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 late-Victorian 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!”