The death of Heathcote Williams on July 1 this year closed a life dedicated to resisting the way the modern world is run. For more than fifty years he was a thorn in the flesh of the political and business establishment through his merciless attacks on them, in the form of poems, plays and anarchical happenings. He was the archetypal anarchist, whose central faith was that mankind could live more freely and justly without government, in fact that governments were forces for evil. He believed that the state must wither in order that ordinary people could be free. He was anti-military, anti-war, anti-royalist, anti-business, anti-technology, anti-money, and virulently anti-American; he regarded Americans as the new Romans, arrogantly plundering the world.
Yet when I first came to know him around ten years ago, to my astonishment I soon made a new friend, for I found this legendary firebrand to be a gentle, thoughtful, highly-educated, elderly man, clearly in poor health, who had an aura about him that I can only describe as religious or even prophetic. With his mane of grey hair and his penetrating eyes, he reminded me instantly of the image of Blake, who was indeed one the great inspirational figures of Heathcote’s life, for they both possessed an inner integrity which never deserted either of them for a moment. Heathcote had his own vision and understanding of the world, which coloured every subject we discussed. He never uttered a single word out of mere politeness, but on everything that we talked about he shed his own light. This might make him sound an opinionated bore, but nothing could more wrong, for he was kindness itself to me, and his manners were perfect.
It was poetry that brought us together, for he had a deep knowledge and love of English poetry. He wrote me a long, detailed and tremendously kind letter praising one of my poetry collections, even though my work was very different from his own. He had developed his own form of hard-hitting documentary poetry, attacking all his favourite targets and many more. His aim was to open our eyes and our minds to the real forces that shaped and oppressed our world, and he carried out extensive research to build up the factual framework for his polemics. He wanted to bring poetry down from its ivory tower and change lives. His themes were libertarian and ecological, and he achieved probably his greatest fame with his books from the late 1980s such as “Whale Nation”, “Sacred Elephant” and “Autogeddon”, books which had a tremendous influence on the ecological movement which was then just emerging.
Having said that he became famous, he was in fact very self-effacing, at least when I knew him. He had a horror of becoming a celebrity: he wanted people to read and be inspired by his work, not to idolise him in any personal sense. He was reticent about himself and I never learned a great deal about his personal background. He told me his father had been a solicitor, successful and wealthy enough to send him to Eton and Oxford. What happened to him in either place he never told me, but the roots of his radicalism must surely lie there, in his encounter with privileged elitism. He was supposed to be studying law at Christ Church, but he left Oxford without taking his degree. He clearly identified strongly with another of his heroes, Shelley, another upper-class rebel, about whom Heathcote would write one of his extended documentary poems. Shelley’s passion for science and experimentation was matched by Heathcote’s passion for magic and conjuring tricks, which included fire-eating. Although I never witnessed that, he would regularly produce coins out of thin air, or out of my jacket pocket, while we were talking.
He first came to public fame in the 1970s as one of the masterminds behind London’s squatting movement. In an empty house in Notting Hill, he and his friends declared the independent anarchist community of Frestonia, even printing their own currency. He was one of the original “underground” or “jazz” or “protest poets”, and he was soon writing controversial plays, such as “AC/DC”, which were produced at the Royal Court theatre, and, with no professional training at all, he became a sought-after actor. He had a rich, beautifully toned voice, and a wide range of powers as a mimic. He is best remembered for his role as Prospero in Derek Jarman’s 1980 film of “The Tempest”, and he later appeared in a glitzy 1997 film of “The Odyssey”, in which he played a brief but brilliant Laocoon, being swallowed by the sea-serpent. His wonderful voice can be heard in some of the audiobooks which he later recorded for Naxos, in which he played, variously, the Buddha, Dracula and Dante, as well as reading his own “Whale Nation” and “Sacred Elephant”.
The success of those last two works frightened Heathcote, convincing him that the last thing he wanted was to become a celebrity or a marketable author. For some years he pulled out of the London scene and lived in the West Country and in Ireland. During this time he wrote little but took up painting, producing a series of large canvases, some of them rather in the style of Stanley Spencer, another of his inspirational heroes, and like Blake and Shelley, a visionary, but one with a very firm grasp on the flesh and blood of striving, suffering humanity. On the evidence of what I saw of these paintings, Heathcote could certainly have become a recognised artist in the magical-realist school.
But during the last twenty years of his life he did little or no painting. Instead, now settled in a house in Oxford’s Jericho district, he enjoyed a second flowering of his poetic career. In a stream of works, many of the large-scale documentary kind, he gave clear, powerful and painful expression to his lifelong beliefs and hatreds. These long poems, all published by small presses, included “Badshah Khan: Islamic Peace Warrior,” one of his most impressive works, shining with the passion of a pacifist; “Royal Babylon” an excoriating analysis of the British monarchy, which caused his name to be mentioned in Parliament, with calls for his prosecution for treason; “The Army of the Dog”, which uses the figure of Diogenes to make a ruthless attack upon all social norms; and “American Porn”, an explosion of a poem summing up his detestation of American culture. A collection of shorter pieces, “Forbidden Fruit”, revealed a gentler, more reflective aspect of his personality. These works were all illustrated with photographs and art-works of various kinds which Heathcote had researched, connecting his poetry with the fashion for small-press illustrated poetry books of an earlier age. Some of these works were given in live performances by Roy Hutchings, while others were transformed into imaginative video films by Alan Cox.
There were many more works from these astonishingly prolific years. People imagined that he wrote fast, but in fact he researched his subjects at great length, and he only accomplished what he did by working long hours every day, rarely leaving his study. This inactivity probably contributed to his ill health, but he felt driven to use his time to create these powerful polemics against a so-called civilisation which his conscience could not accept. He had devised a unique poetic method which enabled him to do this, and he wanted to use it fully while there was still time. In 2016 I published a joint collection of our shorter poems called “Meeting in the Middle”, which was designed to contrast his documentary writing with my own more conventional poetry. What is interesting in Heathcote’s very late poems is the appearance of a new vocabulary of love, soul, spirit, transcendence and prayer, which suggested a new state of mind for him, which had not been evident in his work before. At the time of his death he was working on another long polemical poem called “Jesus the Anarchist”, which may turn out to be complete enough to publish at some stage.
Heathcote Williams was an exceptional man, possibly a great man. Enormously creative, he used his talents and his integrity in the service of a humane and intellectual cause – the freedom of the human mind. His poetry was not directed inwards to the self, as most poetry is, but outwards to the world we live in, and to open the reader’s eyes to its tragic imperfections. To me, he stands out like a rock in a river: clear, stark and unmoving, as the waters rush around him and vanish. In this he truly resembles that other great rebel whom he loved so much – William Blake.
John Henley Heathcote Williams, poet and dramatist, born 15 November 1941; died 1 July 2017
A number of Heathcote’s works were rather obscurely published, often without an ISBN, and are therefore difficult to get hold of through the book trade. The collaborative volume of poetry that Whitfield and Williams published was called “Meeting in the Middle” and is available from Peter Whitfield, via firstname.lastname@example.org
Peter Whitfield is a prolific writer and historian who lives near Oxford, and also a past contributor to Oxford Today. His latest book Oxford in Prints 1675-1900 is published by the Bodleian Library. Heathcote Williams was a resident of Oxford.