Philip Larkin once remarked that he would like to visit China, but only if he could come home the same day. (I could do another week here on funny and/or curmudgeonly things he said.)
He also said in his Paris Review interview that writing a poem was, for him, a way “to construct a verbal device that would preserve an experience indefinitely by reproducing it in whoever read the poem.” (As coldly scientific as that sounds, he of course also wrote some of the most beautiful and moving verbal devices in 20th century English. And he did go on at least one overnight trip abroad, to Germany, or so I’ve heard.)
Having written and now recently published a book of poems about traveling in China, Iceland and Japan, I’ve often thought of Uncle Phil (as I think of him) and these remarks of his when someone asks me what my book is about, or especially why I wrote it. But to tell you what I tell people, I first have to share another quote.
Jasper Johns said that sometimes life gets so close we can’t see it anymore. Small children and the outrageously wealthy aside, who doesn’t sometimes feel like that? Work or school – or both – plus getting there and home again, taking care of kids (if you went against Uncle Phil's advice and have some yourself), cooking and cleaning and hopefully somewhere in there sleeping… It’s hard not to get caught up in the busy-ness of everyday living and feel that life – real life, the good life, whatever cool thing your friends are doing (and posting pictures of on Facebook) and you’re not – is rushing past you in a blur.
Next thing you know, you’re one of those people who say things like, “I can’t believe it’s already Wednesday” or “Where did the summer go?”
Whereas traveling in another country can have the exact opposite effect. You notice everything – or try to. Because everything is new and different and strange (mostly in a good way). For instance, going to the bathroom in Japan can be an adventure in itself: one involving high-tech toilets and a quick change of footwear. Ordering dinner in Iceland can be too: do I feel like whale pepper steak or is tonight more of a fermented shark kind of night? Should I try the puffin? Or plokkfiskur, perhaps?
Finding yourself in another country is like putting on a new pair of glasses. Everything snaps into focus. Everything seems brighter and sharper.
Which is, of course, like writing a poem – or like what it takes to write a poem. Traveling and writing poems are both about finding your way, in all the different senses of that phrase. And in both cases you have to pay attention.
I think it was Jordan Davis who once said that’s the biggest thing: you have to be present. Show up and pay attention. That’s the job, you poets – and you travelers. And notice how this thing connects to this other thing. How they are – or aren't – like the things you know back home. How this reminds you of that.
And now we’re making metaphors. And now the world just got a little smaller.
I wrote poems about being in China to create verbal devices that would enable me to go back to China, if only for a day or an hour, and only in my imagination – and so that (so my hope goes) interested readers could do the same. What I wound up with on the page is a mix of memory and imagination, of course, and so not exactly the China I set foot in some years ago.
And interestingly the best part for the poet (for this one, anyway) wasn’t that finished verbal device, but the process of building it, how the words – or the search for the right ones – kept spurring me on to remember more, imagine more, to go back there again and again.
And finally it’s worth remembering too that one of Larkin’s most beautiful poems is about a journey (again, in all the senses), albeit a domestic one. Listen to him read “The Whitsun Weddings,” which picks up steam slowly but surely, like the train the poet travels in--
That Whitsun, I was late getting away:
Not till about
One-twenty on the sunlit Saturday
Did my three-quarters-empty train pull out,
All windows down, all cushions hot, all sense
Of being in a hurry gone. We ran
Behind the backs of houses, crossed a street
Of blinding windscreens, smelt the fish-dock; thence
The river's level drifting breadth began,
Where sky and Lincolnshire and water meet.
--and then ends with the most beautiful rain.
I want to tell you about one of my favorite poems at the moment. It’s from Lord Byron’s Foot, by George Green, which was selected last year by David Mason for The New Criterion Poetry Prize and recently published by St. Augustine’s Press. As an editor at The New Criterion, I was thoroughly delighted by Mason’s choice, since I had championed George’s work on a number of occasions, both in the magazine and in The Swallow Anthology of New American Poets.
I remember showing up several years ago to a marathon reading organized by Roddy Lumsden at a bar up by Columbia University. We were asked to write a poem based, I think, on some theme—the theme, like the poem I produced, was eminently forgettable.
After a couple hours of poems sliding by like fried eggs off of memory's Teflon, George got up (he may have been the last reader, in fact) and read “Bangladesh.” So surprising and so weird was this poem, we were rapt. You could have heard the reshelving in Butler Library. And funny! So funny. The abrupt, associative segues and the logic-defying half-slapdash, haphazardness of the narrative resolves, quite mysteriously, into a unified, warmly satiric portrait of an age that we lived though in Downtown New York and loved for its Bohemian craziness and, and, now, in hindsight, for the wince-making tartness of its bittersweet excesses. He wrote the poem the night before, he told me, when I said how much I liked it.
Riotous and sweetly sad: such a killer combo. Bravo, George Green!
We have to start in 1965,
when all the gay meth heads couldn’t decide
which one they most adored, Callas or Dylan,
both of them skinny as thermometers,
posing like sylphs in tight black turtlenecks.
Then, gradually, a multitude of Dylans
began to fill the park, croaking like frogs,
strumming guitars, blowing harmonicas,
hundreds and hundreds, several to a bench.
But there was only one Maria Callas,
sequestered in her gloomy Paris pad
and listening to Maria Callas records
(and nothing but), her bulky curtains closed,
which works for me because it worked for her.
What doesn’t work is three David Lee Roths,
one checking bags at Trash and Vaudeville, one
strutting with ratted hair up St. Mark’s Place,
and one zonked out in tights and on the nod,
surrounded by the Dylans in the park.
David Lee Roth times three would mean the times
would have to change, and so a roving band
of punk rockers began to beat the Dylans,
chasing them through the park and pounding them
senseless, then busting up their folk guitars
or stealing them. They even torture one
unlucky Dylan by the children’s pool,
holding him down to burn him with Bic lighters,
then cackling when he begs to keep his Martin.
Later on at the precinct, deeply troubled,
a sensitive policeman contemplates
the crimes. Why were marauding gangs of punks
beating the Dylans in the park? He asks
himself, repeatedly, not realizing
that they, the punks, were cultural police
determined to eradicate the Dylans
and purify the park of Dylanesque
pollutions and corruptions, rank and abject
folk rock recrudescences, and worse—
that odious and putrid piety,
the sanctimoniousness of all the Dylans,
the phony holiness that peaks for Bob
(his faddish Christianity aside)
during the benefit for Bangladesh,
where George insists that Yoko not perform
and John agrees ’till Yoko blows her stack,
and they start primal-screaming at each other,
John flying out of JFK and nodding,
and Eric flying into JFK
and nodding. Well, Ravi would go on first,
the one and only Ravi Shankar, folks.
I saw him five times, three times high on acid,
the first time straight with Richard and his mom,
Debbie, who drove us down from Podunk High
to see him at the Syria Mosque (long gone,
bulldozed in ’75). Debbie’s not well.
Last August she was totally Alzheimered
and, my sweet lord, she made a pass at me,
which was embarrassing. Rebuffed but proud
she sat down on the porch swing with a thump,
and, chirping like a parakeet, she swung.
Tomorrow: I attend the dress rehearsal of my daughter’s grade-school production of Romeo & Juliet and come away impressed not only by the performances, which were super, but also by the playwright who clearly has what it takes!
If Venice is married to Death - the small island of San Michele is the offspring of this union. It takes an entire day to visit San Michele, the legendary Isle of the Dead. The entire island is a cemetery, which resembles a labyrinth consisting of many contrasting sections, almost like miniature islands within one larger island. One of the most striking and memorable "rooms" of this labyrinth is the children’s section: children’s graves, most of them recent, with photographs, toys, flowers… On marble stones kids’ faces are so painfully alive, smiling, laughing, celebrating the joy of their too fleeting lives. The contrast of their youth and their surrounding is heart-wrenching. We do not associate death with youth, yet children are much closer to that vast non-existence from which we all come from and where we all end up, and the thread which binds them to that "forever beyond" is much shorter than with most adults.
A turn in the labyrinth of San Michele – and a 19th century cemetery comes into view, with forgotten graves, some half-decayed, names no longer decipherable… Another turn – and an island of gravestones for nuns appears all neatly organized in rows like brave little soldiers conquering the heavens.
A narrow path leads to an open sea of flowers of the most recent graves – after 12 years of temporary residence in San Michele, they will be transported elsewhere. At San Michele, the post-mortem real estate seems to be just as coveted and unattainable as guaranteed indulgences. One more twist of the road - and the foreigners' section is found. The Isle of the Dead is home to many famous artists.
Visiting Isola di San Michele in Venice was a sort of pilgrimage for me. The impact of Sergei Diaghilev and Igor Stravinsky in music and theater, specifically their collaborations in Le Noce, Le Sacre du Primtemps, Pulcinella and Petruchka, was the most influential in the 20th century. Their legacy is felt by every living composer, choreographer and producer today.
In death, they stand as they stood in life: Diaghilev’s overpowering large gravestone and Stravinsky’s modest plate without any overstatement, but at the center of attention by visitors.
I am always interested in the offerings the living bring to the dead. Diaghilev's grave is covered with… ballet slippers. Real, worn ballet shoes which dancers bring as offerings of their gratitude to him. On Stravinsky's grave there are also several glued pieces of paper with handwritten music, offerings from composers, perhaps.
Next to Stravinsky is the gravestone of his wife, Vera. Her grave is the mirror image of his, yet her stone-plate is covered with leaves, and there are no "gifts" of burning candles, slippers or music pages. Even in afterlife, she is in his shadow.
Joseph Brodsky's work was introduced to me in Russia when I was thirteen. His name did not mean anything to me then. Simply someone once gave me a few typed pages with his poems. My teenage reaction was one of shock. His work was unlike anything I had read. His poetry was real, it spoke to me in a powerful way, it was a calling, a recognizable, irresistible voice addressing me directly. It was impossible to ignore. When I arrived to the United States in 1991, one of my wishes was to meet Brodsky. This meeting happened, and his support of my work meant the world to me during that crucial time of my life when everything I knew was left behind.
Brodsky's wish was to be buried at San Michele. He visited Venice often, always in the winter. This was the city of his love if one can be in love with a city. Yes, Venice, more than his native St. Petersburg, was the city of his dreams; Venice, with its glorious decay, its endless reflections, its past so vast that it already contains its future.
Brodsky's grave is simple yet beautiful, with overgrown flowers and many special offerings from visitors. There was a cigarette on his grave-stone (he was a heavy smoker), a Watermen fountain pen (his favorite brand); someone left a few old Soviet coins, which I personally thought would not be the most welcomed gift by this deceased. And, of course, candles and flowers.
In a somewhat ironic twist of fate - not too far from Brodsky lies another famous poet, in many ways Brodsky's opposite – Ezra Pound. Pound's grave is large yet unkempt.
I spent long hours wandering this cemetery, listening to the seagulls, deciphering the writings on the graves, and thinking of Time. Time is always abundant in Venice. Venice is cradled in Time just as it is draped in death. This cradle song of death is comforting, quiet and peaceful. In a world where everything multiplies and doubles with reflections, San Michele provides perspective which widens the horizon and unearths the essence.
Sometimes, before falling asleep, I imagine what it would be like to spend a night at San Michele, listening to the moon-beams splashing the water and the occasional cries of birds. I imagine the ghostly concerts and poetry readings featuring that never finished symphony or a poem and wonder if the dead are just as curious about the living as we are about them.
Arriving home after several months of travel, and while taking some time to recollect experiences by organizing photographs, I came upon images of one of the most memorable trips of last year. It was my first visit to Brazil, where I performed a Mozart piano concerto in the city of Curitiba with a superb orchestra led by Maestro Osvaldo Ferreira.
Brazil made an indelible impression on me. After my performances in Curitiba, a modern city with all the 21st century commodities, I spent ten days traveling and learning about this mysterious, vast, multi-cultural country, buzzing with creativity. I took a detour to a part of the world both terrifying in its isolation and achingly beautiful - the last point of civilization before the great expanse of Amazon rainforest between Brazil and Colombia. Twelve hours by fast boat from Manaus lies a small town on the south bank of the portion of the Amazon River known as the Solimões. It is called Tefé, no roads lead to Tefé. It is only reachable by boat or small plane. Lonely Planet describes it: "It’s not that there is anything wrong – it’s a perfectly agreeable place, just not particularly memorable." Yet, it was in Tefé where I found one of the most extraordinary sites in all my travels.
The heat and humidity were unreal. As I walked from the port up the hill, I saw hundreds of large black birds circling up in the distance. Soon I realized these were vultures. The image was unsettling yet hauntingly beautiful, so I walked towards the birds. The heat was melting the sole of my sandals. After about half an hour, I reached the gates of the place I was looking for. What I encountered is a memory that will stay with me forever. A cemetery that was a charnel ground, with some of the most chilling (in spite of the heat) yet mesmerizing images of a place for the dead. Here are some of the images:
Walking Delhi with Himanshu Verma, an emerging arts curator, follows a trail where poets share top billing with rulers and religious leaders. Poets get prominent positions in India’s history – literally – with their shrines and tombs near those of emperors and saints across Delhi.
The place to be buried in Delhi from the 14th to 19th C was Nizamuddin, a village named after the exalted Sufi saint Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya. Not far away is a vast World Heritage site, the tomb of Humayun, the second of six powerful Muslim Mughals who controlled Northern India from 1527-1707. Eternity in the vicinity was a mark of status for nobles and warriors too. But who is buried closest to the white marble mausoleum of Nizamuddin who died in 1325, none other than his disciple and eminent Muslim poet Amir Khusrau, who died just six months later.
If all you know about Hindu-Muslim relations in India is the wrenching partition in 1947 and subsequent political assassinations, the relationship between this saint and poet and the broader culture is a good place to get perspective on why India is simultaneously the Hindu capital of the world and the second largest Muslim nation.
Most, not all, of the Islamic Mughals were tolerant of people of other faiths, including the indigenous Hindus. Khusrau was a cultural cross-pollinator, writing poetry primarily in Persian but also in Hindi. He drew on both languages for the first known printed dictionary. His poems take several forms, but Khusrau may be best known for expanding the development of ghazal. Khusrau mined ghazal for lyrics with his fusion of Persian and Indian musical traditions to create the Sufi devotional music, qawwali. Hindu and Muslim pilgrims, not to mention music lovers, still crowd the courtyard between the tombs of saint and poet for Friday afternoon qawwali.
The path to the tombs twists through narrow alleys and bazaars, a bustling Muslim marketplace since the Middle Ages. One route goes past a still-preserved sandstone step well built by Nizamuddin to provide water and a scenic meeting place in the neighborhood.
Then picture eight or nine singers and musicians, called a party, performing powerful poetic lyrics of love and longing. The intoxication with the beloved is understood to be the divine, but oh how well the metaphors work for the mere human as in a Khusrau excerpt below:
O sweetheart, why do you not take me to your bosom?
Long like curls in the night of separation,
Short like life on the day of our union.
Flash forward to Mirza Ghalib (1797-1869), a master of ghazal, who was alive during the unsuccessful Indian rebellion against the British in 1857. Traditionally ghazal is a short poem of divine anguished love, in couplets all using the same rhyme, with the poet’s name in the last stanza. Ghalib expanded the focus to philosophy and the troubles and mysteries of life. For example, he compared his unhappy arranged marriage to a second imprisonment following the confinement of life itself.
Reading samples of Ghalib’s poetry at his tomb in Nizamuddin and his house in another old Delhi neighborhood invited comparisons to American contemporaries Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. His subject matter is as broad as Whitman, but his spot-on death metaphors more powerfully conjure up Dickinson.
In between chronologically is Rahim, Abdul Rahim Khan-e-Khana (1556 – 1627). A Muslim who wrote Hindi couplets, Rahim was a powerful minister in the Mughal court of Akbar. The Hindu god Lord Krishna is often featured in his poetry. The marble and sandstone on his tomb in Nizamuddin were stripped off and recycled for an 18th C tomb elsewhere. The base remains intact as does respect for the wisdom of his couplets:
The tree does not eat its own fruit, the lake does not drink its water.
For the welfare of others, the good one accumulates wealth, so says Rahim.
Here’s my video of Verma reading Rahim. Verma runs several multidisciplinary arts initiatives, including Red Earth and 1100 Walks. (Don’t miss his food-centric street tour of Old Delhi if you’re in town.) Verma is himself a devotee of Krishna.
The thread of poet prominence continues in India’s modern political history. Nobel Laureate Tagore Rabindranath died in 1941 before independence but was an influential intellectual friend of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharal Nehru, the first prime minister of independent India. Tagore first called Gandhi a Mahatma, or great soul, and the name stuck. In 1913, Tagore became the first non-European to win a Nobel prize, for a collection of poems Gitanjali in Bengali and English.
Words of the poet, novelist, playwright, essayist, songwriter, artist and educator pop up all over India. He even gets the last word at the Taj Mahal where a Tagore quote fills a huge wall near the exit and describes the marble marvel as a “tear drop… on the cheek of time for ever and ever… a garland that would blend formless death with deathless form.”
The experimental school Tagore founded educated Indian leaders in a variety of disciplines including Amartya Sen, a Nobel Laureate economist, and Indira Gandhi, Nehru’s daughter and the prime minister for 15 years. (She was lucky enough to get the surname Gandhi from her Parsi husband.) Gandhi kept a framed picture of Tagore with an English excerpt from Gitanjaliin her home study; words in a prominent vitrine in her museum that lead a mind without fear to “where the clear stream of reason/ has not lost its way.”
As the mother of two daughters in college, I chose to start 2013 at the New Delhi protests over the brutal gang rape and subsequent death of a female paramedical student. I was in India to meet my eldest daughter who’d been traveling with a classmate born in Nepal. As a poet and former journalist, I also dove into the language of the event, spending my nights surfing the extensive coverage in English on 24-hour news channels and reading the robust print media. Many of the words were worrisome.
"Eve teasing" is a common media moniker in India for a broad spectrum of sexual harassment, essentially everything that falls short of rape. Verbal street harassment, flashing and molestation are all a lot more serious than the archaic euphemism suggests. In a 2012 poll, 78 percent of New Delhi women reported verbal or physical sexual harassment and 98 percent of young men admitted it's commonplace among their friends.
I sensed a hunger for leadership in framing the debate. The presence at protests of so many young men as well as parents with their children was encouraging and mirrored hopes for change reported by media. I discounted fringe theories such as the regional minister who concluded, “stars are not in position.” (One expects noise from the most conservative corners as I recalled the barbaric theories about rape from several U.S. Congressional candidates this fall.) Most discouraging, however, was the range of government and religious officials across the nation who blamed women for the violence, whether because of immodest dress or a decline of Hindu values. The son of the President of India, a member of Parliament, called female protesters "highly dented and painted" women who “have no connection with ground reality.” A popular Delhi spiritual leader said the gang rape victim could have saved herself by praying at her attackers’ feet. And far too many of the screaming heads on television were yelling for chemical castration even though experts pointed out that violent crimes against women are more often about power than sex.
Even the propensity to label the 23-year-old a girl in headlines indicated how language contributes to the lack of respect and response from the streets, the police and the courts. Only one of more than 600 rapes reported in New Delhi in 2012 has produced a conviction. And few people dispute that rape is vastly underreported because of the widespread conviction that only people with political connections will get any semblance of justice from corrupt, underpaid, poorly trained and mostly male police departments and the overwhelmed and understaffed courts.
Even so, there is no shortage of reporting about violent attacks each day. In two national newspapers, daily roundups of recent rapes across the nation are headlined “Criminals Everywhere” and “Meanwhile…” In early January those briefs included a dead 16-year-old found hanging from a tree, a 15-year-old allegedly kidnapped by a neighbor dead in a school toilet and a 15-year-old held captive and raped for 15 days by three men from her village.
It’s dangerous to be female in India from the womb to old age. The list of causes is long and complicated: aborted girls, female infanticide and neglect, domestic violence, sexual violence, dowry and family disputes. From cradle to grave, males get a larger share of family resources whether for nutrition or health care or mosquito netting for malaria.
“If there’s one glass of milk left, it’s still going to the boy in the family,” said a mustached, middle-aged office manager at the New Delhi protests on New Year’s Day. “It’s just disgusting how we treat women of all ages.”
He’d approached me with a very nervous mother and her teenaged daughter he’d just met, in case my camera meant I was a reporter. Their faces were already partly covered by bright scarves, which they instinctually pulled even tighter as he relayed their dilemma. The 17-year-old went to the police at her mother’s behest after being raped by a neighbor in South Delhi. Not only did the police do nothing, the man and his friends are now regularly threatening mother and daughter. “Can you tell me who they can talk to who will take them seriously?” the man asked.
The stakes inherent in that question are quite high. About 25 million women could be alive if the suspiciously low ratio of women to men in India was more in line with areas of the world with more equal gender care, according to research published in December in the Economic & Political WEEKLY.
The analysis of government mortality data concluded that 100,000 women are burned to death each year and another 125,000 die from violent injuries rarely reported as murder or suicide.“The plight of adult women in India is as serious a problem as that of young girls who were never born or die prematurely in childhood,” wrote the authors Siwian Anderson of the University of British Columbia and Debrai Ray of New York University. They called for further study of their hypothesis that the excess adult deaths are “associated with the custom of dowry which has been linked to bride-burning and dowry-death if promised dowry payments are not forthcoming.”
Women have made enormous strides in India in recent decades in education and workplace opportunities but still live in a patriarchal society that has traditionally defined them by their relationships as daughters and wives and mothers. The visible successes of Indian women among the uncertainties and opportunities of the global economy makes them a target of the vast numbers of young men, many unemployed or underemployed, who outnumber young women of marriageable age.
“The modern woman is seen to be on a collision course with our age-old traditions, part sex goddess part super achiever, loathed and desired in equal measure,” Sagarika Ghose wrote in a column in The Hindustan Times. “A profound fear and a deep, almost pathological, hatred of the woman who aspires to be anything more than mother and wife is justified on the grounds of tradition.”
Amartya Sen, an economist who won the Nobel Prize in 1998 and pioneered the concept of missing women, notes that the acceptance of elite women in top positions of political power since India became an independent nation in 1947 does not have a trickle down effect. In his book of essays The Argumentative Indian, Sen places improved gender equality high on his list of what India needs to maximize opportunities in the global economy. If the nation needs a model on how to do better, he and other respected voices say look no further than the teachings and example of Mahatma Gandhi.
I started 2013 in the footsteps of Gandhi, literally; his last steps are marked on the path where he was assassinated in 1948 for his advocacy for equality for all of humanity. Beside those steps, beside the Gandhi museum, the Women’s Initiative for Peace in South Asia hosted an interfaith prayer meeting for “Peace Dignity Equality Justice & Respect for Women and Girls” on New Year’s Day. A picture of Gandhi towered over the open-air auditorium as I sat down with a book of his writings I’d just purchased in the museum shop.
“Of all the evils for which man has made himself responsible, none is so degrading, so shocking or so brutal as his abuse of the better half of humanity to me, the female sex, not the weaker sex,” Gandhi wrote.
I flipped the book over and printed on the back binding was praise of Gandhi’s vision of greatness by Rabindranath Tagore, the Nobel Laureate poet whose words I happily bumped into all across India.
No poet has to be convinced that language can be a compass.
Upcoming this week: Indian writers on respect and reform, a poets walk with a Delhi arts curator and a review of an extensive new anthology of Indian English poetry and interview with the editor.
We were only in Athens the second week of January, after three weeks in western Crete, and while the differences were noticeable, so were the similarities in the ways people we know or heard about are enduring and talking about year five of the financial crisis. Crete is self sufficient and semiagrarian: even men and women who live in the cities are closely tied to the villages where their families are from and where they still get their oranges, lemons, olive oil, and raki—in some cases from farms they still own and work. Nevertheless, one couple with a son who's an officer in the military, married with one child, told us his pay had been cut by a third. And Chania's youngest alderman, a high school tech teacher, isn't completely sure he'll have a teaching job next year. Athens, of course, is another big city, some four million, I think, with all political extremities well represented, the left by anarchists and Communists, the right by the protofascist anti immigrant Golden Dawn. While it's tempting to think that a country as cosmopolitan as Greece could never be taken in by an ultra right wing, it's worth remembering that the Communists lost the civil war that tore Greece apart after the Allies drove out the Nazis in 1944. People here are too nervous, said an actress in Athens who plans to leave as soon as she can, first to France and then possibly to the U.S. The take home monthly pay of our cab driver to the airport, who studied in Germany, had been reduced to 400 euros from 500. She has no faith in the current government or, worse, in any government that could replace it. By the way, nonstop flights to Athens from New York and back resume March 15. Whether they stop mid October as they did last year, for the first time in recent memory, probably depends on whether the Greek economic situation improves in the interim. That seems unlikely.
Harold Pinter nearly killed me. Not with a knife, a bullet, or a karate chop, but with that most deadly of all weapons, a lofty sneer. While I was working at Shepperton Studios in Middlesex, Surrey, England in the late 1970's, I spied Pinter, alone, standing by the bar during a break in the filming of one of his screenplays. A few years before I had worked with John Bury, a great British scenic designer on my Broadway show, The Rothschilds, and John who became a good friend to me, was a close friend of Pinter. A bear of a man with the most delicate, meticulous talent - and a gruff, generous, elegant heart, John had been the designer of most of the Pinter shows for the National Theater for which he had been highly praised for creating sets that revealed the unspoken menace of Pinter's work.
It is, of course, an old story that a greatly accomplished creative aritst can be a boor, a thug, a liar, a nasty piece of work, a vain fop, or what you will. Nevertheless the way we behave in social situations, particularly awkward ones, reveals a lot about who we really are. For more of Sherman Yellen's post on his disagreeable meeting with Harold Pinter and its reverberations, click here.