Heathcote Williams, Radical British Poet Who Helped Form Anarchist Nation, Dies at 75
From The New York Times
By WILLIAM GRIMES JULY 5, 2017
Heathcote Williams, a poet, playwright, actor, lyricist, painter, sculptor, magician and relentless scourge of the British establishment for half a century, died on Saturday in Oxford. He was 75.
His daughter Lily Williams said the cause was lung disease.
Mr. Williams, a radical in the tradition of Blake and Shelley, vented his outrage at royal privilege, private property, environmental degradation and a host of other targets, using every artistic means available.
He took dead aim at enforced conformity, the stupefying effects of television and the malign intentions of mental health professionals in plays like “AC/DC.”
“If you were to take the exploding typewriter of William Burroughs, add a soupçon of sophistication from Marshall McLuhan, a little popular science, a few comic books and a dash of popular psychology, and then stew the whole thing up with hate, then I suppose you might come out with a play such as Heathcote Williams’s ‘AC/DC,’ ” Clive Barnes of The New York Times wrote in 1970, reviewing a production of Mr. Williams’s play at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
In the 1960s, Mr. Williams wrote for the radical vegetarian publication The Seed and the animal-rights magazine The Beast. In 1969, he joined with the feminist Germaine Greer and his girlfriend at the time, the model Jean Shrimpton, to found the alternative sex magazine Suck.
He became a leader of the squatter movement in the 1970s, directing homeless Londoners to available space through his agency Ruff Tuff Cream Puff. He also helped create the Free and Independent Republic of Frestonia, an anarchist country within a country, named after a nearby street, Freston Road. Located in the Notting Hill neighborhood, it issued its own passports and stamps and applied to the United Nations for full membership. Geoffrey Howe, then the shadow chancellor of the Exchequer, named Mr. Williams Frestonia’s ambassador to the United Kingdom.
In the 1980s, Mr. Williams began writing what he called “investigative poetry,” book-length screeds on environmental themes. With footnoted sources, poems like “Whale Nation” (1988), “Sacred Elephant” (1989) and “Falling for a Dolphin” (1989) emitted a sustained cry of anguish at humanity’s assault on the animal world. “Autogeddon” (1991) was a jeremiad directed at global car culture, which he called “a humdrum holocaust, the third world war nobody bothered to declare.”
To celebrate the queen’s diamond jubilee in 2012, he came up with a special poem of appreciation, “Royal Babylon: The Criminal Record of the British Monarchy.” In a trans-Atlantic gesture, he later took note of recent developments in the United States with “American Porn,” a collection of poems published on the day of President Trump’s inauguration.
“Donald Trump is really Donald Drumpf / To give him his ancestral, and risible name,” a stanza in the poem “President Donald J. Trump, World Emperor” began. “It suggests dumbness, even the passing of wind / As well as the merciful transience of fame.”
John Henley Heathcote Williams was born on Nov. 15, 1941, in Helsby, Cheshire. His father, Harold Heathcote Williams, was a lawyer who, to avoid confusion with another lawyer named Harold Williams, changed his first name to Heathcote (pronounced HETH-cut). His mother was the former Margaret Henley.
He attended Eton and studied law at Christ Church, Oxford, but left without earning a degree.
His first book, “The Speakers,” about four of the regulars who held forth at Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park in London, was published in 1964 to great acclaim. The playwright and novelist John Bowen, writing in The New York Times Book Review, called it “immensely readable, immensely sad, immensely convincing.”
Harold Pinter, a fan of the book, commissioned Mr. Williams to write and stage “The Local Stigmatic,” a one-act play about two men in a seedy London neighborhood who argue about greyhound racing and commit a senseless act of violence. It was presented at the Royal Court Theater in 1966. In New York, the Actors’ Playhouse mounted a production in 1969 with Al Pacino in one of the lead roles.
Mr. Pacino later made a film version of the play, which was never released commercially. He also appeared as a Heathcote Williams fan in “Every Time I Cross the Tamar I Get Into Trouble” (1993), a mock documentary about Mr. Williams.
After “AC/DC” was produced at the Royal Court in 1970, Mr. Williams went on to write the plays “The Immortalist” and “Remember the Truth Dentist,” which was staged at the Royal Court in 1974.
The squatters’ movement, with its anarchic fervor, theatricality and social purpose, put him right in his element. The ministate of Frestonia, which at one point had its own theater, art gallery and film institute, endured for nearly a decade. In the meantime, Mr. Williams discovered spray paint as an effective means of communication. Slogans like “Housing is a right, freedom is a career” began appearing on walls in the neighborhood.
Although rumpled and scruffy, Mr. Williams had a plummy accent and a mellifluous speaking voice that served him well in a surprisingly busy film career. His first major role was Prospero in Derek Jarman’s 1979 experimental production of “The Tempest.” Vincent Canby, reviewing that film in The Times, described it as “a fingernail scratched along a blackboard” and called Mr. Williams’s performance “occasionally intelligible.”
He played a psychiatrist treating Emily Lloyd in “Wish You Were Here” (1987) and the dual roles of a 17th-century poet and a contemporary publisher in “Orlando” (1992). He appeared in “Basic Instinct 2” (2006) as Dr. Jakob Gerst, described in The Chicago Sun-Times as “a Teutonic psychiatric god.”
Mr. Williams was a restless sort. Marianne Faithfull turned his savage lyrics about sexual betrayal, “Why D’Ya Do It?,” into one of the most memorable cuts on her 1979 album, “Broken English.” His love of magic tricks led him to write “What the Dickens!,” a television drama about Charles Dickens’s fondness for staging amateur magic shows for friends, broadcast on the BBC in 1983.
In addition to his daughter Lily, he is survived by his partner, Diana Senior; another daughter, China Williams; a son, Charlie Gilmour; a sister, Prue Cooper; and three grandchildren.
For a long period, Mr. Williams retreated to the Cornish countryside. Supported by Peregrine Eliot, the 10th Earl of St. Germans, a computer artist and a fellow magician, he turned out paintings and sculptures at a terrific rate. But events conspired, as they always did, to reanimate the poet within. The royals, American foreign policy, “Brexit,” and then, to top it all off, the election of Mr. Trump, sent him into a frenzy of activity.
“If poetry isn’t revolutionary, it’s nothing,” he told the web publication Gonzo Today in 2015. “Poetry is heightened language, and language exists to effect change, not to be a tranquilizer.”