Grey Gowrie

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Heath­cote Williams: A Trib­ute

Along 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.

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