Heathcote Williams

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Heathcote Williams
Born John Henley Jasper Heathcote-Williams
(1941-11-15) 15 November 1941 (age 72)
Helsby, Cheshire, England, UK
Occupation Poet, actor, playwright
Years active 1964–present

Heathcote Williams (born 15 November 1941) is an English poet, actor and award-winning playwright. He is also an intermittent painter, sculptor and long-time conjuror. He is perhaps best known for the book-length polemical poem Whale Nation, which in 1988 became "the most powerful argument for the newly instigated worldwide ban on whaling."[1] In the early 1970s, his agitational graffiti were a feature on the walls of the then low-rent end of London's Notting Hill district.[2]

Early life and career[edit]

John Henley Jasper Heathcote-Williams was born in Helsby, Cheshire. After his schooldays at Eton, he changed his name to Heathcote Williams. His father, also named Heathcote Williams, was a lawyer.[3] From his early twenties, Williams has enjoyed a minor cult following. His first book was The Speakers (1964), an account of life at Speakers' Corner in London's Hyde Park. In 1974, it was adapted for the stage by the Joint Stock Theatre Company.

His first full-length play, AC/DC (1970), a critique of the burgeoning mental health industry, includes a thinly veiled attack on his fellow denizen of 1960s alternative society, and doyen of the anti-psychiatry movement, R. D. Laing. Its production at the Royal Court Theatre, did not, however, appear to impede cordial relations between the two in later years. AC/DC won the London Evening Standard's Most Promising Play Award. It also received the 1972 John Whiting Award for being "a new and distinctive development in dramatic writing with particular relevance to contemporary society." It was described in the Times Literary Supplement in a front-page review by Charles Marowitz as 'the first play of the 21st century.' AC/DC was produced in New York in 1971 at the Chelsea Theater Center at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Other plays include the one-act monologue Hancock's Last Half Hour, The Local Stigmatic, The Immortalist and the impossible to categorise Remember The Truth Dentist—an early effort, again at the Royal Court, directed by fellow-contrarian Ken Campbell.

The inaugural issue of the London Review of Books included an effusive profile by fellow Etonian Francis Wyndham titled The Magic of Heathcote Williams. Harold Pinter was a fan of his work, as is Al Pacino.[4]


In a 1990 interview Pacino quotes Williams’ assertion that “Fame is the perversion of the human instinct for validation and attention. Without [attention] our feedback system breaks down because we don’t know who we are”—the shorter version of which being the more admonitory: "Fame is the first disgrace." [5]

Williams has been notoriously reluctant to cooperate in the promotion of his work on a commercial level, refusing, for example, to go to the US to promote AC/DC. He has been the despair of his publishers. The only book-signing tour he has ever done – "enough," he complained, "to cripple a rock-star" – was merely the result of relentless pressure from Jonathan Cape's PR department. This episode, though having undeniably fortunate consequences for the poet's bank balance, was to have – almost as though to confirm his own worst assumptions – agonizingly unfortunate consequences for his private life.[6] Not that this was Williams's debut 15 minutes, exactly. An affair some years earlier with the model Jean Shrimpton, an icon of 1960s Swinging London, had resulted in the writer setting himself alight on her doorstep. Whether intentional or the upshot of a magical stunt gone wrong – Williams at the time being an ardent fire-eater – was never entirely clear. It was not unreasonably supposed to be a case of the supermodel dumping the scrivener. Somewhat astonishingly, however, in her autobiography published in the early 1990s, Shrimpton asserted that it was Williams who had in fact walked out on her.

Cover of Autogeddon's UK edition, 1991

Energetic publicity efforts on Williams' behalf, spearheaded by Cape's Polly Samson, toast at the time of the literary division of London's wine-and-twiglet circuit, assisted him to achieve the mass audience he'd sought for his trilogy of book-length poems on environmental themes. Each was packed with detailed research and scores of photographs. Written some years earlier as visionary propaganda, they were probably the most lavishly illustrated English poetry since William Blake. They had otherwise been gathering dust in a corner of his then agent's office. The North American rights for the poem Whale Nation (1988) alone were sold at the Frankfurt Book Fair for $100,000. A more recent writer on the subject has described it as an "epic plea for the future of the whale, a hymn to the beauty, majesty and intelligence of the largest mammals on earth, as well as a prayer for their protection... Whale Nation became the most powerful argument for the newly instigated worldwide ban on whaling, and for a moment, back in 1988, it seemed as if a shameful chapter in human history might finally be drawing to a close." [1]

Whale Nation was followed by Sacred Elephant (1989) and Autogeddon (1991). The latter still ranks as the most vigorous sustained flow of invective against car culture to date. It characterizes the motor car's global death toll as, "A humdrum holocaust, the third world war nobody bothered to declare." Each poem was made into a film by BBC Television, Autogeddon performed by Jeremy Irons who, somewhat to the chagrin of its author, turned out in promotional interviews to be an unabashed car-lover. Williams is a consummate reader of his own poems, as well as of the literary classics. His performance of his Buckley-esque[7] Jumping Jesus was characterised by an eminent London literary critic as 'like Alexander Pope on speed.' His public readings of Whale Nation have been known to reduce some members of the audience to tears.[8] His recordings[9] for Naxos Records, which include readings from the Buddhist scriptures, Dante and the Bible, have won awards.

In 2011, Williams began a new collaboration with Roy Hutchins, who had performed Whale Nation, Autogeddon and Falling for a Dolphin in the 1980s. The result was Zanzibar Cats, a performance of recent short poems. In What's on Stage, the reviewer Michael Coveney wrote, 'These wonderful poems seize on political absurdity, planetary destruction and social injustice with relish and delight, as well as great erudition and verbal dexterity.'[10]

In December 2011, Huxley Scientific Press published a collection of poems by Williams on science and nature entitled Forbidden Fruit.[11] The title poem is an elegy for mathematician, computer pioneer, and wartime codebreaker Alan Turing, the centenary of whose birth occurred in 2012. The Beat poet Michael McClure called the book “a collection of inspirations … as rich and dark as wasp honey”. At the end of 2012, Huxley Scientific Press published Shelley at Oxford: Blasphemy, Book-Burning, and Bedlam,[12] written by Williams during the bicentenary of Shelley's expulsion from Oxford for atheism, aged 19. An inspiring full-length poem about Shelley the rebel, it shows us the intellectual revolutionary who defied and was punished by the Establishment.

Williams's most recent work is published by International Times. Royal Babylon: The Criminal Record of the British Monarchy was made into a video installation by the filmmaker collective Handsome Dog, to coincide with Queen Elizabeth II's diamond jubilee, and his poems Lord of the Drones: The President and the White House Fly, Hollywoodland, and Was Moby Dick Behind 9/11? (2012) are currently being edited into a trilogy—Autopsy: The American Empire Dissected.

Painting and sculpture[edit]

Williams's second bout of fame caused him to cease writing in effect, and turn to painting and sculpture full-time. Leading the life of a would-be recluse, he received prolonged tuition from the 'New Ruralist'[13] artist Graham Ovenden, at the latter's home on the edge of Bodmin Moor, Cornwall. The result was an out-pouring of hundreds of canvases, including satirical pastiches of the works of Van Gogh, Claude Monet, Stanley Spencer, Lucian Freud and others. He also produced a number of sculptures of great piles of books, tottering and damp-swollen, elaborately hand-carved in wood.


Williams's occasional but typically anarchistic forays into the realm of lyric-writing include Wrinkly Bonk, yet to be unleashed upon an unsuspecting world, and Why D'Ya Do It?, a sexually explicit exploration of carnal jealousy, for Marianne Faithfull's 1979 classic album Broken English.[14] Williams's words were enough to cause a walk-out by the female workers on EMI's production line.


Williams was for a time associate editor of the literary journal Transatlantic Review, as well as being one of those responsible for the notorious alternative sex paper Suck. He was a frequent contributor to the London underground paper International Times during the 1970s, to the radical vegetarian magazine Seed and to The Fanatic, issues of which would appear sporadically and provocatively in different formats and various countries of Western Europe. In 1974, he launched his own mimeographed underground newspaper, The Sunday Head. It was published from his home in Notting Hill Gate, London at the time when he was also the impresario for Albion Free State’s Meat Roxy, a series of music, dance and poetry events held in a squatted, redundant bingo hall near the Portobello market.

An anthology of his tracts and manifestos from this period, Severe Joy, was announced by his then publisher but, to the disappointment of his fans, for some reason never actually appeared. A sampling did appear in a bi-lingual, limited edition titled Manifestoes from the Rotterdam-based Cold Turkey Press as well as in the Manchester literary magazine Wordworks in 1975.


The theme of Williams' early one-act play The Local Stigmatic is fame and its adverse consequences, possibly a reason why Al Pacino, with financial assistance from Jon Voight, would perform it Off-Off-Broadway before he himself achieved what the play pillories.[15] In later years the film version became known as 'Pacino's secret project,' his debut as a director. It was finally released as part of the Pacino: An Actor's Vision box-set in 2007.[16]

Williams' own film performances include Prospero in Derek Jarman's version of The Tempest (1979), Wish You Were Here (1987) and Sally Potter's Orlando (1992). His portrayal of the central character's psychiatrist in Wish You Were Here became something of a YouTube favourite. Williams has more recently enjoyed a steady stream of bit-parts in big-budget Hollywood productions, such as The City of Ember and the ill-fated Basic Instinct 2.


The National Theatre of Frestonia: by day it was the People's Hall, focal point for the independence movement. It staged Williams's one-act play The Immortalist, in which David Rappaport interviewed a 278-year-old man. In a later Institute of Contemporary Arts production the TV personality Joan Bakewell played the incredulous interviewer

His first brush with TV overlapped with community politics. It came courtesy of a 1970s experiment by the BBC in what became known as "public access television". Williams, in the dubious if green guise of a tree somehow blessed with oratorical powers, regaled the watching millions for a full fifteen minutes on the virtues of life without Westminster. Albion Free State was his name for a utopian vision of an England free from government and bosses.[17] Williams was one of 120 or so squatters who had commandeered a small chunk of West London, just about visible from Television Centre itself. Frestonia, as the extensive squat was known, had declared itself independent of Great Britain. The actor David Rappaport was proclaimed Foreign Minister and Williams served as ambassador to the UK. Postage stamps were issued bearing the face of Guy the Gorilla instead of the Queen; they made no mention of currency, but simply carried the legend, God Will Provide. The whole rebellion, which exasperated the authorities for years, entailed much litigation before the bulldozers were finally able to move in.

Williams later applied his abilities as a conjurer – he has long been a member of the Magic Circle – to come up with a Christmas play based on the little-known fact that Charles Dickens used to revel in performing magic shows for his friends and extended family. What the Dickens! depicted the novelist, with the likes of Thomas Carlyle and Thackeray standing by to assist, as he manipulated "airy nothings" and assorted props to the delighted squeals of foundling children from the Thomas Coram Home. The production featured a young Ben Cross as Dickens, with a supporting cast that included Dinsdale Landen and Kenneth Haigh. It was broadcast by Channel 4 in Christmas 1983, with a repeat screening the following Christmas.

In March 1993, Williams was the not entirely enthusiastic subject of a spoof arts documentary titled Every Time I Cross the Tamar I Get Into Trouble. Screened by Channel Four in its Without Walls slot, it implicitly sparred yet again with the recurring theme of the fatality of fame, its hollow allurements and the nature of fandom. In this instance, just for a change, a twinkling Pacino appeared happy to cast himself in the role of fan, implying his own supposed discomfiture with the whole grisly business of showbiz renown. The BFI film database characterises the film thus: "An account of Heathcote William's work, and Al Pacino's obsession with his writing. Includes an interview with Harold Pinter and footage from Pacino's film The Local Stigmatic."[4][18]

The half-hour film was presented by the comedian and musician John Dowie, amply cut out for the part by dint of his own declared anorakish urge to collect all available Williams memorabilia. The fruits of his scouring the auction lists and the second-hand bookshops, he revealed, he kept in a special large wooden box. The element of spoof revolved around the conceit that the film's subject didn't turn up until the very last minute, and then only to decline to take part. In fact, he had appeared earlier, but in a variety of ludicrous disguises. The title alluded to the fact that Williams, living at the time in Cornwall just the other side of the River Tamar, seemed twice over the years – first after AC/DC, and then in the wake of Whale Nation – to have come to grief as a consequence of having succumbed to the temptations arising out of not just one, but from a second 15 minutes of fame. In 1998, he appeared in an episode of the US TV sitcom Friends.

Private life[edit]

Williams lives in Oxford with his long-term partner, the historian Diana Senior. They have two daughters, now both adults.[19] A son, Charlie, born in 1989, was later adopted by Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour. He acquired the Gilmour surname when in 1994 the latter married his mother, novelist and journalist Polly Samson.[20] Williams and Samson had become involved with each other during the publication of Whale Nation, Samson being responsible for publicising what she succeeded in turning into a best-selling volume despite its refusenik author (see Poetry section above).[21] In 2011 Charlie Gilmour was sentenced to 16 months in prison after pleading guilty to violent disorder during 2010 student protests which had climaxed with an unscheduled invasion of the ruling Conservative Party's HQ, the extensive vandalising of its frontage, complete with bonfires and the extended occupation of the roof.[22] Gilmour had earlier been photographed swinging from a Union flag on the Whitehall Cenotaph, a dramatic, and many considered outrageous, image prominently reproduced in national newspapers, the more so when it became apparent that the acrobat in question was the adopted son of one of the world's most famous rock stars. In court he admitted to have taken LSD and valium beforehand.[23]

See also[edit]

Autogeddon -an album by Julian Cope "inspired by Heathcote Williams' epic poem of the same name..."


  1. ^ a b "Troubled waters: Did we really save the whale?". The Independent (London). 20 September 2008. 
  2. ^ "PFF 2005". Portobellofilmfestival.com. Retrieved 2011-10-31. 
  3. ^ "Heathcote Williams Biography (1941-)". Filmreference.com. 15 November 1941. Retrieved 2011-10-31. 
  4. ^ a b "BFI | Film & TV Database | EVERY TIME I CROSS THE TAMAR I GET INTO TROUBLE (1993)". Ftvdb.bfi.org.uk. 16 April 2009. Retrieved 2011-10-31. 
  5. ^ "Pacino on Heathcote Williams and fame". bombsite.com. Fall 1990. Retrieved 2013-03-23. 
  6. ^ Great journeys (11 June 2000). "Samson's delight - Features, Unsorted". Independent.ie. Retrieved 2011-10-31. 
  7. ^ "Lord Buckley's "The Nazz"". YouTube. 21 December 2009. Retrieved 2013-03-23. 
  8. ^ http://www.recrea.org/rrf/whale_nation-at_the_hands_of_man.mp3
  9. ^ "Heathcote Williams- Bio, Albums, Pictures – Naxos Classical Music". Naxos.com. 25 June 2011. Retrieved 2011-10-31. 
  10. ^ "Zanzibar Cats by Heathcote Williams Reviews at Gilded Balloon Teviot - Edinburgh". Whatsonstage.com. Retrieved 2011-10-31. 
  11. ^ "Forbidden Fruit page at Huxley Scientific Press". 
  12. ^ "Shelley at Oxford page at Huxley Scientific Press". 
  13. ^ "The Brotherhood of Ruralists Information Website - Homepage". Ruralists.com. 18 September 2011. Retrieved 2011-10-31. 
  14. ^ Marianne Faithfull – Why d'ya do it (live) on YouTube[dead link]
  15. ^ "Pacino on Local Stigmatic and Heathcote Williams". bombsite.com. Fall 1990. Retrieved 2013-03-23. 
  16. ^ "Buy Movies at Movies Unlimited - The Movie Collector�s Site". Moviesunlimited.com. Retrieved 2011-10-31. 
  17. ^ "The A-Z of TV Hell Part 2". YouTube. Retrieved 2011-10-31. 
  18. ^ "BFI | Film & TV Database | WITHOUT WALLS". Ftvdb.bfi.org.uk. Retrieved 2011-10-31. 
  19. ^ "Charlie Gilmour blames student riot rampage on rejection by his natural father | Mail Online". London: Dailymail.co.uk. 18 July 2011. Retrieved 2011-10-31. 
  20. ^ "BBC News - Charlie Gilmour admits student fees protest violence". Bbc.co.uk. 6 May 2011. Retrieved 2011-10-31. 
  21. ^ "‘Please don’t call me Mrs Gilmour’". Guardian.co.uk. 6 May 2011. Retrieved 2013-03-23. 
  22. ^ Stephen Bates (2011-07-15). "Charlie Gilmour, son of Pink Floyd guitarist, jailed for protest violence | UK news". London: The Guardian. Retrieved 2011-10-31. 
  23. ^ "BBC News - Charlie Gilmour jailed for student fees demo violence". Bbc.co.uk. 15 July 2011. Retrieved 2011-10-31. 

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