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Heathcote Williams - Zanzibar Cats

The last time a new work by Heathcote Williams was performed on the
Edinburgh Festival Fringe twenty-odd years ago, his trilogy of
ecologically minded epic poems that began with Whale Nation had become
some of the hottest property in poetry. Whale Nation, Autogedden and
Falling For A Dolphin, alongside another volume, Sacred Elephant, were
produced in a series of lavishly illustrated large-format editions,
while their subject matter predated a mainstream concern for life on
earth that was still regarded as marginal.

The books sold in bucket-loads, while the performances by Williams'
long-term collaborator Roy Hutchins packed out the Traverse Theatre and
the Assembly Rooms. Since then there's been an apparent silence by
Williams, whose loathing of the attention fame brings with it had
previously caused him to retreat from public view during the 1960s.
Then he was a key figure of London's counter-culture, where he mixed
with the underground cognoscenti in a private life as colourful as his
creative one.

Now, however, Williams is back with Zanzibar Cats, an hour's worth of
new short works performed, by Hutchins with the same sense of righteous
anger as before, albeit leavened with an array of classical references
that match the scope of their twenty-first century pop sensibilities.
For the first time in an age Williams is even talking about his work.
This despite his understandable suspicions of a press who might prefer
to focus on his 1960s affair with supermodel Jean Shrimpton or, more
recently, his relationship with his son Charlie, later adopted by Pink
Floyd guitarist Dave Gilmour, and who was recently imprisoned following
his role in a demonstration against student fees in December 2010. Even
this week, it seems, the tabloid paparazzi have been lurking outside
Williams' Oxford door. Beyond such intrusions, it's Zanzibar Cats that
concerns Williams the most.

“They’re driven by events,” he says of the poems, a mix of the
political and the intimate. “In the case of Roaring Slogans at Passing
Trees, a friend of mine, Dave Lawton, told me the story of a friend of
his hitching a lift with an ex soldier who’d served in Iraq and
Afghanistan, and who was determined to use up all the oil in the world
since he’d decided that oil was the cause of wars. So he’d rip off
petrol stations one after the other by using false number plates. He
went on a kind of inverted eco-rampage.

“An Angel You Know I wrote when my mother died. It’s not a religious
poem in the strictest sense, but comes from my noticing that when
you’ve been close to someone most of your life, nature is actually
quite kind. It lets you down gently through your experiencing visual
and auditory hallucinations. You see the person you’ve lost. You hear
them. As I say, it’s as if nature is intervening to reduce the trauma,
not giving you more than you can endure. A survival tactic. If everyone
was destroyed by losing someone there’d be no one left.”

Born in Cheshire and nominally educated at Eton, Williams, christened
John Henley Jasper Heathcote-Williams, received what he considers his
real education visiting Speakers Corner in Hyde Park from the age of
twelve. Williams collected money for a tattooed orator called Jacobus
van Dyn, and watched in awe as anyone who spoke out against the Royal
family were arrested. It was here Williams developed his
anti-establishment streak, and the seeds were sown for his first book.
The Speakers, published when Williams was still in his early twenties,
was a piece of reportage taken from four of the more irrational Hyde
Park set, including van Dyn. It was later put on stage by Max
Stafford-Clark's collectively run Joint Stock company.

Williams' first play, The Local Stigmatic, was produced at Edinburgh's
Traverse Theatre in 1966 in a double bill with Harold Pinter's The
Dwarves. The Local Stigmatic has since been championed by Al Pacino,
who made a rarely-seen film of the piece, about two fame-obsessed men
who stalk and attack a film star. AC/DC, a look at mental health,
opened at the Royal Court in 1970, causing writer/director Charles
Marowitz to deem it the first play of the twenty-first century. Other
works followed, although Williams' activity on the Notting Hill
squatting scene and the Albion Free State, which led to a book of
graffiti of the period, took precedence. Williams worked with Ken
Campbell on the suitably anarchic Remember The Dentist, and penned the
explicit lyrics to Why D'Ya Do It? on Marianne Faithfull's 1979 album,
Broken English.

The link with Hutchins came about after they met at the Elephant Fayre
music festival in 1981 through comedian and veteran of the same
squatting scene as Williams, Tony Allen, and the pair's ongoing
collaboration gradually evolved.

“Heathcote was really ahead of his time, “says Hutchins. “I remember
doing Autogedden at a conference in Glasgow School of Art about
traffic. I opened the weekend, and the effect of the poem was
extraordinary. No-one was talking about the effects of cars on the
environment then, but experts came up and said all the things they
wanted to talk about were contained in the poem.”

While the trilogy were made into BBC films, with Autogedden being
narrated by Jeremy Irons, Williams ducked out of view. In the long
public silence that followed, Williams concentrated on painting, “a
pretty silent activity,” and travelled.

In another contradiction for such a private person, Williams also
carved something of a niche for himself as a big-screen character
actor. Initially this was in arthouse projects such as being perfectly
cast as Prospero in Derek Jarman's 1979 version of Shakespeare's The
Tempest. That followed early appearances opposite Beat poet Allen
Ginsberg in the four minute Love Love Love, directed by composer
Michael Nyman, and in the tellingly named Wet Dreams, taken from ideas
hatched by the Traverse Theatre's early champion, Jim Haynes.

In 1987, Williams played a psychiatrist encouraging Emily Lloyd to
swear in Wish You Were Here, took small parts in an adaptation of
Charles Dickens' Little Dorrit and in People Show co-founder Mike
Figgis' Newcastle-based gangster flick Stormy Monday, as well as
appearing in Sally Potter's film of Orlando.

In the 1990s Williams played a servant in Figgis' version of Miss Julie
starring Peter Mullan, and even appeared in an episode of Friends. More
recently he played another sex kitten's psychiatrist, this time
counselling Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct 2. Williams laughs long and
loud at that one. It's a sound that frequently punctuates his
conversation, which retains a similar playfulness to his work, both
with Zanzibar Cats and a host of even newer pieces that include a
forthcoming book of science-based poems and longer-form works on a par
with Whale Nation.

“Robert Anton Wilson , the author of The Illuminatus, said if it
doesn’t make you laugh, it’s not true,” Williams chuckles. “Children
first learn by playing. And laughing. In fact you learn much more when
you’re happily absorbing something than when it’s being shoved down
your throat.. Plato believed that we’re the playthings of God, and
therefore the greatest act of devotion, as God’s playthings, can be
seen as just having fun. Which is a great perspective on life. Did you
know that the proverbially industrious ant only spends about ten
percent of its time working.? Progress is a pyrrhic victory over
nature, as Karl Kraus said. So what are we doing now? The western
world? Benefiting from the industrial revolution but reluctant to do
the washing up. Anarcho-primitivism is now being preached as a
solution. But more simply,” says Williams, quoting Billy MacGuinness,
one of the original Hyde Park speakers, “do nothing, slowly.”

Zanzibar Cats, Gilded Balloon, August 3-29, 3-4pm

The Herald, August 6th 2011



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