Harold Pinter, Britain's leading playwright, described yesterday how he had overcome the cancer that threatened to kill him.
He spoke of the "dark dream" of fighting cancer of the oesophagus, which struck him after 71 years of good health. It had been a grim year and for most of it he had no idea what was going to happen. He described his tussle with the disease as like being in "an impenetrable forest" or in a relentless sea.
"It was like being plunged into an ocean in which you can't swim so you have no idea how to get out of it. You simply bob and float and hit some terrible waves," he told the Edinburgh International Book Festival.
"I didn't quite know where I was or what I was, if I was anything at all." But the audience at his first important public appearance since his recovery burst into warm applause when he said: "It was all terribly dark really, but the thing is – here I am. I'm happy to say my tumour is dead."
Not long after he discovered he had the disease, Pinter wrote a poem inspired by the words of a nurse at the Royal Marsden Hospital in London where he was treated. She told him: "Cancer cells are the ones that have forgotten how to die." But the playwright said he had written little since then, indicating that surgery had left him tired.
Asked if he could read that poem, he recited it from memory. Called "Meeting", it told of the long-dead encountering the newly dead for the first time, showing how terrifying the thought of death must have been to him. He admitted the experience had been a life-changing one. "I think that one is changed by it without any question. I'm more conscious of death, really," he said.
"I've always been politically engaged and quite passionately so, but now, I'm no less passionately engaged, but I've come out of this experience with a more detached point of view. I somehow see the world more objectively. I'm part of it but I'm outside, too."
Pinter later gave a vintage political performance. He expressed his indignation at government policies on Iraq and Kosovo and said the former US president Bill Clinton and Tony Blair should be arraigned for "murders" they committed in Kosovo in the name of humanitarian intervention.
He also explained why he had accepted the title of Companion of Honour this year when he had turned down a knighthood from John Major. Accepting a knighthood would have been "squalid" and being called Sir would have been silly. But the Companion of Honour title felt like a tribute from the country.
"However critical I might or might not be about this country, nevertheless, a) I like cricket, and b) I do live in this country. I regarded the Companion of Honour as an honour from the country for 50 years of work."
He had initially cancelled yesterday's engagement soon after his illness was diagnosed.
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