Edinburgh Book Festival marks 1962 Writers' Conference

Henry Miller at the 1962 conference Henry Miller (left) was one of more than 70 writers to attend the 1962 conference
Austrian writer Erich Fried discusses literary censorship at the 1962 conference Austrian writer Erich Fried discusses literary censorship at the 1962 conference
William Burroughs with English poet and novelist Stephen Spender William Burroughs (right) with English poet and novelist Stephen Spender
Mary McCarthy speaking in support of Burrough's book Naked Lunch in 1962 Mary McCarthy gave public support to Burrough's book Naked Lunch in 1962
Scottish writer Alexander Trocchi at the conference Scottish writer Alexander Trocchi at the conference

"We are imposing no prohibitions on the free expression of opinion, however controversial or unusual."

These were the words of John Calder - one of the organisers of the 1962 Edinburgh International Writers' Conference - in the week before the event.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the "revolutionary" conference where 70 of the world's most celebrated writers came to Scotland to discuss the world of literature.

Writers including Norman Mailer, William Burroughs, Hugh MacDiarmid, Arthur Miller, Muriel Spark and Alexander Trocchi spent one week discussing a different literary theme each day.

And 50 years on, the Edinburgh International Book Festival is commemorating the anniversary of the event by hosting the 2012 Edinburgh Writers' Conference.

So, what happened at the 1962 Conference? Why has it been held so highly in the Scottish literary and cultural consciousness?

'Change society'

Angela Bartie and Eleanor Bell have written a book exploring the story behind the conference - they said the 1962 event played a pivotal role in shaping the revolutionary ideas of the 60s - ideas such as sexuality, drug-taking, the future of the novel and literary censorship.

Start Quote

Far from being something that happened 'elsewhere', the sixties shook things up right here on Scottish soil”

End Quote Dr Angela Bartie Literary historian

Dr Bartie said: "For too long Scotland has been viewed as peripheral to the major cultural upheavals of the 1960s.

"Our research shows just how significant this conference was in showcasing the new writers and ideas that helped to change society, and the ways in which it inspired new generations of artists and writers."

She continued: "Far from being something that happened 'elsewhere', the 60s shook things up right here on Scottish soil."

Dr Bell said: "The conference really helped to change the level of the debate - it helped open doors for people in terms of their thinking and the possibilities for literature and culture at the time as a result of all these writers being in one place."

2012 conference

In 1962 the conference was held in Edinburgh University's McEwan Hall - where the average audience was more than 2,000 per day.

Dr Bell said that the size of the audience was a key factor which explained the far-reaching impact of the conference - because the ideas discussed influenced thousands of young minds.

Eleanor Bell and Angela Bartie will open the 2012 Writers' Conference at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on 17 August, with the organisers of the 1962 Conference - John Calder and Jim Haynes.

Writers taking part in the event include Patrick Ness, Irvine Welsh, Ali Smith and Elif Shafak.

Dr Bell said the conference would take the form of a "conceptual re-echoing of 62".

The event will discuss the same ideas - with modern twists - and will follow the same format.

Dr Bell said discussing similar themes and ideas at the 2012 conference as were debated in 1962 would be a good way "of testing the cultural zeitgeist".

After Edinburgh, the World Writers' Conference will visit 15 different cities over the next year so that writers around the world can input into the debates surrounding writing and its relationship to contemporary life.

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Edinburgh Festivals 2012

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