Plaque unveiled to mark Clapton birthplace of Harold Pinter

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Lady Antonia Fraser Pinter unveiled a plaque, sponsored by Clapton Pond Neighbourhood Action Group (CPNAG), on Saturday September 22, marking the house in Thistlewaite Road, Clapton, where Harold Pinter, her husband, was born and grew up. He died in 2008.

Among those who turned out to mark the occasion with Lady Antonia and members of her family, were actor, writer, director Steve Berkoff, who also attended Hackney Downs School, and playwright Tom Stoppard, along with actor Julian Sands, who movingly read out a poem written by Harold about his Hackney Downs School teacher Joseph Brearley. Hackney North MP Diane Abbott, Willie Watkins, President of The Clove Club, Hackney Downs School Old Boys network, and local residents also attended.

“It gives me enormous pleasure to unveil this handsome plaque and to congratulate the Clapton Pond Neighbourhood Action Group for all their work. Harold would have been very happy about this. He was extremely proud of his origins – and quite rightly so. As his work makes very clear, they had made him what he was. Plus of course that extra dash of inspiration which was entirely his,” said Lady Antonia.

She added: “When I say Harold was proud of his origins, he always paid tribute to the Hackney Empire – his first theatre – and Hackney Library – from which I regret to say he liberated a novel by Samuel Beckett, something which was only rectified after his death when his collected books were sold. The book was returned.

“But above all, he was grateful to Hackney Downs School and the teacher he found there. I will allow him to say it all himself much better in his celebrated poem ‘Dear Joe’, written to his teacher immediately after his death. Harold received a phone call from Joe’s partner with the news, and then went and sat down and wrote the poem in response. Such is the artist’s response.

“We can imagine Harold as a very happy boy, combing these streets, reading Shakespeare with his friends, reciting the gloomier parts of the Elizabethan playwright Webster just for the fun of it as he entered this house, and having a great deal of fun in between. He loved his boyhood. So it is with great happiness and not a little emotion that I unveil this plaque in his memory.”

Following the unveiling, the well-known actor Julian Sands then powerfully recited the poem ‘Dear Joe’.

Ian Rathbone, Chair of CPNAG, commented: “This particular plaque brings us a reminder of how someone from here in inner city Clapton can go on to make a significant contribution to the cultural and political life of the whole world.

“A wonderful model for our young people here, too often written off in the past and told that no-one who comes from here ever did any good or got anywhere. Well, Harold did! And so can they.”

He added: “And not just Harold – his Hackney schoolfriend Henry Woolf also has done great things in acting, writing and university teaching.

“A plaque says that this place is worthwhile, that worthwhile people live here and what’s more, it’s visible. You can see it every day and be reminded. It’s a focus for people from all around to come and look and start to see this place in a different light.

“A whole history of someone is being reminded of here and that they lived here and that the influences of this place here, this area of Clapton, became a part of them and then their art and then part of the world wide culture….

“That Harold became a radical voice in different ways is not that surprising – his birthplace Clapton is also a place with a whole history of dissent and non-conformism.

“It is a remarkable story that a lad with Jewish émigré grandparents from Eastern Europe could end up through his artistic endeavour creating a new word in the English language – Pinteresque – and a radical voice speaking out in a troubled world.

“We hope that in years to come, people will visit this street to see this plaque and remember a great writer, artist, playwright, Nobel Prize winner and radical voice who has made such a significant contribution to the cultural and political life of the world.”

He gave thanks to Ned Heywood who made the plaque, Tim Cowen who made the pelmet, John Lewis Ltd made the curtains, and those who currently live in the house for all their help. Particular  thanks was given to Eve Harrison of CPNAG who worked really hard to make the event happen but was unable to attend due to a prior engagement.

Julia Lafferty, local historian, member of the Hackney Society, gave a brief account of the background to the Clapton which Harold grew up in – one with many different strands of dissent and non-conformity woven into the fabric of the life that Harold grew up in.

She said: “Hackney had long been known for its thriving communities of non-conformist religious worshippers and dissenters. It was in Hackney that French Protestants, escaping from persecution in their home country, set up residence. There were chapels for amongst others Independents, Baptists, Unitarians, Wesleyan and Primitive Methodists. Clapton also had New College, established in the late 1780s, where students from all religious denominations could study. It was at New College in 1792 that Tom Paine was guest of honour, soon after he had published the second part of “The Rights of Man.”.

“A plaque now marks the location in Thistlewaite Road, less than a hundred yards from the former Pinter residence, of Hackney’s first synagogue built in the 1770s in the grounds of Clapton House for a wealthy Jewish merchant who had settled in the neighbourhood.

“So it was understandable that during the last quarter of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth century, Hackney also became a haven for Jewish immigrants escaping from Russian pogroms (and then Nazi persecution), amongst whom were Harold Pinter’s grandparents.

“By the time that the young Harold Pinter attended Hackney Downs Grammar School in the 1940s, the Jewish population in Hackney had swelled to over 50,000, many of whom lived in Clapton and Stamford Hill. Although the middle classes had moved on to pastures new, Hackney still had educational institutions where working class children could gain an excellent education.

Hackney Downs School was one such place, and it was here that Harold forged friendships which were to endure throughout his adult life.  Lady Antonia has been quoted as saying “I don’t think Harold would accept anything, except the laws of cricket, without question”, and Michael Billington, in his biography of Harold Pinter, said that what bound these friends together was “a passion for intellectual discovery and argument about ideas”.   This spirit of independence and intellectual enquiry was developed by Harold’s experiences at Hackney Downs School.

“The School had been founded in 1876 by the Grocers’ Company. By the 1940s, the School had an over 50% Jewish intake and a fine record for academic achievement. Amongst its many distinguished ex-pupils, Hackney Downs produced four life peers, two university vice-chancellors and two famous actor/playwrights in Harold Pinter and Steven Berkoff.  It was at Hackney Downs that Harold’s potential was recognised by his English teacher Joseph Brearley. Joe Brearley encouraged and nurtured his talented student and introduced Harold to his own passion for English poetry and drama. Fifty years later, when Harold received the David Cohen British Literature Prize, he would recall that “Joe Brearley fired my imagination, I can never forget him”.

“In commemorating Harold Pinter today, we would also say that as a playwright, author, screenwriter, poet, and actor, Harold Pinter’s work will continue to inspire successive generations and “fire their imagination”. We are proud that Clapton Pond will now bear a plaque in his memory. We will never forget him.”

She presented the latest collection of Hackney Society writings “Hackney: An Uncommon History in Five Parts” to Lady Antonia. The book mentions Harold Pinter and also key buildings around Clapton Pond which he would have known, like Lea Bridge Synagogue, Pond House, Kenninghall Cinema etc, as well as touching on the radical and literary traditions for which the borough is well known, with writers like Daniel Defoe and Edgar Allen Poe.

Harold is valued with fondness by the Kurdish community of which there are several hundred members in the area of Clapton. In his last 25 years, he increasingly focused his essays, interviews and public appearances directly on political issues. He was an officer in International PEN, (Poets, Essayists, Novelists) travelling with American playwright Arthur Miller  to Turkey  in 1985 on a mission co-sponsored with a Helsinki Watch  committee to investigate and protest against the torture of imprisoned writers. Pinter’s experiences in Turkey and his knowledge of the Turkish suppression of the Kurdish language inspired his 1988 play Mountain Language .

Harold has already been honoured in Hackney when on 16 June 2009, Lady Antonia officially opened a commemorative room at the Hackney Empire in Mare Street. The theatre also established a writer’s residency in Harold’s name.

Henry Woolf, Harold’s school friend from his Hackney years and part of ‘Harold’s gang’ at Hackney Downs School sent the following message:

“Many congratulations to you and your neighbourhood action group for achieving this. It warms my heart that my old friend is being visibly commemorated at the house in which I have spent so many happy hours.”

In 2007, Henry gave an interview to the Guardian (12 July 2007) during which he said:

“We were all fiercely loyal to the group. None more so than Harold. He still is. Look how he has stuck by his old codgers. His old mates. He could have gently dumped us years ago as the world embraced him, with no hard feelings on our part. But he hasn’t. Friendship is sacred.

“If you want a glimpse of what we were like then, how particular, how different from each other, yet sharing a common language, a common stance, read The Dwarfs. It brilliantly captures young men in all their pride and peacock before society closes in and squeezes the life out of them. The ambiguities of loyalty and betrayal weave their way through the pages of The Dwarfs (Harold’s early novel, written at the age of 22), themes which recur in Pinter’s work.”

Another old schooldays friend Mick Goldstein, wrote from Australia:  “It is a matter of great regret that being so far away I shall not be able to attend. At the time we were both living in Clapton – I was “just around the corner” at Thornby Road.”

Harold Pinter died on 24 December 2008. The following is a brief account of his early life and subsequent achievements.

Harold Pinter was born in Thistlewaite Road, Clapton, E5 in Hackney on October 10, 1930, the only child of Jewish tailor Hyman “Jack” Pinter and his wife Frances. Pinter’s grandparents were Ashkenazi Jews who had come to England from Poland and Russia to escape persecution and the family attended Lea Bridge Road synagogue.Pinter’s elementary education was disrupted by the Second World War when he was evacuated to Cornwall and Berkshire. Returning to Hackney in 1944, he attended Hackney Downs Grammar School, where his interest in drama and literature was awakened by his inspirational English teacher Joseph Brearley to whom he paid tribute in his poem “Joseph Brearley 1909-1977” which contains the lines –

“You’re gone. I’m at your side,
Walking with you from Clapton Pond to Finsbury Park
and on, and on. ”

In his book of essays entitled Various Voices, Pinter said: “Hackney also had a great Public Library and there I discovered Joyce, Dostoyevsky, Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, Rimbaud, Yeats etc.”

In 1948 Pinter was admitted to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art but left after two terms. From then until 1958 he worked as an actor under the name of David Baron. A short spell at the Central School of Speech and Drama in 1951 was followed by a period touring Ireland with the Anew McMaster repertory company and later with Donald Wolfit’s Shakespearean company at the King’sTheatre. His first poetry was published in Poetry London in 1950 under the pseudonym Harold Pinta.

In 1957 he was asked to write a play for the drama department of Bristol University. The resulting play The Room was entered in the Sunday Times student drama festival and received favourable reviews. Although his next play The Birthday Party closed after a week in the West End, the play that followed, The Caretaker (1960), received critical acclaim.

Although plays such as The Homecoming, Old Times and Betrayal made him one of England’s most influential and important dramatists, Pinter also made an important contribution to films, writing 24 screenplays, including Accident, The Go-Between, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, The Quiller Memorandum, The Servant, and Sleuth and continuing to act on stage and screen. His last performance was in Krapp’s Last Tape at the Royal Court Theatre in 2006. He directed twenty-seven theatre productions including James Joyce’s Exiles and David Mamet’s Oleanna and served as Associate Director at the National Theatre from 1973 until 1983.

Pinter had many awards bestowed upon him during his long and distinguished career. He received over 50 awards, prizes, and other honours including the Tony Award for Best Play for The Homecoming in 1967, eight BAFTA awards for screenwriting and a BAFTA Fellowship in 1997, the French Légion d’honneur in 2007, and 20 honorary degrees. Festivals and Symposia have been devoted to him and his work which has been performed in theatres throughout the world.

He was awarded a CBE in 1966, but turned down a knighthood. In 2002 he was made a Companion of Honour for services to Literature and in 2005 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, the highest honour any writer can receive.

In later life Pinter increasingly focussed his essays, interviews and public appearances directly on political issues. He was active in the peace movement and a campaigner against human rights abuses. As an officer in International PEN, he travelled with American playwright Arthur Miller to Turkey in 1985 on a mission to investigate and protest against the torture of imprisoned writers which inspired his 1988 play Mountain Language. His outspoken criticism of American foreign policy during his acceptance speech of the Nobel Prize for Literature included an impassioned call for mass political resistance to militarism and war.

In awarding Pinter the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2005, the Swedish Academy noted:

“Harold Pinter is generally seen as the foremost representative of British drama in the second half of the 20th century. That he occupies a position as a modern classic is illustrated by his name entering the language as an adjective used to describe a particular atmosphere and environment in drama as ‘Pinteresque’.”

On his death on 24 December 2008, Lady Antonia told The Guardian: “He was a great man, and it was a privilege to live with him for over 33 years. He will never be forgotten.”

Henry Woolf said in an interview in the Guardian newspaper in 2007 –

“A bunch of determined solipsists is how I would describe the six of us as we bowled about Hackney in the late 40s and 50s, our lives central to the workings of the universe. We had mostly met at school – a group of six friends, including Harold Pinter and me – encouraged by the shining example of our English teacher, Joe Brearley, to put our lives first and the world second.

“Life is beautiful but the world is hell,” Pinter said recently. That might have been our motto, the six of us. In any case, we were buoyed up by the optimism of youth. We were ruthlessly engaged in living our lives, and nothing else mattered.

“We were all fiercely loyal to the group. None more so than Harold. He still is. Look how he has stuck by his old codgers. His old mates. He could have gently dumped us years ago as the world embraced him, with no hard feelings on our part. But he hasn’t. Friendship is sacred.

“If you want a glimpse of what we were like then, how particular, how different from each other, yet sharing a common language, a common stance, read The Dwarfs. It brilliantly captures young men in all their pride and peacock before society closes in and squeezes the life out of them. The ambiguities of loyalty and betrayal weave their way through the pages of The Dwarfs (Harold’s early novel, written at the age of 22), themes which recur in Pinter’s work.”

Video of the launch:

 

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