Poetry: The strange meaning of words

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The Independent Culture
THE OTHER night, an oldish Pinter play, Betrayal, was revived at the Lyttelton. An hour before curtain up, Pinter, oldish himself - 68 and not looking a microsecond older than ever - walked on stage to read from his new book of bits and pieces in prose and verse, a wide culling which proved that he'd been at it for half-a-century. I asked a woman whether she knew the plot. "I've got terrible stomach ache from gulping down the salmon fishcakes," she replied, leaning over to rock herself. "The buffet, would you believe it, only opened at 5.30."

Then, just two seats along from her, I spotted Lady Antonia about to settle into her seat, turning and turning about, restless as a dog, all got up in pearls. Suddenly, she tipped that gloriously sculpted chin back a little in the manner of the Jodrell Bank Telescope, and gave a mild, queenly smile right over my head, as if blessing someone in the gods.

Pinter himself was to refer to this woman later, somewhat mysteriously. "This poem is dedicated to A," he said. Aardvark? Abacus? Actors? Antelope? "My wife," he added. The ones who'd settled for aardvark - it's so difficult to manipulate school dictionaries in a theatrical half light - groaned.

Once upon a time, one or two people weren't too pleased by the idea of Pinter at the National (who is this punter, Pinter?) Now that he's old enough to be ripped apart by the alienated in schools, everyone's delighted. Even his best vulgarities provoke brief outbursts of genteel mirth in a well-padded theatre such as this one.

Pinter, a physically substantial figure with massively dandified, grey sideburns and a baleful glance, has an unusual way of crossing a stage to the lectern: he takes small, regular, almost military steps as if there's a kettledrum gently rat-a-tat-tatting in his inner ear. The lectern itself, when he got to it, seemed a miserably diminished thing beside his blazer and beetroot-coloured trousered eminence which loomed over it, fiddle- daddling with bits of paper.

The first message that Pinter gave us provoked disappointment, tempered moments later by relief that the seats, at this time of the evening anyway, had been relatively inexpensive. "It says somewhere in this programme that I'm going to discuss my work. This is not true. I'm simply going to read from this new book of prose, poetry and politics..." The delivery is immediately arresting - sharp, clipped, staccato, as if he's not so much talking to an audience as spitting carpet tacks into the bloated stomachs of the bourgeoisie

Everyone understood immediately, of course. How ridiculous that Pinter the man should be expected to throw light on Pinter the words! The words speak for themselves. Meaning either emerges or does not emerge, and when it does emerge, it emerges from within and is never imposed from without by some meddling Pinter of a thing.

And when it does not emerge, it does not emerge. That is the nature of the beast.