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