Public Lending Right
Brigid Brophy, A Guide to the Public Lending Right (Gower Publishing Company, 1983)
Michael Holroyd, Working on Paper: The Craft of Biography and Autobiography (Abacus, 2003)
Sir Michael Holroyd: The campaign for PLR (Public Lending Right) began in 1951 and it was led by A. P. Herbert. But the Public Libraries and Museums Bill of 1964 contained no provision for Public Lending Right at all. That was after 15 years of battle. “I have nothing but frustration to report”, Herbert wrote. “I’m tired of sweet reason, we are entitled to anger.” And that’s what I took up as a challenge in the late 1960’s. The Times gave me a whole page, some 3000 words, to attack the first Minister for the Arts, Jennie Lee. She had promised so much and given us nothing. I aimed at making her a ridiculous figure, a book worm who never read a book. My job over the next few years was to challenge Ministers of the Arts from Lord Eccles to Norman St John-Stevas. I remember writing a letter to The Times asking whether anyone knew if Lord Eccles was still alive, and no one answered. My aim was to mix entertainment with seriousness, making readers understand what Public Lending Right was and hoping that they would support our side of it. The Society of Authors had been very active and in the early 1970’s, a powerful new organization joined the battle. It was called the Writers Action Group, and it had been created by Brigid Brophy and Maureen Duffy. They wanted PLR to be based on the number of titles borrowed in libraries. It was a better method than the version supported by the Society of Authors. Which was based on the number of titles bought by the public libraries. But there was one obstacle, as I saw it anyway, and [that was that even though] the borrowing scheme was better, there wasn’t a new technology which could put it immediately into force. So we’d have to wait perhaps a decade and we’d [already] waited so long. I suggested therefore a compromise, a brilliant compromise. Get PLR legislation done, but have a paragraph in it which would enable the change of purchase loan to people who took books out, so if we reached a particular place, we could switch it one to the other, and indeed authors themselves could be given a vote to do this, which they undoubtedly would I think. Brigid and Maureen thought this beautifully impractical. At about that time, I went abroad for about 18 months to do some research work on a biography, and Antonia Fraser took my place as Chair of the Society of Authors committee. She came up with a brilliant idea, I think. A piece of diplomacy let’s call it. She accused me of diplomacy, I will now accuse her of that. She was obviously [already] a member of the Society of Authors but she also joined the Writers Action Guild, so she had one foot in each camp. And at the end of the 1970’s, PLR became law and was based on loans. Before that it would not have been possible.
It’d been a time of desperate warfare between authors. [They’d] really made enemies of themselves for some time. But it ended happily. Brigid and Maureen worked extraordinarily hard at PLR. I remember driving late at night past where Brigid lived and the light was still on and she was still at her desk doing this. It was extraordinary and it didn’t help her health, the entire thing. I went to see Brigid after all this was over. She was in a wheelchair and I told her that her cat would soon be jumping up on to her knees as she was in the chair and be wheeled around the place. And she said her cat was far too timid. About a month later she wrote to me and said that the cat had jumped up exactly as I have predicted. So I was completely right and she was wrong, about some things. In fact she was very good to me. – She was a Bernard Shaw scholar and she had written quite a lot and I couldn’t put my hand on something she’d written when I was writing on Shaw. The first volume came out. And I think this was the last thing that Brigid ever wrote. It was for America. She reviewed the book at some length and she saw that I had got an idea which had come from her. And she said, “It seems a little familiar.” And then she gave me a very, very generous review. You wouldn’t get that from anyone.
Facilitator: Wow, that’s excellent. One thing that I was interested in, is to what extent the Society of Authors and WAG had some tensions before you and Antonia arrived. My understanding is that they (WAG) resigned from the Society of Authors.
Holroyd: I think they did. They may have come back to it eventually. [It had become very bitter.]I remember we had one meeting at the Society of Authors and some of the members of the Writers Action Group were shouting. The poor old Head of it then was a judge but his judgment had always been very quiet. All he had to do was say, “Keep quiet”, and everybody would. Nobody took the slightest bit of notice of him at the Society of Authors. It was very difficult and there were people who had worked extremely hard on the background of it. And they went for the loan one. The one [based on the number of books bought.] There was one advantage to it. [Namely,] that those books which were on shelves, which were not taken out of a library, would get something. Whereas with the Maureen and Brigid thing, those books which were considered to be just in the library, not taken out, got nothing. And it was interesting because in some libraries they were in shelves which couldn’t be taken out, in other libraries they [could]. So it wasn’t perfect, but then [nothing ever is.]
Facilitator: Do you remember the cap? That was about the most selling, the best selling authors. There was an implementation of a cap that they would not get more money than a certain amount. That was also a practicality that some people were not happy with?
Holroyd: Well, I was happy with that, because those authors whose books were borrowed most were very often the same as those authors who would sell most. So one lot of authors were getting richer and the other ones were still quite impoverished and it would be a bigger gap between the two, and I didn’t think that was helpful. So a certain amount goes back and you divide it.
Facilitator: My understanding when I was reading some material is that Victor Bonham-Carter was [at the Society of Authors] before you and Antonia and he was a bit more reluctant.
Holroyd: Well, he’d work so hard before anyone had put forward the idea of how it should be done, and he did an enormous amount of work. He’d been ahead of us for a long time. He made Public Lending Right much better known. He made speeches, he wrote things and so on. But it was as if he’d backed the wrong horse. It should be remembered that the borrowing scheme couldn’t have been put into practice before [the late] 1970’s. So the only thing that Brigid said which wasn’t quite true was, “Oh, we could do it now.” That wasn’t true. You had to wait for about seven or eight years before the technology came up to do it, and then it was fine.
Facilitator: Maureen got into computers and learned all the technicalities.
Holroyd: They went into computers.
Facilitator: LOGIKA?
Holroyd: Yes, I’m particularly backward on that, and my silence was very impressive. I realised they were on the right side of things but they both knew it couldn’t be done immediately. They knew it couldn’t. I sometimes say it started in 1951, because that just shows you how long a time people had been waiting and making speeches and going to do this, that’s why some people got tired and said we must get it as soon as we can. It’s a human thing. Perfectly understandable. This is why I wanted a form where you had in the legal document somewhere where it says you could change from one method to another if that was practical, and if the authors wanted it.
Facilitator: John Brophy was also [involved].
Holroyd: Yes, he was at the very beginning. I am not sure Brigid wanted that mentioned. But yes, he was, you are right.
Facilitatory: What about ministers? What about politics? Was there a sense that Labour were more sympathetic [than Conservatives]?
Holroyd: Yes, Labour were. I remember after I did my big piece, one Conservative Member of Parliament, who was a writer, was one of the people [who were] against. And he said, “Let us hear no more about this.” And as soon as it came in, he was taking his money. He put in for it. Whereas someone from [Labour], he was a writer too, and he had nothing to do with it. He said, “I’m not really interested in this.” So when it came in, he refused to put his books in. that was an honest thing. So the Labour Party party came out rather better than the Conservative Party.
Facilitator: Was Michael Foot very helpful?
Holroyd: Yes, he was very good. He was a real writer and he quite liked “campaigns”. I liked him very much. He was very helpful to writers. He was good when Salman [Rushdie] was under pressure. I remember having lunch with them secretly.
Facilitator: One thing that people were mentioning in the interviews was the “newsletter” that WAG was producing, that was one way that they made the group.
Holroyd: Yes, that was very good. I remember she said in one of the letters that if the Society of Authors can’t get there, we will have have a ….what was it? And she mistyped it so it was not a “war” but it was a sort of ‘a piece of cake’, I cannot remember it now but luckily everybody laughed at it, including Brigid. So we still had some sense of humour.
I felt sorry for some people at the Society of Authors because they worked so hard during those days. When you hear AP Herbert, the nicest of men, saying, “We are angry now” after 15 years he had been working on it, meeting people, they have agreed and then…. vanished. Those days had been forgotten because but it did not work but they were necessary, I think.
Facilitator: And you were telling me that you were not in the demonstration in Belgrave Square
Holroyd: I was abroad. I was starting a book on Bernard Shaw, going to Ireland, going to the United States, and it took 15 months. When I came back I was rather out of the thing although it was coming along. But I did write something about Norman St John-Stevas; he didn’t like very much. He sent his secretary around.
Facilitator: Do you remember the passage of the Bill? Was there a sense that it was going to be successful or that it was going to be stopped in Parliament?
Holroyd: We weren’t absolutely certain, but I think it’s time had come. A lot of MP’s knew what a long time people had invested in this one way or another. And authors were fighting one another about it. Well, this must be serious. And they changed their minds after a long time. But God, they take time to change their minds or anything! So that was good.
Facilitator: Authors…. Do you remember if there were also journalists included? Was there any problem about using “authors” as a term? Did it include journalists or other types of authors?
Holroyd: I think everybody was allowed if they had a book. And it didn’t mean you had to have X number of books, or that you didn’t write other things. All books with living authors could straight away come in. No dead authors to start with. – And of course, now people can get money from Public Lending Right through having the copyright.
Facilitator: I think there was also even some money, a pot of money in Germany or somewhere for British authors that it had been collected already.
Holroyd: Yes, I forgot about that, but yes.
Holroyd: Of course, Scandinavia had it before us. But they took the number of books bought by libraries. They had to because the technology couldn’t do anything. So we sometimes gave Sweden as an example of how things could work. We were last, but we got the better method.
Facilitator: And was there any involvement of publishers?
Holroyd: Publishers were not always for us at all. For a long time they were against us, and also librarians. So we had to persuade a number of librarians and some people who were not in the trade, if you like. We had to persuade them a lot.
Public Lending Right