Harold Pinter’s stroke of genius

Ed Smith

Courtesy of Daily Telegraph, 17th January 2009 and http://www.edsmith.org.uk/journalism/mindgames/harold-pinters-stroke-of-genius/

If English cricket’s recent captaincy saga suggests a great deal about the fault lines on which English sport is run, the death of Harold Pinter tells us much more about how deeply the game runs in the English character. Literature, friendship and cricket – the noblest of triumvirates – were pillars of Pinter’s life. ‘Cricket is the greatest thing God created on earth,’ Pinter once said, ‘certainly greater than sex, although sex isn’t too bad either.’

 Pinter playing forward — pic from http://www.haroldpinter.org/cricket/wellard.shtml

I was in New York over Christmas when news of his death came through, and as a mark of respect they dimmed the lights for him on Broadway. Perhaps cricket grounds should do the same this summer – though I doubt Pinter cared much for the floodlit version of the game.

What is it about cricket that draws in so many writers? How is it that outsiders, as all writers must be to some extent, don’t feel out of place at cricket games? There is a tolerance for independence in cricket, I believe, a sense of apartness that grows out of the game’s core. Batting is a lonely art. It makes for resilient, introspective people, and that sense of the interior life crosses the boundary and enters the crowd.

Many people express surprise that Pinter, whose plays are so intensely iconoclastic, should have revered the game closest to the English establishment. How could such an anti-establishment writer love the sport with which England once hoped to educate its officer class and civilize its Empire?

That underestimates both cricket and Pinter. Cricket, despite its passing snobberies, has never naturally suited narrowness. True, the game remains conservative. But cricket is conservative with a very small ‘c’ – nostalgic, sceptical, independent-minded and slightly pessimistic. If, on the eve of the invasion of Iraq in 2003, you had canvassed opinion about the war anywhere at Lord’s – in either the high Tory Pavilion or the cheap seats by the Nursery ground – I bet that the resounding mood would have been ‘we shouldn’t do it’. Going along with what they’re told to think and do has never appealed to cricket crowds.

It goes without saying that cricket’s subplots and dramas within dramas appealed to the playwright in Pinter. Even a ‘boring’ draw can, and often does, host the most thrilling battles and sublime moments. I once turned on the television, watched Lara execute a heavenly late cut, and immediately switched off again, perfectly satisfied.

Pinter’s genius, in Michael Billington’s phrase, was ‘to find the hidden poetry in everyday speech’. Cricket’s genius is to provide moments of aesthetic or psychological magic within even the dullest passages of play – poetic lines hidden within workaday sporting prose.

Pinter’s great hero was Len Hutton, an intransigent Yorkshireman, whose bloody-mindedness must have appealed to Pinter. He once sent a poem about Hutton to his great friend the playwright Simon Gray. In its entirety, the poem ran: ‘I saw Len Hutton in his prime. Another time, another time’. A week passed before Pinter asked Gray’s opinion. ‘Sorry,’ Gray replied, ‘I haven’t finished reading it yet.’

Cricket was linked in Pinter’s mind, I suspect, with his reverence for friendship. The conversations between Pinter and Gray – two men facing illness and old age, friends from very different backgrounds, two men who understood the stage and knew the power of a sentence – form an enduring strand of Gray’s wonderful diaries. They often settled upon cricket as their preferred subject, a touchstone amid turbulent times, as though Test Match Special was turned on quietly in the corner of the room.

Near the end, I got to know Pinter a little. He sent me his beautiful memoir of Arthur Wellard, of Somerset, England and Pinter’s travelling side the Gaieties. Wellard was one of cricket’s greatest hitters, scoring five sixes in an over twice and smacking three thousand of his twelve thousand first class runs in sixes.

Pinter’s memoir begins when the 72-year old Wellard – ‘past the age when running singles was anything but a mug’s game’ – scores the winning runs in a tight match for the Gaities. But the highlight is the story Pinter has Wellard tell about Larwood. One young batsman, stuttering in mind and voice, was so scared of Larwood’s bouncers that he was delighted to edge one to the slips. Wait a minute, first slip says, it was a bump ball, I didn’t catch it. ‘Yes, you f**-well did,’ says the batsman, ‘and he’s back in the pavilion before you can say Jack Robinson.’

Reading Pinter’s memoir of Wellard felt like stumbling across a postcard that Picasso sketched on holiday and then posted to a friend. The talent looms all the greater in miniature. In just six pages, Pinter so perfectly captures Wellard’s voice that you feel you knew and loved him yourself.

Even unsentimental readers approach tears at the last paragraph. ‘Arthur played for England against Australia in 1938. He took 2 for 96 and 1 for 30, scored 4 and 38 (including a six into the Grandstand). He gave me his England cap and the stump he knocked over when he bowled Badcock.’

There it is, cricket and literature conjoined. First the facts of the match, unsentimentally recorded in quotidian prose. Next the human dimension, equally underwritten, a symbol of enduring affection.

Understatement, loyalty, friendship – what could be more cricketing than that, or more English?

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