Harold Pinter Remembered
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I think everyone was a little nervous of Harold. Including Harold, sometimes. He was affable, warm, generous, impulsive – and unpredictable. Like his plays, where the hyper-banal surfaces – the synthetic memories and false nostalgia of Old Times, the aural drivel of Rose in The Room, the bogus familial warmth of The Homecoming – are fragile and about to be displaced by something ugly and authentic, something obscure and violent. Plays where on countless occasions – think of Lenny in The Homecoming or the alcoholic Hirst in No Man’s Land – a speech will take off into dramatic Tourette’s, unstoppable and at the edge of sense. The plays are edgy, alert to something sinister at the periphery. Harold once described his plays as being about the weasel under the cocktail cabinet. Later, he repudiated this description. In fact, it is the perfect encapsulation, but no one likes to be fixed in a formulated phrase – particularly a phrase of one’s own coinage. The plays are unstable, never more dangerous than when the surface of the dialogue is at its emptiest: think of One for the Road, with its grotesque affability – signalled by the title’s pub-speak – and its pragmatic, morally drained, unexcitable sadism.

Style, wrote Buffon, c’est l’homme. With Harold, it was as well to be aware that the weasel wasn’t confined to the drama. It might draw blood on the domestic stage. He was all about surprise and social suspense.

I first met him in Claire Tomalin’s basement kitchen in Gloucester Crescent at an impromptu party. Claire was the literary editor of the New Statesman. I was her summer stand-in theatre critic (while Benedict Nightingale was having his annual fortnight’s holiday) and I had reviewed No Man’s Land, with Geilgud as Spooner and Ralph Richardson as Hirst. Harold thanked me for the review. I was emboldened and explained that I’d had two putative interpretations – both wrong, I now think – but not enough space (800 words) adequately to ventilate the two takes on his play.  He looked at me quizzically, almost boyishly, his eyes smiling. ‘How can I help you?’ he said. ‘Well,’ I said, ‘I was wondering if I was right.’ He stopped smiling, reached into the inside pocket of his jacket, and took out a spectacle case. Opening it, he put on a pair of dark glasses and looked at me, enigmatically, eyelessly. After a pause: ‘Search me, squire.’

My theory was that the non-sequiturs and anacoluthon in the dialogue of the two principals was there to conceal some deeper malaise – a flimsy alibi, nonsense overlaying madness, perhaps, grammatical confusion masking mental disintegration, ageing, say, or a deeper derangement. The supporting cast had the feel of high-class minders. There was a sense of supervision. But nothing specific, something present and incorrect. Think Tennessee Williams. It is easy enough to see the influence of Hemingway’s ‘The Killers’ on Pinter the dramatist: the banalities of the menu rendered radioactive with menace by Hemingway’s title. But Tennessee Williams is there, too: in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Big Daddy’s cancer, Brick’s sexual revulsion, his relationship to Skipper, are all occluded, but looming large. In A Street Car Named Desire, Blanche Dubois has a front, a façade to match the façade of the Pollitts in Cat. We wait for the revelation, for the weasel under Brick’s cocktail cabinet, for Blanche’s bright, mannered chit-chat to morph into misery. The difference between Pinter and Williams is the degree of explicitness. In Williams, the plot is stripped bare so you can see the dramatic ticking. In Pinter, the sheets are dirty but difficult to interpret. Especially when the dramatist is ostentatiously sporting dark glasses. You don’t get to the bottom of anything – or not immediately, or obviously.

In fact, there are answers: No Man’s Land is a play about alcoholism, about ‘the great malt that wounds’ and the title follows from that – a metaphor for the stranded mind with its damaged short-term memory. Hirst drinks, collapses, is carried off, and immediately re-enters to a situation that now seems entirely new. His consciousness is severely curtailed by drink. He exists only in the moment, the lucid nanosecond shrouded in darkness. He is as impaired as Martin Amis’s John Self in Money, who drinks so much that four minute’s sleep is indistinguishable from 24 hours’ sleep. Being dissolute to this extent is the dissolution of all certainties. Hirst improvises for the length of Pinter’s play. Which ends, conclusively I’d say, with Hirst’s words: ‘I’ll drink to that.’

The next time I met Harold – perhaps a year later – I was Reviews Editor at Ian Hamilton’s The New Review and I had written a New Statesman assessment of Harold’s Poems and Prose 1949-1977 that was scathingly amused in tone. (I admired the more recent dramatic poetry.) I’d forgotten the review. It was a bleak party, a scratch affair, with eye-watering salt and vinegar crisps and inferior wine in Ian’s mean office. Every one smoked.

Harold was wedded to the world of little magazines – including Areté. What was that about? It was partly superstitious appeasement, I think. Harold remembered his beginnings, his first poems in Tambimutu’s Poetry London. (He was often pissed off, but he was never grand or pompous. His favoured formula for praise was ‘bloody good’, either in block capitals or booming actor’s baritone.) And it was partly sentimental nostalgia for the camaraderie of failure, and partly a specific piety about poetry, which for him was the heart of the little magazine.  Xandra Gowrie saw me standing on my own and introduced me to Harold. ‘Actually,’ I said, ‘Harold and I have already met.’

Without taking his eyes off me, he took a drink. ‘Only once.’ He took another drink.

It wasn’t quite ‘fuck off’ but it was a near thing. And beautifully delivered.

At another party – there will be a lot of parties in this piece – for Michael Horovitz’s magazine New Departures, an intermittent, highly intermittent, but tenacious publication, Harold was at his most expansive. He was recommending a hotel to me – ‘perfect for writing. You should go there.’ I was bemused by his imperfect sense of my finances – and my working methods – but Harold wasn’t lording it. He was lauding the hotel and genuinely trying to be helpful. He found it hard to write and valued anything that might help the process. ‘What’s it called?’ I asked. He blinked. ‘Bugger.’ And he turned to find Antonia: ‘What’s the name of that hotel? The one that’s good for writing? Christ.’

At the launch party for Ian McEwan’s Black Dogs at a Chinese restaurant in Chelsea Harbour, Harold asked me what I was doing. I said I was teaching at Oxford, at New College. ‘How do you like it? You know, I never went to the varsity.’ I found it endearing that he used the term ‘varsity’ – as if to demonstrate his lack of a university education. ‘I like it very much. Last week I gave a class on The Homecoming.’ ‘Did they like it, the kids?’ ‘Yes, very much.’ ‘Good.’

‘But they were puzzled by Ruth.’ ‘Were they?’ ‘Yes.’ And then I risked it, he was so pleased and friendly: ‘But she’s a tart, isn’t she, Harold?’ He wasn’t angry. He was full of delighted mischief: ‘You can’t ask me a thing like that!’ And he laughed.

But he didn’t deny it. The Homecoming has an important stage direction describing the set. The wall between the sitting room and the staircase isn’t there. So your assumption is that this is an exploded view, a stage design convention, so the audience can see what would otherwise be hidden. Later on, Lenny tells us that the wall has been knocked through. In other words, the apparently imaginary is actually real. The play turns on the play between the imaginary and the real, between fantasy and actuality. They are in constant negotiation. Until, finally, the lines of demarcation are drawn – and Ruth reveals herself to be tough and knowledgeable when it comes to the terms of her role as a prostitute. She is more convincing in this role, much more convincing, than she was as the alleged wife of an academic, a philosopher in a thinly realised USA.  The Homecoming is about a communal male sexual fantasy – and it is outlined very near the beginning of the play when the father, Max, rips the piss out of his homosexual brother Sam: ‘When you find the right girl, Sam, let your family know, don’t forget, we’ll give you a number one send-off, I promise you. You can bring her to live here, she can keep us all happy. We’d take it in turns to give her a walk round the park.’ This prolepsis prefigures the advent of Teddy and Ruth just sufficiently for the audience to discount it, if they remember it at all. But the main plot is there in three sentences.

Pinter is ground-breaking in his treatment of sexual fantasy – in The Lover and Ashes to Ashes particularly. The earlier play turns on the crucial moment when the shared, transgressive fantasy – transgressive as all effective sexual fantasies are – moves from the ring-fenced imagination into the ordinary arena and ceases to be fantasy. The later play, Ashes to Ashes, is one of Pinter’s masterpieces – because it shows us that sexual fantasy, though never innocent, can segue into something unspeakable, the darkness of the holocaust. As the lamps (practicals, as they are called) become brighter, the stage itself darkens – the perfect image for what the play has felt and faltered its way towards.  The sinister autonomy of the imagination. As the fantasy clarifies, it reveals its bilious blacks.

Another party, this time at Ruthie and Richard Rogers’s house, for a private performance of Ashes to Ashes, directed by my daughter Nina. Afterwards, Harold makes a warm speech, praising the actors, Cathy Tozer and Elliott Levey, and the director. I’m standing next to my old boss at Faber, Matthew Evans. ‘Good night for the Raine family,’ he says with his irresistible grin. ‘I’m just going to say hello to Harold.’

He is back in 30 seconds, grin gone. ‘What a fucker.’

‘What happened?’

‘I said “Hello, Harold. How are you?” And he said, “Fuck off. I sent you my new play [Celebration] a week ago and you haven’t said what you think, whether you liked it. You’re supposed to be my publisher. Fuck off.”’

You didn’t want to get on the wrong side of Harold. When I still worked at Fabers, sometime in the late 80s, a confrere of Harold’s rang to ask if I would publish their joint translations of the Nicaraguan poet and politician, Ernesto Cardenal. The intermediary on the phone would do the translations, Harold would ‘add the poetry’. I said that I’d be pleased to consider the translations when they had been done. (Actually, I had heard Cardenal read in India and I had not been impressed.) But that wasn’t the question: the question was, would I agree in advance to publish the poems? I said I couldn’t do that, but I would be very pleased to…etc. My interlocutor lost his temper, appealed to Harold’s reputation, but I was firm. He was equally firm. They wouldn’t undertake the work without a guarantee of publication. Which I wouldn’t give.

I then read the New Directions two-volume Poems of Ernesto Cardenal, translated by Alistair Reid. I thought they were no good, but I read on very carefully – knowing that one day I might find myself in an argument with Harold. I wanted to acquit myself as well as possible in what might be a noisy, public viva voce. For about a year, whenever the firm threw a party, I scanned the guest list – and if Harold had accepted, I strategically absented myself.

Perhaps unnecessarily. Perhaps not. It depended on whether Harold had had a drink, and how much. When the fatwa against Salman Rushdie was in its second or third year, there was a meeting of Rushdie’s supporters at Westminister Hall. Tom Stoppard was the main speaker and delivered a cogent speech arguing that Rushdie couldn’t be defended on the basis of freedom of speech – because our own society accepts all kinds of limitations on freedom of speech. Such a defence would be illogical, therefore. And Stoppard proposed a defence based on common humanity – that what was threatened by the Ayatollah Khomeini fell short of human standards of behaviour.

Afterwards, Harold, a glass of white wine in hand, asked me if Tom was against freedom of speech. I put my hand on his shoulder and assured him that Stoppard was in favour of freedom of speech. He was convinced. Immediately. Abruptly.

Touching Harold… At the first night of Celebration at the Almeida, just before the performance, without thinking, I kissed him on both cheeks. A mistake. Unmistakably, though he was affable still. There wasn’t a trace of the luvvy in him. When the performance was over, he was standing in the court of the Almeida, receiving congratulations, holding court. I said that he must be tired. What the fuck do you mean? Weeks of rehearsal, I began, the strain of a first night. He cut me off. ‘Astonishing what stupid things people say. Of course I’m not tired. I’m going off now to have dinner with Antonia.’ At which point, I was rescued by an old friend of Harold’s, who asked him to go into the bar to meet his new wife. ‘Bring her out here.’

At the first night of Moonlight, I asked him, before the performance, how he was feeling. ‘Bloody nervous, I don’t mind telling you.’ The nervous side co-existed with the brusque, dismissive side and it was very endearing. I saw it once on television, when he did a Face to Face with Jeremy Isaacs. I think he was spooked by the singular conditions of the programme – no prior sight of the questions, no prior discussion, in fact no meeting with the interviewer before the interview. Isaacs’s second question was really a statement: of course, he said, you’ve read Wittgenstein. It was enough to panic Harold, the possibility of a public viva on Wittgenstein. In fact, it would panic most people, but it had a special terror for Harold. (‘I didn’t go to the varsity…’) He reached uncertainly for his glass of water. It shook in his hands. I felt like a son watching his father.

In 1994, Nigel Williams approached me about a possible Arena programme about my long poem, History: the Home Movie. In the end, Nigel’s condition, after a night of drinking and discussion, was that my father should be filmed. I refused. Nigel: ‘You and bloody Harold Pinter. He wouldn’t let me film his father either.’ I think we were both right to feel protective and wary. And nervous.

He was very generous to Areté – giving the magazine a little play, poems, prose poems, a letter written about Waiting for Godot when he was still a jobbing actor, a sizable chunk of his screenplay for Lolita. More than that, he was enthusiastic about the work of other writers which appeared in the magazine. In Issue 1, there was a little sketch by Patrick Marber. Harold left a number on my answer machine. I rang him back. ‘Bloody funny play by Patrick Marber [Casting]. I read it to Antonia. Did all the parts. Bloody funny. Well done.’

When Areté decided to give a 10th Anniversary party for contributors, Frances Stonor Saunders telephoned Harold to see if he could come. Phew. She then rang me, in a state of shock. THIS IS A PRIVATE NUMBER. HOW DID YOU GET THIS NUMBER? A tirade. It’s nothing, I said. It’s Harold. I’ll email him. Don’t worry. This is my letter.

Dear Harold,

I hear you turned your Flammenwerfer on my editorial assistant, the delightful Frances Stonor Saunders – whom you’ve met, and liked, in other circumstances. It really wasn’t her fault that she rang your private number. It was in my address book – because you gave it to me, twice, without saying it was Top Secret. You were anxious to discuss the first issue of Areté and Patrick’s little sketch Casting. The second time, you wanted to hear my reactions to your Lolita script.

Anyway, I think being scorched by you is one of life’s central experiences – from which Fran will benefit in due course.

She is contacting you in a good cause. I know you are a great supporter of Areté. You’ve been very generous with your contributions in the past. It was a particular pleasure to scandalise the literary world with ‘Modern Love’ in the last number.

We need to broaden our subscription base. To do this, we need a bit of publicity. (You may think that ‘Modern Love’ is a ample enough contribution.) We are giving a party for contributors on 17 January, a Saturday, in Oxford, to say thank you to them and also to attract some press coverage. Obviously, we would like you to be there. Tom (Stoppard) has promised to be there. Francis (Wyndham) will be there. Antonia can cast a nostalgic glance at the Dragon (just round the corner from where we live).

I know this is an enormous favour to ask, but might you be able to come? The food will be good (River Café chefs).

Much Love,


PS Do you remember telling Ian Hamilton off in about 1978 for giving your phone number to a photographer called Dmitri Somebody or Other? You said: Don’t give my number to any Tom, Dick or fucking Dimitri… Legendary.

A couple of nervous days passed (during which I remembered the photographer’s surname: Kasterine). Then Harold emailed an explanation and an apology and an acceptance.

In T S Eliot’s essay on Hamlet, we find the following crucial passage. It explains a lot about Harold and the connection between the writer and the man, why they were of a piece. ‘The intense feeling, ecstatic or terrible, without an object or exceeding its object, is something which every person of sensibility has known; it is doubtless a subject of study for pathologists. It often occurs in adolescence: the ordinary person puts these feelings to sleep, or trims down his feelings to fit the business world; the artist keeps them alive by his ability to intensify the world to his emotions.[my italics]’ We all know what it is like to lose our temper – sometimes about very small things; especially things – but mostly we control it. Harold was incapable of tailoring his feelings to fit the social world. He wasn’t a trimmer. That was the price we sometimes paid for the art – willingly.

He was one of life’s central experiences – Flammenwerfer and all.

'Arete is a journal as exquisite in its execution as in its intentions.'
John Updike

'Vous m’avez donné un grand plaisir … votre revue m’est très sympathique et proche.'
Milan Kundera