Elizabeth Paterson biographical note
By Jane Spender
On achieving a 1st Class degree in English, Elizabeth went to Canada on an assisted passage as a landed immigrant, and spent two years travelling and working there, including a job as secretary to the head of the Chemistry Department of the University of British Columbia. Returning home she had several years of ‘drifting, enjoyably but indecisively’ through secretarial jobs working for a headmaster, a sales director in a printworks and a literary agent, and also as secretary to the playwright Giles Cooper. Following his death, she temped until she spotted an advertisement in 1968 for a personal secretary to David Carver and joined PEN.
She remained at PEN for the next 29 years, in a job that grew from a busy but manageable personal assistant role to include preparing programmes for and running meetings for English PEN, dealing with mailings to the Centres, assisting in the preparation and running of Congresses, and taking the minutes of the International Executive Committee (as the Assembly of Delegates was called until its name was changed in 1979). When Peter Elstob became International Secretary, he gave her the title Administrative Secretary not only to acknowledge the fact that she had been virtually running the International Headquarters during David Carver’s last illness but also to indicate that he wanted her to continue doing so during his frequent travels abroad. The work continued to grow and develop until her retirement in 1997.
Elizabeth believed that her chief value to the organisation was that she represented continuity to PEN Centres: a familiar face at Congresses, a familiar voice on the phone, a welcoming hostess to visitors to the international headquarters, and someone who would always help where possible, and who they regarded as a friend even before meeting her.
In 2001 she published a highly amusing and only slightly enhanced memoir of her time at PEN from 1968 to 1988, concentrating on the lighter side of the organisation, including the vagaries of its members, while not ignoring its founding ideals: Postcards from Abroad: Memories of PEN (Sinclair-Stevenson, London 2001).