Wednesday, February 28, 2007

The Lion in Pinter

After much kind intervention from my worryingly hypochondriac fellow bloggers, I have discovered that my mysterious unwarranted backache is probably something called a ‘spasm’. I have now smothered the offending malfunction in magical Arnica cream and it is certain to be better by morning. I was able to get out and about today and visit the benignly creepy butcher who claims to have known me for more than twenty years. He may be wearing a garment covered in blood and wielding a knife sharper than Jeremy Paxman but he is stuck behind a counter and therefore unable to morph into a stalker. He does do a very nice Scottish stewing beef so it is hard not to like him, however I may begrudge what I perceive to be his over familiarity with my, er, back story.

The recent news that Martin Amis has accepted an appointment as a professor of creative writing at Manchester University has been greeted with a bizarre sort of delayed delight in the blogosphere. It’s as if people’s immediate reaction was ‘you wha’?’ and then the idea grew on them. Obviously the association with a successful, professional writer of his stature is going to inflate the reputation of the course just as Andrew Motion’s appointment did for Royal Holloway. This could be seen as a high profile effort by the university to demonstrate how serious they are about promoting writing as a profession, but then again, it could be a mega honey trap. Are creative writing courses just another way to part desperate writers from their meagre means? Is it vanity studying? Discuss.

There is also the question of what Martin Amis could conceivably do as a tutor apart from give master classes in being Martin Amis. I am aware that it is the convention these days to have practitioner/teachers in the arts but don’t you have to have at least a passing interest in the work of others and wouldn’t a modicum of empathy with tyros be kind of helpful? I’m also wondering if in the context of a multicultural learning environment, it might be a drawback to be a hysterical neo-con Islamophobe. Just a thought. Perhaps I’m biased as only yesterday I finished reading London Fields. It’s not the best backache book in the world I have to say, in fact I suspect it abetted the problem.

One person I would love to have had as a teacher is Hackney’s own Harold Pinter. Much more therapeutic for my ailing rear elevation than Amis, was the rich serving of the prince of menace available on More 4 last night. The first instalment was a mercifully uninterrupted rendering of the master’s most recent play Celebration (2002). How actors must love to do Pinter. An illustrious cast, headed by Michael Gambon, seemed singularly and collectively possessed by the destructive power of their tableau. A joy.

Just as gripping was the triple-headed discussion between Pinter, his long time friend/collaborator and Hackney Downs Grammar School colleague Henry Woolf and director Harry Burton which followed. The interview was intercut with an acting workshop exploring scenes from No Man’s Land and Old Times, directed by Burton and overseen by Pinter, judiciously sipping wine throughout without showing a single sign of inebriation and laughing at his own lines as if he was hearing them for the first time. Not a hint of self-consciousness nor chink of doubt about whether or not this was really what he meant to say, then or now. To me that is true artistry. I loved it when he proudly claimed that he never revised his plays and the only rewrite he ever made was a necessary adjustment when the main route to Heathrow Airport, the A4 was upgraded to a motorway and had to be recast as the M4.

I first fell in love with Pinter when we studied The Caretaker at university. I did a degree majoring in English literature and journalism with tantalising modules of drama and classics to supplement (or pad out as they used to say). I could argue that this is the perfect degree for a writer as you are delivered the best of literature by people who aren’t famous so you don’t feel obliged to stare at them for the whole time rather than take in what they say and, at least in my day studying journalism, you also learned to touch type. Journalists needed it once. I could do that but actually I’m busy talking about Pinter so you will excuse me while I take myself aside and tell myself to shut the fuck up, I trust. Thank you.

Henry Woolf suggested that the novelty of Pinter’s writing is his understanding that conversations are not just an exchange of information but strategic manoeuvres for emotional territory. Absolutely true but I’d argue that he wasn’t the first cab off that particular rank and that Beckett certainly was all over it and probably many before him. For me the power of Pinter is rooted in something I, as a foreigner, understand very well. As a working class Jew, Pinter was always an outsider. What he so successfully exploits is the subtext of English intercourse. He simply has his characters express what they really think rather than what they would be obliged to say given their position and predicament. In the modern world, there is probably no equivalent societal convergence that still provides this opportunity.

I also love Pinter because, despite his society marriage (to the admittedly adorable Lady Antonia Fraser whose Kings and Queens of England is a favourite of mine) and his Nobel Laureate status, he is still, at 76, a shit-stirrer extraordinaire. When someone who has ready access to people in power says,
‘There's a very low anger that resides in any respectable, intelligent person in this society about what goes on, and how impotent we seem to be to correct what goes on, and how we give power to people who don't deserve to possess power because they abuse it, and manipulate it, and treat people with contempt, and treat international law with contempt.’

even when they don’t need to, you know they really mean it.

Harold – you are the king of the urban jungle and I salute you.

Acknowledgement - Brilliant Pinteresquerie from


GoAwayPlease said...

You may love Pinter, but your mere mention of Michael Gambon had me swooning.
Since I saw him in a Poliakoff drama, I have had the biggest crush.
As for Manchester University - they have our favourite, and official No 1 blogger in England: Norm Geras who is also a published author (as is his wife Adele)

Check there for his Profile No 115 it's ME ME ME.

That's so pants said...

Hi GAP - Good thing I didn't mention that Colin Firth is in it too but maybe he doesn't do it for you. Yes - the Poliakoff drama was Perfect Strangers - magnificent. So you've got a normblog profile too - I will check out. Ms Baroque was so honoured last week and as a result of her largesse in naming TSP one of her favourites, we have made it onto Norm's illustrious blogroll, which is, admittedly long enough to be used in an Andrex commercial (where a cute Labrador puppy unravels a toilet roll through a vast house for the purposes of demonstrating its softness, strength and unparalleled longness). We here at House of Pants regard it as our top goal in 2007 to be the subject of a normblog profile and are, even as I write, aspiring to even greater heights of fabulousness to that end. That's how serious we are.

Reading the Signs said...

I don't know that there's much to discuss. The answer is yes - but many of us (creative writing teachers) don't pocket much of that and do a damn fine job. Well I do, anyway. But then most of us are not Martin Amis of the huge advances. I used to like his writing way back when he wrote Other People, and I like Experience, mainly because he wrote about his horrendous dentist ordeals which resonated deeply in me. But Yellow Dog managed to be both boring and exhausting. I have said this before I think, sorry if I'm repeating myself.

I met Harold Pinter's mother in a launderette near Primrose Hill years ago before the area was posh and people went to do their bag washes there. She looked a bit like Terry Jones doing a Mrs. Jean Paul Sartre sketch. She said, apropos of what I cannot remember, "my son is called Harold Pinter, you might have heard of him." I said I had and she told me he didn't visit her much any more. We were unloading the machines. It was a bit like something from one of his plays.

That's so pants said...

Hi Signs - I know I shouldn't slag off creative writing teaching, as I've known several fine and wonderful writers who have done this work. But surely one of the great traditions of writer as tutor is that these places went to brilliant but impoverished writers to ensure that they could at least afford a decent claret. My question perhaps should have been framed more baldly - what I'd really like to know is what's the sudden dramatic elevation in profile all about? If it's really all about great teaching why not just get great teachers?

I love the story about Pinter's Mum. Please do a whole post on that. I loved the Mr and Mrs JP Sartre Monty Python sketch - I won't be able to sleep now for recalling it every five minutes. Ta very much.

Reading the Signs said...

No, no, I think it's perfectly in order to have a go at creative writing teaching. I do think that the best teachers are often not necessarily (and probably not) the high profile writers. But most writers, even quite well-known ones, don't earn enough money by writing alone to keep body and soul together. They depend on workshops, commissions, a steady job in one of the universities, or adult ed. to bring in a bit more.

Anyway, Harold Pinter's mum - well that's the whole story really. I did think afterwards that he must have drawn substantially from her. She was so - Pinteresque.

City Slicker said...

We must be on the same wave length. I was just writing about the lovely Harold yesterday!
Great post

That's so pants said...

Thanks CS - comforting to know that the pantline has someone else's knickers on it as well.