The New Statesman Interview - Harold Pinter

The odd dissenter, a professional Mr Angry who is more Victor Meldrew than Vaclav Havel. Harold Pint

As Harold Pinter wrote recently, in an open letter to the Prime Minister, he was "chuffed to the bollocks" by the advent of the Blair government. This variant of the feelgood factor - first articulated by Lenny in The Homecoming - has long since dissipated. War in Kosovo, sanctions on Iraq and bellicose foreign policy elsewhere have rendered Pinter as dischuffed as it is possible to be.

"I find the whole Blairish idea more and more repugnant every day," he complains. "New Labour: the term itself is so trashy. Kind of ersatz." Then there are the substantive charges. "Blair is a war criminal and a murderer. He is living a deluded life. While he's smiling and grinning at everybody, he's responsible at the same time for the murder of thousands of civilians. He has their blood on his hands."

Pinter's polemical approach is not new. Nor is his reputation for ferocity. In a speech in 1995, he summarised his character references as "enigmatic, taciturn, terse, prickly, explosive and forbidding". Still, there are encouraging hints that the Pinter scariness may be overhyped. When I first asked for an interview, he sent back a pleasant note couched in the manner of a third-former trying to get off swimming. "I'm very much under par at the moment - physically, not spiritually!" he wrote. "A chest infection. I feel I have to lead a quiet life." Other bulletins followed. "I've recovered!" he finally noted.

So here we are in the book-lined house he keeps for working. Pinter has uncorked the white wine and page-marked the Eliot poem he wants to read me ("O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark"). A jolly evening beckons, in which we shall discuss theatre, the third world war and the role of the dissenter.

Pinter is an odd sort of dissenter: less a Vaclav Havel or a Gunter Grass than a Victor Meldrew - a professional Mr Angry whose thermostat is supposedly calibrated between a steady simmer and a rolling boil of fury. "I think it goes even further. I am reported as a deranged man; someone who is stark raving mad. There's this idea that if a traffic warden walked down the street, I would go and throttle him. I'm continually enraged and out of control."

This perception, Pinter thinks, turns on his "very odd relationship" with the British press and on something more sinister. "I'm not especially paranoic, but I believe there is a link between the press and something else. I'm not saying there would be a directive, saying: 'Get him. Make him look like a bloody fool.' But I suspect there's something going on in this country - not just to do with me but with any form of dissent."

Are we talking a full-blown conspiracy, Harold? "To make a claim about a conspiracy theory from on high would be extremely pretentious and vainglorious. But I am not totally persuaded that there isn't something in it. I am just a slight pain in the arse to the powers-that-be, particularly the American ones. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that there is a belittling policy. But I mustn't go on whingeing to you that I might be at the end of a conspiracy theory. I don't give a fuck one way or the other. I'm past it."

It seems fair to conclude that one component in the mysterious Pinter stitch-up is Pinter himself. However much one might concur with his anti-war stance, his thunderous indictments do evoke a man splattering a caterpillar with a club-hammer. Free markets, globalisation and the Third Way are uncompromisingly dismissed by Pinter, without much further debate, as "crap" or "bollocks".

But his difficulty may not lie chiefly in reductionism or political naivety. In 1979 he voted for the woman he now calls "Mrs Bloody Thatcher". "I don't think I've ever done anything more shameful. It was idiotic; infantile on my part." Then there is the charge that his privileged world sits awkwardly with his aims. I ask about the June 20 Group, a left-wing think-tank set up in the eighties by him, his second wife, Antonia Fraser, and other well-heeled thinkers. Did the spectacle of this cosseted band debating world poverty over River Cafe polenta not invite media odium - particularly after Pinter had one innocent television journalist evicted, mid-meal, on the incorrect grounds that he was spying?

"It was a classic case of undermining people who were concerned about the society in which they lived. You couldn't have got a more interesting body of people, and we were pissed upon by the press. Ludicrous. This champagne socialist stuff is a cliche. I can't take the rewards of society and shut up. I can't, and I bloody well won't." Besides, as he says, his money has been acquired "only by the sweat of my own brow. I am a totally working man."

The son of a Jewish tailor, Pinter staged his first play, The Room, at Bristol University in 1957. In February next year, he - now almost 70 - will direct a revival to run with Celebration, a new, "disgustingly vulgar, very funny and violent" verbal farce, at the Almeida Theatre. Steven Pacey, Lindsay Duncan and Lia Williams will star along with Henry Woolf - a Canadian professor, one of Pinter's oldest friends and an original cast member of The Room.

"I am very high on all this. There are 43 years between the two plays, but they have things in common." The intervening four decades have not always been marked by such pleasing symmetry. Pinter's work, particularly in the early years, attracted a schizophrenic blend of praise and rubbishing; a process that may have inured him to insults.

He does appear to have a rubbery resistance to rejection and, perhaps, to hurt. I ask him about his first wife, Vivien Merchant, who drank herself to death at the age of 53, and he says: "It was very sad that an extremely brilliant actress died so young . . . I would simply say that Vivien was a very, very obstinate person. If she determined a course, she would just pursue it. But in 1975, an extraordinary thing happened. Antonia and I met, and here we are. People - the press - really wanted to destroy us, by the way."

But the signal destruction in Pinter's life appears to be the breakdown in relations between him and his only child, Daniel. In 1993, they agreed that it would be better if they no longer spoke. "I certainly feel sad about the alienation from my son . . . He has a brilliant mind. He is 41. It's all a great pity. He lives alone. It's a very solitary life. In so far as he can be happy, I believe he is."

Despite this estrangement, Pinter has what his biographer, Michael Billington, calls a "Hemingwayesque" bond with other men. His attitude to women seems less clear. Certainly he is charming. He fusses round with the wine bottle and addresses me as "Mary" as if we are old pals; a chumminess only slightly marred by his recollection of a Newsnight spat with Norman Lamont. ("I called him Lord Lamont, and he kept calling me Harold. Ha! They do that to soften you up, you know.")

The Pinter oeuvre has, however, not always endeared him to feminists. In particular, Ruth, in The Homecoming - the don's wife turned prostitute - disturbed even his former mistress, Joan Bakewell. "A lot of women hate the play, but they've got it all wrong. Ruth has them all (her male in-laws) for breakfast. I don't idealise women. I enjoy them. I have been married to two of the most independent women it is possible to think of. My first wife was incredibly independent, and I know of no more independent and intelligent spirit in the world than Antonia."

Harold can sound rather pompous. Nor does he lack amour propre (although he has sedulously denied that he once tried to elicit Tom Stoppard's support for a plan to rechristen the Comedy Theatre the Pinter Theatre; whereupon Stoppard suggested that he changed his name to Harold Comedy). I ask where he puts himself in the pantheon of great writers, and he says, modestly: "That is not for me to say. But I do receive a great number of letters from all over the world - very warm ones. That is gratifying, but I can go no further. I know the writers I really admire - Shakespeare, Proust, Joyce. Those are my boys."

This accolade, alas, is not applicable to Blair's men. Robin Cook is a terrible disappointment. "Ethical foreign policy, how are ya?" says Pinter with deep scorn. Chris Smith he has spoken to only once; exhorting him over a formal lunch table to scrap Trident and save the Royal Court Theatre.

I had heard that, despite his loathing for new Labour, he had been courted by individual ministers, but he, the outsider, dismissed that as ludicrous. And yet there is a streak of conformism - and therefore, perhaps, of insecurity - in Harold Pinter. He tells me, in a confessional way, that he has just accepted the Lord Mayor's invitation to a lunch (held on 2 November) attended by 300 other "people of the century" and the Queen. "Well, I do live in this bloody country. I do work here. I'm not an establishment person. I'm not a monarchist. But I'm a CBE for God's sake. Slightly preposterous, isn't it, but I haven't sent it back. There are certain inconsistencies in the way one conducts one's life."

Not half, the sceptical might think. It is easy to lampoon Pinter: a dissenter out of step with government but in tune with the ordinary punters he meets at such demotic haunts as "Cheltenham or Hay-on-Wye". And yet he does work rigorously for his causes. He has also paid a price for his beliefs. Reviewers of his recently published anthology, Various Voices, predictably seized on his tirade against the Gulf war ("Hallelujah. It works. We blew the shit out of them."), while wholly ignoring his other - and better - poems. For Harold Pinter to risk opprobrium is nothing new. To court oblivion suggests either a laminated ego or a fierce sincerity. Or, most probably, a cocktail of the two.

This article first appeared in the 08 November 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - To uplift the souls of the people