Playing polo with Pinter in Hackney
by William Easton

Published: Monday, March 15th, 2010

Take the word ‘home’ and pop it into your mouth like a lozenge. See how it nestles comfortably on your tongue. Now, without making a spectacle of yourself, upsetting the neighbours or annoying the person sitting beside you on the bus, say the word out loud three times. Note how it resonates in your mouth, comforting and full of breathy expectation. Next, impersonating your best cockney accent, repeat the exercise. If you weren’t actually born within the sound of Bow bells think of Eliza Doolittle or as a last resort of Dick van Dyke in Mary Poppins. ‘ome ‘ome ‘ome. It’s become a mantra. It’s creating sympathetic vibrations behind your teeth, an aspirate exhalation. The lozenge has become a Polo mint, unyieldingly British, all sweet and syrupy. Your tongue seeks out the hole in the middle, a perfect O.  You keep on sucking until the ribbon of sugar is paper thin and just before it dissolves you crush it in your back teeth and the circle shatters into tiny shards.

If you were to attempt something similar on the borough of Hackney, you end up with spots. The sebum clogs your pores and your face is a rash. Now it might seem unfair to match a London borough with the torment of teenage angst, but to be honest, Hackney isn’t that pretty.  It’s a gangling, awkward bollocks of a place. Try as I might to add the nostalgia of lost girlfriend memories it still comes off at best as ungainly. The Blitz redesigned Hackney, opened up spaces that were filled with low-rise estates called mansions and villas. The occasional lumps of Victorian gothic stick out of a street architecture of one-pound-or-less stores, all-purpose-all-culture-newsagent-grocer-off-licences, and the more recent plush estate agents. It is a borough of fiefdoms and turf wars where rivals vie for corners, a league of nations and nationalities. The occasional square pretends gentrification but they resemble curious pioneer outposts rather than a shift in demography. The huge signs at the museum that say I ‘heart-shape’ Hackney reveals, the myopia of star-crossed lovers and that “familiar acts are beautiful through love.”

“What do you think of the room? Big, isn’t it? It’s a big house. I mean it’s a fine room don’t you think?” (The Homecoming)(1)

Number 19, Thistlewaite road, the birthplace of Harold Pinter is a short walk to the shops. Turn left at the end and cut down Cricketfield Road and you’re at the Downs where he went to school. But the school’s gone of course. Described by Thatcher’s Conservative government as ‘the worst school in Britain’ Pinter’s alma mater and that of Michael Caine, and Steven Berkoff succumbed to the Tory clean sweep. It’s been replaced by the extraordinary Mossbourne Community Academy. Richard Rogers’ wood and glass building in bright yellow and blue is like the massive embassy of an unloved foreign power. The high-tech of its design is definitely alien and somewhat big brother. Surrounded by a high security fence and heavily guarded, the new school boasts an organic kitchen garden designed by Jamie Oliver. It’s a triumphant edifice of New Labour. But it’s hard to imagine Harry picking organic fennel for a vegetable ragout. Instead, just after the war, a teenager with teenage dreams, his anorak hood pulled over his head against a February rain walking down Mare Street longing for summer and thinking of Len Hutton.

“What a remarkably pleasant room. I feel at peace here. Safe from all danger, Please don’t be alarmed. I shan’t stay long” (No Man’s Land)(2)

There are few direct references to Hackney in Pinter’s works, the notable exception being his semi autobiographical novel The Dwarfs.  The sites of Pinter’s plays and poems do however make a map of London, Paddington, Shoreditch, Hampstead Heath, Bethnal Green, the Scrubs and a particular favourite where Stanley in The Birthday Party played his famous piano concert, Lower Edmonton. The city that emerges is not the one of bright lights or the grandeur of monuments, even of the New Labour variety.  It is an urban reach of chintz-curtained propriety, where antimacassars are draped over the decaying armchairs of bed-sits and front parlours. Two up, two downs, basements, shared accommodation and rented rooms. Hackney is always present but in his stage writing, places are presented without geographic embellishment – “a room in North London, a room in a large house, the kitchen of a small house in south London, clean and tidy.” Place is reduced to a prop. When he rewrote The Dwarfs as a play, the Hackney references disappear, as does curiously the main female character. The East End of his youth is replaced with a theatrical backdrop and the character that induces the betrayal and who drives the story, vanishes. Its not that Pinter doesn’t relish place, one only has to think of his delight at inserting names, like Maidenhead and Sidcup into a dialogue. Or one can hear John Gielgud delivering a delicious line from No Man’s Land “I wrote my Homage to Wessex in the summerhouse at West Upfield”. He uses place for comic effect or as a framing device. The wider geography of his writing seems driven by fleeting attempts at getting away from London. The bank holiday trips out of the smoke, the charabanc trips to seaside fish and chips, rendezvous for dirty weekends, in Eastbourne, Worthing and Canvey Island. Dull Saturdays staring at the rain from the bandstand and bracing walks on the front, the haunts of travelling sales-men, adulterers and landladies.

“It’s a nice house, isn’t it? Roomy.” (The Room)(3)

Number 19, Thistlewaite Road is for sale. At the time of writing, the attractive 3bdm, 2rcp, 2bth, 2wc, ample cupboard space, full of period charm has an asking price of £490,000. The advert in the estate agents doesn’t even mention Pinter and Marko the Serbian road cleaner sitting on the wall outside has never heard of him. There is a small triangle of grass at the end of the road you couldn’t call it a park, it’s just the place where Lower Clapton road leads into the Lea Bridge Road roundabout. On the fence that surrounds it flowers have been tied to mark the spot of a recent teenage murder. Two hundred yards down the road another floral tribute but this time browned with age.  Hackney has a history of violence and is currently rated as the place where you are more likely to hear the sound of gunshots anywhere in Britain. Homerton Hospital has become expert at treating bullet wounds of rival ‘yardies’. Harold, as a teenager was chased down the Ridley Road Market by an anti-Semitic gang only escaping possible injury by jumping on a bus. When I lived in Hackney, twenty years ago, it was as it has always been, one of the poorest areas of London. The particular bit of squalor I rented was a single room on the Graham Road with a view of the bus stop. Upstairs lived a man I had been warned was a member of the IRA although I doubt the special branch was particularly worried. If he was part of a flying column he must have been under deep cover because he spent most of his time sitting on his bed or on the one chair in my room, crying into his Special Brew.  The house had a regular turn over of tenants mostly heroin addicts and no bath. I was working as a roofer in Tooting at the time so Friday nights I would go up to the public baths for a wash. There was always a line of the orthodox preparing for Sabbath. Mr and Mrs Snow the old black couple that looked after the place gave you a towel and a short black rubber tube. The tube acted as a plug and ensured that you couldn’t overfill the bath. It’s hard to romanticise about eight inches of tepid water. The house I lived in, my old home, my room, has gone, or rather, the collection of bed-sits have been converted into an attractive 5bdm, 2rcp, 2bth, 2wc, ample cupboard space, full of period charm, property sold!

“The germ of my plays? I’ll be as accurate as I can about that. I went into a room and saw one person standing up and one person sitting down, and a few weeks later I wrote The Room. I went into another room and saw two people sitting down, and a few years later I wrote The Birthday Party. I looked through a door into a third room and saw two people standing up and I wrote The Caretaker.” (Writing for Myself)(4)

I remember listening to an interview with the identical twin filmmakers known as The Brothers Quay. They admitted that when they were younger, much younger, someone had described their often dark and brooding animations as Kafkaesque. They confessed to not knowing who he was and believing that Kafkaesque was a word that meant something a little like morbid. I must confess to something similar when I was younger, much younger. I am certain that I discovered Pinteresque long before I saw anything in the theatre. It was part of the vernacular and it had to do with the difficult bits on Play for Today. I am part of a blessed generation of television drama, doubly blessed with enlightened parents who let me stay up and watch. William Trevor, Mike Leigh, Dennis Potter, Trevor Griffiths, and Colin Welland. So I was already up to speed when I got my first real taste of Pinteresque. Actually that’s a lie! I remember clearly seeing The Go-Between on telly but I don’t think I had a clue that all that Alan Bates-Julie Christie haystack romping had anything to do with Pinter. It does however seem worth marking this grammatical shift. Pinter goes from proper noun (repeat proper) to adjective. Note, it’s not Pinter-like or Pinter-ish or Pinter-ic but Pinter-esque. Linked with Arabs and pictures and burls whatever they are. I have read that -esque differs from -ish and -ic and like, in that rather than just showing resemblance it expresses ‘the possibility for multiple alterity’. Now that seems pretty good to me. Pinter is the urform, the master recipe from which countless dishes derive. So to find the Pinteresque in Hackney I’m not looking for the essence but it’s facsimile. The tension in the newsagent between the Turkish owner, the Polish girl on the till and the gang of teenagers he suspects of shoplifting. The road where half the houses are boarded up and the other half under construction with one house totally burnt out. The Bagel shop on Ridley Road where the onion platzels and chopped herring have been replaced by ackee and saltfish patties, the girl who serves tea asks if I’m from around here.

Mark:  Sure! I’ve got a home. I know where I live.

Len:  You mean you’ve got roots. Why haven’t I got roots? My house is older than yours. My family lived here. Why haven’t I got a home?

Mark:  Move out.

Len:  Do you believe in God?

Mark: Who?

Len:  God

Mark:  God?

Len:  Do you believe in God?

Mark:  Do I believe in God?

Len:  Yes.

Mark:  Would you say that again?
(The Dwarfs)(5)

In 1994 Pinter co-edited an anthology of poetry translations for Greville Press. It is a stunning eclectic, spanning seven hundred years before Christ to now, and includes everything from Catullus and Li Po to Tzara, Neruda and Apollinaire. It would be easy to over-determine the selection but there is a sense of melancholy, sexual tension and pure bloody-mindedness about much of the work. In other words you can find Pinter there. The following snippet from Milosz’s poem Strophes is one example of many.

“It will be as it is in this life, the same room,

Yes, the same!

…Terrible, terrible youth; and the heart empty.

Oh! It will be as it is in this life; poor voices,

The winter voices in the worn-out suburbs;” (6)

Looking for Pinter in Hackney or Hackney in Pinter the same empty room returns. It is a theatrical space, and as much as he prefers the traditional theatre of stage and curtain he also likes the empty rooms that must be filled with characters, filled with writing. The East End of Pinter’s youth, his Hackney doesn’t lie between the library and The Empire but in conversations in coffee shops from long ago, in old friendships and rivalries. “The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.” And we ‘re all living abroad. As a close friend of mine, who like myself has spent most of his adult life away from Britain, puts it, ‘going home would mean going back in time’. Finding Pinter’s home from the forties or mine from the eighties is no different. Hackney a transitive verb. Past Sutton House where I saw The Fuck Pigs playing, the Barnados home that was a squat where I shared studio space, the night the tree house collapsed and glue sniffers fell from the branches like acorns, the old library where Harold and I both found sanctuary, the Turkish market where they sell sour cherry juice, the cemetery good for a walk on Sunday, the long bus ride into town. Hackneyed, to make trite, vulgar, commonplace or jaded.

On the south side of Stockholm in an area that is more traditionally working class is The English Shop. It is tucked away on the second floor of what Americans call with appetite, a mall, but which seem more like an after thought in old Europe. It is proof, if proof were needed, that the English really do have a separate food culture. The shelves are lined with mint jelly, bread sauce mix, gravy browning, custard powder and piccalilli. It is a veritable home from home, a place for those living abroad needing an old country fix. The advertisement for the shop reads “Our aim is to meet the needs of the ever-growing expatriate population in Sweden, as well as to introduce our Swedish customers to the culinary delights of English foods.”  What dominates the shop however, is a huge selection of junk food, which may say more about the great British diet than Jamie Oliver or anybody else would want to admit. Packets of crisps, quavers, pork scratchings, jelly babies, dolly mixture, love hearts, sherbet fountains and of course Polo mints. The Polo has a long and distinguished place in British confectionary history with its roots going back to the early eighteenth century. The modern mint was originally an American import from the beginning of the last century and it has been the subject of legal battles and a symbol of British independence. Polos also have a curious chemistry. When you crush them they give off a blue light known as triboluminescence. What happens is that the sugar crystals break along planes that are positively and negatively charged. The opposite charges want to recombine and light leaps across the gap. So now, if you happen to have a Polo mint to hand, pop it in. Bring your teeth together with all the force you can muster – blue lightning in your mouth and the sweet taste of home.

Notes

  1. Pinter, Harold. Plays Three, The Homecoming (London: Faber and Faber, 1996) p.29
  2. Pinter, Harold. Plays Three, No Man’s Land (London: Faber and Faber, 1996) p.323
  3. Pinter, Harold. Plays One, The Room (London: Faber and Faber, 1996) p.99
  4. Pinter, Harold. Plays Two, Introduction, Writing for Myself (London: Faber and Faber, 1996) p.ix
  5. Pinter, Harold. Plays Two, The Dwarfs (London: Faber and Faber, 1996) p.99
  6. Miloz, O.V, de L, 99 Poems in Translation, An Anthology, Ed. Harold Pinter, Anthony Astbury, Geoffrey Godbert (London: Greville Press 1994) p.77

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