Harold Pinter had two great loves: writing and cricket. I came to understand both those passions while working as a journalist in London and playing cricket with the Gaieties cricket club in the late 1980s. (This article was written soon after Pinter died.)
The actor Lupino Lane, whose company was based at the Gaiety theatre in London, formed the Gaieties cricket club in 1937 and was the first chairman and captain. Harold Pinter captained the Gaieties from 1972.
By the time I knew him in the late 1980s Pinter played only occasionally, but had become club chairman. The team consisted mostly of actors, with occasional guests from the worlds of literature and journalism. We were an itinerant team who never had a home ground and played on Sundays because actors performed on Saturdays.
To many, Harold Pinter appeared a man of contradictions and extremes. When I knew him he always dressed in black, drove a black Mercedes and carried a black briefcase. His then thick black hair glistened darkly. He always wore dark glasses. His voice-mail message said, simply: “I’m not here.”
To people who did not know him Pinter had an air of menace. Certainly that menace was a theme in his plays. The national newspapers often reported his abruptness.
Yet on a personal level Harold was charming and kind. The note he wrote, inviting me to dinner at the London literary club Groucho’s, was full of charm, and included an autographed copy of a monograph Harold wrote about the great England all-rounder Arthur Welland. I treasure that monograph. At Groucho’s Pinter proposed I play for the Gaieties, and so I gradually got to know a complex man.
Early in our conversations I confessed being over-awed by his greatness as a writer, and feeling tongue-tied. He smiled and told me about his early years in Hackney, the suburb I then lived in, fighting off the skinheads.
Beers after each game at a series of west London pubs gave me the chance to talk about writing and cricket. Cricket and writing became a theme and a bond. Harold always preferred to talk about cricket.
A huge portrait of a young cricketer driving through the covers, looking not unlike a young Harold, dominates Pinter’s study in west London. It was there he wrote most of his more than 30 plays and about 20 screenplays. Two of those screenplays received Oscar nominations.
Something Harold wrote about writing in 1958 summarised his contradictions to me: “There are no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false. A thing is not necessarily either true or false; it can be both true and false.”
Years later he said he believed these apparent contradictions still made sense and still applied “to the exploration of reality through art”. This exploration continued throughout Harold’s life.
My last season with the Gaieties was 1989-90 before I left London to return to this part of the world. One of the last games of the season was against the Heartaches, led by Tim Rice, the lyricist who worked with Andrew Lloyd Weber. Rice was a rich man because of the success of their many musicals, and he owned the cricket ground in west London where the Heartaches were based.
Pinter played that day because of his friendship and rivalry with Rice, opening the batting. Harold was a fierce competitor, and a dogged batsman. The Age reported earlier this week that Harold’s top score in all forms of cricket was 39. A Gaieties’ veteran, producer Steve Marians, said this could not be true because Harold was too correct and too determined not to get out. “He must have scored some fifties,” Marians said.
The Heartaches game was washed out about 4pm, and we retired to Rice’s private bar at the ground. Around midnight a small group of us were still drinking. Emboldened by booze, I asked Pinter: Given the option of a Nobel Prize for literature (remember, this was 15 years before he got the award in 2005) and a century at Lords, which would he choose. He smiled kindly. “The century of course.”
My last game with the Gaieties was against Sidcup. After the match I tossed my boots into a bin in the dressing room, saying I no longer needed them. At a farewell dinner the team returned the boots, suitably framed with a plaque that included a quote from one of Harold’s plays about a man who lost his boots in Sidcup. Every time I look at that plaque I remember Harold and his twin passions, cricket and writing.
You can read more about Harold Pinter and the Gaieties cricket club here.
* Published in the Geelong Advertiser December 2008.