Whenever I read about the death of a soapstar or football manager or a TV presenter, I wonder why the press are giving it such coverage? Aren't there more important things happening in the world than the the demise of a regular at the Rovers Return (who left the series over 20 years ago)? And then I found myself feeling unspeakably sad at the death of Harold Pinter, and I understand completely: because they have connected with people. And Pinter connected with me - deeply. I first came across his work as a know-nothing 14 year-old (me, not him) who happened to have an English teacher whose passion was drama, and C20th drama in particular. I don't remember if The Caretaker was a set text or an 'off-piste' foray to make teaching the set syllabus more interesting for him - but I do remember the book itself. Hardback, blue frame on the front, mono photo, the title beneath in bold black. We may have read it in class; my memory of its immediate impact does not serve me well either. But the idea of Pinter struck a deep well. Not his ideas; the idea of the man himself. Dark, brooding, frightening - all I had to go on was a photo on the back cover. I knew nothing about him, didn't know where to look for more. But his black wavy hair, his roll-necked sweater, his penetrating eyes - he was exotic, alien and everything I thought I wanted to be.
Of course, as a young lad in his early teens I didn't have a clue what he was on about. Once, I tried explaining The Birthday Party to my mother: Me "There's a chap called Stanley who's staying in a guest house and two men come to get him." Mother: "And then what happens?" Me: "Well, err, that's about it really" Mother: "Oh" (pause - Pinter would have been proud) "So when will they teach you a proper play?" Pinter wasn't on my O-level syllabus, nor A-level (wait 'til Tom Stoppard dies: I'll be inconsolable). But he had etched a place into my psyche, and I kept returning to him. While other lads were playing football on a Saturday afternoon or, at least, going to watch football at The Dell, I'd be in the Central Library, reading Pinter texts. Who was the mute matchseller in A Slight Ache? Who was sending orders to the two men via The Dumbwaiter? Why did Teddy and Ruth stay after The Homecoming? What was the relationship between Hirst and Spooner in No Man's Land? All I could get from his work was questions - and a vague sense that there was something happening behind the page that I couldn't reach.
Over that past 30 years, Pinter has ebbed in and out of my life, sometimes demanding full attention (a fantastic production of The Caretaker with Michael Gambon and Douglas Hodge (above); a very unsettling *Homecoming* at the Lyric Hammersmith, with Kenneth Cranham), but more often he was more a passing chimera, appearing on a South Bank Show or a BBC2 short drama or a newspaper interview. Pinter fever gripped me again about three years ago, when I saw his Nobel acceptance speech and re-read Michael Billington's excellent biography. Pieces of the man's life, work and politics began to gel for the first time. And I began to understand his language. Pinter uses language as a weapon, language as a distraction, language as a microscope. American dramatist David Mamet said that he and Samuel Becket were the most important voices in C20th theatre because "the took out the narration and returned the poetry". The contradiction of his work is that he uses words with incredible precision, but at the same time creates worlds where nothing is clear, where the truth is open for interpretation. Indeed, he quotes himself in his Nobel speech: "There is no one truth in dramatic art". That freedom of interpretation is reflected in the way he approached his craft, starting with a line, a word or an image. Pinter would say that his dialogue would begin in the mouths of characters A, B and C, and he would just listen - letting them breathe their own air, while trying to restrain where they went. It was almost a battle between him and the people who were beginning to live on the page. The excitement of that battle is reflected in performance. There's a tension in all his work, from the moment the curtain rises. Menace prowls between his lines like mustard gas laying heavy on the ground. It will take you down eventually.
His battles were not, however, just with his own characters; he always struck me as a man willing to stand alone in his beliefs. A conscientious objector at 18, damned by critics at 27, his vice-presidency of International PEN to fight for the freedom of expression of fellow writers (his opposition to the suppression of the Kurdish language led to direct confrontation with representatives of the Turkish government), his launch of Independent Jewish Voices, using his Nobel platform to shake an angry fist at the Bush-Blair Iraq project. Pinter was never afraid to do what he thought was right. 'Right' meant questioning those in authority. His work - filled with metaphor, ambiguity and menace - is all political because it is all about power: The way in which those with power use power and use language to maintain their hold on power. And in challenging that, he challenges all us.
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