Playwright Harold Pinter's last interview reveals his childhood love of cricket and why it is better than sex
* Andy Bull
* guardian.co.uk, Saturday 27 December 2008 00.05 GMT
Harold Pinter, who died on Tuesday, gave his last interview to Andy Bull, of the Guardian, on a subject very dear to the playwright's heart: cricket. Here we publish the interview for the first time
"I tend to think that cricket is the greatest thing that God created on earth," Harold Pinter once said, "certainly greater than sex, although sex isn't too bad either." No harm, then, that the game should be the subject of his last interview, given in late October at his home in London. His health failing, Pinter was in nostalgic mood, recalling a childhood in Hackney, east London, during the blitz and his time as an evacuee. "I first watched cricket during the war. At one point we were all evacuated from our house when there was an air raid. We opened the door and our garden, with this large lilac tree, was alight all along the back wall. We were evacuated straight away. Though not before I took my cricket bat.
"I used to get up at five in the morning and play cricket. I had a great friend who is still going – he lives in Australia – called Mick, Mick Goldstein. He used to live around the corner from me in Hackney, and we were very close to the River Lea, and there were fields. We walked down to the fields; there'd be nobody about – it would really very early in the morning, and there would be a tree we used as a wicket. We would take it in turns to bat and bowl; we would be Lindwall, Miller, Hutton and Compton. That was the life."
Pinter's study was heavy with the clutter of a cricket fan. On one wall was an oil portrait of himself, wearing whites, knocking a drive away to the leg side. The shelves creaked under his cricket library, including all 145 editions of the Wisden Almanack. On the mantelpiece were photographs and memorabilia of the Gaieties, the wandering club side of which Pinter was captain, and, when he gave up playing, chairman. Downstairs, on the wall was a framed copy of WG Grace's autograph.
His favourite, though, was the England great Len Hutton. He first saw him as an evacuee in Yorkshire. "I was sent for a brief period to Leeds, and I went to see some kind of game up at Headingley. I caught Len Hutton, who wa s on leave from the army. I fell in love with him at first sight, as it were. I became passionate about Yorkshire because of Hutton really. It is my great regret that I could have met him, but I was too shy."
Cricket was not in Pinter's family. His father did not play. "I learned about the game at Hackney Downs Grammar. We used to play a lot. A lot of my colleagues at the time were very, very keen on cricket. We felt so intensely about it. I remember going to Lord's, walking through Regent's Park on my way, one early evening. And coming away from Lord's there was another schoolboy, in uniform, and he saw me, and said: "Hutton's out!" I could have killed him. Really. It was very important to me that I was going to see Hutton. So, you see, I have golden memories."
His playing days lapsed after childhood and did not resume until he had a family of his own. "I didn't start playing again until the 60s. I took my son, who was then about nine, to school for nets and I watched him be coached. I suddenly thought 'well why don't I have a net myself?' I hadn't played since school you know, but the next week I got some whites and started to have some coaching from a fellow called Fred Pelozzi, a cricketer of Italian descent but he was a cockney actually, and he was a bloody good player.
"And after a few weeks he said 'why don't you come and play for the club I play for?' So I said 'OK'. I went out for my first game for Gaieties [batting] at I think No 6. He was the only fellow I knew, they were all new to me, and a fellow bowled the first ball at me, and I hit it plumb in the middle of the bat, really a beautiful shot. Straight back to the bowler, who caught it. So I was out first bloody ball. That was my first introduction to Gaieties. But I carried on playing for them, and eventually I became captain."
It was cricket's endless potential for narrative, the games within a game, that appealed most. "Drama happens in big cricket matches. But also in small cricket matches," he said. "When we play, my club, each thing that happens is dramatic: the gasps that follow a miss at slip, the anger of an lbw decision that is turned down. It is the same thing wherever you play, really."
He had been looking forward to seeing England play Australia next summer. "I don't watch as much professional cricket as I used to, because I'm not moving very well these days, but I used to do a lot of it. And there is nothing better really. I had a piece of very good fortune three years ago and I managed to get a box at Lord's. I was there to see South Africa last year, and I shall certainly be there next year to see the Ashes.
"I don't know whether it is the same game these days. But I have a number of step-grandchildren, three boys. And they think of nothing else but cricket. They play cricket in the snow. So it is still very much alive actually. I think the facilities have been denuded, and there are now all the other beguilements of sport, and this obsession with bloody football. But my grandchildren still they get up at five in the morning and play cricket, just as I did myself.
"Cricket, the whole thing, playing, watching, being part of the Gaieties, has been a central feature of my life."