Remembering Heathcote Williams


He’ll be remembered as one of our great writers of visionary dissent in the tradition of Blake and Shelley.

 When I heard of Heathcote Williams’ death, I thought, He’ll make something interesting out of that. Really looking forward to hearing what he’s got to say about death.  And then, some hours later, the slow burn of loss.  He’s gone!

I met him through the No Glory in War campaign, and had known him for only a few years, but was privy to his wit, insights, impeccable manners and a few lovely high teas at his home in Oxford. 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 principal commitment though, was to the written word, and works like Whale Nation, AC/DC, The Local Stigmatic, are classics on environment, sanity and fame; referring to fame as ‘the first disgrace’. His documentary style poems contain writing of grace and clarity, and he’ll be remembered as one of our great writers of visionary dissent in the tradition of Blake and Shelley.

A progressive, Heathcote was one of the 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.

Nothing from Heathcote was straightforward polemic. There is beauty in his language, and joy at the idea of how things could be, like E.M Forster before him, working at the universal yes.  He had a hawk like eye on corporate greed, cant, hypocrisy, war making and the cultural/political soil from which they grew.   I felt that, even in his old age, he was like Christ overturning the temple tables, but without religion, and if writers had patron saints, I’d nominate him.  He’d object, of course.

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’s exactly what he was.   I shall cherish those high teas of his later years.

Jan Woolf 4 July 2017

Heathcote Williams’ funeral is on Friday 14 July, 3pm, St Barnabas Church, Oxford OX2 6BG. All welcome.

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