Remembering Harold Pinter at the 2006 Edinburgh Book Festival

Last week I listened to Antonia Fraser’s extraordinary diaries about her husband Harold Pinter, which she read herself on radio (you can listen to them here for a couple more days).  Some of most moving parts  focus on the years after he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer  – so from about 2001 until his death in December 2008.

One passage reminded me of the only time that I ever saw Pinter in person or heard him talk live.  It was at the Edinburgh Book Festival in the summer of 2006.  Listening Antonia Fraser’s descriptions of the treatment he underwent, even as late as the spring of that year, highlights his tremendous courage and determination.  He must have been in considerable pain, and I do remember that he was helped onto the low dais.

Fraser reads:

24th August.  Harold’s breathlessness.  He pants heavily, even to stretch out for a card at bridge. What is happening? Going for a walk is a thing of the past.

But the next day, 25 August, he was “performing” in front of a packed marquee at the Festival in Charlotte Square.  Performing is the right word because he delivered an extraordinary monologue of the interrogation scene in The Birthday Party.  Here’s Fraser again:

25th August.  Edinburgh Book Festival. The frail figure of Harold, who was helped on stage, turned before our eyes into one or rather two brutal interrogators, as Harold did the famous scene of questioning Stanley from The Birthday Party.  It was a prelude to discoursing on his own political views. Says he’s bored with reading his war poems. Full of force. Everyone felt privileged because most people seemed to have studied The Birthday Party at school and here was the author himself.

I wish I’d made notes about exactly what he said, but I remember he was vitriolic about the disgrace of the Iraq War.   I looked for a podcast of his talk on the Edinburgh Book Festival website, but there’s nothing.  However, David Robinson from The Scotsman wrote:

He was too ill to attend the Stockholm ceremony to collect his award last November, but used yesterday’s sell-out event to launch a blistering attack on British and American policy in Iraq, arguing that suicide bombers’ attacks were “acts of retaliation against western domination of the world”.  …  “These are terrible, horrific acts – let there be no question of that – but I believe they are logical and inevitable until we take a different view of our political responsibility.  In Iraq, there have been 150,000 deaths we have brought about. There is plenty of blood on the streets, brought about by what I would claim, without hesitation, is state terrorism.”

Three and a half years on, the stark horror of Pinter’s words is painfully clear – and not only with regard to the situation in Iraq, but also in Afghanistan.  Those words “Another British soldier … the family has been informed” have been branded in our collective mind – young men and women, some still teenagers or barely in their twenties.  We have no right to ask them to make this sacrifice – for what?

Pinter’s lobbying speech to the House of Commons on 21 January 2003 is here.  But the most eloquent arguments are set out in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech where he writes:

“So language in art remains a highly ambiguous transaction, a quicksand, a trampoline, a frozen pool which might give way under you, the author, at any time. But, as I have said, the search for the truth can never stop. It cannot be adjourned, it cannot be postponed. It has to be faced, right there, on the spot… Political language, as used by politicians, does not venture into any of this territory since the majority of politicians, on the evidence available to us, are interested not in truth but in power and in the maintenance of that power. To maintain that power it is essential that people remain in ignorance, that they live in ignorance of the truth, even the truth of their own lives. What surrounds us therefore is a vast tapestry of lies, upon which we feed..”

This and the rest of his speech should be mandatory reading for all those involved in the Chilcott Inquiry.

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