Why revisit the 1962 International Writers’ Conference fifty years on? In our day jobs as academics, we have been researching the cultural and literary significance of the Scottish sixties for several years, and met by chance at a seminar in 2009. We realised how interconnected our research was and decided to mark the 50th anniversary of this momentous conference: if we couldn’t recreate the conference ourselves, who else could take this on?
We were keen to revisit the 1962 conference’s legacy in a book that would help bring it to life for those who were not there. The Association for Scottish Literary Studies were a big help in finding people who had either attended, or been influenced by, the 1962 conference.
In 2010, we sent off a letter to Nick Barley, Director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, and planted the seed of our idea. Through connections with partner book festivals around the world, the Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference will revisit the importance of the 1962 conference over a whole year. We are delighted to have been involved and are particularly proud to have the opportunity to share a platform with John Calder and Jim Haynes in 2012 to mark the 50th anniversary of their seminal event.
In February 2012 we interviewed John Calder and Jim Haynes in Paris. One of the joys of these interviews was the interplay between these two lifelong ‘hustlers’ as they went on a trip down memory lane together. Our other main interview is with the Scottish artist Alexander ‘Sandy’ Moffat, who conveyed just how life changing his attendance at the International Writers’ Conference in 1962 turned out to be.
With the benefit of hindsight, why was the 1962 International Writers’ Conference so important? We argue that the conference presented something totally new to Presbyterian Edinburgh and was clearly the biggest literary spectacle the city had ever encountered. Its timing was crucial. As Andrew Hook comments in his reflections, it ‘appeared on the brink of the Sixties cultural explosion that would define the entire post-war artistic world’. It asked a lot of major questions about the role of art and literature in society. And it really did shake things up.
It presented a snapshot of the times, encapsulating that sense of transition between the conservatism of the 1950s and the experimentation of the 1960s.
The conference acted as a catalyst for change; it was one of the things that young writers and artists in the making had been waiting for, inspiring them to get out there and change things. Jenni Calder saw it as a ‘shot in the arm’ for Scottish writers, while Sandy Moffat recalled:
…simply because of the intellectual content of that Conference and what you were hearing, you couldn’t ignore it, you had to act on it somehow or other. To ignore it would have been, what would you have been then? (Laughter) Nothing at all. It was there, there it was right in front of you… and you could literally reach out and grab it.
Sandy Moffat did ‘reach out and grab it’ when he and John Bellany mounted an exhibition of their paintings on Castle Terrace railings, with a supporting ‘manifesto’ written by Alan Bold, as a response to what they saw as the conservatism of Scottish painting and exhibiting. Directly influenced by the 1962 International Writers’ Conference, they then went on to influence another generation of young Scottish artists and to stimulate significant debate in the visual arts.
For others, the Conference may have been an elaborate media stunt – a means of publicising writers and thus increasing book sales, rather than of educating the public and encouraging debate. For some, it was simply an affront to respectable values… Yet, looked at from another angle, we could ask how many other literary conferences are still so vividly and widely remembered 50 years later?
Drs Eleanor Bell & Angela Bartie, University of Strathclyde
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