Monday, 11 May 2009

37. Harold Pinter - 'The Coast' (1975)

'British politics in the seventies, for all the gothic prose it usually prompts, was about moments of possibility as well as periods of entropy; about stretches of calm as well as sudden calamity.'
(Andy Beckett, When the Lights Went Out: Britain in the Seventies, Faber and Faber, 2009, p.5)

'We walked, as we always used to do, along the promenade, up to the pier, back down the pier, and back.'
(Harold Pinter, Various Voices: Prose, Poetry, Politics 1948-1998, Faber and Faber, 1998, p.92)

Sparse, still. Left spare, ambiguous, uncertain as the waves, eddying around the shores of an English seaside town. 1975.

The picture above was taken by myself at Runswick Bay, on the rugged idyll that is the North Yorkshire coast; north of Scarborough, south of Whitby. As can be observed, it was a nice day; very easy to imagine it grey, however.

Harold Pinter, in his Old Times and No Man's Land decade, writes a short story that fits on a solitary page in the edition of collected prose, politics and poetry that I am reading it in.

He captures, in miniature, the same concern with how people use language; with the charged meaning behind the blandness: the word 'congenial', prefaced by 'most'. The unplaceable unease: 'but nevertheless I'm glad to see you blossoming. Blossoming, I said, no, not quite that, surely, you're jesting.' The 's'-sounds, the precise metre; refined, stitled, mirroring the way 'I clasped his hand and thanked him for making the journey.'

Is this a duologue, or an internal monologue?

Pinter captures a melancholy reflectiveness perhaps in line with the post-Watergate moment this story was written in; Harold Wilson's unexpected second stint as PM, acting as the not-quite -present 'deep lying centre-half'. Unable to face up to the seriousness of the economic situation, yet able to manoeuvere Britain into accepting an economic Europe, if not a European destiny.

People were looking over the waves, if hardly as fervently as Heath had been since the 1930s.

'He spat into the fret. One hour in this bloody wet end of the world is enough for me'

With this world-weary, infernal monologue, Pinter captures a slight but tangible sense of 1975 Britain in stasis; right-wing plotters circling an administration unlucky to be in power, inheriting an unenviable legacy. The Maplin Sands future was by now clearly a pipe-dream of the man in the boat; the reality perhaps closer to the Morecambe chill felt by the retired couple in Alan Bennett's Sunset Across the Bay (Play For Today, TX: 20.2.1975).

The personal stasis, a man locked and lost in thought on the shoreline, recalls Henry's situation in Beckett's Embers (BBC Radio Third Programme, TX: 24.6.1959). With an almost imperceptible evocation of the wider nation; personal numbness mirroring the country as in Drabble's key novel of the late-70s, The Ice Age (1977).

In my forthcoming performance of the piece - to be posted as mp3 or YouTube video, possibly - I am certain to draw upon the influence of the BBC's Embers, with its haunting ambient sounds created by the Radiophonic Workshop's Desmond Briscoe. Briscoe's manipulations of the sound of the sea - as in Pinter, a landscape that could solely 'exist' in the main protagonist's head - are a key player in the play itself, complementing the dialogue, contributing to the unconscious, uncanny effect.


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