Heathcote Williams 15/11/41 – 1/7/15

Heathcote Williams 15th November 1941 – 1st July 2017

Heathcote Williams: radical poet, playwrite, agitator, painter, actor and scourge of the establishment, has finally died. But death is final, no?  When I heard of his death on Saturday evening, I thought, He’ll make something interesting out of that. Really looking forward to hearing what he’s got to say about that.  And then, some hours later, the slow burn of loss.  He’s gone!   So we know him now through his work; not least his prolific output and editing of the International Times.  This cultural ‘Renaissance Man’ fused art and politics like no-one else, and scratched his creative itch with whatever was required; the ink of a play, story or poem, or paint on canvas. His principle commitment though, was to the written word, and works like Whale Nation, AC/DC, The Local Stigmatic, are classic polemics on environment, sanity and fame  (‘the first disgrace’).   His saga length poems are writing of grace and forensic clarity.  He offered three of these to the Left Book Club; The Red Dagger (about the peasants revolt), Badshah Khan, Islamic Peace Warrior and Jesus the Radical as Christmas presents for members.  Heathcote was in fact was one of first supporters of the newly revived Left Book Club, offering this as a public statement in 2015.

Hymie Fagan’s book on the Peasant’s Revolt, Nine Days that Shook England, was and it still is the best book on the subject though it’s long been out of print. It opened my eyes to another England, one not anaesthetised by royalty-mongerers, money-grubbers and religious superstitions, and it put lead into the pencil and fire in the belly of an ignorant youth hanging round Speakers’ Corner in the early sixties who bought his copy from the second hand bookstall outside the Marble Arch Gents. The Left Book Club is owed a huge debt as an intellectual mojo. It’s certainly not dead in my mind and it seems the most natural thing in the world to extend its lifespan’.

He will be remembered as one of our great writers of visionary dissent in the tradition of Shelley and William Blake.  His recent play Killing Kit about the death of Christopher Marlowe is a remarkable piece of theatrical poetry, commenting, as all good drama should, on now as well as then.  It should be at a theatre near you soon.  His latest volumes of docu’ poems, Boris Johnson the Blond Beast of Brexit – a Study in Depravity, and American Porn (about Donald Trump) were written in outrage that such persons should come into their power.   But like all of his works, whether blasting the arms trade, consumerism or tabloid culture, they have their own deep state of context, erudition and history.  Nothing from Heathcote was easy polemic, coming from anger alone. There is beauty in his language, and joy at how things could be. Like E.M Forster before him, he was getting at the universal yes.   This line from his recent work The Big Song.

ACTOR 1; The sounds are like that of laughing monkeys or of barking dogs. But no, they’re icebergs. Singing. The earth is alive with singing.

The term life affirming has become a cliché, and heaven forbid (there’s another one) I should use one in an obit’ for Heathcote – but it will have to do, as that is exactly what he was.  And through his work, still is.

Jan Woolf – Left Book Club