SIR TOM Stop­pard, the em­i­nent play­wright, an­nounced on Wed­nes­day as the win­ner of the £40,000 David Co­hen prize for lit­er­a­ture — the “Bri­tish and Ir­ish No­bel” — has never learned to touch type.

This he re­veals as I take notes of our in­ter­view in a ho­tel restau­rant in the heart of Lon­don’s the­atre dis­trict. As be­fits a man who started his ca­reer at 17 as a cub re­porter on the West­ern Daily Press, he is hugely in­ter­ested in my short­hand notes of our con­ver­sa­tion.

“Tee­line? I’ve never heard of that one. I trained in short­hand and typ­ing in the 1950s. I con­tinue to use Pit­mans, but I never re­ally learned to type.”

Did he re­gret not go­ing to univer­sity? Not im­me­di­ately, he says. “When I got to the end of my ed­u­ca­tion at the age of 17, I was anx­ious to start earn­ing a liv­ing. But when I was in my twen­ties I fan­cied be­ing an un­der­grad­u­ate, but it was too late.”

It hadn’t harmed his ca­reer, I sug­gest. “How do you know? I could have been a very im­por­tant pro­fes­sor.”

He is mod­est about the award. “I was aware of two or three friends who had won it. I never thought that I would win it. I knew Harold Pin­ter and Ju­lian Barnes had won it, and then, two years ago, Tony Har­ri­son, who I’d known for ages and ad­mired for his clas­si­cal knowl­edge as well as his po­etry. So it had that ca­chet for me.

“You don’t think, ‘oh yes, I should get that prize, I de­serve it’. If any­thing, I am slightly em­bar­rassed.”

The prize recog­nises writ­ers’ achieve­ments over the en­tirety of their ca­reers, so what does the au­thor of works such as Rosen­crantz and Guilden­stern Are Dead, Jumpers and Ar­ca­dia, think is his great­est achieve­ment?

He prefers to frame the ques­tion dif­fer­ently. “I don’t think in terms of my con­tri­bu­tion — that’s for oth­ers to judge. In terms of sheer en­joy­ment in prepar­ing a par­tic­u­lar play, the three years or so I spent read­ing up on A E Hous­man as a Latin scholar was one of the high points.”

His play about Hous­man, The In­ven­tion of Love, is con­sid­ered by many to be his finest. It dis­played his trade-mark in­tel­lec­tual depth and lin­guis­tic verve. In New York, au­di­ence mem­bers were pro­vided with a 30-page book­let on the po­lit­i­cal and artis­tic his­tory of the lateVic­to­rian pe­riod, to aid their com­pre­hen­sion.

Still, Sir Tom adds, after his lengthy re­search: “I end up with a lot of things that I leave out.”

He is seek­ing an­other project to re­search but, he says: “I don’t seem to be able to. I try — it’s a lot to do with be­ing stocked up with facts.

“Maybe I need to read for a year or 18 months, maybe noth­ing will oc­cur. I would like to. I’ve ex­pe­ri­enced years of ei­ther prepar­ing or writ­ing or deal­ing with the con­se­quences of a given play, so there’s no point stop­ping now.”

“When I turned 80 in July I thought that would be an ar­ti­fi­cial rea­son to stop, but I’m not feel­ing that I’ve reached a fin­ish­ing line.”

One idea he has been con­sid­er­ing would in­volve a lot of think­ing and read­ing about Jewish sub­jects, he re­veals. But he won’t ex­pand fur­ther. “It would be fool­hardy to say more while I’m try­ing to get into it.”

To do that would be some­thing new in his life be­cause his Jewish roots are, he ac­knowl­edges, “not highly im­por­tant in my life or work. I don’t cel­e­brate the weekly cer­e­mony of be­ing Jewish.”

This is hardly sur­pris­ing. The young Tomáš Straus­sler’s first board­ing school, in In­dia when he was five years old, was Ro­man Catholic. His sec­ond was, “Methodist — or pos­si­bly Bap­tist. I came to Eng­land when I was eight and my prep school was Church of Eng­land. It wasn’t un­til I was 50 that I found out the ac­tual ex­tent of my Jewish fam­ily. “

The fam­ily had left Cze­choslo­vakia in 1939 just be­fore the Nazis marched in, his fa­ther, a doc­tor, hav­ing taken a job in Sin­ga­pore.

“My mother would tell me that no one is safe if they have a Jewish grand­par­ent. My mother had no reli­gion. She was es­sen­tially athe­ist. She didn’t talk about her past. She buried it. She thought we’d been res­cued and given a new life,” he says.

It was only when his mother was 80 that he dis­cov­ered more about his past from a Czech cousin vis­it­ing Bri­tain. He asked her how Jewish the fam­ily was. She told him that all four grand­par­ents had been Jewish, and drew a fam­ily tree.

“She re­vealed that my mother had sis­ters who were mur­dered by the Nazis. It was ob­vi­ously a shock but I didn’t re­ally ask my mother about it. It made it more dif­fi­cult than it had been. It up­set her — I didn’t go into in­ves­tiga­tive mode.”

He didn’t visit his birth­place un­til after his mother’s death. His ear­li­est mem­o­ries, he says are of Sin­ga­pore and In­dia.

He stresses that the fam­ily were not refugees — or not as the word is un­der­stood now. “We left home un­der the aus­pices of my fa­ther’s em­ployer, with a job to go to. In Eng­land, we were the op­po­site of refugees — we were lucky.”

In the 1970s, Sir Tom was one of the lead­ing voices in sup­port of Soviet dis­si­dents, many of them Jewish.

“I’d ma­tured to the point where I wanted to take sides. There were many causes I could have taken up — Nicaragua, for ex­am­ple — but I knew noth­ing about Nicaragua and I did know some­thing about eastern Europe, and I knew I might have rel­a­tives there. So it wasn’t causal but it was con­nected with be­ing Czech and be­ing Jewish. Th­ese were moral is­sues, not po­lit­i­cal. Or rather, po­lit­i­cal is­sues are moral is­sues.”

He re­mains very in­ter­ested in pol­i­tics, and reads the Times and Guardian ev­ery day. He de­scribes pol­i­tics now as “some kind of ma­lign, malev­o­lent bucket-list of things that need chang­ing. Huge sub­jects which are dif­fi­cult to grasp. The rich/poor di­vide is one of them. I hate ex­cess, con­spic­u­ous, os­ten­ta­tious ex­cess.”

Does he ap­prove of polem­i­cal the­atre, like the anti-Is­rael My Name is Rachel Cor­rie, re­cently re­vived at the Young Vic? Or does he pre­fer a more even-handed ap­proach, like the Na­tional The­atre’s Oslo, on the Mid­dle East con­flict?

He hasn’t seen ei­ther play, but says: “Tem­per­a­men­tally, I would be an Oslo type of per­son.”

What ad­vice would he give young play­wrights? “You are well-placed. There are many more small the­atres all look­ing for new writ­ing. Good luck!”

My mother told me no one is safe if they have a Jewish grand­par­ent


Sir Tom Stop­pard: “I’m not feel­ing I’ve reached the fin­ish­ing line”

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.