At my ordinary Canadian comprehensive, we started Latin at the age of thirteen. I loved it. I think I was fascinated by how everyday words developed a deep history and a stream of associations. The Latin primer metamorphosed into one of those old movie calendar scrolls: before my eyes, words seemed to roll back in time. On the way they bumped and jostled and danced into one another.
My childhood had been filled with an immigrant’s overdose of tongues. At home languages collided and merged in multi-lingual sentences. Now, even at school, English rocked and rolled and migrated into French and ‘romance’ to become that great seedbed - Latin. I would turn to the derivatives page and stare: this was no list of stocks and shares, but roots and tree and branches: bene, bien, benefit, benediction, benign; ferox, feroce, fierce, ferocious, feral; frater, frere, fraternal, fraternity, fratricide; filia, fille, filial, affiliate; homo, homme, human, humane, inhumanity....
I was reminded of all this the other day when I stared at the word LIBERTY. Liberty contains a book inside it: liber, livre. Indeed, it holds a whole library of freedoms, liberations and acts of generous liberality.
Books and freedom always seemed intimately linked to me. Books flew me away from my parents’ dire war-time stories and immigrant worries. Propped on elbows on floor or bed, I would time-and-mind travel propelled by another’s imagination into distant places and other lives. Words would take me off into a dark wood where dangers lurked, or into sky and desert with a charming little prince. A little later, they could launch me into the mind of a murderer like Raskolnikov or soothe with lingering poetic rhythms. You never quite knew what might come next on this journey into the unknown.
But just like at home, the characters in books rarely agreed with each other. They argued, shouted, misunderstood and misinterpreted. Their inner lives provided clues about how others thought and helped to structure my own muddle. People could rue their own actions, behave against their own will, see ghosts, go mad, and still live to tell the tale. Sometimes the characters suffered persecution and didn’t get through, yet their trajectories brought the unknown closer and traced pictures of justice.
The world of the book – the liber - was a lot more varied, generous, freer in spirit, than my little suburb in a wintry church-dominated province. Books helped to teach me what a good life might be. They were liberal in their provision. That liberality wasn’t always returned: an author’s very ability to write wrongs and unwanted truths also got books into trouble.
As I grew into my teens, D.H. Lawrence arrived in expurgated form. The word needed explanation – though no one explained to me what had been purged from the pages of Lady Chatterley. My parents had thought all reading a good. But others it seemed thought it dangerous: they were keen to forbid and control minds and the description of vagrant desires.
Around the time that I read George Orwell’s 1984, the ramifications of a more brutal kind of state and its acts of censorship also became clear. In the Soviet Union Orwell’s thought police roamed. Here writers could be imprisoned for their work, as could those who circulated banned, ‘self-published’ Samizdat. The great poet Joseph Brodsky was charged with ‘social parasitism’; Yuli Daniel and Andrei Sinyavsky underwent a show trial charged under Article 70 - which criminalized so-called anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda – and were arrested. And on it went. States for all their military power were frightened of words, the power of language to portray injustice, the ability of the book to speak truths. They were frightened of open, thinking, ‘liberal’ minds.
H.G. Wells, E.M. Forster - it’s no surprise to me that there is an overlap in the people who helped create the National Council for Civil Liberties and those who championed PEN, the writers association that campaigns for the freedom to write and the freedom to read. In 1938, both organizations battled against censorship in the press and they have been allies ever since. They grew stronger in the wake of the atrocities of World War 2, which made the need for spelled-out human rights so evident. In 1989, when Liberty took on its new name, it was Harold Pinter, a stalwart of PEN, who launched the proceedings at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (where coincidentally, I then worked).
During my time as Deputy, then President of English PEN, Liberty stood beside us in our battle to curtail the effect of legislation which would have made offending religion a crime. Religions have traditionally been as worried about the power of any book that isn’t holy as repressive states. They are easily offended. (They’re often particularly opposed to women, those childbearing vessels of purity, reading and writing). They’re not usually fans of humour, irony or laughter, either, which like language is one of the defining marks of our humanity.
In the past decades Liberty has gone from strength to strength and its work has become more important than ever in our globalized world. It has helped to bring the European Convention on Human Rights into UK law, in effect a written version of what the UK has long held dear – whatever the splutterings that are so often heard. It has battled against racism, championed legal aid, and helped those victims of war who have sought sanctuary in the UK. It has battled against the increase in state surveillance and the rights of those who have exposed it. It has championed those basic tenets which uphold human dignity in a tough and often unjust world.
1934, the year of economic gloom in which Liberty was born, saw the publication of Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust, that scathing satire of upper-class English life. In the same year came George Orwell’s Burmese Days, his depiction of imperial bigotry and corruption; Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night, the story of a difficult marriage between a psychiatrist and his fragile patient; and Graham Greene’s early It’s a Battlefield. One could say that in the interstices of all these books, there is an idea of justice. Liberty came into being to make sure that idea had reality in the world.
Lisa Appignanesi is the author of Losing the Dead, Mad, Bad and Sad, Trials of Passion and ten novels, including Paris Requiem. She was President of English PEN and is Chair of the Freud Museum London.