1985 was the year that Mikhail Gorbachev became leader of the Soviet Union and began talks with Ronald Reagan about ending the Cold War and starting nuclear disarmament. It was also the year that P
.E.N., a body whose purpose was to encourage creative writing, advertised throughout the UK for short stories. What heady days!

The resulting anthology, selected by the novelist Allan Massie, appeared in January, 1987
, and includes the work of 32 Poets, Essayists and Novelists, 16 men and 16 women. The book created no shock waves at the time, barely a ripple on the consciousness of the book-reading British public, which was perhaps distracted by the question of whether the Reagan-Gorbachev Summits were actually getting anywhere. The book’s contributors, principally those that were London-based, met only once, for the launch party at PEN’s Chelsea headquarters. So why on earth this PEN PALS thirty years later?

I was one of the 32 whose story was chosen from the 500-odd submitted. I’d been writing without being published for five years and the acceptance meant a lot to me, indeed helped see me through the next ten years of rejection slips. I want to know what the publication meant to my fellow contributors. I want to know how our aspirations now compare to those held 30 years before, when we were all so much younger. And I also want to know whether what we’ve done since 1987 has, if not brought about world peace, freedom and equality, helped nudge things in those directions.


In the last fortnight, while visiting my father in hospital, I’ve re-read all the short stories complete with biographical notes, and I’ve used the web (there was no such thing back then; it was the clunking era of encyclopaedias and typewriters) to get a preliminary impression of what everyone has been up to. So here we go. One is in prison. At least three are dead. Several more have disappeared without trace. The majority have been plugging away at their chosen art form with only occasional or intermittent success. A few have a string of published books to their name. One rose to become a policy advisor to a Prime Minister. One has become one of the most influential book reviewers in the country. And one has long been, and remains, an international bestseller.

Commercial success on its own is rather a narrow way of looking at things. I want to dig down into the raw statistics. I want to think outside the box. What is success anyway? I’ll be writing to as many of the contributors as I can trace. No doubt each writer will respond to my enquiry as his or her personality and workload dictates.

‘No-one but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.’ Why do unpaid writers keep at it when, if Samuel Johnson’s dictum is accepted as true, they should really give up? I’m hoping that within this sample of writers there are several who will illustrate why the writing life is so important, regardless of worldly success.

Or is the writing life not all it’s cut out to be? In The Information, Martin Amis presents the character Richard Tull, an embittered failure of a writer. In his misery he has come to hate his celebrated colleague, Gwyn Barry. Will I be encountering this kind of professional jealousy amongst the PEN contributors? Or even falling victim to it myself?

Martin Amis was one of Granta’s ‘Best of Young British Novelists’ in 1983. Several of the names on that list, in particular Amis, Rushdie, Barnes and McEwan have gone on to become literary celebrities, soaking up much of the available press and media coverage over the last 30 years. The story of the class of ’83 is well documented. The story of the class of ‘87, which is told here for the first time, is an alternative history.


It troubles me that almost all the contributors I can find no recent mention of are women. For if I can’t trace them, I can’t take on board their experiences. So I may need some help if
PEN PALS is to retain the equal balance between the genders achieved in the original anthology. But help from who?

I should also say up-front that
PEN New Fiction 2 was edited in pre-diversity times. None of the contributors are black or mixed race, as far as I am aware, and none disabled. At this stage, I couldn’t even say that a single working class voice is represented. My investigation has to accept – more or less – all of that as given, and to explore what is there to be explored.

Did the class of ‘87 have a head boy and an editor’s pet? Was a big chunk of the class doomed from the start to be seen as failures? Have individuals managed to transform their inner selves via writing? Have some of us impacted on the wider world? Is there still a chance that we could enrich the lives of our fellow citizens?

I intend to investigate these questions. I intend, dear reader, to let you in on the investigation as it happens. And, in doing so, to make you an honorary PEN PAL.

Duncan McLaren
November, 2015

Chapter one