world due to high revenues from the sale of its pharmaceutical business. In 2008 it bought ICI. Dulux is just one of its brands that is a household name. In 2015 its turnover was 15 billion Euros and its profit 1,000 million Euros. No doubt Jonathan was paid a small fortune for researching/writing/editing this prestigious volume.

What happens to writers? Well, some writers such as Ian Rankin and Jonathan Steffen make a lot of money from giving readers what they want. Whether the readers happen to be men in the street or directors of global conglomerates. And some writers, such as Dan Corry and Jonathan Steffen, use their gifts of communication outside a strictly literary context.

There is no way that Jonathan Steffen Limited would be willing to write an introduction to
PEN PALS for the kind of money I could offer: PEA NUTS. But I suspect Jonathan would do it for me – for the PEN 2 team – for free.


Indeed, he already has done. Potentially. What do I mean? Well, I’ve clicked on the link re Tomorrow’s Answers Today: the history of AkzoNobel since 1646 and it’s taken me to AkzoNobel’s website where its possible to download a pdf of the company’s book. Jonathan Steffen is not named as the author on the title page, no-one is. And the copyright of the 280-page volume belongs to the company itself. But the introduction that Jonathan Steffen has written on page 9 makes it clear that he has researched and written the volume, which tells the story of AkzoNobel in terms of its four primary antecedents – the Dutch Akzo, the Swedish Nobel Industries, and two British companies Courtaulds and ICI. And it’s from here that (I’d like to think) Jonathan might allow me to cherry-pick an alternative introduction to the book you, dear reader, are currently reading.

So let’s go right the way back to the beginning, using the structure of Jonathan’s overview but giving it a creative tweak or two for the purposes of the present volume:


The story of
PEN New Fiction 2 is a story of writers – not a single stream of consecutive events but rather a network of lives that interrelate in ways that are always intriguing and sometimes dramatic. In telling the story of PEN New Fiction 2, PEN PALS™ attempts to make the main threads of this multiple narrative clear to the general reader.

When compiling this first ever history of
PEN New Fiction 2, the editorial team had many questions to address. Where should such a narrative commence? How should it be structured? Who/what should it include, and who/what should it omit? And what editorial criteria should inform such decisions?

Ultimately it was the number, richness and complexity of
PEN New Fiction 2’s writers themselves that provided the answers to these questions. Study of the source material indicated that one of the prime editorial challenges would be to present such a wealth of information in an accessible way, so as to ensure that the great stories and extraordinary facts of the anthology’s remarkable writers were offered in readable form.


It was therefore decided to tell the story of
PEN New Fiction 2 in terms of the subsequent history and actual words of its contributors. Among those writers whose stories figure here, reasons of space precluded any attempt at a comprehensive or definitive historical account. Rather, an attempt has been made to highlight some of the key moments in the post-PEN histories of these writers – their background, their major successes, their greatest challenges.

The fact that many of these writers evolved along parallel tracks after being published alongside each other also presented an editorial challenge. Again, with the needs of the general reader in mind, it was decided to structure the main bulk of the narrative in terms of the four main streams of literary activity that have made
PEN New Fiction 2 what it is today – the Public/State School legacy, the Male/Female legacy, the Success/Failure legacy and the Corporate/Personal legacy. It is hoped that this approach will allow readers to enjoy PEN PALS™ either as a linear narrative or as a resource that offers many different points of entry.

The timeline – a history in milestones – provides a chronological overview of some of the many significant dates in the story of
PEN New Fiction 2’s contributors. The next section – A history of histories – offers a concise account of the evolution of the anthology’s authors in narrative form. This account is complemented by The Evolution of PEN New Fiction 2’s writers in their own words, which presents a personal overview of the most significant achievements – as defined by the writers themselves - which have occurred during the anthology’s post-publication history. It is hoped that these three sections, taken together, will provide an accessible introduction to a spectacularly vibrant literary enterprise, which has assumed many shapes during the decades of its existence.

Most of PEN PALS™ is dedicated to the four legacies. As the narrative focuses on the stories of writers, often in their own unedited letters, rather than their larger productions, the individual chapters start with the background of the writers in question and end at the point at which those writers became part of a larger body, or team.


PEN PALS™ is the result of the efforts of many people – namely the authors, living and deceased, of the numerous books, articles and brochures that they have written; and their colleagues around the country who have contributed with insights, ideas and source materials.

We would like to thank C.A.R.Hills, Director of Literary Communications, H.M.P. Brixton, whose support and vision has been invaluable. Furthermore, our particular thanks go to: Gary Armitage, Connie Bensley, Wendy Brandmark, Alex McAdam Clark, Dan Corry, Elaine Feinstein, Frances Fyfield, Ralph Goldswain, Thomas McCarthy, Robert Mullen, Jeff New, Peter Parker, Ian Rankin, Suzi Robinson, Penelope Shuttle, Deborah Singmaster, Mansel Stimpson, Val Warner and Peter Whitebrook.

A special thank-you goes to Jeremy Beale for editorial assistance. His eagle-eyed overview has been invaluable in creating this book.

Jonathan Steffen and Duncan McLaren
Cambridge and Blairgowrie, March 2016

Does that work? Will I get Jonathan’s permission to treat his work in this cavalier way? Only time will tell.

In the meantime, I prod my spurs into the flanks of my trusty steed, which I’ve called Rocinante after Don Quixote’s horse in the novel the latter gives his name to. Which I know is a particular favorite of Jonathan’s. The novel, I mean, though I dare say the horse is too.

And I pronounce the immortal words: “Trot on”.

pen pals - Version 4


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