The British writer who embraced the counterculture
Heathcote Williams 1941–2017
Heathcote Williams was an exceptional writer. Championed by the Nobel laureate Harold Pinter, the British wordsmith wrote more than a dozen books and plays during the 1970s and ’80s that received widespread acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic. Yet it was Williams’ eccentric ways beyond the written word that won him fame. A poster boy for the countercultural revolution, he co-founded a secessionist state in a squat in West London, helped launch an anarchist publishing house, and ran an “estate agency” that directed homeless Londoners to abandoned buildings. Williams even tried his hand at fire-eating—only to suffer severe burns after accidentally setting himself alight outside his girlfriend’s house.
Born in Cheshire, in northwestern England, to a barrister and a homemaker, Williams studied law at Oxford after being expelled from Eton College boarding school, said The Times (U.K.). He turned up at his final exams “dressed, for some reason, in an SS uniform.” Williams’ first book, a portrait of the often drunk orators at Speakers’ Corner in London’s Hyde Park, attracted the attention of Pinter, who encouraged him to write a play. The result, The Local Stigmatic (1969), earned plaudits, but it was his second work, 1970’s AC/DC, that made his name. A searing examination of celebrity culture, the play received rave reviews and transferred to New York in 1971. Williams didn’t limit himself to playwriting, said The New York Times. He co-founded Suck, an “alternative sex magazine,” and became a “leader of the squatter movement,” setting up the Ruff Tuff Cream Puff Estate Agency and the Free and Independent Republic of Frestonia. In the 1980s, Williams shifted his attention to what he called “investigative poetry”—“book-length screeds” that railed against “environmental degradation.” Man’s automobile culture, he wrote in Autogeddon (1991), is “a humdrum holocaust, the third world war nobody bothered to declare.”
Throughout the 1980s and ’90s, “Williams also appeared in more than a dozen film and television roles,” said The Washington Post. He largely disappeared from the public eye in later life, devoting his time to sculpting and painting. But he continued writing—a medium in which he never lost faith. “If poetry isn’t revolutionary, it’s nothing,” he said. “Poetry is heightened language, and language exists to effect change, not to be a tranquilizer.” ■