Poem of the Week: Order // Harold Pinter

Are you ready to order?
No there is nothing to order
No I’m unable to order
No I’m a long way from order
And while there is everything,
And nothing, to order,
Order remains a tall order
And disorder feeds on the belly of order
And order requires the blood of disorder
And ‘freedom’ and ordure and other disordures
Need the odour of order to sweeten their murders
Disorder a beggar in a darkened room
Order a banker in a castiron womb
Disorder an infant in a frozen home
Order a soldier in a poisoned tomb

In my opinion, Harold Pinter’s last truly great play was One for the road, a brutal, one-act examination of the horrors that a totalitarian, despotic regime is capable of inflicting upon innocent civilians. More than that, however, the play is perhaps one of Pinter’s last, and most provocative, dramatic attempt to highlight the political danger that euphemistic, deceptive language poses towards a so-called civilised society. The play is an excellent, though intensely uncomfortable, deconstruction of the state-sanctioned brutality that language is capable of obscuring from ‘civilised’ eyes. It’s central protagonist, a psychopathic officer in an unnamed authoritarian state, engages in polite, even pretentious, discourse with a family that he has had imprisoned, glossing over numerous state-sanctioned evils with an assortment of decidedly English and rather hackneyed euphemisms and colloquialisms.

Perhaps it was predetermined by some mischievous twist of fate that this play was first performed at Lyric studio, Hammersmith, in London in 1984. Pinter, much like Orwell, was an avid political writer and a staunch opponent of complacent or manipulative language. Their chief opponents were the discourse of the political classes and the insidious manner with which this discourse so often manages to leak into ordinary conversation. However, in One for the road, Pinter perhaps sacrificed the playfulness and stirring malevolence that so prominently characterised his earlier works. This may have been an attempt to produce more and more provocative and didactic anti-war poetry, or propaganda. If I’m being honest, there is one poem that I had the pleasure of rediscovering, that somehow managed to avoid becoming one of the coarse, lazy, tirades that unfortunately characterises so much of Pinter’s anti-Gulf war poetry (American Football being the most notable example of this). I am, of course, talking about Order, originally published in The Guardian in 1996.

Order feels like a return to Pinter’s more playful style of writing, though, this playfulness in no way undermines its explicitly political and extremely harrowing undertones. The poem opens with an unnamed person asking “Are you ready to order?” It’s probably just because I saw this quite recently but, upon reading this first line, I imagined it being uttered by the philosophical Waiter that repeatedly pops up during Celebration, the only play by Pinter following 1984 that, in my opinion, comes close to One for the road. This inquiry is immediately followed by the response: “No there is nothing to order/ No I’m unable to order/ No I’m a long way from order”. Already, Pinter’s linguistic playfulness is making an appearance, as the anonymous speaker swiftly shifts from the use of “order” as a piece of jargon pertaining to the ordering of food or drink, to the more abstract concept of “order” as being synonymous with stability, law or harmony. Indeed, as Pinter’s playfulness is accompanied by his tell-tale menace as the speaker reveals they are a “long way” from the “order” of stability or harmony. Indeed, the fact that they are “unable to order”, suggests a state of helplessness or, at the very least, some form of imposed passivity to the reader.

“Order remains a tall order”, Pinter tells us before exposing the brutality that underlies all ‘civilised’ or ordered societies. Pinter reminds the reader that “disorder feeds on the belly of order/ And order requires the blood of disorder”. Can anyone think of a more politically relevant passage? Look to the rise of political strongmen across the globe, bolstered by the economic anxieties and political discontent, all of which can be considered forms of “disorder”. Pinter here suggests a cyclical, parasitical relationship between political order and disorder. Totalitarian states can only flourish from the “blood of disorder” and, in turn, the social, cultural and economic chaos, that enables the production of such oppressive regimes, are ultimately produced by the overwhelming “order” that is generated by political totalitarianism. Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Order or disorder? Of course, what “order”, here referring to totalitarianism and war, also requires is not merely “disorder” but the alluring “Odour of order to sweeten their murders”. Who can think of a more apt description for propaganda than the “Odour of order”? And what other purpose does propaganda have but to “sweeten” the murders of the state? Here, more than ever, we can see Pinter taking up the mantle left behind by George Orwell.

The final stanza of the poem is dedicated to highlighting the victims of political oppression and war, perhaps drawing upon Pinter’s numerous condemnations of the Gulf war. Pinter states that the previously mentioned “Odour of order” enables the state to “Disorder a beggar in a darkened room/ Order a banker in a castiron womb/ Disorder an infant in a frozen home/ Order a soldier in a poisoned home”. Evidently, Pinter points out that neither civilian nor soldier, banker or beggar, can be spared from the horrors of state-sanctioned violence. No one is spared, no one is saved. Yes, Order, for all its playfulness with language, is a very haunting poem.

Words by Rhys Clarke

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