In the weeks since Harold Pinter's death there have been a number of newspaper headlines and stories which allude to the fact that he once said that cricket was greater than sex. Every time I see this I feel a slight proprietorial twinge, since it was in an interview with me in The Observer, in 1980, that he first made this remark. It was a few days before his 50th birthday and just before his marriage to Antonia Fraser (with whom he'd already been living for five years).
When we met, he was dressed entirely in black, but there was nothing dark about his mood. On the contrary, he seemed very happy and, despite his reputation, he was surprisingly relaxed and forthcoming. It was near the end of our conversation (he'd got through quite a bit of white wine) that the sex/cricket comparison came up. I had asked him what he felt about being 50.
"I feel rather good about it. I'm quite fit. I'm finding life rather a lively business in my 50th year."
"Do you think one changes very much as one gets older - becomes less intense, for instance?"
"I damn well hope I'm less intense now than I was when I was young. But I don't think one's feelings become any less strong, certainly not. In many ways, quite the contrary. They're sharpened, heightened as one grows older, one's sight becomes rather longer, which also means that you can spot a dud a mile off, something that's a posture rather than a true state of affairs."
"You've mentioned cricket more than once. Why does it appeal to you so much?"
"I tend to believe that cricket is the greatest thing that God ever created on earth."
"Greater than sex, for example?"
"Certainly greater than sex, although sex isn't too bad either. But everyone knows which comes first when it's a question of cricket or sex - all discerning people recognise that. Anyway, don't forget, one doesn't have to do two things at the same time. You can either have sex before cricket or after cricket - but the fundamental fact is that cricket must be there at the centre of things. To put my cards on the table, I must also say that cricket means England to me."
"In what particular way?"
"Well, the first thing is that you can play cricket on grass, and I know there are grasses all over the world, but it's not like English grass, you know. No; I want to correct this: it doesn't finally matter about the grass or the horses looking over the hedge or the white clouds in the summer sky and all that. You can also play cricket in pouring rain, well, not pouring rain but terrible drizzle, on an awful ground with a miserable bar (the bar, of course, is one of the points of cricket) with bloody awful beer and terrible sandwiches, and, as I say, pissing rain which you still have to play in because it isn't pissing quite enough - in other words, a context which is quite displeasing; but the fact remains that whatever the context the overall activity is still a thing of beauty and the people taking part in it, believe it or not, are in a sense transformed by it. Although it's often full of bad humour and irritations and selfishness, I do think - and this is a very 19th century view of it all - that the game of cricket is good for the moral fibre and the soul of the people engaged in it."