It’s a strange and difficult process, losing a biological father who gave you
half your DNA, but who you only met a handful of times.
When I was asked to start writing a fortnightly column about death I was thrilled. ‘Great,’ I thought, ghoulishly. ‘People die all the time. I’ll never be short of material.’ Death is the final frontier; the great unknown: I’d be reporting from the very edge of human existence. Then my biological father died, and suddenly it didn’t seem so great. It’s far too soon to start writing about it, really, but it’s all I’ve been able to think about for weeks.I used to think my biological father was some sort of hermit. He certainly looked the part. He had wild, never-washed hair and his clothes always seemed to be dirty. He acted like one, too. I only managed to visit his home once while he was alive, and it wasn’t easy. He lived in a ramshackle house in central Oxford, but it might as well have been a cave in the mountains or a hut in the woods. I had to get his address off the electoral roll and turn up uninvited. I found him bonkers, charming and utterly frustrating. After that, we didn’t see each other one-on-one again until he was on his deathbed.
He was, I assumed, just the anti-social sort. A writer too obsessed with his work to bother with his children, or with people generally. It was a theory that made sense. That was why he walked out on my mum and me in the first place, after all, quoting Cyril Connolly as he went: “There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall.”
At his funeral, I realised how wrong I had been. Three hundred people turned up. He’d had time, it seemed, for almost everyone. The postman fondly recalled how their morning chats could carry on for hours. At the wake, I lost count of the number of people who came to tell me what a generous soul he was. “He was such a wonderful man,” said one. “His door was always open.”
People often reveal their true natures in death: a spiteful will, a secret family, a box full of ball gags. Finding out that my mad recluse of a bio-dad – a man who wrote a series of “Hermit Haikus” in praise of solitude (Solitary bees / Outnumber those in bee-hives / And they live longer) – was in fact the centre of a buzzing hive of activity was just as surprising as any mistress or illegitimate son would have been.
Heathcote Williams was, in many ways, a brilliant person. He was an actor, poet, playwright, anarchist, artist, activist, magician and much more. In the 1970s, he helped set up a squatters’ estate agency, fixing up the homeless with vacant London properties. He’d had a pet jackdaw that brought him money. He could eat fire. He’d starred in a Derek Jarman film and appeared on an episode of Friends. He was someone I would have wanted to get to know even if he hadn’t given me half my DNA.
I did try to make it work. Our first meeting since his disappearance took place when I was 12 or 13, at a Yo! Sushi of all places. He showed me magic tricks, I told him about school and, not long afterwards, he cut me off. Emails went unanswered. His phone rang and rang. We met again seven years later, when I turned up at his house. He showed me more magic tricks, and then he cut me off again.
It took death to finally unite us – that and my two older half-sisters. They brought me to see him at the hospital. He had his magic tricks with him then, too – but he wasn’t well enough to perform. Instead, we sat and drank tea and chatted.
If having all his children around him was comforting, or terrifying, or made him quail with guilt at what a hopeless father he’d been, he didn’t show it. It all seemed very easy, in fact. We spoke about birds and books, and I couldn’t think why we weren’t able to do it before.
When I emailed later to suggest another visit, the reply was quick and completely unprecedented. “Looking forward to it!” he wrote. I shook my head in disbelief. I always knew we could get along. He finally seemed to have realised that it was possible, too.
It was too late, of course – far too late. The next time I saw him he’d stopped eating, and not long after that he was dead.
“Grief is meant to progress in stages – from denial to anger, bargaining, depression and finally acceptance – but I seem to be stuck with a sad sort of rage.”
It was only then that Heathcote’s door opened to me. The day before the funeral, I found myself in his study. It was somewhere I’d never been before, although I’d thought about it often. Whenever we exchanged letters or emails, I used to imagine him at his desk and try to conjure up his world. It was smaller and much, much tidier than I’d envisioned. Poking around, I realised how little I actually knew him. There were piles of books on poetry and politics, which was to be expected – but Wow! Football Facts? The complete works of Chumbawumba? Who was this man?
Absent fathers are hardly uncommon. In 97 percent of single parent families, it’s the mother who ends up taking responsibility for the kids. The child’s impulse to seek them out is just as widespread: psychiatrists call it “father hunger”. I was lucky: I was adopted, and the man who became my dad is both a brilliant man and a brilliant parent. But the longing to know your maker is something that lives on.
It’s hard – perhaps impossible – to get to know someone when they’re gone. And Heathcote left behind more of himself than most. There are his poems, plays and unpublished manuscripts; boxes of correspondence; a garage full of notes; stacks of leather-bound pads filled with jokes, quotes, thoughts and plans; and a pile of loose sheets from the hospital that he scrawled on when speech became too hard. He was more courageous than I ever gave him credit for. “My spirit is not broken,” reads one.
Altogether, it’s a biographer’s dream. But it doesn’t add up to him. I could spend months leafing through it all and learn about his interests, understand his thought processes, see how he constructed the meticulously researched epic investigative poems he was famous for, but I don’t think it would make me feel like I knew him that much better. We are so much more than the marks we leave on paper. His vocal inflections, mannerisms, facial tics, likes, hates, emotional reactions and all the other things that really matter are gone: burned in an oven at 900 degrees.
Grief is meant to progress in stages – from denial to anger, bargaining, depression and finally acceptance – but I seem to be stuck with a sad sort of rage. We had so much in common. And we could so easily have been friends. I missed him while he was alive. But I miss him more now he’s gone.
Follow Charlie Gilmour on Twitter @charliegilmour