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.