Visionary dissenter Heathcote Williams is impossible to sum up


Heathcote Williams may be dead, but we’ve not heard the last from him yet, not by a long chalk.

Heathcote Williams died on 1 July 2017. He was 75. On hearing the news, actor Sam West said on Twitter, “I’m hearing that the great soul Heathcote Williams has died. Impossible to sum up his extraordinary body of work in one tweet, or a hundred”, a view which many echoed across social media, as Heathcote trended on Twitter throughout the day of his death.

Poet, playwright, essayist, lyricist, actor, artist, magician, political activist and much else besides, the range of Heathcote’s relentless creativity was unique, as he railed against the injustices of the world and contrasted them with what he saw as the potential for human liberation, thwarted by oppressive capitalism. The most gentle and self-effacing person you could expect to meet, when confronted with the iniquities he saw blighting all our lives, his was a no-holds-barred assault. Talking about the two books he wrote in the last year of his life, when he had Boris Johnson and Donald Trump in the cross-hairs, he said: “I thought I’d try my hand at harpooning. Fortunately, two suitable targets surfaced: a pair of blonde beasts, bloviating blowhards, and two of the most unsuitable and unlikely candidates for public office.”

Heathcote was instrumental in the creation of Public Reading Rooms, which was initiated in 2016 as a means of publishing Brexit Boris – From Mayor to Nightmare. That book is now in its second printing and since then it has lead us to publishing four more books by other authors.  Aside from publishing Brexit Boris, we have in the past year posted numerous articles, poems and videos – either by or about Heathcote – at a rate of almost one a week, and much of what we do has been inspired by him. He was as, Jan Woolf wrote, a “great writer of visionary dissent in the tradition of Blake and Shelley.” To which Lindsey German from Stop the War Coalition has added, “He was a very special talent which he used to the benefit of us all.”

Public Reading Rooms will continue to expand the archive of Heathcote’s work on our website. Up until the last weeks of his life we talked with Heathcote of books he hoped to see published, such as The Red Dagger, his long poem on the Peasants Revolt, and other works he said he had “cooked and ready in the cupboard”.

That Heathcote’s monumental recent play, Killing Kit, has not been staged in a full production is just one indication of how the mainstream has neglected Heathcote’s work for over twenty years. The playwright who in his early 20s was lauded by Harold Printer and others and had the 1974 production of his play AC/DC proclaimed as the first play of the 21st century, and the poet who in the 1970s was said to be second in popularity only to Tennyson, following the huge success of Whale Nation and other long poems on threats to the environment, had faded from public view, outside of his intermittent acting career, which spanned playing Prospero in Derek Jarman’s much praised film of The Tempest, to an appearance in the last episode of the US series Friends.

The loss of celebrity would not have bothered Heathcote: “Fame is the first disgrace”, says a character in his play The Local Stigmatic, made into a film by Al Pacino, and revived in 2016 by Michael Toumey at the Old Red Lion Teatre. But Heathcote was always keen for his work to be read, seen and heard. And one way or another it has been, through small publishers, both in the UK and other countries, in productions by innovative theatres, through the vast archive of videos made with his long-time collaborator Alan Cox, the many theatrical performances directed by Roy Hutchins, the recordings he did of his own work, and not least through International Times, which was very important to Heathcote over the decades.

But as the filmmaker Mike Figgis said on hearing Heathcote had died, “Lucky to have him as a friend and a creative force. We need to make his work far more widely known, especially now. Least we can do.”

Heathcote Williams may be dead, but we’ve not heard the last from him yet, not by a long chalk.

Heathcote Williams, 15 Nov 1941 – 1 July 2017, died of lung disease and associated illnesses. His funeral is on Friday 14 July 2017, 3pm, St Barnabas Church, Oxford OX2 6BG, to which all are welcome.



Comments are closed.