FOR THE LAST fifteen years, the English Centre of PEN has boasted a small committee of stalwart members who regularly send books, donated by publishers, to writers around the world who are imprisoned for what they have written or said. It is not the most inspiring job: packing j@ bags, enclosing notes of good wishes and sending them to a prison address in a farflung country. ~nevitablys, ome parcels go astray. Some are returned marked 'inconnu'. Some vanish into a void. Some get as far as the prison and no further. Occasionally the books do reach the addressee. A corres~ondence might arise, a friendship form, and the book Aght be folloGed by others, answering the prisoner's requests. Dictionaries and phrase books are the most popular, as the prisoner and his cellmates use the opportunity to improve their English.
China is a country where the packets are sent with only the slightest of hopes. When I met a released Chinese prisoner he said that the prison guard told him that he was receiving books tiom England, but did not let him have them; the guard had meant to tantalise