First things first

It’s an odd thing, preference (or taste, if you like). Most of the things I like are something to do with first encounters. So, to take two random examples, I’ve taught creative writing on three systems (VLEs, they’re called, or ‘virtial learning environments’, which is a mouthful or three), but the one I like best was the first one, which was WebCT before it was taken over by Blackboard. Change is a frightening thing, perhaps. Or perhaps that if you learn in one way, learn anything, I mean, you never get over it. It is a good job my first record wasn’t a 78, or I’d (a) still be bemoaning the impossibility of recording my own and (b) have a pile of snapped shellac.

The first time I read a play in anything like a serious way (it was at school, and the syllabus must have been quite forward-thinking, at least in this single respect), it was Pinter’s The Caretaker. And here I am over 40 years later, and I still think it’s the best play I’ve ever come across. I am not a great fan of the theatre, to be honest, and I prefer the film and video versions – although you can’t get the Warren Mitchell performance from the 1980s on DVD or video, just as you can’t get a great deal of Pinter’s work, for some very strange reason. You can’t get The Basement, you can’t get almost any of the TV plays. I have some very dodgy off-air recordings. There will be a Pinter TV festival at some stage, but there’s a lot to choose from.

It may be that The Caretaker springs to mind because my house currently resembles its set: a series of discarded boxes, overflowing piles of rubbish, all waiting the immiment Big Move. I’ve had the DVD recorder running for about a month now, and there’s just one crate of videos left: and a messy tape of The Caretaker is currently transferring itself. Impossible not to snatch a glimpse of some of its brilliant lines. ‘Everything you say is open to any number of different interpretations’: it’s as if Pinter was writing about his way of working as well as writing a play. I can’t think of a single play, even by Pinter, in which so much is going on. Everyone is telling very devious stories in it, perpetually. It is flooded with irony, too.

But what if the first serious play I’d come across was by Ibsen? Would I now be a diehard Ibsen fan? Do I like Lowry’s novel Under the Volcano most because I read it at an impressionable age? Very hard to tell.

Pinter repeats himself in the most astonishing fashion, without ever becoming tedious. I expect countless theses have been written on the number of times people in his plays have said ‘What’s your name?’ It is a positive obsession of his: and I don’t mind at all. He makes it interesting over and over. No other playwright, with the possible exception of Caryl Churchill, has ever interested me so completely. And yet, as a man, how unapproachable Pinter seems to have been. As likely to tear strips off you as to look at you. He seems to be all his own characters rolled into one – disturbed, angry, vulnerable when you least expect it.

Mind you, I also love acid-drop Spangles, and they disappeared from the sweet counters two decades or more ago.


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