My one and only encounter with Heathcote Williams was at the Elephant Fayre in 1984.
The Elephant Fayre was a small festival that ran on the Port Eliot estate of Peregrine Eliot, 10th Earl of St Germans between 1981and 1986. It was a magical little festival where everybody seemed to be adding to the festivities in one way or another with music as only one element. I went twice, the first time in 1982. I arrived on the back of a motorbike, my last hitched ride from London, and for the final mile found myself flanked by a legion of Hell’s Angels who then roared off in spectacular fashion. The festival was wonderful, a strange mix of hippies and proto-goths, the latter group having come to hear Siouxsie and the Banshees who played a great set of swirling psychedelic ju-ju. It was at The Elephant Fayre that I first saw anybody moving through the tai chi form (beautiful among the rhododendrons) and was entranced by the hand-painted slides of a Victorian magic lantern show I digress, but The Elephant Fayre was special, a forerunner of today’s boutique festivals, but less consumerist and, like the poet and true subject of this blog, worth celebrating.
So, two years after that first Elephant Fayre I went again with my sister, Gilly, and brother-in-law, Dave, and friends of theirs from Bristol to run a food stall at the festival as a means of making some summer cash. Our food stall was no ordinary stall, for we made all sorts of ridiculously delicious, not properly costed, dishes to take down with us, including kegs of elderflower champagne and even more extraordinary, several large batches of orange and cardamom ice cream! It was a long journey there, Dave towing a large trailer behind his ancient Series II Landrover, piled high with timber, scaffolding poles, tarpaulins, and two freezers full of food. On arrival at the site, Dave oversaw the construction of our stall, two trapezoid scaffolding frames with a suspended beam over which the canvas tarpaulins were draped. I then jigsawed out some letters to spell out our chosen name, ZING! and assembled and painted a sign and so we were open for business, our freezers plugged into the site power supply. All was going well and knowing that Sauturday was going to be a scorcher we decided to keep back the orange and cardamom cones as a treat for the Saturday. Unfortunately, just as the temperature was rising to record levels, there were problems with the electrics and we had no power and all this ice cream was beginning to melt. Rather than see it go to waste, I went round giving cones to whoever in the hope that we would receive some remuneration. One such recipient of a dripping cone was Heathcote Williams who being a poet had empty pockets except for a pen and a note book. We exchanged a few words and he gratefully took an ice cream and in exchange scribbled a note which he told me to take up to the estate office. The note read: ‘Elephant Fairies, Please give Richard a FREE COPY of Elephants. Heathcote Wims.’ Intrigued and not really having any idea who I had just met I went up to the office and was presented with a copy of Elephants, a broadsheet newspaper with pictures and engaging text, some original, some quoted, relating to our pachyderm friends. It was I later realised a prototype version of Sacred Elephant. I loved it and have managed to preserve it all these years, though the pages are blotched with age.
In 1988 William’s epic poem Whale Nation was published. I, of course, was already a fully-signed-up environmentalist and whale hugger by then - my innate interest in natural history having been politicised by the birth of the campaign to end commercial whaling in the 1970s and so I knew the facts, knew the story of the wholesale slaughter of the great whales, but William’s juxtaposition of words and pictures still came with an emotional punch. Some years later, in the mid-1990s when I became the whale campaigner for Greenpeace UK, readings from Whale Nation continued to bring people on board the campaign and raise funds. You can listen to a performance by Roy Hutchins here and you will be mesmerized.
Much later I learned that Heathcote Williams wrote the lyrics to Marianne Faithfull’s Why D'Ya Do It, a coruscating song of sexual jealousy and a woman scorned which rang so true I originally presumed could only have written by the singer. Later he popped into my consciousness as Nick Green/publisher in Sally Potter’s dreamy and visually stunning film version of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, a film that is remarkable not only for the inspired casting of Quentin Crisp as Queen Elisabeth but in being one that I loved and my better half/ ever-present cinema companion thought was tedious. And so it went on through the years, Heathcote’s name kept popping up or I would come across a piece of his work and I would remember him scrabbling in his pockets for pen and paper and him telling me the best place to watch the bats emerge from their roost in the Port Eliot house.
Just before Christmas I picked up a copy of his penultimate piece of political invective Boris Johnson: The Beast of Brexit – a study in depravity in which he skewers the Foreign Secretary. To fess up, I quite enjoyed 'Boris the entertainer' back in the day. I once spotted him cycling along Islington’s Upper Street and someone else also spotted him and shouted "Tory tosser!" from the other side of the road. "That's me!" the mop haired buffoon cheerily shouted back as he pedalled past. A politician who doesn't take himself too seriously, I thought. That was then, but we now know what he's really like. Only we don't, he's worse. Heathcote Williams nails the other old Etonian in such a way you wonder how you were ever fooled in the first place.
Heathcote Williams was much more than a poet, he wrote plays, painted, sculpted and was an activist in the ‘60s, squatting and establishing the free state of Frestonia around West London’s Latimer Road. No doubt he was a nightmare in many ways, articles make reference to 'a turbulent personal life', but in so many ways he was special. Lots of proper obituaries have been written and I enjoyed this one from the Economist which tells the story of Heathcote, an accomplished conjuror to all accounts, setting himself on fire on Jean Shrimpton’s doorstep. These are the kind of stories on which legends are built.
I hope there was a good turn-out for the funeral procession which took place on Friday in the Jericho district of Oxford. This was organised by the Jericho Wharf Trust as Williams played a crucial role in the Save the Boatyard campaign, it’s not hard to see why he appealed to me. Heathcote Williams, I’m pleased our paths crossed, albeit fleetingly. RIP.