Rebel without a... [pause]

Harold Pinter dishes it out

Originally published in Lunch With The FT

What is it that frightens me about lunch with Harold Pinter? It’s not his trademark silence – the pauses, variously hilarious or sinister, as employed in his plays. No, what I dread is the word “chum”. When Pinter calls you chum, you know you have earned the contempt of one of the finest writers alive. And that would spoil anybody’s appetite.

In 1991, as Iraq submitted to American power, Pinter wrote a poem which satirically celebrated the ghastlier aspects of war. Several leftish British papers declined to publish it, despite expressing sympathy for Pinter’s anger at US foreign policy. On his website, Pinter reports writing back to one editor: ”’The paper shares my views, does it? I’d keep that to myself if I were you, chum,’ I said. And I was very pleased with the use of the word ‘chum’.”

Harold Pinter
Pinter, portrait by me.

Indeed, he used it again, in December, in a speech criticising the American president. “Bush has said: ‘We will not allow the world’s worst weapons to remain in the hands of the world’s worst leaders.’ Quite right. Look in the mirror, chum. That’s you.”

Arriving 10 minutes early at Le Colombier, a French restaurant in South Kensington, I find Pinter is already there, brooding at a corner table. He’s dressed in black, sits with a glass of what turns out to be Pouilly Fume. He doesn’t get up to shake my hand, but that’s fine – he had chemotherapy and major surgery last year.

He chose this restaurant because it stands directly across the road from the Royal Marsden hospital. “The first thing I did, when I was just about to come out, was to come here and have lunch. I was alive, instead of being dead, if you see what I mean. So I have a fondness for this restaurant, although it’s still rather eerie to sit here and look at the hospital.”

It’s good to have him with us. This is a playwright whose works, such as The Birthday Party, The Caretaker, The Homecoming and No Man’s Land are modern classics, second to none. Just the thought of acting in them has brought fine actors to tears.

Pinter’s doctors have given him a clean bill of health, but he’s still frail: his arm shakes as he pours from our bottle of Montagny. Nor has he yet returned to acting or directing. “I would get tired,” he explains. “They took about half my bloody stomach out.”

Perhaps that’s why he does without a starter. For the main course, he orders turbot, as recommended by our waiter. Just to be different, I choose sea-bass.

I ask if he carries a notebook with him. He pulls something from his jacket pocket; a few sheets of paper folded into a smart leather base. “I carry this.” Guessing by the blank top sheet, I say he’s either scribbled something and put that sheet into another pocket, or else nothing has occurred this morning. “Nothing has occurred this morning,” he confirms.

Is that normal? “It is these days. I have written a few poems this last year. I have written a few speeches. But I’m not writing anything, any plays or anything like that. So that’s not much in use, these days, that little pad.” But he carries it anyway. “Yes. I carry it in case something occurs. I often start a speech with a few notes on that pad, a few notes. Headings. In fact, I’m making another speech next week [late January] at the House of Commons. There is a big meeting. The No War On Iraq coalition.”

After asking the waiter to bring the wine bucket closer, Pinter gives me a preview. “I’m going to kick off by saying that one of the more nauseating images of 2002 was the image of our prime minister kneeling in church on Christmas Day and praying for peace on earth and goodwill to all men while planning to assist in the murder of thousands of people in Iraq.”

That should make people sit up, I say. To make clear his incendiary intent, Pinter opens his fist rapidly and says: “Pfhook!” He adds: “Oh yes. I mean, explosions are not confined to these boys!”

Has he met Blair? “Never, and I don’t want to. I couldn’t look him in the face. If I did meet him, I would turn away.” But that’s what the American ambassador did to Pinter, in Turkey in 1985, when he raised the subject of torture: the ambassador, affronted by Pinter’s stark talk of electrodes and genitals, turned away. Shouldn’t Pinter confront Blair? “Well, maybe. But I’d be frightened that if I got too close, I would spit in his eye.” So he’s not strictly a pacifist? “I’ve never been a pacifist.” As a conscientious objector, in 1948, Pinter faced the real prospect of jail. But he fights for what he truly believes: in a bar, in the 1960s, he got into a punch-up with an anti-Semite.

It’s easy for writers to find fault with politicians. Why doesn’t he try running the country? “I couldn’t, temperamentally. Look, I’m a political animal, I’m a citizen, but I’m not a politician. I’m a writer. I mean, seriously, I should have started 40 years ago if I was going to be a politician. I’m 72. There is no way I’m going to do that. And there’s no political party I want to join. But I can speak as an individual. These are acts of my government . . . Oh, that’s quick!”

The food has arrived. He continues: “I think what is happening at the moment is both crazy and disgusting.” (As he says this, he pours more wine – but that’s not what he means.) “People are dreading this in Iraq. They have already been bombed, not only to shit in 1991 but over the last 12 years more or less every day by the US and Britain. And the sanctions have killed half a million because of the lack of medicine. Anyway, they’re dreading the bombs.”

Having grown up in London’s East End during the second world war, Pinter knows the awesome power of bombs. “There is a discrepancy between what we think we are doing and the actual facts of death. I remember a woman called Eve-Ann Prentice wrote a very powerful book, called One Woman’s War, about Kosovo.

“She happened to be in a village when the Americans dropped bombs on the marketplace. They said it was a mistake. It wasn’t. There was a woman sitting there, with her five-year-old daughter, eating sandwiches. And the next thing was that the woman looked up and her daughter’s head was in the gutter. Pfhook!

“The point I am striving to make is that the reality of that girl’s head in the gutter doesn’t come into the reckoning. The only deaths that were not an abstraction to the Americans were the deaths in New York – because they were American deaths. You see death when it’s you; but not when it’s them.”

The cheese-board arrives. Pinter orders one more glass of Pouilly Fume, “for the road”.

It is not necessary to agree with him to see that he speaks from the heart. Other writers might be scared to criticise America, lest that put at risk any relationship with Hollywood, Broadway or US publishers. Not Pinter.

He last visited the US in July 2001, for a festival of his work in New York. While there, he met an old friend from 30 years ago. “It was very nice to see her again. We had lunch. Then I came back, and my birthday was in October – and October follows September, right? – and she left me a message on my answering machine wishing me a happy birthday. I thought: ‘That’s very nice.’ I rang her number in New York, to thank her, and she wasn’t there. So her answering machine came on and said: ‘I am out, I’ll be back at four o’clock’ – or whatever it was – ‘God bless America.’ When I heard those words, I looked at the receiver and put it very slowly down.” He didn’t call her again. “God of course is on the American side. And blessing America. I find it stultifying and pathetic.”

Is this heartless? Ill-mannered? Perhaps, but good manners aren’t always appropriate; as Pinter indicated, in the 1960s, by punching the man who told him the Nazis had not gone far enough. As it happens, he’s well-mannered at lunch: not only does he never call me chum, but after expressing his bleak view of world affairs, he visibly relaxes; even treating me to a private performance of passages from Kafka and Joyce, who number among his favourite writers.

One of my own favourites is the late Anthony Powell, a close relative of Pinter’s wife, the historian Antonia Fraser. I wonder what Powell, rare among writers as a recipient of the title Companion of Honour, would think of Pinter receiving that same distinction last year. His answer is cagey. “I can’t speak for him. And you can’t ask him, because he’s dead.” Did Pinter get on with Powell? “Very well, actually.” Powell, a terrific snob, suggested in his diaries that Pinter didn’t know his wines. I ask if that is right. Pinter laughs loudly. “He was like that. A wine man, alright. But I found him quite a card.”

I’m surprised that Pinter accepted an honour. He explains: “I could never accept a knighthood from a Conservative government.” He turned one down when it was offered. “I would not have accepted a knighthood from a Labour government either. I think knighthoods are pretty suspect. They’re to do with government. Whereas I feel that Companion of Honour, quite simply, was given by the country.”

What’s the difference? I don’t remember voting to give Pinter the “CH” – though I might have done, given the chance. He can’t see a problem, and draws a comparison with another type of distinction he has received.

“When you receive an honorary doctorate, for example, you’re not in a position to approve of every aspect of the university that gives it to you.”

That’s true. And by the same token, I suppose, those institutions don’t necessarily approve of every aspect of Pinter. It could be that they honour him only for his dramatic genius – not for his abrasive politics, but in spite of it. Or even, just conceivably, the other way round.