Harold Pinter mourned by PEN

Throughout his work, Harold Pinter, who died on Christmas Eve, spoke of the silences, contradictions and open battles that rage within humanity. But in his work for English PEN, of which he was a Vice President, we saw a different side of him. The sense of anger which fuelled much of his work, and which figured explicitly in his polemics, was underscored by a passion for justice and a sense of solidarity with writers of conscience that made him a fierce and effective campaigner for human rights, in particular the right to freedom of speech.

In the early 1980s, Pinter visited Turkey on behalf of PEN with Arthur Miller. Their guide there was a young and unknown writer, Orhan Pamuk, who found himself awestruck by these titans of world literature. Many years later, when Pamuk himself became a nobel laureate, he recalled this trip as a turning point in his own sense of solidarity between writers, saying that he then realised: ‘when another writer in another house is not free, no writer is free.’ Pinter’s own fellow-feeling went beyond this; he saw the capacity of literature to mirror people’s plight in the world, and thereby to address that plight.

In January 2007, he was out on the street in front of the Turkish embassy in London, deploring the death of the Armenian-Turkish newspaper editor Hrant Dink, who had been shot down that month in Istanbul. When he arrived, alone and walking with a stick, Pinter asked to be introduced to the Armenian organisers of the vigil. They were staggered to find him in their midst, and he was surrounded by a crowd of admirers. He talked with them for half an hour and then quietly disappeared.

More recently, he came to the Soho Theatre for a gala performance of ‘Being Harold Pinter’, a play by the Belarus Free Theatre which threads the words of his Nobel acceptance speech into extracts from some of the most searing episodes in his drama. The play culminates with a scene in which the actors turn directly to the audience, and give their own testimonies of being imprisoned and tortured in Belarus, Europe’s forgotten dictatorship. For the gala performance, English PEN and the Soho Theatre had assembled a line up of starry British and American actors to swap into the cast at this point to read English translations of the testimonies. Pinter found this device populist and distracting, and he was right that it sat oddly with the unforgiving nature of his own writing.

He was never interested in making things easy, or in offering false comfort, but he gave the world of writers a very real comfort in his determination to stand alongside those who dared speak out, even as his own strength was leaving him. His death marks the end of an era not only for British theatre, but in the history of PEN, and in the development of freedom of speech as a basic human right. We have lost a hero, and our thoughts are with his family and many friends around the world.

Jonathan Heawood, 25 December 2008

Below are some of the messages we have received from around the world. To add your tributes to harold Pinter please email jonathan@englishpen.org.

“The Iberian American PEN Foundation laments the death of Harold Pinter, an exceptional playwright and a courageous man who, at all times, defended the imperishable ideals of Humanism and Democracy. He was a true friend and constant defender of Latin American writers.

“He has passed away, but his personal and literary legacy remains interminable.”

Gloria Guardia

President, Iberian American PEN Foundation

Vice President, International PEN

“In the name of the Swiss German PEN Centre let me offer our heartfelt condolences for the death of your friend, colleague and vice-president Harold Pinter. We mourn the loss of an outstanding writer who has influenced a whole school of dramatists with his work, his example as a writer who engages with society and his political outspokenness have been and will remain important for anyone who cares about the state of the world and seeks – like he did – to contribute to its improvement towards more democracy, more honesty, just treatment of the marginalised and more freedom of expression, and fight against the repeal of those freedoms and the progress of civil society reached so far.

He will be missed.”

Kristin T. Schnider
President, Swiss German PEN Centre


“Earlier this year, British Armenians were deeply touched when Harold Pinter, despite his obvious frailness, turned out with walking sticks, accompanied by colleagues from English PEN, to a demonstration outside the Turkish Embassy in London.  The Nobel Laureate came to join British Armenians in their commemoration of the 93rd anniversary of the Armenian Genocide in Turkey, and in their remembrance of Hrant Dink, the Turkish-Armenian writer-journalist recently murdered in Istanbul. We were honoured and privileged by his presence on that solemn day, and for his gesture of support.

It was with great sorrow that we heard the sad news of his untimely death.  In addition to his remarkable genius as a writer and an intellectual, Pinter was a formidable human-rights campaigner and champion of many political causes irrespective of race or religion. On behalf of the British Armenian community, may I extend condolences and deepest sympathies to his widow Lady Antonia Frazer, his family and colleagues at English PEN. Needless to say, the memory and the legacy of Harold Pinter can never die and he will be remembered by all in future generations who prize and honour virtue, freedom of expression and intellectual genius.”

Ara H. Palamoudian

Chairman, Armenian Community & Church Council of Great Britain


“Harold Pinter was a great playwright and a concerned intellectual. On behalf of the members of PEN Turkey, I wish to express our deep sorrow for his loss.”

Tarik Gunersel, President, PEN Turkey 

“The Macedonian PEN Centre expresses deep regret and sincere compassion regarding the death of the famous writer and winner of the Nobel Prize Harold Pinter, one of the most respected members of the International PEN Centre. On this occasion I’d like to underline the permanent value of his writing, as well the high and ethical meaning of his public events that were held in order to create a better world. Observed in the context of his social work, Harold Pinter’s books represent a particular and artistic shape of his political attitudes, interpreting history and the metaphorical representation of reality. We deeply trust that Harold Pinter will remain a special and a shiny star on the dark sky of the universal materialistic cynicism.”
Macedonian PEN Members



“The San Miguel PEN Center joins with its colleagues and people everywhere to regret the loss of Harold Pinter. His service to literature and his dedication to our ideals will continue to inspire us.”
Elizabeth Starcevic, President, San Miguel PEN

For Harold Pinter, lines written on his recieving the Nobel Prize for Literature.

from Trains of Thought


I thought I deserved a Guinness, myself and I:
the Turkish poet Attila Ilhan hears the death knell and dies,
another writer wins the Nobel Prize,
and printerless my poems lie.

The clue’s in the rhyme, for it’s Harold Pinter:
you published our Nazim Hikmet when it was without a printer
and Tarkovsky with Greville Press too.
If I had a hat I’d take it off to you.

We drink at the fountain of our language:
I communicate with Kurds and Chechens,
but not in their mountain languages,
though I’m unusually close to them in Turkish and Russian.

And today interpreting I was so very tired
that I spoke a whole sentence of Russian to a Kurd,
somehow for a moment I was cross-wired,
up till today, Harold, I was mightily afraid of you, upon my word.

But as I talked this fear through standing with the psychiatrist Jack
in the waiting room at the Medical Foundation,
he said ‘it might be a totally different emotion’,
a shiver down my legs: ‘Could it be love?’ he said – I was taken aback.

You are expert in countering psycho-ops,
because you put yourself in the firing line.
I may not totally agree with you on America the cop,
but I totally concur with you against leaders who shoot lives and lines.

Silences you command, yet break your ban.
I’ll carry with you the can
of rights not worms but words and we both can
build bridges that span our span.

In my grieving for the Turkish poet Attila Ilhan,
I find interleaving this happy news,
but you’ve been dreadfully ill as a man,
but your writing from the front is ageless news.

I played a small part in translating
some of your poems into Russian.
At The Pushkin Club we did an evening,
your poet’s voice of authority was never Prussian.

In character or out of character
is the complex of the playwright,
not always the poet – but then you’re an actor
as well and to add that is only right.

So why did I used to say I feared you most,
haunting me with the fear of God, my father and the Holy Ghost?
It seems I, at the same time, used to put you up on a pedestal,
raising you way above the passing pedestrian.

Is it because I feared the Unknown in you?
At our meetings I had the impression of phenomenal concentration
in your eyes – someone was watching you –
I mean me – there was a soulful penetration.

I’ve missed another late train.
I’ll have to get down to some translation
for an hour at the station. I’ve showed my hand, and it’s plain
that I’m writing this in a tired state of elation.

That’s nothing new – I can pluck words from my subconscious.
These days you’ll be permanently holding the conch,
yet I have a strong hunch you’ll remember us:
for you and we interpret human rights and don’t lie on the couch.

Richard McKane


Originally posted with the url: www.englishpen.org/news/_1656

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