Pinter’s ‘American Football’

Inigo Thomas

‘First we are going to cut it off, and then we are going to kill it.’ That was how Colin Powell described the battle plan he and his generals came up with for the war they were about to wage against Saddam Hussein’s army in 1991, and that is, more or less, what happened. ​

After the US A-10 tank-buster bombers known as Warthogs had finished off the Iraqi armoured brigades on the Basra Road, Harold Pinter, disgusted by the gratuitous carnage, wrote a poem called ‘American Football’. He sent it to several publications, including the London Review of Books, where I then worked. He had it faxed to the paper's office on Tavistock Square. None of the editors much liked the poem, but because it was by Pinter there was some further deliberation, and as the afternoon ended we thought we'd defer the decision to the following morning.

I was invariably the first person to get to the office, and soon after I arrived the next day the phone rang. It was Pinter's secretary, Angela. He wanted to know there and then whether the paper would publish the poem: he was heading out to Heathrow to fly to New York. I stalled: I said I'd let her know once I'd talked to colleagues, only no colleagues had arrived. The situation was made more complex because I'd known Harold since I was a boy; I played for his cricket team, the Gaieties. I rang Karl Miller's office at the UCL English Department.

Karl said I should write a careful letter saying why the paper would not be publishing ‘American Football’. My letter wasn't careful enough: after I faxed it to Harold, I got an explosive reply.

I didn't hear from him for a while but then with the cricket season about to begin, I got a call from Angela: he wanted to know if I could play in the first match, the Gaieties v. the Honourable Artillery Company, a reserve regiment incorporated by Henry VIII. The company’s headquarters and cricket ground is in the City of London, next to Bunhill Cemetery, where Blake is buried. Cricket was played on the Artillery Garden before Blake was born. It’s one of the oldest cricket grounds in the country, and has an atmosphere unlike any other. Nothing has ever been built on it, and the large expanse of well-cut grass is surrounded by the office blocks of the City. During the Cold War, and immediately afterwards, armoured vehicles and light tanks were often stationed round the boundary ropes. The presence of all that hardware got to Harold and to his vociferous pacifism. He may have played infrequently after he turned 60 in 1990, but he ran the club very seriously and wanted the Gaieties to win.

That day at the Artillery Garden, Harold arrived in his black Mercedes coupé – the Mercedes he'd bought in the late 1960s had been stolen a few years earlier. (That car was known among the cricketers as Myrtle, after the wife of the garage owner in The Great Gatsby who is run over by her lover, Tom Buchanan, driving Gatsby's car.) Harold got out of his car: he was dressed, as he so often was, in black. The car and Harold, black on black; the cricketers all white. The match was about to begin, and I was bowling to one of the Gaieties’ opening batsmen on the outfield close to the car park — a bit of practice. I bowled another ball, it hit something in the ground, and shot over the batsman's head and I looked on as the ball then crashed into the chrome radiator of Harold's car. We hadn’t spoken since that fax months earlier. He exploded, but then gave me a wink: he was having me on. We never talked about 'American Football'.

'American Football' is a rough poem, but in the era of Trump it seems to say something that it didn't when I read it on Tavistock Square all those years ago:

It works.
We blew the shit out of them.

We blew the shit right back up their own ass
And out their fucking ears.

It works.
We blew the shit out of them.
They suffocated in their own shit!

Praise the Lord for all good things.

We blew them into fucking shit.
They are eating it.

Praise the Lord for all good things.

We blew their balls into shards of dust,
Into shards of fucking dust.

We did it.

Now I want you to come over here and kiss me on the mouth.


  • 20 January 2017 at 8:19pm
    nztab says:

  • 22 January 2017 at 11:28am
    Simon Wood says:
    At last, the shit hits the fans.

    Is not lost to posterity.

    That lot.

    Those fucking lucky shards of dust.

  • 22 January 2017 at 1:42pm says:
    Not only does it seem to say something that may not have seemed at the time you read it on Tavistock Square all those years ago, but it also seems to be saying it in Trump's own voice. Superb.

  • 23 January 2017 at 8:11pm
    jazzpantsforme says:
    Not to be a Gatsby stickler, but it's Daisy (not Tom) Buchanan who runs over Myrtle while driving Gatsby's car.

  • 24 January 2017 at 3:15am
    garyamdahl says:
    Reminds me of Mailer's Why Are We In Vietnam?