Issue 206
Winter 2018/19

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Jan 21, 2019

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Winter 2018/19 (6.5MB)

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John Calder: Edinburgh iconoclast

Richard Demarco offers a personal memoir of the doughty publisher who brought a gale of fresh air to a stuffy Edinburgh – and beyond…

THE DEATH of John Calder marks the end of an era. He was born in 1927, three years before my own birthday in July 1930. He died some weeks after the deaths of our mutual friends, John Martin and Jeremy Wilson. I was privileged to know them in their youth as among those who, in the early years of the Edinburgh Festival, I associate with the founding of the Traverse Theatre Club and international Art Gallery.

Man of many talents: Calder the artist in later life

The Traverse world helped significantly to dispel the gloom and despondency of the immediate post-Second World War years and there is no doubt in my mind that John Calder was the very personification of all that the Traverse world represented.

The Traverse was born out of the miracle of the Edinburgh Festival as part of the healing balm which helped begin the process of curing the wounds of war, both mental and physical.

My memories of John Calder are associated with the friends he gathered around him, inspired by his cosmopolitan lifestyle.

I am writing these thoughts down as I voyage across the waters of the Pentland Firth, separating the northernmost point of the British mainland from the Orcadian cliffs of the island of Hoy. The sun is shining on the end of a day in which my thoughts are focused on the lives that belonged to John Calder's generation.

They inherited the experience of world conflict made manifest in particular on the European continent. Orkney is associated in my mind with the lives of those Italian prisoners of war who laboured to construct the Churchill Barriers in Scapa Flow.

They managed to provide conclusive proof that everyone, given the opportunity, is born to be creative, despite the fact that their humanity was reduced as prisoners in a world far removed from their Italian homeland. They have given to Orkney a symbol of hope, expressing the truth embedded in the cultural heritage of Europe defined as Christendom.

My earliest memories of the Edinburgh Festival are interwoven with those of Jim Haynes's Paperback Bookshop, which John Calder found to be the ideal home for his Calder and Boyars publications, altogether unacceptable in the then world of Edinburgh's booksellers.

The Paperback provided the setting in which John Calder, together with Jim Haynes and Sonia Orwell, the widow of George Orwell, planned the Edinburgh Festival Writers' Conference in 1962. The following year it brought together playwrights rather than novelists and its programme included the first manifestation ever of 'performance art' as an expression of avant-garde culture.

In this year, the Edinburgh Festival was tested to breaking point because of the scandalous nature of what was defined as a 'happening' involving Allan Kraprow, Mark Boyle, Ken Dewey and Carol Baker.

It tested the acceptable concept of British theatre defined by the likes of Kenneth Tynan, David Frost and Bernard Levin.

It tested the Edinburgh Festival under the direction of Lord (George) Harewood to the breaking point because it included what was considered to be the scandalous presence of a young female in her role as an artist's model displaying her immobile nude beauty in a wheelchair for no more than a few seconds.

Female nudity was obviously unacceptable and John Calder found himself in the forefront of protests against the censorship of the arts as a founder member of the Traverse Theatre Club and the founder and director of what proved to be the Scottish version of Glyndebourne Opera in what he defined as 'Ledlanet Nights'.

These took place in the Kinross-shire Ochil foothills on the Calder family estate which John Calder had inherited. 'Ledlanet Nights' proved to be an extension of the world of the Traverse Theatre Club. It brought together opera, experimental music and theatre, music recitals and art exhibitions. It proved the point that the spirit of the Edinburgh Festival could not be contained within the world of the Edinburgh City Council.

John Calder's patronage of all the arts defined him as a true European and, when I think of him, I endeavour to imagine the locations of the many hundreds of opera productions he faithfully attended over the length and breadth of Europe and his unfailing patronage of the French Nouvelle Vague writers such as Francoise Sagan, Marguerite Dumas and Alaine Robbe-Grillet and his life-long friendship and enduring patronage of the writings of Samuel Beckett.

Without John Calder, neither the world of the Traverse, Ledlanet or the Paperback Bookshop could have flourished.

I associate his life as a student at the University of Zurich and his involvement in the world of the Dadaists in Zurich's Café Voltaire with the fact that he lived happily in Paris in his later years in his happy marriage with Sheila Colvin. Together, they personified the fact that Edinburgh well-deserves its unique role as a European capital of culture.

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