This month, we bid farewell to a couple of lit­er­ary mav­er­icks – one English, one Amer­i­can – who each, in his own way, chal­lenged pre­vail­ing or­tho­dox­ies...

Fortean Times - - Contents - Harry Burchell Mathews, nov­el­ist, born Man­hat­tan 14 Feb 1930; died 25 Jan 2017, aged 86.


This eru­dite and per­pet­u­ally in­censed non-joiner was ad­mired early on by Wil­liam Bur­roughs, Sa­muel Beck­ett and Harold Pin­ter. His first play,

The Lo­cal Stig­matic (1966), gave a prophetic and chill­ing low­down on to­day’s celebrity cul­ture, while his re­cent poetic broad­side against his fel­low old Eto­nian, Boris John­son: The Blond Beast of Brexit – A Study in Deprav­ity (2016), an ex­co­ri­at­ing Swiftean at­tack on the for­eign sec­re­tary’s lies, eva­sion and adul­tery, showed he had lost none of his dev­as­tat­ing vi­tu­per­a­tion.

Heath­cote’s muse was fu­elled by a witty and beau­ti­ful anger that he chan­nelled in the ex­tended polem­i­cal poem

Whale Na­tion (1988), which be­gins: From space, the planet is blue.

From space, the planet is the ter­ri­tory

Not of hu­mans, but of the whale.

Blue seas cover seven-tenths of the earth’s sur­face,

And are the do­main of the largest brain ever cre­ated,

With a fifty-mil­lion-year-old smile.

Ted Hughes de­scribed the poem as “bril­liant, cun­ning, dra­matic and won­der­fully mov­ing, a steady ac­cu­mu­la­tion of grandeur and dread­ful­ness.” It was fol­lowed by Sa­cred

Ele­phant (1989), laud­ing the great pachy­derm, and

Au­to­ged­don (1991), rag­ing against the plague of the mo­tor­car and de­scribed by JG Bal­lard as “tremen­dous” and “pow­er­fully im­pact­ing”. For Heath­cote, car cul­ture is the “hum­drum holo­caust, the third world war no­body both­ered to de­clare.”

Th­ese epic po­ems were writ­ten while he lived in Port Eliot in Corn­wall, seat of his friend Pere­grine Eliot, 10th Earl of St Ger­mans (an­other old Eto­nian). In all three works, the words were spliced with a wealth of evoca­tive pho­to­graphs and sup­ple­mented by a re­mark­able an­thol­ogy of prose ex­tracts from the worlds of sci­ence and lit­er­a­ture. All three were filmed by the BBC. We should also men­tion his de­light­ful poem Fall­ing for a Dol­phin (1988). Heath­cote him­self made no­table record­ings of Bud­dhist scrip­ture, Dante and the Bi­ble, and a col­lec­tion of shorter po­ems, Zanz­ibar

Cats (2011), which skew­ered po­lit­i­cal ab­sur­dity, plan­e­tary de­struc­tion and so­cial jus­tice mishaps with de­light­ful glee and great ver­bal dex­ter­ity. “If po­etry isn’t revo­lu­tion­ary, it’s noth­ing,” was his credo.

Heath­cote was a mem­ber of the Magic Cir­cle, learned fire-eat­ing from Bob Hoskins (and ac­ci­den­tally set him­self ablaze when demon­strat­ing his new tal­ent to his then girl­friend, the model Jean Shrimp­ton) and helped es­tab­lish the in­de­pen­dent repub­lic of Fre­sto­nia in Not­ting Hill (1977) while run­ning a ven­ture for squat­ters, the Ruff Tuff Cream Puff Es­tate Agency with Ni­cholas Al­bery. In 1974 he co-founded (with graphic de­signer Richard Adams) Open Head Press, which pro­duced pam­phlets, post­cards and other doc­u­ments in the tra­di­tion of 18th- and 19th-cen­tury “rad­i­cal squibs”, be­gin­ning with The Ab­di­ca­tion of Queen Eliz­a­beth II. He con­trib­uted to In­ter­na­tional Times, the rad­i­cal veg­e­tar­ian mag­a­zine Seed, The Fa­natic, and the an­i­mal rights mag­a­zine The Beast. With Bill Levy, Jim Haynes and Ger­maine Greer he was a found­ing ed­i­tor of Suck (1969), the no­to­ri­ous un­der­ground Am­s­ter­dam sex­ual lib­er­a­tion mag­a­zine. He thought of him­self as a fortean, clip­ping news­pa­pers vo­ra­ciously, and for many years con­trib­uted ma­te­rial to Fortean Times – which he de­scribed as “in­valu­able and in­vari­ably ahead of the game”. He starred as the in­scrutable ma­gi­cian Pros­pero in Derek Jar­man’s ex­tra­or­di­nary 1979 film of The Tem­pest. He also ap­peared in WishYou Were Here (1987), Sally Pot­ter’s Or­lando (1992), Mike Fig­gis’s The Brown­ing Ver­sion (1994) and Miss Julie (1999), Des McAnuff’s Cousin Bette (1998), and even Ba­sic In­stinct 2 (2006). For Mar­i­anne Faith­full he wrote the song “Why d’ya do it?”, which she recorded on her 1979 al­bum Bro­ken English. In 1990 The Lo­cal Stig­matic be­came an un­re­leased film pro­duced by and star­ring Al Pa­cino.

The Speak­ers (1964), Heath­cote’s first book writ­ten when he was 23, was about the post­war soap-box or­a­tors in Hyde Park. In his re­view, Harold Pin­ter said: “Th­ese are the only peo­ple I’d ever want to lis­ten to.” Per­haps his best play was the ground­break­ing

AC/DC, staged at Lon­don’s Royal Court The­atre in 1970 be­fore trans­fer­ring to New York. This study of war­ring states of mind, orig­i­nally ti­tled

Sk­i­zo­topia, ended with the lead char­ac­ter be­ing am­a­teur­ishly trepanned in re­sponse to the “in­for­ma­tion ex­plo­sion” in which “all ideas and opin­ions would be avail­able to all peo­ple and there­fore ren­dered im­po­tent”. Other short plays in­cluded Re­mem­ber the Truth

Den­tist (1974), di­rected by Ken Campbell and de­scribed as a full-frontal as­sault on the Western “death cul­ture” in favour of “a Zen- and sper­mori­en­tated Mon­go­lian clus­ter­fuck”; Han­cock’s Last Half Hour (1977), a short mono­logue for the mo­rose comic on the brink of sui­cide in an Aus­tralian ho­tel; and The Im­mor­tal­ist (1978), a TV in­ter­view with a 278-year-old man about his re­fusal to die.

A cas­cade of po­etry and pam­phlets en­sued over the years, many of them self­pub­lished, or dis­trib­uted pri­vately. His last vol­ume of po­etry about Trump, Amer­i­can

Porn, was pub­lished last Jan­uary. One poem con­cludes:

Don­ald Trump is re­ally Don­ald Drumpf,

To give him his an­ces­tral, and ris­i­ble name.

It sug­gests dumb­ness, even the pass­ing of wind

As well as the mer­ci­ful tran­sience of fame.

Heath­cote, who lived in Ox­ford with his long-term part­ner Di­ana Se­nior, a his­to­rian, spent the last 20 years in ob­scu­rity and ill­ness. He turned to paint­ing and

sculpt­ing, be­com­ing pro­fi­cient in both. He is sur­vived by Di­ana and their two daugh­ters, China and Lily, and three grand­chil­dren; and Char­lie Gil­mour, his son with the nov­el­ist Polly Sam­son.

John Hen­ley Heath­cote Wil­liams, poly­math, an­ar­chist, poet and drama­tist, born Helsby, Cheshire 15 Novem­ber 1941; died from em­phy­sema Ox­ford 1 July 2017, aged 75.


Mathews was an Amer­i­can nov­el­ist whose works were so im­pen­e­tra­ble they di­vided crit­ics into those who re­garded them as “ground­break­ing” and those who threw up their hands in de­spair. For many decades he was the sole Amer­i­can mem­ber of Oulipo, a Parisian col­lec­tive ded­i­cated to cre­at­ing lit­er­ary works us­ing pre­de­ter­mined “con­strained” tech­niques such as math­e­mat­i­cal for­mulæ and limited vo­cab­u­lar­ies in the writ­ing process, sub­vert­ing the ro­man­tic no­tion of au­thor­ship as be­ing about in­spi­ra­tion. Mathews’s first book, The

Con­ver­sions (1962), os­ten­si­bly an ad­ven­ture story about a man try­ing to de­ci­pher carv­ings on an an­cient rit­ual axe, so im­pressed The Paris

Re­view that it printed a 70page ex­cerpt and he be­came a cult fig­ure among a cer­tain type of mainly French lit­er­ary con­nois­seur. He was elected a mem­ber of Oulipo in 1973 af­ter rewrit­ing Keats’s La

Belle Dame Sans Merci us­ing the vo­cab­u­lary from a Ju­lia Child recipe for a cau­li­flower dish (and vice versa). One of his more ac­ces­si­ble books,

My Life in CIA (2005) – highly rec­om­mended by Paul Sievek­ing – is de­scribed as a “true” rec­ol­lec­tion of a year in 1970s Paris when he was ru­moured to be a CIA agent and took up a friend’s sug­ges­tion that he should act the part. The plot be­comes in­creas­ingly pre­pos­ter­ous.

LEFT: Heath­cote Wil­liams at the Hay on Wye Lit­er­ary Fes­ti­val, May 1989.

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