uploaded : Wednesday 6th May 2009 at 15:44
by : Geoffrey Alderman
This article first appeared on 10 April.
Current Viewpoint is honoured to have a special guest opinion this week from Dr Geoffrey Alderman:
HAROLD PINTER: A JEWISH VIEW
I never met Harold Pinter. True, we grew up less than a mile from each other, in working-class Hackney – or rather in working-class Jewish Hackney, which was not quite the same thing, of course. The Hackney in which I grew up was not vastly different from that in which Pinter spent his adolescent years. We must have walked the same streets, shopped at the same shops. We certainly attended the same synagogue – in Lea Bridge Road, Clapton - and the same secondary school – the famous (and subsequently infamous) Hackney Downs School, founded (as a grammar school) by the Grocers’ Company in the 1870s, and run by the London County Council from 1906.
In its day this school - “Grocers” - was one of the finest in the land, taking boys from the poorest backgrounds and boosting them to the uttermost of their potential. Subsequently – long after Pinter and I had moved on to other things – it became the battleground for a sordid political war, waged with sublime cynicism by a range of competing left-wing and ethnic interests in the locality. And having been one of the finest schools in the land it became a ‘sink’ school and then the ‘sinkiest’ school in the land, and was finally closed.
Pinter was my senior by some fourteen years. Born in 1944, I was spared the trauma of childhood evacuation, which for many Anglo-Jewish youngsters, like Pinter, was without question an unpleasant experience which left distasteful memories – reflected, no doubt, in his writings: loneliness, bewilderment, fear, even persecution. It was in 1944 that Pinter returned to London and joined the Grocers’ School; he left in 1948, some seven years before I began my education there. But the school at which I enrolled was pretty much the same school, with the same ethos, that he had attended, and many of those who taught him also taught me.
By the time I left Hackney Downs (1962), Pinter was clearly visible as a rising star, already a playwright of international repute. He was a school hero, of whom some of my teachers (who had also taught him) openly spoke as a role model. Chief among these was the head of English, Joseph Brearley, a hot-tempered Yorkshireman and Cambridge graduate to whom Pinter subsequently saw fit to pay public tribute as a seminal influence in his career.
That this was so I have no doubt. It was Joe Brearley who introduced Pinter to the dark, menacing dramas penned by the Jacobean dramatist John Webster; his encounter with these turned out to be a major influence on his own work as a playwright. Pinter idolised Brearley, and on the latter’s death, in 1977, wrote an ode in his memory, and many years later contributed the Introduction to a book about him, edited by the secretary of the Clove Club – the club to which Old Grocers belong.[footnote 1]
A short reminiscence that Pinter wrote of his growing-up in Hackney refers to Brearley as "theatrical genius, tall, imperious, tempestuous and eccentric.” [footnote 2] Whether Brearley was a genius I very much doubt. ‘Tall,’ certainly. ‘Imperious,’ yes. ‘Eccentric’ – no question. But the word ‘tempestuous’ is a breathtaking understatement. For the Joe Brearley I remember was a vicious, sadistic bully whose attitude to Jews troubled me from the first. His uncontrollable fits of anger, often ending in boys getting whacked (with a twelve-inch wooden ruler) for no particular reason, were legion.
At the Grocers’ School – about two-thirds of the pupils at which were Jewish at this time – you soon got to know which masters were not very well disposed to their Jewish pupils. Nothing direct was ever said, you understand. Just a snide remark here about kosher food, perhaps, or an off-the-cuff comment there on Zionism. Superficially, Joe Brearley seemed to enjoy his contacts with Jews, and often pleaded that he liked nothing better than to be invited to the barmitzvah parties of his Jewish pupils. Well, he was not invited to mine, and I now believe that he solicited these invitations (which he so obviously did) simply in order to mask his contempt for things Jewish.
I can vividly remember meeting up with him one Rosh Hashanah [Jewish New Year] morning outside the Clapton Synagogue. Armed with a clipboard and pencil, he gloated to me (and my late father) that he was there to record the names of Jewish pupils who attended synagogue, so as to compile a list of those who did not, with a view to exposing and punishing them as frauds who had absented themselves from school for no good reason.
Whether Harold Pinter ever absented himself from school for the Jewish High Holydays I know not. His parents were Jewish, of course, but do not seem to have been religiously very observant – though the major Jewish feasts and festivals were, it appears, observed after a fashion. The young Pinter was required to attend the religion classes attached to the synagogue in Lea Bridge Road – the same ramshackle religion classes in which I was later enrolled, where the teachers knew next-to-nothing about pedagogy and cared even less.
If Pinter had any meaningful Jewish education he seems to have forgotten it with remarkable ease (as, alas, did so many of his Jewish contemporaries). As his biographer Michael Billington recalls, Pinter attended this travesty of an educational establishment until his barmitzvah, but not a moment longer. After his barmitzvah, Pinter boasted, he was “finished with religion for good.” [footnote 3] His Jewish identity was, in truth, a completely secular one – forged in part by the abuse he suffered (as did so many of his Jewish contemporaries) from Hackney fascists. And, like so many of his Jewish contemporaries, he discovered in the politics of the far left an alternative identity. But, unlike so many of them, he never grew out of this adolescent phase.
Pinter’s extreme socialist politics are the key to understanding his particular brand of cock-eyed political activism. Called up for National Service in 1948, he declared himself a conscientious objector because he sided with the Soviet Union in the Cold War. That his refusal to do National Service deeply upset his parents, who could ill afford to pay the fines he incurred, seems to have mattered little to him. [footnote 4] He was (naturally) a supporter of Fidel Castro. His infamous championing of the Serbian mass-murderer Slobodan Milosevic was grounded in his conviction that the oppressor of the Kosovan Muslims was merely a good socialist under attack from the Americans. And of course, alongside his hysterical anti-Americanism there was his visceral hatred of Israel and his patronage of anti- Israeli causes (especially those championed by Jews or persons of Jewish origin).
Then there is his private life to consider. Pinter married out of the faith – not that that bothered him in the slightest – not once but twice. [footnote 5] He deserted and divorced his first wife, the actress Vivien Merchant, and their son Daniel (who later disowned him) [footnote 6] in order (eventually) to marry the second (his widow, the biographer Antonia Fraser), having had, on the way, a much-publicised relationship with the broadcaster Joan Bakewell. In 1982 – two years after the divorce - Merchant died of acute alcoholism. For this Pinter must take some of the responsibility.
In the days following Pinter’s death obituarists and admirers vied with each other in their encomia of him. He has been called one of the greatest dramatists of the 20th century – and even the greatest. His acting struck me as having some small merit, and he may well have been a consummate theatrical director. He was, I agree, an accomplished script-writer – recasting the plots written by others (for it seems to me that he was incapable of constructing a plot himself). But I see little value in his poetry, which strikes me as infantile. Nor do his plays impress: the most that can be said of them is that they are shoddy imitations of Samuel Becket’s masterpieces.
Some friends have warned me that whatever my private opinions, amongst his peers Pinter the playwright is regarded as second to none. And since it is certainly true that I am no literary critic, I am being told that I must accept this verdict, or at least not quarrel publicly with it. Be that as it may, I would be betraying myself if I did not set down my no doubt inexpert view that much of his dramatic writing was childish, and that his success as a dramatist depended on conning the literary world that these self-indulgent scribblings amounted to great writing – in much the same way that the art world is sometimes hypnotised into believing that a heap of bricks, for example, or a specially manufactured crack in a floor, is great art.
By an amazing coincidence, during the weekend following Pinter’s death I met a retired doctor who told me that one of his patients, who had known Pinter at Hackney Downs, had described him as “a shit.”
I cannot better this verdict.
Whatever his merit as a writer, actor and director, on an ethical plane Harold Pinter seems to me to have been intensely flawed, and his moral compass deeply fractured. For the sake of posterity someone had better say this, and if no-one else will, then it had better be me.
[author of The History of Hackney Downs School (London, 1971)]
1 G. L. Watkins (ed), Fortune’s Fool (Twig Books, 2008); I understand from Mr. Watkins that Pinter defrayed the costs of producing this volume.
2 The Hackney memoir, with this recollection of Brearley, was included in the Pinter archive purchased in 2007 by the British Library:
[accessed 28 December 2008]
3 M. Billington, Harold Pinter (revised edn, London, 2007), Pinter’s funeral, held at Kensal Green cemetery, London, on 31 December 2008, was apparently a brief entirely secular affair. The actor could have had a Jewish funeral, but evidently chose not to.
4 The fines totalled £125 – ten times the probable weekly earnings of his father.
5 Pinter married his first wife on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar. This appears to have upset his parents as much as the fact that his bride was not Jewish – if not more so. They did not attend the register-office wedding: Billington, 53-4.
6 Daniel Pinter changed his surname to Brand. He did not attend his father’s funeral.
Geoffrey Alderman writes every week for ‘The Jewish Chronicle.’