That nice Mr Pinter

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A RESTAURANT. A bar. A nervous journalist sips mineral water and scans the foreign pages. He is boning up on the imminent civil war in East Timor. He knows little about East Timor. The man he is about to interview, however, knows a great deal about East Timor. And he has a famous tendency to shout at people who are insufficiently knowledgeable about political tyranny everywhere in the world. In Indonesia or Turkey or South America. Or, indeed, in Washington.

The journalist shakily turns the pages. A drop of perspiration crashes on to a map of Iraq's no-fly zone.

This is not going to be easy. The man whose arrival is imminent never gives interviews. He is famously irascible. He puts the frighteners on people. He is a byword for aggression. The word "truculence" acquires new shape and meaning when he is around. He will not talk about his plays. He will not talk about his personal life. He is unlikely to want to chat about Sex and the City. Whatever you ask him he will probably tell you to eff off, before bawling you out for having gone to Turkey on holiday in 1987.

Enter Harold Pinter through the revolving door. He says hello. A brisk conversation ensues about whether the restaurant will allow photographs inside their establishment. They won't. He tramps out again, to be snapped further up the road, in the rain. "Shall I come with you?" I ask. Pinter turns. "Why don't you stay here in the dry?" he says with a note of genial contempt. It is the first sign that everything is going to be all right.

We sit at the famous corner table in Le Caprice and for two-and-a-half hours Pinter talks about himself. We discuss his plays, his life, his use of language, his opinions of poets. Amazingly, politics enters the conversation only, as it were, organically. He never shows the least inclination to rant. Nobody could be more charming, more forthcoming, more genial and (oddly) more British. He is courteous even under provocation.

"Tell me, Sir Harold..." I began. "I'm not Sir Harold," he interrupted. "I turned down the knighthood. I wrote Mr Major a very courteous letter, thanked him and said I was unable to accept such an honour from a Conservative government." Whoops. Later, I muddled up some details from The Caretaker and The Birthday Party. He didn't mind. I corrected him when he quoted some lines from Tennyson's "Tithonus", then found I was wrong. He affected not to care. When we ordered food, the conversation hit a Pinteresque stride, as he discovered a small tomato salad dish on the menu:

HP: I think I'll just have... the cod.

JW: No starter?

HP: I'd like a... mixed tomatoes and basil.

JW: Mixed tomatoes and basil?

HP: Yes.

JW: To start off with?

HP: Yes. (Pause). And I won't have anything else with the cod.


JW: You're sure it's a starter?

HP: Yes. (Pause). You can have it as a starter.

JW: You could have the plum tomatoes and basil galette, which are in the proper starters menu...

HP: But I don't want the tomatoes and basil galette...

He had, it seemed, no private agenda, no urgent rodomontade about the fresh wave of bombings in Iraq. But he wanted to clear up something. Last Sunday, a newspaper profile of Tom Stoppard had trotted out an old chestnut that irritated him: how Pinter once tried to enlist Stoppard's support to get the Comedy Theatre renamed the Pinter Theatre, and how Stoppard had amusingly replied, "Why don't you change your name to Harold Comedy?"

It never happened. Pinter has written to complain. "It's totally without foundation. Sure, I had five plays put on there since 1990, and Bill Kenwright made a joke and said, `Why don't they call it the Pinter Theatre?' But now I find myself landed with this extraordinary reputation." His brow darkened. "There's an illness in the press in this country. To quote a stupid little tale like that, without any attempt to confirm there was any truth in it whatsoever, is only too common. They feel they can say what they like just for the hell of it." Actually, I said, it's more to do with the journalistic habit of hoarding up apocryphal stories, like squirrels storing acorns.

We talked about the critical reception of his play Betrayal, which was premiered at the Lyttelton in 1978 (with Michael Gambon, Daniel Massey and Penelope Wilton), was later filmed (with Ben Kingsley, Jeremy Irons and Patricia Hodge) and is now back at the National with Anthony Calf, Douglas Hodge and Imogen Stubbs. Though now held to be one of his finest works, a subtle cat's-cradle of mutual betrayals, working backwards in time so that the audience always knows the reason for the undercurrents of malice and mistrust beneath the dialogue, it was rubbished on its first outing. Michael Billington, later to be Pinter's biographer and heartiest authenticator, wrote: "What distresses me is the pitifully thin strip of human experience it explores and its obsession with the tiny ripples on the stagnant pond of bourgeois-affluent life", and suggested that Pinter had betrayed his talent. Had Pinter been hurt?

"I'm never hurt," he said, smiling. "I was hurt just once, in 1958, when The Birthday Party, my first professionally produced play, was destroyed. I went out at 7.30am, to get the morning papers, went to a cafe and had a cup of tea and read them. They were all... each one was worse than the last. It was a quite an ugly experience, that early-morning read in the cafe. I thought I might give the whole thing up and go and write a novel. But my wife at the time, Vivien [Merchant], said, `Come on, you've had bad notices as an actor, pull yourself together', and Donald McWhinnie at the BBC commissioned me to write A Slight Ache. But it was very good for me to have such a beginning. Since then I've never been hurt by what's been said by critics."

Betrayal received one notice that thrilled Pinter. It was a private note from the great Samuel Beckett, who was Pinter's friend, drinking buddy, correspondent and inspiration from when they met in Paris in 1962, until his death in 1989. The note refers to the final scene in this back-to- front play, when the affair between Emma and Jerry is just starting: "That last first look in the shadows, after all those in the light to come, wrings the heart."

"I think that's better than the whole play put together," said Pinter fondly. "We used to meet, whenever he was in London, whenever I was in Paris. I sent him all my plays.

"I sent him one called Silence which we were putting on at the Aldwych. He wrote back and said, `I like it very much, but if I were you I'd look at the third speech at the bottom of page nine. I looked at it and thought, `What? There's nothing wrong with it. Perfectly good speech.' The play went into rehearsal. I went away for a few days, got back, rang Peter [Hall, the director] and he said, `It's going very well. There's just this one speech at the bottom of...' And I said, `Don't tell me. Just cut it out'."

You can't easily imagine Pinter taking instructions from anyone. Though his legendary truculence, aggression, etc are on hold today, he radiates a hum of violence, a low-frequency rumble of hard energy. Now 68, he looks 52. His intense brown eyes scrutinise you fiercely. His voice is an odd hybrid, plummy-stentorian, and tends to come down on certain words like a stamping foot. He is phenomenally masculine. His conversation is salted with obscenities. He likes facts and vivid memories. He rarely uses abstract nouns when speaking, just as he steers clear of tender emotions in his drama.

His plays are famously filled with threat and menace and the lurking violence that lies in families, marriages and political systems. His later poems (as collected in Various Voices: Prose, Poetry, Politics 1948-1998) impersonate the voices of CIA aggressors with triumphant, obscene smugness. It's odd to think that this noble pacifist, this former conscientious objector, this dove who would like to arraign President Clinton for the bombing of Khartoum, seems himself to be an embodiment of toughness, pugilism, attitude, intimidation.

Have you ever, I asked, been punched in the face? Or have you punched someone in the face? Or were you a bully at school? Or were you intimidated by someone else? Have you discovered a capacity for violence in yourself?

He wasn't the least bit fazed. "I have the feeling that lots of people have wanted to punch me in the face for a very long time," he laughed. "Not theatre critics, but political journalists and people in other spheres. I think they find me a pain in the arse."

Seriously, though, I said. And he told me a story that may, or may not, explain the source of his commitment.

"I was 28. There used to be a bar on Sloane Square Station, and I went to get the tube to Chiswick. There was this chap at a table and I heard him say, "Listen - the thing is - Hitler was quite right to do what he did to the Jews. In fact he should have gone further." He was some City man, a bit pissed. So I went to the bar, ordered a half of Whitbread and wondered what I should do. The man with him said, `I think that's a load of rubbish', and I said, involuntarily, `Yeah - it's a load of balls.' And the bloke looked at me and said, `I suppose you're a filthy yid yourself.' So I said, `Say that again', and he said, `I suppose you're a filthy yid.' And I whacked him" - Pinter drove his fist into the palm of his left hand with a sharp report that made the restaurant jump. "I remember the blood spurting down his left cheek. I said, `You shouldn't go around saying that kind of thing', and picked up my drink, whereupon he hit me. He came right off the back of the bar and hit me straight in the face. It happened 40 years ago and I remember it as if it were yesterday, the tables and chairs all over the place. I was very fit in those days, so you could say I overwhelmed him. I went a little crazy.

"Anyway, the stationmaster came in with a policeman and the fight was stopped. But then the man himself came up to me, blood all over his shirt, and said, `Let me ask you one question. Are you a Jew?' I said, `Yes.' He said, `Well, I can understand why you hit me. But why did you have to hit me so hard?' I know the answer to that. I wasn't hitting him on my own behalf, but on behalf of other people. That's how I understood it after the event. Here was a man going around saying this kind of thing, and I found what he was saying profoundly offensive to millions of other people, to the dead."

My strength is as the strength of ten, in other words, because my heart is pure. But had he enjoyed the violence? Was he a real bastard at school? "No, no. I even refused to join the Army cadet force. I was 14 or 15, long before I was a conscientious objector. I saw it as structured violence. I just wasn't that type of tough guy."

How did he feel about revenge? Once you've extradited Pinochet, tried him and convicted him, what then? What's the correct behaviour towards the top brass of the Khmer Rouge who, at a press conference last week, when asked about the murder of 10 million Cambodians, said, "Yeah. Right. Sorry about that"?

"I'm more interested in the proper observance of international law, if there is such a thing, because pure revenge has no bounds, no structure. That's why the initial triumph of the House of Lords' decision about Pinochet's extradition was so inspiring, before it was absurdly overthrown because of Lord Hoffman's association with Amnesty International. It was laughable, and disgraceful. So he's a member of Amnesty? So should we all be!"

What would he do with Pinochet? "The central thing is recognition. People in places like Chile and Argentina and Uruguay and Brazil - the mothers of the disappeared - they want these crimes to be acknowledged. You don't have to string up old Pinochet. No, you say: `Look, Pinochet, this is what you did. Basically you're a loathsome, vile mass murderer. Stand there and listen to this, then you can fuck off.'"

You must admit, Harold Pinter has a bracing perspective on the language of international relations. But he is pretty bracing company altogether. He is slyly mocking of his chum Stoppard's new movie screenplay ("Did you see Shakespeare in Love? Shakespeare's always running like hell through market-places and towns. I never knew he was a 200-yard sprinter. This was a revelation to me. Apparently he could run the arse off anybody.") He is unimpressed by current literary jostlings ("The position of Poet Laureate means nothing to me. I don't give a shit who gets it.") He tells stories about stalkers - such as the time he, Ted Hughes and John Osborne were all harangued by a "Californian" feminist sect, who accused them of killing their first wives. He discusses his current projects: he's just about to start directing a new play by Simon Gray, The Late Middle Classes; he's turned a Karen Blixen story, "The Dreaming Child" into a screenplay to be produced by Julia Ormond. And two of his plays, Ashes to Ashes and The Hothouse, start shortly in New York. He is exhaustingly busy, productive, engage.

And he wants to make sure the quotations in this piece are accurate, to avoid any more "Pinter Theatre" abominations. We-ell, I say, let me ring you tomorrow to discuss it. "Sorry, he says, "I'll be in Trafalgar Square, making a short speech about the persecution of the Kurds in Turkey."

So Mr Pinter goes on, taking haymaker swings, on behalf of the oppressed world, at the nasty City gent in the Sloane Square Station bar.

Harold Pinter's `Betrayal' continues in repertoire at the National Theatre until 7 April. Box office: 0171-452 3000