Portrait of the playwright as a loving husband
15 January 2010
Two of the great playwrights of their generation meet for dinner. A renowned biographer, married to one of them, records the event in her diary. “Dinner with Tom and Miriam Stoppard. Harold: ‘I don’t plan my characters’ lives.’ Then to Tom: ‘Don’t you find they take over sometimes?’ Tom: ‘No’.”
Lady Antonia Fraser is about to publish the diary she kept during the years she spent first as the lover, then the wife, of Harold Pinter. To judge by the book’s newspaper serialisation, admittedly an unreliable source, her account is cheerfully domestic. She once gave him a mug with “You are a Genius” written on it. When she asked him if Joan Bakewell had enjoyed reading his play based on their affair, his witty rejoinder was, “That would be like asking Mrs Lincoln the same question.”
On the basis of what has been published so far, only the most ardent fans of Lady Fraser or Harold Pinter will be looking forward to reading these diaries. They are certainly revealing, but in the wrong way. A great love, put down lovingly and carefully on paper, rarely reads well once the passion has cooled. All that desire and grief, all those confessions, the whole heady drama of infidelity: in literature as in life, these things are apt to seem overblown, even foolish, years later unless they have been captured by a writer with a pitilessly forensic eye. On the whole, happiness is rather banal.
Oddly, the fact that the Pinters were well known makes the task of conveying what went on between them more difficult. Few of those who, at one stage or another, went to bed with Harold Pinter or Antonia Fraser were not well-known in some way. Because many of them were writers, it meant that the protagonists in these affairs joined in the myth-making process. The affair between Pinter and Joan Bakewell, for example, reverberated in the echo chamber of their own writings for decades: his play, her interview for a biography, her memoir and now his wife’s diaries.
Today it is difficult to understand why the sex lives of a small circle of self-excited high bohemians was so fascinating. Their work may have been impressive but who they happen to have slept with was no more interesting than the more recent doings and misdoings of Jordan and Peter André.
Lady Fraser’s diaries are an expression of love. A form of mourning, they are an attempt by the author to keep her husband alive in her memory and her work for as long as possible. The fact of their publication is likely to be more moving than their contents.
As BBC4’s entertaining Dear Diary season has confirmed, mere observation and recording of events is not enough for diarist. Being happy and in love is invariably a disadvantage. Writers, in fact, are rarely well served by confessional accounts by their intimates. There has been no greater betrayal of one writer by another than John Bayley’s accounts of his wife Iris Murdoch’s mental decline.
Friendlier, and incomparably less harmful, the Fraser diaries seem merely to present Harold Pinter, who rather prided himself on his own ferociousness, as an amiable hubby. They are the tribute to a happy relationship by a loving wife. A decision not to publish them, to keep them within the family, would have been daring, unusual and, just possibly, sensible.
Experiment that went badly wrong
The Royal Institution, the venerable scientific establishment which was said to be keen to raise its public profile, has done just that. After a disastrous £22m refurbishment of its Albermarle Street premises – the plan was that it should become a Groucho Club for scientists – it is now so short of money that it has just made its director Baroness Susan Greenfield redundant. She is challenging her dismissal, claiming sexual discrimination.
When they appointed Greenfield in 1998, the board of the RI were looking for a high-profile, media-savvy scientist who could change its image. They must have been delighted at first when their director proved to be adept at playing the celebrity game.
In a sense, Greenfield did what was required. She was in the public eye. She supported the idea of turning the institution into an “events venue” with a café and bar. Sadly, the world of serious scientific research and that of spritzers and media chat proved to be an uncomfortable fit.
Greenfield is now consulting a QC. There will be interviews, publicity, perhaps a day or two in court. The RI is discovering that you play the celebrity game at your peril.
An Olympic course for the arts
A whiff of impending disaster hangs over the grandly named Cultural Olympiad. The appointment of someone to take charge of this vast national arts programme was meant to be announced before Christmas. Nothing has been heard. Instead, there are reports that the job has become the subject of a tug-of-war involving the offices of the Arts minister and of the Mayor of London. According to the chair of the board making the appointment, the salary on offer, £120,000, is too small to attract the right calibre of person.
Perhaps the job itself is the problem. The official line is that the Cultural Olympiad is, “a four year developing programme of cultural activity which aims to inspire young people, welcome the world and leave a lasting legacy”. There will be 10 major projects across the UK. Every kind of artistic activity, at all levels will be involved.
It all sounds like a politically-inspired shambles in the making. Perhaps a simplification, a lowering of sights, possibly even what the Government has taken to calling “laser focus”, is now required. How about one terrific arts festival, taking place in 2012 and celebrating the best of British? The buzzwords of the moment, “legacy”, “inspire”, “cultural activity”, “young people” could surely find a place there.
* An organisation called the Energy Intensive Users Group has made a timely, if alarming, contribution to discussions about the weather. Because the icy temperatures were accompanied by high pressure and a lack of wind, a tiny 0.2 per cent of a possible five per cent of wind energy was generated. “Our power generation and gas supplies are under strain and it is getting worse,” says the EIUG. Demand will eventually return to pre-recession levels, and the Government plans to increase significantly our dependence on gas and wind. A cold snap in 2015 could be distinctly uncomfortable.
Independent, Wednesday, 13th January 2010.