Home Page > News Item > In memory of Josephine Pullein-Thompson

PEN is saddened to learn of the death of Josephine Pullein-Thompson MBE, who was president of the organisation from 1994 to 1997 

Pullein-Thompson-Josephine-l-and-Diana-r

Josephine (pictured left) was well known, along with her sisters Diana (pictured right) and Christine, as the author of many dozens of pony books for children.  She also wrote adult mystery novels.

Josephine was one of English PEN’s most active and long-standing supporters.  She joined in 1962 (proposed for membership by her sister, Diana, and Lettice Cooper) and when, in 1976, it was decided that English PEN should be run separately from PEN International, Josephine was elected as the first General Secretary of English PEN.  She helped set up a dedicated Writers in Prison Committee for English PEN, issued the first ‘honorary memberships’ to writers at risk overseas, and was one of the authors of the ‘World Statement’ in support of Salman Rushdie when the fatwa was issued in 1989.

Josephine was appointed president of English PEN in 1994, taking over from Ronald Harwood.  After her term ended, she became an honorary vice-president and continued to campaign on behalf of writers around the world.  She received the Golden PEN award, chosen by the board of trustees, in 2007.

In 2009, Josephine contributed to our publication What PEN means to me, with this remarkable piece about her long involvement with the organisation:

What PEN means to me, by Josephine Pullein-Thompson

My mother, Joanna Cannan, and her cousin, Gilbert Cannan, had joined PEN in the 1920s and from the accounts given to  a five-year-old, it sounded quite a lively organisation. At that time the main aim of PEN was to bring the writers of the world together after the divisions and slaughter of World War I. The Charter gradually evolved, setting forth PEN’s precepts, and English PEN’s constitution ruled that equal numbers of men and women were to be elected to its Executive Committee.

It was the rise of fascism and the Nazis which set PEN on the path of protest; the German burning of the books, the exile of Thomas Mann and many other writers. And our first writers in prison: two in Italy and Arthur Koestler, sentenced to death in Spain.

In 1976 I was elected General Secretary of English PEN. I was re-elected on a yearly basis for the next 17 years. PEN changed a good deal during that time. All our meetings, three a month, except in August and September, were held in Dilke Street, Chelsea. It was not an elegant setting, though it had the advantage of a small bar which also served sausages. No one sponsored our wine.

My great moments were many: the pleasure of seeing several hundred spruced up PEN members taking their seats on Writer’s Day. The letter from Said Zahari, written in green ink, that told me he was free. The news that the Polish writers, all interned for supporting solidarity and lying rather miserably on their bunks, had heard Harold Pinter on the World Service speaking from our demo outside their London embassy and had burst into a spontaneous cheer. The extraordinary rush of adrenalin that had filled our office as we released the World Statement, hastily composed in London, in response to the fatwa passed on Salman Rushdie. It had been tidied up by Francis King and was now being read to PEN centres worldwide; to the French speakers by Moris Farhi and the English speakers by me, while Tom Aiken dealt with an avid press. Then, translated into the appropriate language, signed by as many writers as could be contacted, it appeared all over the world; most newspapers delighted to print it, full page and free!

What did I get out of PEN? Well, apart from the comradeship, the warm feeling of being part of the English PEN family, the travel and the stimulation of meeting writers from other countries, it was the knowledge that I was working for an organisation that really did make a difference and was of far greater importance than oneself.

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