The Traverse celebrates John Calder’s legacy

John Calder in Dingle Co Kerry in 2006 during The Godot Company's Irish Tour of Waiting for Godot. Picture: John Minihan
John Calder in Dingle Co Kerry in 2006 during The Godot Company's Irish Tour of Waiting for Godot. Picture: John Minihan
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As a co-founder of the Traverse, it’s fitting that a tribute to John Calder and his remarkable life takes place there

He’s 87 years old, he’s famously cantankerous about the state of western culture, and these days he gets about only with the aid of two sticks. Yet John Calder remains one of the most remarkable cultural figures of the last 60 years, the legendary publisher who dared to bring the works of Samuel Beckett, William Burroughs and Alexander Trocchi – among dozens of others – to postwar British readers, and one of the remarkable group of people who, alongside Jim Haynes and Richard Demarco, came together in Edinburgh in the winter of 1962-63 to launch the Traverse Theatre, designed to capture the radical spirit of the Festival Fringe, and keep it alive in Edinburgh all year round.

It was Calder who published much of the new European drama – from Arrabal and Sartre to Beckett and Ugo Betti – that was the lifeblood of the early Traverse repertoire; and now, 51 years on, the Traverse is playing host to a rare Easter weekend celebration of Calder’s life and work, produced by the Edinburgh-based film-maker Gill Parry, and featuring talks and readings by Calder himself, as well as performances by the Hebrides Ensemble, and by the great Irish Beckett actor Barry McGovern, whose recent Festival appearances in Watt and I’ll Go On have thrilled Edinburgh audiences.

However comprehensive the weekend’s events may be, though, it is a tall order to capture within a day or two any sense of the intense cultural richness of Calder’s long life, or the extraordinary dynamism of this most uncompromising of men. Calder was born in Montreal in 1927, to a father who was a member of a wealthy Scottish brewing family based in Alloa, and a mother who was one of the heirs of a large Canadian industrial empire. Calder was brought up mainly in Kinross, and became a voracious reader from the age of four; but following his father’s death in 1944, he accepted his new stepfather’s dictum that he should study economics in Zurich, then said to offer the best business education in the world.

In postwar Zurich between 1946 and 1949, though, Calder’s life began to take a dramatic turn, as he mixed with a fiercely cosmopolitan crowd, developed a passion for theatre and opera, and met his first wife, an aspiring Hollywood actress called Christya Myling. Back in London in 1949, he launched his first publishing venture with a postwar novel called A Spy Has No Friends; and he has been publishing ever since, sometimes in partnership – most notably, in the 1950s, with Marion Boyars – and often alone. Within a decade, Calder had become something of a legend in the publishing world, dividing his time between Scotland, London and Paris; and in the late 1950s, in Paris, he met and became a close friend of Samuel Beckett, implicitly trusted by him as the Engiish-language publisher of his work.

In the meantime, though, he maintained his links with Scotland; and after his first marriage ended badly in 1959, he inherited from an uncle a beautiful 19th century baronial house called Ledlanet, in Kinross, and began to use it as a centre for the arts, the home of the famous Ledlanet Nights, which featured poetry, play readings, and every kind of music. In 1961, Calder married the singer and theatre artist Bettina Jonic, although that marriage, too, ended in divorce. In 1962, he and Jim Haynes co-organised the famous and sensational Edinburgh Writers’ Conference at the McEwan Hall, which featured a dazzling range of literary stars from Alexander Trocchi and Hugh MacDiarmid to William Burroughs, Henry Miller, Mary McCarthy and Marguerite Duras.

And in January 1963, Calder naturally became a key member of the first Traverse committee, meeting his lifelong Edinburgh friend, Sheila Colvin, who was the first Traverse Theatre Cub secretary; when actress Colette O’Neil was accidentally stabbed during a performance of Sartre’s Huis Clos, on the Traverse’s second night, Colvin remembers that it was Calder who rushed into the office crying “Call the press! This will make our name!”

It’s perhaps true that nothing in Calder’s later life as a publisher, writer and cultural entrepreneur has quite matched the intensity of his involvement in the cultural and sexual revolution that swept the United States and Europe between the mid-1950s and the early 1970s, or in the battles against censorship that were a key feature of those years.

In the early 1980s, financial difficulties forced him to sell Ledlanet; and it seems surprising that no Scottish publisher has ever sought to take up the Calder imprint, and to carry his name and spirit into the future.

Yet John Calder’s legacy remains an astonishing one; and at the Traverse next weekend, Gill Parry will be bringing together a collage of music, talk and performance that captures some key moments in his remarkable story. On Friday night, the Hebrides Ensemble will perform Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, the exquisite 1912 song-cycle that had its British premiere at Ledlanet in 1964. On Saturday afternoon, John Calder will be in conversation with the journalist and editor Alan Taylor, and will read from some of the works he published, with the actor Derek Watson. On Saturday evening, Barry McGovern will offer a special programme of Beckett prose and poetry; and then, of course, there will be a party, doubtless with some champagne. For if Richard Demarco believes that art originates in the meeting of friends, Calder has always seemed to feel that it begins in the clash of minds between friends, rivals, and disputatious combatants.

His greatness lies in the fact that the combat he loves is the oldest and greatest of all, the battle for the freedom of the human mind; and that is a struggle that never ends, even as John Calder nears the end of his ninth decade of reading, of thought, and of argument.