When Alan Bennett's wary headmaster character declares: "I am all in favour of free expression, provided it's kept rigidly under control," he articulates a central paradox in our approach to artistic liberty. We are proud to champion it but worry endlessly about the rights of different groups, about policing and enforcing.
At Dalkey Archive Press, the leading publisher of literature in translation, they are used to struggling against both tacit and open artistic suppression. But recently it has joined something bigger and even more ambitious: London's "Free Word Centre". From this month, 60 Farringdon Road houses the new charity and nine other charitable organisations from the sectors of literature, literacy and free expression, such as Index on Censorship, Article l9, English PEN, the Reading Agency, the Literary Consultancy and Booktrust.
The FWC is more than the sum of its parts — and this is more than the usual rhetoric. It also provides Concept Lab, a forum for testing risky new ideas. It has a lecture hall, meeting rooms and hot desks, and invites all comers to partake at whatever level they prefer. Above all, the FWC is unique in bringing together organisations across literature, literacy and free expression, to collaborate with each other and partners around the world. Britain is the first country to create a centre that specifically works on literature and its international and political context. Ursula Owen, the project director who brought the idea of the centre to realisation, insists that politics should not be a dirty word but, on the contrary, that it is "absolutely essential" we make this connection.
The idea of such a centre was born at a 2004 meeting held by Arts Council England. Its London head of literature, Nick McDowell, pointed out the "glaring
omission" of "a centre dedicated to literature and free expression" in London, a city in every other way a world capital of culture. Where indeed would your London taxi take you if you were looking not for dance or visual art but for literature?
In 2007, Fritt Ord ("Free Word"), a distinguished Norwegian foundation with its origins in a newsstand company, agreed to buy 60 Farringdon Road for Free Word. Its primary aim is to support freedom of expression and open, informed public debate, concepts which are highly valued in Norway. Erik Rudeng, Fritt Ord's director, explains: "We regard the London free expression organisations as pioneering, leading European players, and London as the most diverse metropolis, where controversies, reconciliations and other activities concerning freedom of expression are most intense."
The director of Free Word, Shreela Ghosh, says that freedom of speech and the plurality of speaking voices form a measure of a society's health. She is clear that protecting and promoting free expression does not entail protecting English. Rather, voices in every tongue should be heard — a good thing for our Norwegian partners. Although they do speak excellent English.