David Calling

The David Pryce-Jones blog.

Harold Pinter


The death of Harold Pinter brings back memories. I had first met him after the Six Day War of 1967 when he was full of excitement about the Israeli victory. He knew nothing about the Middle East, nothing about Arabs, nothing about politics or the Cold War, and in fact showed no interest in these topics. But Israel had won, hurrah.

Lots of people whose opinion I respect think highly of Pinter’s plays. His obituaries are fulsome, treating him as one of the greatest playwrights of the 20th century, “incomparable” according to the Times, “creator of masterpieces” according to the Daily Telegraph. My trouble is that I could never see anything to them. The plays develop nothing, they are devoid of humanity, free of drama or ideas, and all in a language so flat and narrow that it is deadly dull. How could someone with so minimal a vocabulary and so one-dimensional a mind consider himself a poet? Chaim Bermant, a true wit, once started his review of a Pinter play with the sentence, “Pinter is a man of few words, most of them bad.”  Bermant spoke for me, and so did the coruscating Mark Steyn when he categorized Pinter’s work as “a pause followed by a non sequitur.”

I expect that Pinter sensed that I thought there was nothing to his plays. But something more profound must have happened to turn this upwardly mobile and originally pro-Thatcher Conservative into a radical ranter way beyond satirizing. I suspect that it was insecurity about himself, his origins, his social position, his talent. Maybe he felt he was a fraud, acting out a part that didn’t fit. At any rate he forfeited even residual good manners, taking every opportunity to shout out anti-American slogans in a four-letter saloon-bar manner, just a remorseless and ignorant bore.

I first took him on at a dinner when he attacked the lady sitting between us, saying amid the usual flood of swear words that because she was pretty she thought she could get away with criticizing the Sandinistas in Nicaragua who were fighting against fascist America etc. etc. At another dinner he praised Ayatollah Khomeini for his anti-Americanism, and again I responded, only to discover that he had never before heard the terms Shia and Sunni. He caught prejudices in the air as other people might catch colds, and he lacked the information with which to cure them.

One day he picked a quarrel with my wife, who answered that when he became commissar would he make sure that she was sent to an American prison and not the Soviet Gulag. Gobbling with rage, he jumped up to bad-mouth her to me, too angry to realize she was my wife. On yet another occasion, in his own house, he heard someone say that she was a friend of mine. Again he leaped away and left the dining room in fury. Apparently I had the power to deprive him of dinner at home.

People used to telephone each other to pass on for a laugh the latest Pinter outburst. Paul Johnson as usual put his finger on it when he called Pinter “one of the great comic characters of the day.” Just a week ago, I went to a Christmas drinks party, and a very old and evidently ill man came hobbling in on a stick. If I had recognized that this was Pinter I would probably have done what I have been doing for years now, namely taken immediate action to avoid him. But instead I wondered who this poor fellow could be. Now I shall go on wondering whatever lay behind the comic act that was Harold Pinter, and, believe it or not, I shall miss it.


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