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13.1.10

Antonia Fraser on Harold Pinter

Wife of the late playwright remembers her husband
Harold Pinter and Lady Antonia Fraser photographed in 1985. Photograph: David Montgomery/Getty Images

Michael Billington reviews Antonia Fraser's memoir of life with Harold Pinter:
[...] Yet while Harold was never a purely autobiographical writer, I found that his imagination was invariably triggered by a memory of some past event. The Caretaker was born out of an image that stuck in Harold's mind when he and his first wife, Vivien, were living in a modest flat in Chiswick High Road: one day he paused on the stairs and looked in a room to see the tramp who had taken up residence rifling through a bag, silently watched by his bene factor. And, while The Home coming is a universal play about family life, it had its origins in the story of one of ­Harold's Hackney friends who for years kept his marriage to a Gentile girl a secret from his Jewish family.

Even more surprising than Harold's disavowal of his work's personal origins is the record of an evening in 1977 spent with Samuel Beckett and his close friend, Barbara Bray. Since Beckett hardly ever went to the theatre, Harold acted out for him the Simon Gray piece, Close of Play, that he was directing at the time. This prompted a discussion in which Bray claimed that everything in art is political. To which Harold replied, ­vehemently, "Nothing I have written, Barbara, nothing, ever, is political."

This hardly squares with Pinter's later assertion that early plays such as The Birthday Party and The Hothouse were driven by a strong political motive. But, while Pinter-sceptics may seize on this as proof of his inconsistency, I suspect it simply proves Harold's dislike of aesthetic dogma. I can actually picture him bubbling with resentment at being told by Bray what art has to be.

But, if Antonia's book sometimes makes one's eyebrows start upwards in surprise, it also offers the most vividly intimate portrait we're ever likely to have of the real Harold Pinter. It records the energy and exuberance for living that burned off him and that made him so attractive to male and female friends alike. It describes his passionate love of England: its cricket, its countryside, its natural beauty and its historic regard for liberty. It was precisely because he saw that liberty being curtailed and eroded that he became such a ferocious opponent of successive governments. Indeed, the book pins down the embattled despair that Harold sometimes felt in later years as his sense of the world's injustice coincided with his own declining health. But he never gave up. As he said when about to perform at the National in his own sketch, Press Conference, while wrestling with chemotherapy for his cancer, "I'm not just sitting here waiting to die." [Read the article]

Must You Go? My Life With Harold Pinter by Lady Antonia Fraser is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £20.

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