This book is a love story and a very moving one. ‘Must you go?’ were the first words Harold Pinter said to Antonia Fraser as she made to leave a dinner after the first night of a revival of The Birthday Party in 1975. ‘I thought of home, my lift, taking the children to school the next morning, the exhausting past night in the sleeper from Scotland, my projected biography of Charles II… “No, it’s not absolutely essential,” I said.’ In the end it was Pinter who took her home. ‘He stayed until 6 o’clock in the morning with extraordinary recklessness, but of course the real recklessness was mine.’
They were both approaching middle age and both were married, Pinter to the actress Vivien Merchant – who had starred in his early plays – and Lady Antonia to Hugh Fraser, a Conservative MP and the brother of Lord Lovat. He was a Jew from the East End of London. She was a Roman Catholic, mother of six children, and the daughter of the Earl of Longford. He was already one of the most famous of living playwrights; she had seen success with her biography of Mary Queen of Scots. They fell in love and started an affair, to the delight of the press and the dismay of family and many friends.
It would be five years before they could marry, Vivien Merchant refusing her husband a divorce. Hugh Fraser was more accommodating and understanding. When Lord Longford subjected his daughter to a lecture, she wrote in her diary that she was
furious with Dada’s morality. All right to be unfaithful to my ‘saintly’ husband. Not all right to be faithful to Harold. I thought of trying to explain to him about passion, but what’s the point? He only likes people like Myra Hindley, who are apparently repenting of passion.
Eventually he came round, taking Pinter to lunch at the House of Lords, where the playwright won kudos by identifying the port as ‘Dow ’63’. (‘Actually Dow ’63 is the only port Harold had heard of.’)
Pinter described himself as ‘the luckiest man alive’. He wrote her love poems, which she prints here for the first time, and revelled in family life. His public reputation was very evidently at odds with the private man – which doesn’t mean that it wasn’t deserved. Lady Antonia quotes ‘a phrase taught me years ago … About a man we knew. Hausteufel, Engelstrasse; it describes a domestic tyrant, much loved by the outside world. Tell Harold he is the opposite: House angel, street devil.’ But she knew how to control him (sometimes anyway). After his death she found he had kept a place-card from some dinner on which she had scribbled, ‘you are quite right, darling. Now SHUT UP.’
Pinter was an artist first and last, never more alive than when writing or directing. But being an artist did not, to his mind, excuse him from his duties as a citizen. If it allowed what he said to be noticed, so much the better. He was tireless in his defence of human rights, and careless of the unpopularity of his views. So, for instance, at the time of the Kosovo war, he spoke up fearlessly for the Serbs. If his criticism of American foreign policy was often violently and coarsely expressed, more so as the years passed, it was founded in his distrust, even hatred, of power. He was not always consistent. It is surprising to learn that they both voted for Margaret Thatcher in 1979, Antonia in female solidarity, Harold because he was exasperated by the greed and stupidity of the trade unions. Neither did so again.
Politics and social life loom large in these diaries. Yet the tone is never sour. One finishes reading with a strong sense of a good man and of all that he loved: England and everything that seemed peculiarly English, notably cricket and the countryside; and his close friendships with other writers, especially fellow playwrights Simon Gray (his funniest and perhaps closest friend), Samuel Beckett, whom he revered, and Tom Stoppard.
Yet the book is primarily a record of a love that grew deeper with the passing years. The last section, which deals with Pinter’s declining health – with the initial cancer he endured and was cleared of, only for it to be succeeded by other horrible afflictions – is moving and uplifting: moving because it inspires pity, uplifting because of the fortitude with which he met the approach of death and because of the love with which his wife sustained him.
A few days before he died his doctor told him that he had never expected him to live for so long and that there was now no point in continuing to abstain from alcohol:
I noticed that Harold left down the stairs, however, with more agility than he had arrived. I said: ‘I know just what you are going to do when we get home.’ And sure enough Harold instructed me to fetch a bottle of champagne from the cellar and sat sipping: ‘Oh, the enjoyment of this glass! I had forgotten how absolutely lovely champagne was.’
That was exactly a week before he died, with his wife beside him saying to the possibly still conscious man: ‘It’s me, Antonia, who loves you.’ ‘Then he went quite tense, his whole body. Finally he went still and silent.’
There is a good test of a biography or memoir. Does it leave you thinking, I would like to have known this person? I would very much like to have known Harold Pinter – and that’s not something I had thought before reading this book.