Michael Henderson remembers the passion for cricket that underpinned his friend’s genius as a playwright, and an unforgettable day at Lord’s
The public face of Harold Pinter, who died on Christmas Eve after a long illness, was rather daunting. At the Edinburgh Book Festival a few years ago he acknowledged as much when he admitted that he could sometimes be ‘a pain in the arse’. But those who knew him well, or came across him occasionally, saw a different man: intolerant of imprecision, of course, but also warm, amusing, and — this may surprise those critics who never met him — capable of self-mockery.
‘I once flew into New York,’ he told me over one bibulous lunch. ‘JFK. I’d just been to Nicaragua and had my passport stamped. I was waiting there in the queue at customs, with the passport open at the appropriate page. I marched up to the customs officer and held it out, thinking “Take a look at that.” He asked me: “Are you Harold Pinter?” “Yes.” “The Harold Pinter?” “Yes!” “Welcome to the United States of America, sir.” It rather took the wind out of my sails.’
Pinter was a formidable luncher. ‘Water, Harold?’ ‘Never touch the stuff!’ Another time, dining separately at a restaurant near his home in Holland Park, I sent over a waiter with a note on which I had written Pinter’s poem about his cricketing hero, Sir Leonard Hutton: ‘I saw Len Hutton in his prime/ Another time, another time.’ A self-important man might have taken umbrage at this intrusion. Pinter merely summoned me with what Michael Billington, his biographer and friend, called his ‘dentist’s smile’.
There were many ways to crack that forbidding carapace, and the most reliable was cricket, which was far more to Pinter than a game of bat and ball. He was not the first distinguished playwright to love the game. J.M. Barrie, Samuel Beckett and Terence Rattigan were cricket lovers, and the roll-call of modern dramatists in imaginary flannels makes a run-heavy batting order: Alan Ayckbourn, Tom Stoppard, David Hare, Simon Gray, Ronald Harwood.
But Pinter’s love, as a player and spectator, amounted to an obsession. His plays are full of cricket references and metaphors, sometimes with unintended consequences. The line ‘Who watered the wicket at Melbourne?’ was translated in a German production of The Birthday Party into ‘Who pissed on the city gates?’ He wrote cricket scenes for Accident and The Go-Between, two of the three superb films he scripted for Joseph Losey, and contributed two excellent essays on the game, which can be found in popular anthologies. The first of those essays, ‘Hutton and the Past’, originally published in 1969, features the sentence that I consider to be the most evocative I have read on cricket — or sport, for that matter.
So often regarded as a man who intimidated others, where cricketers were concerned Pinter himself could feel intimidated. He never met his hero Hutton, out of shyness, and he deferred to those he did meet. One June day nine years ago I invited him to Sally Clarke’s restaurant in Notting Hill Gate, to join a table of interesting people, including Stephen Fry, Tim Rice and Michael Parkinson (who had once interviewed him on his famous talk show). The other guests were Bob Tear, the tenor and, representing cricket, Bob Willis, who took 325 Test wickets for England, and Mark Nicholas, a former captain of Hampshire, who was then taking his first steps in what has since become a successful television career.
The famous playwright was not out of his depth, but anybody eavesdropping on the conversation round the table that day might have heard a man trying a shade too hard. Pinter told cricket tales that most of us had heard before, which didn’t stop us laughing. There was something touching about his performance, as though he were looking for approval. He went to Eton that evening, to fulfil a speaking engagement, and it transpired later that he had told the perplexed boys: ‘You’ll never guess who I had lunch with — Mark Nicholas!’
But my favourite Pinter moment came two years ago in the box he had taken for the day at Lord’s: my favourite because it showed the man at his best, in the kind of situation he enjoyed most, with his wife, Lady Antonia Fraser by his side; and because it emphasised the impression he could make on people around him, even those with stellar reputations.
Lord’s was in its midsummer majesty that afternoon. There was the lovely three o’clock murmur of a thousand conversations, and on the field England were making short work of a poor West Indies side. Best of all, Pinter had gathered around him four great pals who shared his love of the game: Gray, Stoppard, Harwood and Hare.
Seated behind the box’s glass partition, with a glass close to hand, and never empty, Pinter hardly missed a ball, because he was watching Brian Lara, the star batsman from Trinidad, who to his craftsman’s eyes represented something of the nobility he had admired in previous generations. One thought of the line Pinter put in the mouth of young Marcus Maudsley in the village cricket scene in The Go-Between: ‘Such elegance and command!’ Every stroke of Lara’s prompted some purr of acknowledgement, as Pinter saw in his mind’s eye all the days he had spent at that special place.
Returning to the box after spending an over or two elsewhere, I found him standing with his back to the cricket, about to address his friends. This time he was not talking about cricket. ‘Do you know,’ he asked them, ‘what I consider to be the most beautiful line in all literature?’ For a semi-quaver his pals were lost, like sophomores challenged by their director of studies.
‘I’ll tell you’, he said. ‘“I was adored once too.”’
One by one they pieced it together: Shakespeare, obviously, Twelfth Night, perhaps, yes, certainly Twelfth Night, but was it Sir Toby Belch or Sir Andrew Aguecheek? It couldn’t have been Malvolio, could it? No, it couldn’t. There was some muttering and then some nodding as Pinter confirmed that indeed it was Aguecheek. A wonderful scene, which I observed from the wings.
And what, you may ask, was that evocative cricket sentence? Simply this: ‘That beautiful evening Compton made 70.’ In six words Pinter (who had played truant from RADA to catch the master batsman at work) has caught an image of a youthful summer that speaks for all summers. It is a moment frozen in time, rather like the images that run through No Man’s Land, his great play of memory that is currently playing in the West End.
I sent Pinter a card from Munich last summer, with a verse from Georg Trakl, the Austrian poet, and added his own words about the great Compo. In November I rang to invite him to another of our lunches, promising good company. He looked forward to it, he said, but illness forced him to pull out.
It can be foolish to predict how posterity will treat the work of those we hold to be great in their lifetime, but Pinter’s plays have secured such a firm foothold in the dramatic repertory that his reputation should wax, not wane. He was a great writer, and those whose lives were touched by him, however tangentially, will tell you that his spirit was that of a great man.