Wanders: Harold Pinter’s East London

Dear Joe, I’d like to walk with you

From Clapton Pond to Stamford Hill

And on… (2009/1977, p.177)

There’s a somewhat unexplored relationship between the work of Harold Pinter and act of walking, specifically walking and talking around London.  Perhaps because he is most famous for a form that is so strictly bound into one performative space, it is easily forgotten how vital walking around the capital was for him.  Within his work, there is still a sense of place rooted through the joyful use of language, often highlighting many of his characters’ obsessive qualities.  But it was not until reading about his friendship with his English tutor, Joseph Brearley, and the poem he wrote about him, that its importance became abundantly clear.  One of my own personal delights found in Pinter’s work for theatre and film is just how London-centric it really is once picked up on.  Whether it was Mick taunting Davies about the detailed routes he wasn’t going to help him go on in Clive Donner’s version of The Caretaker (1963), the grounded, isolating presence of the Hackney house in The Homecoming (1965), the upper-class enclave of his script adaptation for Joseph Losey’s The Servant (1963), or the various London spaces that have popped up in television work such as A Night Out for Armchair Theatre (1960) and The Collection (1976) for the Granada, London has always figured in its multivalent vastness.


After months of immersing myself in his work again and with a trip to London already planned, a Pinter-themed walk was inevitable.  This was not, however, to be some simple meander regarding the odd theatre and film location.  The detail that Pinter put into his 1977 poem, Joseph Brearley (1909-1977) – a poem dedicated to the inspirational English teacher who he went on countless walks with when at Hackney Downs Grammar School – means that there’s a great potential to walk its impressionistic routes “on, and on”.  Pinter mentions the importance of these walks with both Brearley and his friends a great deal.  In his talk at the David Cohen British Literature Prize in 1995, he discusses the importance of Brearley and these walks, which introduced him to writing by the likes of Shakespeare and John Webster:

Joe Brearley and I became close friends.  We embarked on a series of long walks, which continued for years, starting from Hackney Downs, up to Springfield Park, along the river Lea, back up Lea Bridge Road, past Clapton Pond, through Mare Street to Bethnal Green. (2009/1995, p.71).


When Pinter talks of these walks, they appear to be part of a wider action, one of conversation and of working towards something greater.  Because of this, it was eventually worked out that this walk of Pinter’s poem was to be turned into a short film with help in research and in the voice-over for the film’s soundtrack by the writer, Iain Sinclair.  Though more information on this project will be posted at a later date, Sinclair’s role in the choices for specific locations of the walk was vital and there was no one who knew Hackney and the surrounding area better to help guide some parts of the endeavour.  Pinter’s description of the walk in his speech above is far more detailed than its subsequent recreation in the poem.  This is undoubtedly because its aim is to capture the fragmented nostalgia of the place, the feeling of discovery and perhaps the subtle release of melancholy at the man’s death (the event that spurred him to write it).  It was therefore a far more spontaneous form of map for the walk through Pinter’s East London and a more exciting prospect for a mind-map meander.


The walk began on a sunny February weekday, getting the tube to Manor House station.  The walk was not to begin specifically in the order of Pinter’s poem or to be realised fully from walking basically the length between Finsbury Park and Hackney Downs; the two furthest points mentioned in regards to his scholarly walks.  This was purely due to time.  Instead, Manor House was the beginning of the walk in order to explore the following lines:

Through Manor House to Finsbury Park,

And back…



Because the day was so bright and surprisingly warm for February, this part of the walk was especially pleasant, taken with the aid of a writer friend, Harriet (website and Twitter), who came along to help with the filming aspects.  Coming out of Manor House tube station, we met and walked down the beautiful pathway right through to the entrance of Finsbury Park.  The design of the park is one that doesn’t seem too dissimilar from several Pinter settings, with a faded, gentile elegance of long pathways with arches of trees.  There was a community service group picking up litter, groups of young lads sitting around enjoying the sun, and the jaunt felt instantly leisurely and relaxed.  It soon became apparent that walking such areas did indeed sprout up almost constant conversation; there seemed to be a consistent stream of conversational sparks on, in and around the park that eventually lead off into creative conversations about writing and other things.  Pinter and Brearley tapped into something  important here; the raw material of flowing ideas through interaction with local, public spaces. 



Of course, the poem refers to a reversal – “and back” – so that was precisely what we did; heading back to the station to catch several tubes and an overground train to Hackney Central.  On the way back, I thought of Mick’s elongated speech in The Caretaker, spinning Davies the tramp in a web of place-names and words to taunt him and his inability to get down to Sidcup where his important papers supposedly reside:

You know, believe it or not, you’ve got a funny kind of resemblance to a bloke I once knew in Shoreditch.  Actually he lived in Aldgate.  I was staying with a cousin in Camden Town.  This chap, he used to have a pitch in Finsbury Park, just by the bus depot.  When I got to know him I found out he was brought up in Putney.  That didn’t make any difference to me.  (1963, p.34).


There were sadly no figures resembling Davies but there was a constant flurry of buses as we headed back underground into the tube station.  There was a surreal atmosphere here as we headed down the escalators because of the unusual decision to play classical music over the speakers, a Mozart string quartet by the sounds of things.  After several tubes and a flurry of overheard conversations, the atmosphere changed to the bustle of central Hackney.  Pinter’s relationship specifically with Hackney was a complex but important one.  In the interview he did for the ABC series, Tempo, he is both critical but interested in the place and its influence on his work.  When asked whether he liked growing up around there he suggests that he didn’t, further elaborating that:

No we didn’t like it very much, we hated it.  But I think we hated it in the sense that any young man growing up in any particular district hates it.  And in this particular respect, Hackney was a kind of prison.  Although we could get a bus and go out to Piccadilly in half an hour or so, we didn’t have enough money to do it because the bus cost 10p or so in those days, and we were kind of cooped up and cramped in it… (1960).


Yet, when recalling his walks around the area as a whole, there’s a great sense (and this was palpable even walking around it now) that there was a wealth of space to walk and talk in.  We followed Amhurst Road, leaning right towards Hackney Downs park.  Again, another park to wander, to fire up conversation and to explore.  On its outer edge, there looked to be a pub that was remarkably similar looking to the one blown up by the IRA in John Mackenzie’s The Long Good Friday (1981).  The high-rise in the background shot up among the trees and the sun shone down on the relatively empty but pleasant park.  A handful of joggers and cyclists were making their way around the paths though no one was declaring lines of John Webster into the wind.

On the dead 653 trolleybus,

To Clapton Pond,

And walk across the shadows on to Hackney Downs…



We strolled on following the pathway parallel to Queensdown Road and turned right onto Downs Road towards Clapton Pond. Downs Road was of course the centre of the house for Caretaker Films where Clive Donner set up production and filmed the 1963 version of the play (at number 31). Sadly the house was knocked down though a handful of some of the same type of house from the film still lie further down the road.  The houses looked immaculate, one having a vintage looking pedal-bike adorned with beautiful flowers sitting outside; very different to a frozen pond or a half-built shed.  Whether it was an ornament or an elaborate form of transport was hard to tell.  These random objects sparked yet more ideas; the place permeated ideas and thoughts, perfect for the improvisatory super-8 filming that I was rapidly engaged in.  When discussing his time walking the same places with Pinter and his Hackney Downs friendship group, the actor, Henry Woolf, also seems to recognise the importance of such a venture, speaking in an Arena documentary interview for a film called The Room: “Wandering around Hackney and so forth.  That traversing out of space in our heads… We didn’t have any money to speak of so we spent an enormous amount of time walking and an enormous amount of time talking and reading.” (2002).  That idea, of “traversing out of space in our heads…”, of walking ideas into existence or substantiating already conceived ideas by walking some meat onto the bone of such thoughts was joyous, verging on addictive.  As Woolf later went on to say “We bowled about and bought cups of tea and walked about and we didn’t feel poor in spirit; we felt quite rich really.” (2002).  We felt equally rich in spirit in the day’s sun, a sense of freedom abounding.

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Clapton Pond was glorious in the sunshine, its light creating rainbow shards and an immersive display of serous sounds.  We walked over the bridge, the vibrations of the busy traffic mixing with an oddly rural enclave.  It’s an intensely contradictory place on the right day but is all the better and more vibrant for it.  Briefly moving away from Pinter’s poem, we walked around the corner to Pinter’s house in Thistlewaite Road; a house now adorned with a blue plaque to commemorate his time there.  As we were filming the outside of number 19, someone came out and modesty meant pretending to be interested in some false problem with the camera whilst the occupant moved off; no doubt a typical occurrence but one to be expected when living in a place now officially declared as heritage.  Pinter believed that the liveliness of the area had class links, suggesting that “At the same time, we felt very much its qualities and liveliness and busyness.  It was a very lively working class district.  It was living.” (1965).  This is still true in one sense but the vibrancy seems to be one of a mix of classes and cultures, more so than the general gentrified image of East London does justice to.



And stop by the old bandstand,

You tall in moonlight,

And the quickness in which it all happened,

And the quick shadow in which it persists.

Continuing some way up the main road, we eventually found ourselves in Springfield Park.  There was a specific reason for visiting outside of Pinter’s general writing and in spite of him mentioning the place earlier when detailing his walks with Brearley in the speech.  The poem mentions a bandstand at Hackney Downs which is sadly no longer there.  For the film, this seemed pretty essential and so the bandstand within this beautiful park was to be used instead.  The views out over the valley were stunning and the bandstand was indeed intact as Sinclair had informed.  When filming, a solitary man was sitting under its roof.  I asked if he’d be OK with me filming and he was at first tentative.  “Not really mate, I’m meant to be at work and I’m smoking weed”.  His honesty was surprising but, after explaining to him the low detail of both the 35mm camera and the super-8 camera, he obliged and became part of the film.  Hopefully his bosses are not avid Pinter fans who will end up seeing the finished product.  We came out of Springfield Park and meandered further, all of the way along the main road towards Stamford Hill. This road has Clapton Terrace on it, the loop where Mick taunts Davies by driving him in a circle in the filmed version of The Caretaker.  In terms of the poem, this was going back on itself as its opening lines refer exactly to the walk from Clapton Pond up to Stamford Hill.  Not being sure of what would count as an official marker for the territory, we diverted to both the estate with its proud “Stamford Hill” sign to the left of the crossroads and then came back up to the tube station.

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The walk and the filming was completed there and later a venture for food back down into Shoreditch was called for before departing company with Harriet and making my way to Sinclair’s house to record the voice-over of the poem.  Pinter has said about Hackney that his engagement with the place was different to other, later dwellings of his whereby there was a genuine relationship to it in its entirety: “The main thing about Hackney was that it was a place as opposed to places you live in afterwards which are not places; you live in houses… You’re not part of any district or place but in Hackney we were certainly part of the place.” (1965).  After walking the pathways “on and on”, it was clear to see that the area had a huge influence on his writing and his engagement with ideas because it was, for him, “a place”.  Contrasting heavily with the claustrophobic heterotopias of his many plays, the walk showed another side to the writer; one that, in the most typical of psychogeographic tropes, walked ideas and people into corporeal existence.  

You’re gone, I’m at your side,

Walking with you from Clapton Pond to Finsbury Park,

And on, and on. (2009/1977, p.177).


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