Run-ins with the Gatekeepers
Jeremy Harding on Heathcote Williams
‘Whitmanesque’ is how Colin Ward, writing in the LRB, described Heathcote Williams’s book Whale Nation (1988). Williams, who died on Saturday, was a difficult catch. We persisted for a time, trying to get him to write for the paper, then lost heart; gathered up our courage, only to fall back again in despair. There are just two pieces by Williams in the LRB archive. The first is a poem – though there isn’t much dolling up, and nothing conspicuously ‘poetic’ – which plays with the idea of wars as music festivals (‘The music was mainly percussive … There have been several attempts to get the show on the road again’). In the second, a review of Roger Deakin’s Waterlog, Williams follows the author and ‘his trusty snorkel’ on ‘a swimmer’s journey through Britain’.
Williams loved the free-form trespassing that Deakin went in for, in all weathers, in all temperatures (he’s been kitted out for cold by ‘a wetsuit couturier’), in all waters, irrespective of fishing or mooring rights. He relishes Deakin’s run-ins with the gatekeepers:
He explores the River Itchen – there were few spots in England ‘more fertile or pleasant’, Cobbett wrote, ‘and none, I believe, more healthy’ – ignoring a Private Fishing notice, vaulting a fence along the bank, and leaping in, musing mouth-wateringly on Cobbett’s description of a strawberry garden further upstream at Martyr Worthy, where maids supplied him with cream from a nearby milk-house. He is wakened from his 19th-century reverie by an irate porter from Winchester College with an alsatian, and an officious College river keeper, who angrily strut up and down beside him on the bank, affronted by the sight of his rubber-blubbered body in their watery patch. They shout out repeatedly: ‘Does that fence mean anything to you?’ Deakin insists, between continuing breast-strokes, on his self-accorded rights ‘as a free swimmer’, and ignores the warning that he is ‘scaring away the trout’ – exclusively reserved, it transpires, for Old Wykehamist fishermen. He surges on …
Williams himself preferred to be under water, beneath all the thrashing about on the surface. Underground, too, and there’s no doubting he was a jubilant presence on the British counter-cultural scene during the 1960s, but once that moment had passed he flipped his flukes and sounded. There was no chat show banter, not much image-grooming. He became elusive, rather than reclusive; you only got wind of him in his screen appearances, most of them, unlike his Prospero for Derek Jarman’s version of The Tempest, in modest roles. But the writing kept appearing. And his great play AC/DC, performed at the Royal Court’s Theatre Upstairs in 1970 before transferring to the main house, was somehow self-updating: not so much the satire on radical psychiatry – hilarious and scary by turns – as the furious take on junk-information culture.
Last year, before the EU referendum, Williams wrote a polemic against Boris Johnson, ‘the blond beast of Brexit’, which was reprinted by the LRB (several times) and sold from the London Review Bookshop. Royal Babylon, ‘an investigative poem’ of 424 quatrains denouncing the monarchy – ‘fossilised spivs’, ‘a life-threatening family’ – followed later in the year. A volume responding to President Trump, American Porn, appeared in January.
Rough and ready is the best way I can think of to describe the Williams poetics: ‘Yet true or false, paranoid suspicions are a predictable by-product/Of a plutocratic cult, still ring-fenced by force of arms.’ Unlike the lyrics he wrote for Marianne Faithfull’s ‘Why D’ya Do It’ on Broken English -- a-b-c-b-d-d – there’s not a lot of rhyme in Royal Babylon, which makes it all the more remarkable when we happen across it now and again:
It’s clear that an acquisitive instinct is an endemic trait
In the British royal family’s DNA
Williams may not have tried his hand at self-advertising, but he did the best he could for his books. The poem arrived in the LRB office with a note inside for the editor: ‘Harpooning dinosaurs … for favour of review, Heathcote.’