I've not heard much about Heathcote Williams for some
time. I still recall hearing him read from Whale Nation and Falling for a Dolphin - those glorious polemics on behalf of the natural
world - at Plymouth Arts Centre in the late 80's and admiring the mix of
knowledge, anger, rational argument and persuasive charm that went into both
the delivery and the production of those tomes. Sacred Elephant and Autogeddon followed and these were large, 'coffee-table'
productions, replete with impressive photography and compendious notes,
information-packed publications, which managed to combine the art of diatribe
with explanation and a degree of lyrical charm. I believe a large proportion
of the profit from these books - they were best sellers, published by
Jonathan Cape - went to Greenpeace. They were also, perhaps, a belated
response to C.P. Snow's notion of 'Two Cultures', in the sense that they
combined an interest in knowledge which embraced both the arts and the
sciences and saw no reason for a split between the two. Williams is something
of a polymath.
Forbidden Fruit, put out by a
small Oxford publisher specialising in well-designed (in all senses of the
word), science-based texts, is less lavish in terms of its production budget
but is nevertheless beautifully produced on good paper with excellent
typesetting and features a striking cover illustration by Peter Rozycki.
The title poem centres around the life of Alan Turing, the maths don whose
work at Bletchley Park in WW2 was responsible for cracking the Nazi's Enigma
code, which saved a lot of allied shipping from U-boat attack. Turing was gay
at a time when homosexuality was still considered a crime and the story of
his virtual castration by hormone injection and his consequent suicide in
1954 (by an apple laced with cyanide) is extremely sad and at the same time,
an outrage. Williams manages to combine his anti-establishment fury -
expressed mainly through clear, rational argument - with a moving love story
and an engagement with scientific facts. He clearly has a love/hate
relationship with technology but little time for capitalist excess and the
inhumane purposes to which the technology is often put:
was an idealist who'd joined anti-war groups
In the hope
that war wouldn't break out,
raised money for striking munitions workers,
When the war
began Alan joined up.
Alan Turing is undervalued or forgotten
the Apple corporation -
largest technology company making billions
turning people into its supercult's consumers.
(from 'Forbidden Fruit:
Or, The Cybernetic Apple Core')
I'd say the overwhelming feature of these poems and perhaps of Williams'
whole oeuvre is a sense of the development of an argument, either in favour
of a cause or in opposition to what he clearly perceives as either an idiocy
or a malign government or establishment force. Yet he's rarely narrowly
didactic and at his best his 'argument', whatever that may be, comes through
experience and the development of empathy and understanding. In this sense
he's a bit like George Orwell and Charles Dickens, using language as a weapon
on behalf of the defenceless and in defence of sanity. Yet there's also a
delight in language for its own sake, not something he takes to excess but
it's there nonetheless and his writing is all the better for it. There are
two poems here in favour of the bicycle as a means of transport, 'Einstein on
a Bike' and 'All Bikes are Weapons', both of which contain wit, charm and a degree of wordplay in their
must help get rid
Of cars so
Bikes are Weapons')
In 'The First Photograph Ever Taken Of A Human Being' his starting point is
exactly that (as far as we know), a blurred and fuzzy picture by Daguerre of
a Parisian shoe-shine worker kneeling down to attend to his clients'
footwear. This is the sort of image that John Berger might have worked with
in his book/TV series 'Ways of Seeing' and Williams' description of the
'client' is both telling and indicative of his method:
The man whose
attended to is wearing a long tailcoat
like a proudly plutocratic beetle.
the bootblack, bent double in a servile posture,
hidden by a perpendicular pile of smudges.
(from 'The First Photograph Ever Taken of A Human Being')
If there's a degree of plain-speaking here (some have suggested his poetry
is prosaic), there's also a Blakean sense of innocence/experience evident in
work, one of the strands that influenced the late 1960's counter culture.
Williams is of that generation and his still powerful voice - somewhat unfashionable
now, perhaps? - is a welcome intervention in current cultural debate.
Other impressive poems include an entirely charming and effective 'hymn' in
favour of the bee, called simply 'Bees', laced with literary references and
intriguing facts (Jean Symons would love this one), a long and increasingly
angry defence of Tigers- 'The Tigers of Wrath' - featuring William Blake, of
course, and a myriad of factual material, both of the delightful and
depressing varieties, and 'A Place in the Sun', a wonderful exploration of
our place in the solar system which is both 'down to earth', so to speak, and
lyrically expressive, filled with fascinating facts, slyly suggested polemic
and lyrics from popular music. Williams builds his argument, which combines a
practical hedonism with both a sense of responsibility and a sense of awe,
while including a trip around mythology, science and the imagination. I can't
help but think that Brian Cox would thoroughly approve. I thought the poem
'Wasp Honey' lost its way a bit but perhaps I wasn't being attentive enough
in my reading.
The piece I most liked in this fascinating collection, and the one that I find
most moving and enduring, however, is 'Being Kept by a Jackdaw'. I've used
the word charm quite a lot already and I mean this in a very positive sense.
This is a story about a man and a Jackdaw, which I take - rightly or wrongly
- to be largely autobiographical. It avoids being overly sentimental and to a
large degree it avoids the common trap of anthropomorphism, although the
inevitable slipperiness of language makes this a constant risk. The poem
builds from a chance meeting between man and bird - 'I've always wanted to
look after a jackdaw' - which develops into a symbiotic relationship which
includes humour, a deep sense of a connection with 'otherness' (yes, I know
I'm on sticky ground here) and overall a sense of discovery of what I can
only call a purpose:
immediately I became the bird's captive,
solely to attend to its needs,
I'd experience Stockholm Syndrome,
you fall in love with your captors.
bonsai pterodactyl was quite hard to love -
dive-bombing comet of energy and appetite.
its beak was pushed between my lips,
a morsel from last night's meal.
I'd look up
at the sky, studying tree after tree
people if they'd seen a jackdaw.
something of yours? That's what they do.'
And I would
realise in a way he had.
the young poet Gustave Janouch,
'We find relations
with animals easier than with men.'
'Animals are closer to us than human beings.'
merchant's jackdaw struck a chord.
Unsurprisingly - for birds are the uncredited inventors
Of music, and
all of them continue singing for joy:
unlike man's derivative warblings for profit.
'I hope you
love birds too?' Emily Dickinson asked.
economical. It saves going to heaven.' I do. It is. It does.
I still see
that questing figure; I pick up on his cries.
tchack, eight times. And the eyes, the pale blue iris
intense pupils studying things miles away.
Kafka said, 'who keeps the ability to see beauty
old.' A jackdaw's hop puts a skip in my step.
(from 'Being Kept by a Jackdaw')
This reminds me of Shelley. I think Heathcote Williams may be a romantic at
heart and good luck to him. Fantastic poem.
© Steve Spence