John Simmons looks back at 26:50, Free The Word - and the need for stamina
Quite a week. Ran marathon in Paris on Sunday. Hobbled around Paris Monday, home Tuesday. Workshop at The Writer on Wednesday, then reception for International PEN’s Free the Word. Green light for new PEN identity on Thursday. Gathering at Royal Festival Hall for 26:50 writers on Friday.
Some big long-term projects came to a conclusion this week, and Sunday was a fine send-off to much of that physical and mental effort. With the marathon done, I could get back to my usual Sunday morning run: through Highgate Woods and Hampstead Heath, back home to Muswell Hill. It now seemed a short ten miles. I loved it. These are parts of London that I wouldn’t swap for anywhere else in the world.
In the evening we went to the Purcell Room at the South Bank to the final event of PEN’s Free the Word festival. I’d started out by naming this two years ago. Since then the relationship with PEN and 26 has blossomed. It’s led to a new identity, visual and verbal, and to two creative collaborations between 26 and PEN. Both those collaborations came together on Sunday evening.
Sunday was the 51st day of the 26:50 campaign. Writers from 26 had posted daily responses, exactly 50 words, to the life and work of writers who have been threatened, imprisoned or murdered for their writing. The campaign was to mark 50 years of PEN’s Writers in Prison committee. For 50 days, 50 different writers from 26 had produced brilliantly concise pieces of writing with an extraordinary emotional range. Sunday was the 51st day of the campaign, and the final piece appeared, Elise Valmorbida’s “The Unnamed Writer” https://26-50.tumblr.com/
So 26:50 came to a poignant close. It also joined, like two streams forming one river, the earlier project called 26 Exchanges. This had appeared first, as an exhibition and a book, at last September’s London Design Festival. It had involved UK-based writers responding to the work of PEN writers from different parts of the world. How do you respond – translate, comment, think – when faced by another writer’s completely different language and culture? I’d sub-titled the book Journeys between and behind the lines of language . The exhibition used extracts from the Exchanges in the writers’ own voices and it was a moving experience, created with the design skills of Harry Pearce at Pentagram and Sanky at All of Us. Now we’d been given the opportunity to show a 5-minute film version before and after the final Free the Word event.
The event celebrated the birthdays of Chinua Achebe and Derek Walcott, two of the world’s greatest living writers. Volcanoes in Iceland played havoc with the writers’ attendance but Achebe joined in by video link from New York and Walcott by audio. There were some wonderful readings. Eighty years old and Achebe and Walcott were as vital as ever.
Their readings were topped and tailed by the animated type and voices of 26 Exchanges on screen as the audience came in and went out. Even as I write this I’m realising that the link between all these activities is stamina. It’s a quality we all need as writers, but not often recognised. The apparent results of our efforts might be only a few words, but they have to be the right words. It can take an awful lot of effort, to make those words seem effortless.