16 September 2012
Posted in Books and Poetry
By Nick Yapp
Eva Figes, who died last month, grew up the hard way. She was born in Berlin in April 1932, just six months before Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany. During the Nazi persecution Eva’s father was arrested and spent some time in Dachau concentration camp before being inexplicably released. Eva, her sister and her parents escaped from Germany in 1939 and came to live in Britain. Fear gave way to bewilderment, but in 1953 Eva left Queen Mary College, University of London with a good degree, and with the determination to become a writer. As such, she became internationally famous, writing both prize-winning and experimental novels, literary criticism and polemics, of which the most famous is Patriarchal Attitudes: Women In Society, published in 1970.
Stubborn, outspoken, passionate and deeply concerned for the welfare and standing of writers in society, Eva became a member of the Guild as soon as book writers became eligible to join, in 1974. Two years later, she and Tim Jeal, both newcomers to the Authors’ Committee (forerunner the Books Committee of the Guild), worked together to draw up a draft Minimum Terms Agreement (MTA) between writers and publishers. It was a mammoth task, combing through an immense pile of existing publishers’ contracts to select and collate the best practicable terms. Then came the struggle to persuade publishers to accept the MTA. The draft was mailed to 50 leading publishing houses. Almost without exception, publishers dismissed the idea that there was any need to depart from the old system of gentlemanly exploitation of writers. Eventually, Christopher Sinclair-Stevenson, Managing Director of Hamish Hamilton, entered into voluntary negotiations with the Guild, and the first MTA was signed in July 1977. Sinclair-Stevenson’s brave initiative may well have been influenced by the fact that three of his leading writers at the time – Brigid Brophy, Maureen Duffy and Elizabeth Jane Howard – were all members of the Guild’s Authors’ Committee.
Eva and Tim had won the first of many battles, but the war continued for another nine years. It was still waging when I became a very junior member of the Books Committee, and an almost mute member of the MTA negotiating team. I remember how much in awe I was of Eva’s expertise and determination. She spoke with such authority and such certainty, and was rightly scornful of the pettifogging attitude of so many publishers.
For most of the second half of the 1970s and the whole of the 1980s, Eva was on the Executive Council of the Guild. With Jill Hyem, Amanda Hopkinson and others, she was strongly to the fore in setting up and safeguarding the Women’s Committee, which faced opposition from those within the Guild who believed that there was no need for such a committee as there were already enough women on all the other committees.
In 1986, Eva became Co-Chair of the Guild, with Alan Plater – a formidable combination. Her inaugural message to the members was printed in the November edition of The Writers’ Newsletter. It was headed The State of the Union, and was a wake-up call to the Guild, as was evident from her opening paragraph: ‘This is my first address to the Guild as Co-Chairman, and I have to tell you that I am deeply troubled by the lack of input from the general membership. This is a small, professional union, not a benevolent society, not the RSPCA (Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Authors) and we cannot survive as an effective organisation unless more members obey the spirit of a union, which is to give as well as take.’
Her call was for money and time. The Guild was in a desperate financial situation, and Eva had been angered by the defeat by one vote at the previous Guild AGM of a motion to raise the annual subscription fee minimum from £30 to £50. ‘One thing is clear,’ she warned, ‘if this happens at the next AGM, there may not be one the year after.’ She poured scorn on those who had suggested there were other ways to Guild could raise money: by ‘sales of work, or free lectures given by members…’ And she had little time for those who – at the same AGM – had ‘voted with enthusiasm for a feasibility study into the possibility of getting our own premises. Hardly very logical…’
The Guild survived, as it always seems to. But Eva was an outstanding example of the life blood of the Guild, of those who commit themselves heart and soul to the cause from which the rest of us benefit year after year after year. Here is how she ended her State of the Union: ‘The strong should help the weak, that is the essence of a union, but it is not in the spirit of a union for half the membership to be carried by a small minority. ‘Walk tall’ was the message of our president at this year’s AGM. But you will never walk at all unless you stand on your own two feet.’
Nick Yapp is Chair of the Guild’s Books Committee