Harold Pinter – Freedom & Independence

Harold Pinter (Photo courtesy of Matthew Andrews)
Harold Pinter
Photo courtesy of Matthew Andrews

Harold Pinter was interviewed by Isabel Hilton on 11th May 2004 as part of the Brighton Festival’s Freedom and Independence series in association with English PEN and the Universities of Sussex and Brighton. This series of talks was inaugurated in 2003 with Feargal Keane interviewing Edward Said, in what was to be his last appearance in the UK. (See Edward Said with Fergal Keane.)

For a link to the webcast on the Brighton Festival website click on


Pinter, whose literary status needs no introduction, is a staunch member and Vice President of English PEN. He is also an outspoken and passionate advocate for human rights and a very vocal opponent of the war in Iraq and its aftermath. Isabel Hilton, a reporter and journalist with over twenty five years’ experience in print and broadcast media, questioned Pinter on his fifty year career of writing and political engagement.

One of the earliest indicators of Pinter’s future activism was his reaction to conscription in Britain in 1948, when he became a conscientious objector. Asked whether there was ever a legitimate reason to fight a war, he talked of the validity of fighting and railing against injustice with one’s mind, using “critical intelligence”. Recollecting the vision he had as a young boy of entire streets destroyed in the Blitz, Pinter asked the audience to imagine how this would translate today with the weaponry available to the coalition forces in Iraq. “You don’t hear much about it – there’s a profound absence of responsibility” he said, adding that the bald fact of the many Iraqi dead “doesn’t register” with the British government.

Pinter talked of a sense of “déjà vu” in terms of the rhetoric of the current conflict in Iraq, being forcibly reminded of the twentieth century history of Nicaragua and Chile whose governments in the 60s and 70s were destroyed by US-sponsored action. There are parallels, for Pinter, in the hypocrisy of the US’s public reasoning, and he claims that the war in Iraq is simply a result of the Bush administration’s need to “control the world’s resources.”

If securing regional influence was the chief aim of going to war in Iraq, how can the coalition leaders’ claims of seeking to bring ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ to the region be justified? Pinter denounced Blair as a “deluded hysteric”; deluded in his unshakeable belief that Britain’s best course is to support the US. “The grim reality is that Bush and Blair are war criminals who should be arraigned as such in front of the International Court of Justice.” Pinter cited former US Defence Secretary McNamara’s own assertion that, had the US been on the losing side in WWII, he had no doubt that he would have been arraigned by the ICJ. Blair, at the start of his premiership, “had vision and idealism – but a worm has got in and eaten it away.”

Pinter lays part of the blame for the contemporary misappropriation of the words freedom and democracy in the so-called War on Terror lay with the media and the public: “We have become a quiescent and bewildered group of people {…} There is a body of people in this country living in shame. I am ashamed to be British”. He went on to lambaste Blair’s “faux naïveté”, insisting that the situation in Iraq is and was so complex that Blair’s assured moral declarations of invasion being the “right” path to take are inappropriate.

Characteristically caustic on the theme of the United States, Pinter described the American prison system as a “gulag”, and stated that torture is “a time-honoured American tradition – it’s a way of getting things done.” Perhaps most damningly, though, “freedom (in the US) doesn’t exist. {…The US} is becoming more and more repressive, totalitarian, dismissive – and this is manifested in the White House.”

Considering this deep-seated anger at global injustices, what is the relationship between Pinter the playwright and Pinter the activist? Without going into specifics, he had the following to say: “There are a number of ways of looking at reality. (In art) there are no hard distinctions to be made between what is true and what is false, nothing is black and white – unlike politics. That must be either true or false, and therefore it has to be defined precisely. With writing, you’re approaching from a different perspective.” Furthermore, society must protest both by railing loudly and also raising quiet, reasoned voices, because “there is an obligation of citizens to stand by facts and defend them”.

Can art ever change the world? Was the contemporary power of Picasso’s Guernica something that belongs to another age? Pinter has faith in this area, it seems: “As long as art is searching and unafraid, it has to be seen as a positive force”. Citing the example of an Israeli production of his play One for the Road (where the torturer character was depicted as an Israeli as opposed to a Palestinian), he said that this decision showed a willingness to “share the joy and disgrace of being human”.

English PEN would like to thank Liam Browne at the Brighton Festival, the Universities of Sussex and Brighton, and the speakers Isabel Hilton and Harold Pinter for making this fascinating evening possible.


Report by Tanya Andrews

Originally posted with the url: www.englishpen.org/events/reportsonrecentevents/haroldpinterfreedomandindepend/

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