THE UNCONDITIONAL HAROLD

One day in 1958 Irving Wardle received a letter from Harold Pinter. It was the beginning of a bittersweet friendship between a star writer and a leading critic

From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Autumn 2009

Early in 1958 I landed the job of filling a fortnightly slot on the London theatre in the Bolton Evening News. For cub reviewers at that time it went without saying that the West End was beneath contempt. Self-respect demanded that you find something off the beaten track; and in June a play came up that flashed not only those credentials but also an outstanding set of notices from the leading critics of the day. So I booked into the last matinée of “The Birthday Party” at the Lyric, Hammersmith, and took my actor father along. Afterwards he said he hadn’t had such a thrill since his first encounter with Pirandello—a big thing for him to say, as translating Pirandello was his main purpose in life. I couldn’t wait to get back to the typewriter; and the following week, a few days after Harold Hobson’s celebrated fanfare in the Sunday Times, readers of the Sancho column were introduced to the name of Harold Pinter.

Soon a letter arrived, forwarded by the paper and addressed to “Dear ?”. I glanced at the signature and saw that it was from Pinter. He had read my comments and thought them “most penetrating”. He wondered why “in heaven’s name” I hadn’t published a review in London, where there had been “a marked absence of such intelligent and perceptive comprehension”. He wanted to know who I was, and to express his pleasure at my “assured assessment”.

That, as I found over the years, was a typical Harold letter. For good or ill, it was as though he had driven round to your house and emptied a ton of bricks in the drive. Every one of his letters was an event. It left you in no doubt of the message he had to deliver, and it unfailingly transferred his physical presence to the sheet of paper. I had a good idea of how he would sound before I ever heard his voice. 

I wrote back saying I had chosen my pseudonym in a panic as the subs wanted to call me Top Hat, and yes it would be great to meet as he only lived ten minutes away on the Chiswick High Road. We made a date at a riverside pub. As it was a sunny Saturday the place was packed, but I spotted him straight away. He was the most visible person I’ve ever met. It wasn’t any particular detail—the pugnacious chin, or the dark, searching eyes—so much as the sense of power and intention that he transmitted. In comparison with Harold, other people looked blurred. His speech was the same: forceful, terse, and with a spin on the words that charged them with personal energy. “This is the life!” he would bark, and the eyes would sparkle; and it was as though no one had ever said such a thing before.

One thing I learned from our first conversation was that you didn’t talk theory to Harold. Writing was something that happened in the dark inside his head. No visitors got into that kitchen. The only glimpse he gave me through the forbidden door was to say he’d been influenced by Beckett, Kafka and American gangster movies. Also that I’d uncovered one of his secrets in my piece on “The Birthday Party”. “You were right,” he said, jabbing his index finger at me, “about me doing it backwards.” What I’d written was: “Pinter is an actor and his method of composition is the reverse of embodying a theme in action. He begins with the intrinsically theatrical and lets it work its own way back towards common sense.” I quote this as one of the rare occasions when he admitted anything about the working of his imagination. He then suggested a game of bar billiards, which of course he won.

We saw one another quite a lot after that, either by the river or in each other’s flats. He liked my wife Joan, who was Canadian-Jewish and amused him with her lunatic recollections of the Montreal psychiatric scene (she’d been taught by Donald Hebb, the founding father of sensory-deprivation techniques). I liked his wife, the actress Vivien Merchant, who came from my part of Lancashire and offered to give me driving lessons. At their place we met Daniel, who was four months old and often in tears. Harold and Vivien had a game for dealing with that. While one picked him up, both would roar with laughter, and they would race round the living room passing him from hand to hand like a rugby ball. I think the idea was to shock him out of his tantrum, on the principle of extinguishing a burning oilfield with dynamite.

The impression I got was that both of them, to an unusual degree, needed to be in control. When we went out driving, Vivien was always telling me to keep an eye on the near-side mirror “so you can use all the lanes”. During her career in the provinces, most unusually for the time, she’d had her own car, and had relished the self-sufficiency of zooming from one weekly rep to another, using all the lanes. In return for the driving lessons I took her through the notes of Noel Coward’s “A Talent to Amuse” on my old upright piano when she was auditioning for a revue. She didn’t find it easy, and talked apprehensively about the “powerful girls” who were also up for the job. Until then I’d seen her as a powerful girl; but now she was friends enough to show me her defenceless side. Later she told me about the birth of Daniel which she remembered like something out of a horror film with a ghoulish obstetrician, goggled like a blood-stained frog, doing things to her with knives. After that, she said, it was unthinkable for her ever to have another child. Unthinkable ever again to lose control.

When Harold asserted control, you just got the unconditional statement without any idea of how he’d reached it. It would have been impossible for him to have done National Service, he said. Impossible for him to have stuck it out at drama school—he had to skive off to Lord’s instead. That was the life!

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