In my research for this project I often come across information which is familiar because I’ve seen it more than once. Then there’s the sort which is ‘familiar’ because I’ve seen but forgotten it along the way. But the best scenarios are when I discover new information–new to me or, even better, new to a lot of folks.
In this regard I’ve been wanting to write a blog on misses, by which I mean projects Pinter could have or nearly pursued but in the end didn’t. The Pinter Archive at the British Library is a great resource for such moments. Take, for example, the many letters Pinter received asking him to adapt screenplays from existing novels or other works. The list of proposals and books he turned down form a narrative all its own which enables us to imagine how different Pinter’s output as a screenwriter, as well as the cinematic landscape, would have looked had he just said ‘yes.’ While I hope to write that blog some day, this time I want to write not about misses but coincidences rather.
As much as Pinter was always thought of as a playwright of language, his work was very much concerned with memory. Although it’s not been discussed much, memory also informed his activism in numerous ways; for example, in moments when Pinter would reflect upon how dominant historical narratives always leave out significant events, persons, and so on. In a slightly different key I want to turn this back on to Pinter’s life, and reflect upon how certain facts and details become part of the official narrative, as well as the mythology, while others fall away and even cease to exist for many of us. The one I want to relate now brings together Pinter and the current Mayor of London.
Those who’ve read ‘A Pinter Drama in Stoke Newington’, a letter of Pinter’s which the Guardian published on 9 July 1996, will remember the story of how a group of London-based Kurdish actors ran into problems after someone saw them entering a rehearsal hall in Finsbury Park dressed in combat gear and brandishing firearms. As Pinter’s letter indicated and the Guardian repeated in further coverage a few years later,
The group was arrested at gunpoint, handcuffed and held in the back of a police van for more than five hours without explanation. The actors were forbidden to speak in their native language — in scenes similar to the play they had been rehearsing.
The play being rehearsed was Mountain Language (1988), which opens with and works from the very circumstance that played out for this theatre group–in a city they had chosen as a safe haven. The ironies run on: Their guns, it turned out, were on loan from the National Theatre and the police, it turned out, had been previously notified about the actors and the production.
In addition to the details about the NT’s props and the police having missed the memo, what I didn’t know is that ‘The men, who all [had] home office status as refugees after fleeing torture and oppression in Turkey, brought a civil action against the police for assault, trespass and false imprisonment.’ They sued the Met for 55,000 GBP, and the case, which was settled in 2000 — hence, the Guardian’s further coverage of the story — was said to have cost the city in excess of 100,000 (BBC).
There is one more detail in this case I hadn’t come across, which is that the solicitor who represented those poor refugees intent only on pretending to be soldiers was actually Sadiq Khan, a British Labour politician who has been the incumbent Mayor of London since 2016. For context and interest, Khan ‘is London’s first ethnic minority mayor, and the first Muslim to become the mayor of a major Western capital.’ (Wiki)
Given how Pinter’s and Khan’s lives became implicated over the Pinter drama in Stoke Newington, it’s hard to imagine that Pinter would have regarded Khan with the contempt he reserved for so many politicians. Here’s their conversation as I imagine it: Pinter indicating how his experience of navigating antisemitism after the war prefigures Khan’s turn to boxing while growing up in the face of racism in London; and both men appreciating the overlap in Pinter’s concern for human rights and international law as an activist and Khan’s early decision to specialise in human rights law rather than corporate law (New Statesman). Stand by for more coincidences.