“A ball is cued from a corner…”
(In June, 2015, I sent Heathcote a friend request, via Facebook, with the following message: “I’ve been your friend since performing in AC/DC [in 1980]”. To my surprise, H accepted the request, and sent me a link to Stop the War Coalition. Two days later, I corrected my original message, as the year was 1981, not 1980. I also added, “I popped into the Open Head Press that year”. Below is the tale of that visit (before, during and after), and of Heathcote’s subsequent influence on and in my life.)
Towards the end of 1980, I was asked to play the part of Perowne, in Heathcote Williams’ AC/DC. At the time, I was a mature student at the University of Warwick, and the production was part of the Warwick University Drama Society’s programme for term two of the academic year. The director had once worked as a journalist (with Time Out, as I recall), and he’d seen the play, or so I assumed, while in London. A fellow mature student, he enthusiastically ‘sold’ both the play, and the writer to me (a writer I’d never heard of). To further reinforce his advocacy of Heathcote, he lent me a rather tattered copy of a pamphlet edition of H’s poems, which contained – amongst other things – I Will Not Pay Taxes (which made me smile).
As soon as I received Calder Playscript 63, I sat down in the Green Room of the Theatre Studies Department (Theatre Studies was my degree subject), and began to read. To be perfectly honest, I was taken aback, thoroughly confused, and damned scared. What the hell had I agreed to, I wondered? The post-Hippie patois threw me completely, Perowne’s opening speech seemed incomprehensible, and I assumed the final page of ‘text’ was some kind of authorial gag: a hieroglyphic joke at the actor’s expense. However, the director was so insistent, as regards the writer’s genius, I read the piece again… and then again… and then again… and then again. After a couple of hours, I realised that AC/DC was quite extra-ordinary, absolutely unique, and the most ‘vital’ play I’d ever encountered. If anyone had entered the Green Room by the time I’d devoured the script for the fourth or fifth time, they’d have witnessed me, curled up in one of the fake leather, green chairs, with an idiot grin on my face. I felt privileged, and very excited.
Rehearsals began in the January of 1981. They were bloody hard work physically – and trying to remember Heathcote’s peculiarly constructed, densely packed lines was a fucking nightmare. There were a number of altercations between the actor playing Maurice and other members of the cast, as well as several verbal assaults on the rather timid stage manager. In retrospect, I think the cast member concerned felt he was acting in accordance with the overall thrust of the play, via its attack on the status quo and its power to invisibly control non-conformist behaviour. He was damned determined to challenge anyone and everyone who attempted to impose their agenda on him. However, since psychic capitalism, and not power per se, was the target of Heathcote’s ire, his (the actor’s) tantrums were wide of the mark. Fortunately, in the end, the sheer effort of staging the production wore everyone down, and the deliberately contentious confrontations stopped.
Two weeks before the opening night, the production manager, another mature student, announced she’d contacted the Open Head Press, via its office in Blenheim Crescent, in London, with a view to meeting the elusive author. I had no idea why she wanted to meet Heathcote, or why she thought it might be especially beneficial to our production. When she asked me to accompany her, I wasn’t too keen, since, in my own mind, I knew what the play was ‘saying’, and I’d already found my own solution to Perowne’s final speech*. However, given it was a potentially interesting trip to the big city, and possibly included a physically intimate mini-liason (given the PM’s unsubtle hints), I agreed to go. Thus it was we made our way to London, heading for a cheap hotel, not far from Portobello Road.
Poor Richard Adams…
The evening before our supposed meeting with the author, I shared an energetic, somewhat uninhibited few hours, accompanied by several bottles of lubricatory red plonk. When morning arrived, the last thing I wanted to do was traipse around to Blenheim Crescent, but the PM was grimly determined. We left the hotel room in a bit of a bloody state, however, since, unbeknown to either of us, her period had begun at some point during the evening. I was a little embarrassed, and rather concerned to straighten the bedding, at least, but was informed that was the cleaner’s job: “She’s paid to do it, after all” – a rather snooty attitude, which pissed me off.
When we finally arrived at the scruffy front door of the Open Head Press building, at about 10.30, I could see that my colleague was underwhelmed, to say the least. As we made our way up the uncarpeted, wooden staircase to the first floor – a staircase dangerously littered with piles of papers and boxes – she said something along the lines of “they could at least have tidied the place up”, almost as if our visit was of the utmost importance. Although her comment made me smile, I was nonetheless beginning to worry about what lay behind the office door. Following her tap-tapping, we were ushered into a ramshackle, tiny space, crammed from floor to ceiling (or so it seemed) with even more piles of papers and boxes, and, perched behind the single desk, back to the window, the figure of Richard Adams, Heathcote’s collaborator on assorted projects, and a gifted graphic designer and illustrator in his own right. When he introduced himself to the PM, I was half-afraid she’d mistake him for the author of Watership Down. Fortunately, she didn’t, and we were asked to make ourselves comfortable on the only two chairs we could find, at the opposite side of Richard’s desk, as we prepared for Heathcote’s ‘any time soon’ arrival. The walls of the office were covered with posters and magazine covers, all of which (I guessed) were the work of R and H. The one poster, in particular, caught my eye. Set against an image of a nuclear mushroom cloud, were the figures of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. Protruding from Reagan’s crotch was a cruise missile, with Thatcher’s opened mouth in close proximity. The poster’s caption read: “If you swallow this, you’ll swallow anything”. I gathered it had been designed for a CND campaign, in the light of American nuclear missiles being sited at Greenham Common. Unfortunately, due to a certain queasiness – even cowardice – on the part of CND, it was never used. A great pity, I thought, since it made its point with razor-sharp clarity (and it was witty, too). In one corner of the room sat an old-fashioned printing press, and the desk contained a clunky-looking answer-phone and, I think, a typewriter.
As we waited, it seemed fairly obvious (to me, at least), that Richard was ill-prepared for the visit, and, despite his good manners, probably just wanted to get on with whatever work he had to do that particular morning. However, in my colleague’s mind, we were there on a mission, and she was going to wait, irrespective of any awkwardness in the atmosphere. And wait we did. After half an hour of time-filling chit-chat, Richard decided to give Heathcote a ring, via the rather old-fashioned answer phone. When he finally replied, Heathcote sounded tired and disgruntled. Whether he actually knew anything about the visit of two students to the office was a debatable point. However, he promised to do his best to make it in, as soon as possible, and, for the time being, that was that. Utterly oblivious, or so it seemed, to Richard’s discomfiture (and my growing sense of unease), the PM continued to talk: idle chat, which filled the vacuum with so much hot air. After a further half-hour, we were joined, albeit briefly, by John Michell (I think), the author who brought the study of Astro-Archaeology into the mainstream. Since neither of us knew who he was, we kept quiet, while he and Richard exchanged a few pleasantries. Another thirty minutes or so of aimless, polite talk went by, when – following a particularly noisy ascent of the staircase – the door was thrown open in dramatic style by the obviously drunk and/or stoned figure of the actor, Peter Firth. My knowledge of British actors was limited, to say the least, but the PM almost exploded with excitement. “It’s Peter Firth, it’s Peter Firth!”. It was at this moment I began to realise why she’d wanted to come and meet Heathcote in the first place. In her mind, he was a kind of ‘celebrity’, since, as a published, performed playwright, he was more famous than the average man in the street. The fact that it was perfectly obvious – via AC/DC (which the PM had watched in rehearsal dozens of times), and by H’s seemingly deliberate low public profile – that he had no wish to be identified as such, and had little truck with such stupidities, seemed to have passed her by completely. And when she asked Peter Firth for his autograph, like a child would a pre-pubescent pop star, my heart sank as I curled up with embarrassment. It was surely time to leave, before further humiliation in front of the real subject of her projected adulation.
As the slurry, cherubic, grinning Peter Firth made his (noisy) descent down the stairs, I suggested that maybe – just maybe – it was time for us to go. But my colleague was having none of it, and she asked Richard to call Heathcote again. I think the look on Richard’s face suggested that that wasn’t such a good idea, and if he’d been anything other than a charming, polite man, he might just have told her to fuck off. But – ‘phone again he did. This time, when Heathcote replied, he sounded rather tetchy – understandably – and simply said he’d be in when he could. In other words, he had no intention whatsoever of playing along with the game initiated by, dragged out by, my extremely insensitive colleague. She finally – finally! – got the point, and we made ready to leave. Given that neither Richard nor Heathcote seemed to know anything about our visit, I began to suspect that the PM had somehow found the address of the Open Head Press (via the publisher, John Calder, perhaps), and simply decided to show up and bluff her way through the entire thing. Or maybe someone else had been in the OHP office, and encouraged the visit, as a bit of a practical joke at Heathcote’s expense, knowing how much he loathed the awful business of celebrity culture? Either way, it was pretty much a waste of everyone’s time and effort, and I felt especially sorry for poor Richard Adams. Even as we left, he remained friendly and helpful, as he handed me a ‘goody bag’ of assorted radical magazines (IT, OZ, Suck, The Fanatic) and posters. “You might enjoy these”, he said, with a conspiratorial grin. He was right. I did.
The tainted air of London…
By the time we arrived back on the streets, it was early afternoon. The tainted air of London stank of alcohol, cigarettes and petrol. I hated the bloody place at the best of times, and my colleague’s pushy behaviour had made me feel rather uncomfortable. I think she was vaguely aware of this, and suggested we might go to a show later that evening, as a way of placating me. Was there anything I fancied? There was: Dario Fo’s Accidental Death of an Anarchist at Wyndham’s Theatre, with the wonderful Belt & Braces Company (under the direction of Gavin Richards). That was quickly agreed upon, which left us several hours to kill. So, we wandered around the vicinity of the Portobello Road, and visited a couple of record shops. I managed to buy three early Peter Hammill albums, which pleased me, and then we collected the car, and drove into the West End. Following a meal of some description (I forget what), we arrived at the theatre just in time, and had to find our seats in the dark. When the lights came up at the end of Part One (which was everything I hoped it would be), I noticed a familiar-looking head of white hair a couple of rows in front of me. The head in question belonged to a friend of mine from school; a friend by the name of Max, who I’d not seen for several years. In order to gain his attention, I threw a few Maltesers at him, although (obviously) I could have just called out his name, but I was feeling childish. Besides, Max liked Maltesers, so that was fine. We enjoyed a lengthy chat during the interval, and agreed to stay in touch. My take on this particular coincidence was that somehow, Heathcote had waved his magical magic wand, in lieu of turning up that morning, and revealed a gift far more rewarding than a few minutes of his time. A daft conceit on my part, but it put a smile on my face anyway.
At the end of the production, which was a fine example of ‘political theatre’ at its very best, I said goodbye to Max, and then the PM and me headed for the car. She suggested we saw another, late show, and then drove home, or perhaps found a different hotel for the night. Unusually (for me), I declined the implied offer of further fun and frolics for one reason, and one reason only: her high-handed attitude towards the cleaner-cum-chamber maid, re the soiled sheets. My mother earned a few pounds a week cleaning the houses of rich folk in Warwick, and I was well aware of how cross and upset she used to get when she was faced with the most unpleasant of messes; messes she was obliged to clean up, because “she’s paid to do it, after all’. As for seeing another show, I’d had enough of London to last me for at least another year, and just wanted to go back to my flat in Kenilworth. And, to be fair, that’s precisely what my colleague agreed to, without fuss or demur. Thus ended a curious couple of days in the big city. I was relieved, in a way, Heathcote hadn’t showed, since I had nothing to ask him anyway, and I’m sure the PM would have embarrassed herself utterly. It was good to be finally back home, and looking forward to the production.
Prior to AC/DC, I’d played a number of difficult, lengthy parts on stage, but Perowne was the toughest of the lot. Physically draining, and an absolute bugger to learn. However, by the time our run had ended, I realised my brain had been washed, via Heathcote’s mind-cleansing perceptions and visions. Without having to endure the trephining, which Sadie performs on Perowne towards the end of the play, I realised I’d begun to think differently about the way the world and the State worked, and the insidious machinations of the Media, by way of its control and manipulation of all the technological means of communication at its considerable disposal.
On a more mundane level, the production was successful, in that the Studio Theatre of Warwick University Arts Centre was packed every night, and even the actors from the touring production in the main house (including James Bolam) took to sneaking in for our final half hour, following the curtain on their own show (Shaw’s Arms and the Man). All of which was rather gratifying, of course, but much more important – for me, at least – was the discovery of a provocative, head-spinning, entirely sane, dynamic voice: a genuine free spirit. And once Heathcote was in my system, I knew I was fucked.
From 1981 until the mid-1990’s, I collected everything I could, in book or pamphlet form: The Local Stigmatic, The Speakers, Whale Nation, Sacred Elephant, Autogeddon, Falling for a Dolphin, and so on. I witnessed H’s work, via theatre and television: What the Dickens, Hancock’s Last Half-Hour, The (New) Immortalist, and even a bar-stool monologue, performed by Richard Jobson (barely audible), as part of a Paines Plough Contemporary Writers event. When Heathcote was one of the guests on a late-night Channel 4 discussion programme, concerning whale hunting, I watched the entire three hours, wishing the white hunter would just shut the fuck up, as I marvelled at H’s quiet, dignified responses to this bloodthirsty, macho imbecile. Then there was the witty mockumentary, presented by John Dowie, Every time I cross the Tamar (I get into trouble) – a copy of which I showed to several groups of Theatre students over the course of two or three years, always with the introduction: “This is all about ‘our’ greatest living writer and contrarian – and you’ll have never heard of him”. (Amusingly, when word somehow reached the attention of the college Principal that I was ‘indoctrinating’ my students, via a film celebrating a known Anarchist, I found myself called to his office, in order to explain my reasons. Far from indoctrinating, I told him, I was teaching them (the students) the value of learning to think for themselves. As for the troublesome term, ‘Anarchism’, it simply meant ‘self-governance’. At that point, I was informed I was a round peg in a square hole – which pleased me enormously. I preferred being a circle to a square: circles were somehow never-ending, cyclic, and inextricably connected to the roots of all primal human culture, in the form of shamanic medicine wheels.) In 1991, as part of an Environmentally Aware fortnight, I read (performed) three of Heathcote’s epic poems, and, of course, I also owned a copy of Derek Jarman’s film of The Tempest, with H perfectly cast as Prospero. One way or another, I’d become a Heathcote junkie. If the PM had been interested in meeting the man, I was obsessed with reading the man’s work, and spreading his word.
Between 1996 and 2005, I lost track of life, and was obliged to undergo an extended period of hibernation. When I re-emerged, the world had changed somewhat, and it seemed as if everyone I knew owned a computer, in one form or another. Clearly, I had a lot of catching up to do. However, it wasn’t until late 2011, I noticed, via Facebook, that International Times was available on-line. Naturally enough, I searched for Heathcote’s work, and was rewarded with news of the publication of Forbidden Fruit, a wonderful collection of poems, exploring science and technology. It had occurred to me that, perhaps, as implied by the John Dowie mockumentary, H had stopped writing, and was concentrating instead on sculpture and painting. This was obviously, and mercifully, not the case. I started to ‘follow’ IT, and in June 2015, decided to message Heathcote with a ‘friend’ request. Much to my surprise, he accepted.
A few weeks later, I ordered two of his books from Huxley Scientific Press in Oxford, via Amazon. They arrived within twenty-four hours, so I emailed Eddie Mizzie (from HSP), to express my gratitude for the prompt service. I also attached a poem, It’s a Blast, by way of a ‘thank you’ gift. The following day, Eddie emailed me back, to say that Heathcote had happened to read my piece, and wanted to place it on the IT website – if that was OK with me. After picking myself up off the floor, I confirmed that, yes, of course, it was absolutely OK. And thus, the incomplete line between Heathcote and me finally came full circle. From that point on, until H’s untimely death, we communicated on a fairly regular basis. Without Heathcote’s advocacy, none of my pieces would have seen the light of day, and the fact that he appreciated my work empowered me to spread my creative wings further than I would otherwise have dared. I owed – and owe – the great man an awful lot.
I realise, of course, that the above says more about me, than it says about Heathcote. I never knew him, in the flesh, as a blood and bone creature. On the other hand, I knew him perfectly well, and certainly well enough to feel an enormous sense of personal loss when he died. To be able to paddle in the same waters that Heathcote swam through, is a mighty privilege – enough, at least, to last this man a lifetime. In 1981, he never showed… Except, of course, he did… In a way.
*My solution to Perowne’s final ‘speech’… In order to return Perowne to “state zero”, Sadie trephines his scalp, to “correct the mechanism… let in some light”. “It’s a mind-body chakra to get the pineal gland pickin up on cosmic energy of the highest quality…” Once the trephine is removed, “Perowne opens his eyes slowly, raises his head, screams, and then turns and looks around, smiling” – cunt open to the sun. Obviously, re the hieroglyphs, it was crucial to respond in an appropriate way. By chance (or otherwise), I’d recently read some fragments by Sappho, the 6th/5th century BCE Greek poet, from the Isle of Lesbos. Her voice – sensuous, untainted, alien – seemed to embody the voice I was looking for – so, I contacted a Greek scholar from within the University, and asked her to translate sections of Ode to Aphrodite into the ancient Lesbos dialect. She then wrote them down for me in phonetic English. The fact that I learnt the final speech parrot fashion was beside the point, since I knew exactly what I was saying. As follows:
Hear anew the voice! O hear and listen!
Come, as in that island dawn thou camest,
Billowing in thy yoked car to Sappho
Forth from thy father’s
Golden house in pity! … I remember:
Fleet and fair thy sparrows drew thee, beating
Fast their wings above the dusky harvests,
Down the pale heavens, lightning anon!
Come again to me! O now! Release me!
End the great pang! And all my heart desireth
Now of fulfillment, fulfill!