Harold Pinter - I salute you

Harold Pinter died on Christmas day. oD's founder reflects briefly on his own encounter with him and on his heartfelt Nobel speech.
Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
25 December 2008

Anthony Barnett (London, OK): I never knew Harold Pinter, but I met him. He was funny and disconcerting. The first  time was at his and Antonia Fraser's house in Campden Hill Square for a meeting of what was known as the June 20th group. This was a gathering of left literary intellectuals which began in 1988 as an attempt to put some backbone into the Labour Party as led by Neil Kinnock. It was hosted by Pinter and John Mortimer, the latter a true Labour man. I spoke to them about Charter 88 which Pinter had promptly signed but which John Mortimer refused to support. I became a regular attender of the group which was scorned by the media for its well-heeled committment to socialism and the underdog. But it had a serious intent of providing a more self-confident hinterland for Kinnock to draw upon. He declined this, to the lasting weakness of Labour, in my view (but that's another argument). There was a bite and irony in Pinter's observations except when it came to politics. I recall sitting next to him when he assurred me with his characteristic intensity that Thatcher and her work was "fascist". I listened politely but couldn't accept the description however odious her polices were. Later we invited him and Antonia over to our flat in Covent Garden. I mainly recall him sitting in the armchair and pronouncing, "this is a pad". It made me laugh then and still does.

When he won the Nobel Prize I dreaded the prospect of the acceptance speech becoming a performance of his "Fuck America; America, fuck you", variety, which convinced nobody of anything except that this was his strongly held view. In fact the speech on Art, Truth and Politics was strong and thoughtful, if understandably uneven given his phyisical condition. It explained something I'd puzzled about. How did he become so political and keep up such a moral fervour with little depth of what I'd call political reading (as opposed to research, which he did)? Among other things he described the moment that I suspect explained this.

It is part of a fantastic passage in the speech, that deserves to be much better known: 

Everyone knows what happened in the Soviet Union and throughout Eastern Europe during the post-war period: the systematic brutality, the widespread atrocities, the ruthless suppression of independent thought. All this has been fully documented and verified.

But my contention here is that the US crimes in the same period have only been superficially recorded, let alone documented, let alone acknowledged, let alone recognised as crimes at all. I believe this must be addressed and that the truth has considerable bearing on where the world stands now. Although constrained, to a certain extent, by the existence of the Soviet Union, the United States' actions throughout the world made it clear that it had concluded it had carte blanche to do what it liked.

Direct invasion of a sovereign state has never in fact been America's favoured method. In the main, it has preferred what it has described as 'low intensity conflict'. Low intensity conflict means that thousands of people die but slower than if you dropped a bomb on them in one fell swoop. It means that you infect the heart of the country, that you establish a malignant growth and watch the gangrene bloom. When the populace has been subdued - or beaten to death - the same thing - and your own friends, the military and the great corporations, sit comfortably in power, you go before the camera and say that democracy has prevailed. This was a commonplace in US foreign policy in the years to which I refer.

The tragedy of Nicaragua was a highly significant case. I choose to offer it here as a potent example of America's view of its role in the world, both then and now.

I was present at a meeting at the US embassy in London in the late 1980s.

The United States Congress was about to decide whether to give more money to the Contras in their campaign against the state of Nicaragua. I was a member of a delegation speaking on behalf of Nicaragua but the most important member of this delegation was a Father John Metcalf. The leader of the US body was Raymond Seitz (then number two to the ambassador, later ambassador himself). Father Metcalf said: 'Sir, I am in charge of a parish in the north of Nicaragua. My parishioners built a school, a health centre, a cultural centre. We have lived in peace. A few months ago a Contra force attacked the parish. They destroyed everything: the school, the health centre, the cultural centre. They raped nurses and teachers, slaughtered doctors, in the most brutal manner. They behaved like savages. Please demand that the US government withdraw its support from this shocking terrorist activity.'

Raymond Seitz had a very good reputation as a rational, responsible and highly sophisticated man. He was greatly respected in diplomatic circles. He listened, paused and then spoke with some gravity. 'Father,' he said, 'let me tell you something. In war, innocent people always suffer.' There was a frozen silence. We stared at him. He did not flinch.

Innocent people, indeed, always suffer.

Finally somebody said: 'But in this case "innocent people" were the victims of a gruesome atrocity subsidised by your government, one among many. If Congress allows the Contras more money further atrocities of this kind will take place. Is this not the case? Is your government not therefore guilty of supporting acts of murder and destruction upon the citizens of a sovereign state?'

Seitz was imperturbable. 'I don't agree that the facts as presented support your assertions,' he said.

As we were leaving the Embassy a US aide told me that he enjoyed my plays. I did not reply. I should remind you that at the time President Reagan made the following statement: 'The Contras are the moral equivalent of our Founding Fathers.' 

In this way Pinter set out his case against the United States, and you still feel his shock - the Americans knew what they were doing. He then became equally unflinching. His speech is not subtle. There are counter-arguments that could moderate it. But it was not just a cry of rage or expletives. What struck me most of all was the way it was ignored.

In the UK only the Guardian reprinted it. It was not to my knowledge either reprinted or responded to in the United States, except, I think, with a dismissive sneering piece in the Wall Street Journal. No one denied his description of what had happened in the American Embassy in London. Quite simply, a major statement in which Pinter presented his critique of US imperialism to the world was treated... as if it was a bad smell rather than a well crafted case that demanded an answer. And today people debate in shocked tones the suggestion that American literature is parochial and its authors, with the exception of Toni Morrison, undeserving of an international prize.

Later I recall (and will put in the link if I can find it) an essay by David Hare that noted this scandalous silence.

You can read the speech here. And watch Harold deliver it from a wheelchair here. And you should.

Also on OK, Anthony Barnett responds to Nick Cohen on Pinter and "all the liberals and leftists like him".


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