A gentlemanly anarchist. A great writer. An unforgettable man. And so funny. “No longer bed-blocking the NHS”.
First published in The London MagazineAlong with Tom Stoppard, Heathcote Williams is for me the great English writer of my generation. He is first and last a poet. His first book, The Speakers, about the soapbox orators in Hyde Park, was indeed in prose. But prose so musical, so cadence-aware that there had been nothing like it since Murphy or Malone Dies. Indeed Samuel Beckett wrote an admiring letter and Harold Pinter an admiring review. Heathcote was 23.
Pinter pointed Heathcote towards drama. Together with Stoppard’s Arcadia, Heathcote Williams’s AC/DC gave me my most exciting theatrical nights. I attended both plays several times.
This great poet is a dramatist also therefore. And an actor and a film star. And a sculptor, draftsman and painter. And a Sixties apostle of love. And for nearly twenty years (or so he told me) an apostle of celibacy. And an editor and publisher. And a conjurer, a juggler, a fire-eater. And a man that swam with an Irish dolphin, who befriended him. And a companion, father and grandfather. And a cross-generational inspiration. My son named his son after Heathcote but old Heathcote (as we never thought him but called him to distinguish the two) was always and throughout a poet.
Heathcote’s intuitions and intentions had a habit of getting into the bloodstream of our culture after he himself came up with new ones. Four book length poems about the way we threaten the natural world, our very dwelling, sold thousands of copies and were widely translated. As a reviewer, I was teased a bit by the literati for describing the most famous of these, Whale Nation, as ‘the most moving long poem in English since The Waste Land and a thread to help us out of the maze Eliot found there.’ A winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, William Golding, and the Poet Laureate, Ted Hughes, rescued me with equally passionate praise. So did the public. The book sold over 100,000 copies in hard back.
Heathcote’s writing was informed by his distinct and beautiful speaking voice. Today, young actors tend to enjamb — run together — Shakespeare’s iambic lines in order to bring them as close as possible to the ordinary speech of our times. There are passages in the plays where it may be sensible to do this. But the Comedies were to that time musicals and dance shows also and the great Tragedies and the late Comedies are operatic. You mustn’t mumble an aria or turn it into recitative. The late Derek Jarman made an astonishing film of The Tempest with Heathcote as Prospero. Seek it out at all costs. It is a model of how to capture the Shakespearian beat. It is the model.
Ours has been an age, too, when what most people want from poetry is post-Romantic: everyday emotional experience, personal experience, originally and memorably crafted. Heathcote would have none of this. He is a neo-classical poet. A public poet. An orator and entertainer. You could command attention, silence even, by reciting his poems through a megaphone in Hyde Park. He writes in the tradition of Dryden and Swift and Pope. He has been compared to Shelley. This works politically and for his anarchic energy. But the writing is a lot less misty, the wit closer to Byron’s. He cunningly adapted the rhetoric of tabloid journalism and both deepened and undermined it. He took ‘bad’ poetry, like the doggerel rhymes of William McGonigall, and put them to high satirical purpose. He is famous as an anarchic, counter-cultural writer. He is also a learned one and a formidable technician. In the original Beyond the Fringe the late Dudley Moore scored Colonel Bogey — you know the tune — as a Beethoven piano sonata. Heathcote could write a serious poem in a rude style or a rude poem in a serious style. But he was never a parodist. His unique and lovely voice commands all that he does.
There are signs that ‘me first’ perceptions are on the wane. Younger poets are intrigued by the public discourse of rap and reggae. Like Bob Dylan, Heathcote has always been a forerunner. Now, up there on Parnassus, I imagine the first person to shake Heathcote’s hand will be Alexander Pope. And then Byron and John Gay and Gay’s twentieth century disciple Berthold Brecht. And make no mistake. Uncle Tom Eliot, Old Possum himself, will be there in the queue; apologising, perhaps, for not having gone on with his near-the-knuckle Sweeney poems. And given Heathcote’s polemical force, Kipling is also in line. It is always the First Eleven that comes to mind when Heathcote’s work is mentionned.
As founding editor of The International Times, Heathcote was an inspirational anarchist. He was the Lloyd George, the Clement Attlee of squatting. He squatted himself for nearly 18 years, at Port Eliot, the Cornish stately home of his friend Peregrine St Germans — incidentally, head of T. S. Eliot’s family in the male line. He wrote his big books at Port. He made occasional raids on Peregrine’s log baskets to carve magic sculptures of old, unread, unreadable vellum-bound books. He raided, too, Peregrine’s vast nineteenth century billiard table to carve flawless netsuke from the billiard balls. I have a pear with a piece eaten out of it by a small, exquisitely carved wasp. On my desk it is still burrowing away, like Heathcote with the language, in the fruit.
In spite of his at times vitriolic writing (Donald Trump and Boris Johnson have recently been given a going over), Heathcote was a kindly, solicitous, beautifully mannered man, so long as you were not, like Pope’s dunces, considered a threat to civilisation. We were friends for more than fifty years and I honour and mourn him. He introduced me to his friend and admirer William Burroughs, the Hieronymus Bosch of modern literature. In life, Burroughs was a polite, tied-and-suited cove. He talked and dressed like a retired agent of the CIA. At school, I was a bit older than Heathcote and as it were a prefect. I once stopped him in the street, as I was supposed to, to rebuke him for wearing the wrong waistcoat or collar, or no waistcoat or collar, or some such public school flummery. Heathcote looked like a small, cross Dylan Thomas. I told him so. We got chatting about Thomas. I also discovered that Heathcote was the only other boy I’d met who had heard of Jackson Pollock; quite something, before the London Exhibition of 1956. The encounter put an end to my career as a disciplinarian.
Heathcote nearly put an end to my political career as well. When appointed to my first ministry of consequence in 1979, I arrived the first morning, eager-beaver like, before the civil servants. I saw a pile of welcoming mail, urgent cases etc, on the Principal Private Secretary’s desk. I didn’t have the nerve to open the envelopes before he processed them. But I did notice a familiar, large, distinct Italianate hand on a big envelope. I hid it away, took it home. It was a beautifully executed and altogether recognisable ink drawing of a Bacchanalian orgy involving the entire British establishment: royals, corgis, the lot. The composition owed something to Poussin. Months later I told Heathcote mine might have been the briefest ministerial appointment in history. ‘That would have made you a better person,’ he said. ‘An even better one,’ he added kindly. A gentlemanly anarchist. A great writer. An unforgettable man. And so funny. Only a few days ago, my wife Neiti received an email. ‘I am bed-blocking the NHS,’ Heathcote said ‘but will soon be out.’ How sadly true.
May God, who is not, after all, uncreative but the personification or source of creation, and His representative, a peaceable anarchist if ever there was one, rest and keep Heathcote Williams and comfort Diana and Lily and China and Charlie and all who mourn him and whose lives were lit for so long by his brilliance. And St Barnabas too, here in Jericho. And the lost revolutionaries of the Fourteenth of July.
This is a longer version of a tribute given by Grey Gowrie to Heathcote Williams at St Barnabos Church, Oxford on 14 July 2017.