Shakespeare's Globe

My close encounterwith Harold Pinter: what had I done to offend him?

Sir John Mortimer’s death means the final curtain for the 20 June Group, of which he was a founder member. The cabal first gathered in Harold Pinter and Lady Antonia Fraser’s drawing room in Campden Hill Square, London, on that date in 1988, to plot the downfall of Thatcherism. Mortimer, who had joined the Communist Party as a schoolboy at Harrow, was joined in the inner sanctum of liberal chic by, among others, Salman Rushdie, Margaret Drabble, Michael Holroyd and Fay Weldon. Other gatherings took place at the River Cafe in Hammersmith and the Groucho Club in Soho, before the group suspended its meetings a few years later. Mortimer relished his role as a champagne socialist, boasting of drinking a glass each day before breakfast. He was following in the noble tradition of Charles Heidsieck, the founder of the Heidsieck champagne company, who despite being known as “Champagne Charlie” still spoke on behalf of many radical causes and supported the abolition of slavery.

The 20 June Group's death knell was sounded on 16 March 1995 when Pinter dropped a bombshell. The playwright admitted he had once voted for Margaret Thatcher, in 1979. He explained his decision was inspired by a strike at the National Theatre which affected a production he was working on. "I actually feel it was a shameful act, because it was not a vote in any proper context," he said. "It was totally unintelligent and self-indulgent."

Thank goodness Pinter’s comrades in Cuba are so forgiving. On his death last month the playwright was mourned on Cuban state TV and his name and photograph appeared with the slogan “Harold Pinter . . . Amigo de Communista”. Were they aware he had once voted for la mujer de hierro?

The first time I met Pinter I was a novice journalist unused to the ways of the world and the harrumphs of Harold. "I only have two words for the Londoner's Diary," the great man told me. "The second is 'off'." And with that he turned on his heels. What had I done to offend him? I could not work it out and imagined this might pass for a Pinteresque compliment.

But in the end as hard as I tried I couldn't find any way of putting a positive gloss on the exchange. Pinter usually had no compunction about using the F-word in public and sprinkled his poetry with profanities. I often fantasised that it was my paper that was his muse and fuelled his rage. Only recently did I discover how close to the truth this was. A mutual friend told me the paper was required reading in the Pinter household and often left open at the Londoner's Diary page.

Thursday 15 January saw the birth of a new political movement, a worthy successor to the 20 June Group. The Convention on Modern Liberty was launched at the Foreign Press Association with impassioned speeches from co-founders Henry Porter and Anthony Barnett, and Baroness Kennedy, all protesting about the government’s invasions of privacy and encroachments on our freedom. “The state is here at our behest and we are not here at the behest of the state,” Helena Kennedy reminded her guests, who were there at the behest of Vanity Fair, one of the sponsors of the evening. So many supporters turned out and such was the hubbub that they threatened to drown out the speeches. At one stage Barnett pleaded with his audience to silence the noisy offenders. “Lock them up!” he joked. But why was Dame Helena wearing a fur hat as she railed against the government? And what were the credentials of these libertarians? Stanley Johnson, father of Mayor Boris, took the opportunity to mingle with guests and tell them all about his forthcoming memoir, Stanley, I Presume. Proof that there is no greater liberty in Britain today than the freedom to promote yourself at somebody else’s expense.

Britons work more hours than the rest of Europe (well, those of us lucky enough still to have jobs), but do we know how to use our leisure time productively? Help is at hand with Julia Hobsbawm’s new book The See-Saw: 100 Ideas for Work-Life Balance, which she launched at Lucky Voice in Upper Street, Islington. There was no sign of her father Professor Eric Hobsbawm nor her husband Alaric Bamping, who doesn’t like big social events. Perhaps they were both deterred by the venue (one of Martha Lane Fox’s karaoke clubs). The Workers Cafe next door might have been a more appropriate setting. Peter York turned out to be an expert on the subject. “I was once the only man on a committee for work-life balance,” he told me. “I wasn’t much good and I don’t think the women were either. They were all rabid careerists.”

I spent Christmas in Luxor, which has a better type of graffiti artist than London. Rimbaud chiselled his name high up on the temple walls at Karnak and you can still see it there to this day. Luxor also has a better class of flâneur. Walking by the Nile one morning a local approached me, held up his palm and said: “To be or not to be”, before sauntering away.

Taking a leaf out of Pinter's book I had two words prepared for him, but I didn't have to use either of them.

Sebastian Shakespeare is editor of the Evening Standard's Londoner's Diary

This article first appeared in the 26 January 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Nixon went to China... Will Obama go to Iran?