A Romantic at Heart


Forbidden Fruit: Meditations on Science, Technology & Natural History
,
Heathcote Williams (Huxley Scientific Press)


I've not heard much about Heathcote Williams for some time. I still recall hearing him read from Whale Nation and Falling for a Dolphin - those glorious polemics on behalf of the natural world - at Plymouth Arts Centre in the late 80's and admiring the mix of knowledge, anger, rational argument and persuasive charm that went into both the delivery and the production of those tomes. Sacred Elephant and Autogeddon followed and these were large, 'coffee-table' productions, replete with impressive photography and compendious notes, information-packed publications, which managed to combine the art of diatribe with explanation and a degree of lyrical charm. I believe a large proportion of the profit from these books - they were best sellers, published by Jonathan Cape - went to Greenpeace. They were also, perhaps, a belated response to C.P. Snow's notion of 'Two Cultures', in the sense that they combined an interest in knowledge which embraced both the arts and the sciences and saw no reason for a split between the two. Williams is something of a polymath.

Forbidden Fruit, put out by a small Oxford publisher specialising in well-designed (in all senses of the word), science-based texts, is less lavish in terms of its production budget but is nevertheless beautifully produced on good paper with excellent typesetting and features a striking cover illustration by Peter Rozycki.

The title poem centres around the life of Alan Turing, the maths don whose work at Bletchley Park in WW2 was responsible for cracking the Nazi's Enigma code, which saved a lot of allied shipping from U-boat attack. Turing was gay at a time when homosexuality was still considered a crime and the story of his virtual castration by hormone injection and his consequent suicide in 1954 (by an apple laced with cyanide) is extremely sad and at the same time, an outrage. Williams manages to combine his anti-establishment fury - expressed mainly through clear, rational argument - with a moving love story and an engagement with scientific facts. He clearly has a love/hate relationship with technology but little time for capitalist excess and the inhumane purposes to which the technology is often put:

     Though Alan was an idealist who'd joined anti-war groups
     In the hope that war wouldn't break out,
     And who'd raised money for striking munitions workers,
     When the war began Alan joined up.
           
     Worldwide Alan Turing is undervalued or forgotten
     Compared with the Apple corporation -
     The world's largest technology company making billions
      By turning people into its supercult's consumers.
               (from
'Forbidden Fruit: Or, The Cybernetic Apple Core')

I'd say the overwhelming feature of these poems and perhaps of Williams' whole oeuvre is a sense of the development of an argument, either in favour of a cause or in opposition to what he clearly perceives as either an idiocy or a malign government or establishment force. Yet he's rarely narrowly didactic and at his best his 'argument', whatever that may be, comes through experience and the development of empathy and understanding. In this sense he's a bit like George Orwell and Charles Dickens, using language as a weapon on behalf of the defenceless and in defence of sanity. Yet there's also a delight in language for its own sake, not something he takes to excess but it's there nonetheless and his writing is all the better for it. There are two poems here in favour of the bicycle as a means of transport, 'Einstein on a Bike' and 'All Bikes are Weapons'
, both of which contain wit, charm and a degree of wordplay in their advocacy:

     Bicycle power       
     Produces no exhaust fumes
     No carcinogens.
     Man-powered machines
     Are anti-capitalist -
     You can't meter air.
     The bicycle is
     The most efficient machine
     Ever created.
     Stored-up calories
     Become gas: three thousand
     Miles per gallon.
     Bikes are subversive:
     'Governments must help get rid
     Of cars so that bikes
     Can eliminate
     Government', Dutch anarchists
     Wrote in Amsterdam.
     Few are unhappy
     On bikes. Everyone's angry
     Trapped in deadly cars.
                  (from 'All Bikes are Weapons')

In 'The First Photograph Ever Taken Of A Human Being' his starting point is exactly that (as far as we know), a blurred and fuzzy picture by Daguerre of a Parisian shoe-shine worker kneeling down to attend to his clients' footwear. This is the sort of image that John Berger might have worked with in his book/TV series 'Ways of Seeing' and Williams' description of the 'client' is both telling and indicative of his method:

                                                      The man whose footwear
     Is being attended to is wearing a long tailcoat

     And looks like a proudly plutocratic beetle.
     By contrast, the bootblack, bent double in a servile posture,
     Is obscured, hidden by a perpendicular pile of smudges.
           (from 'The First Photograph Ever Taken of A Human Being')

If there's a degree of plain-speaking here (some have suggested his poetry is prosaic), there's also a Blakean sense of innocence/experience evident in his work, one of the strands that influenced the late 1960's counter culture. Williams is of that generation and his still powerful voice - somewhat unfashionable now, perhaps? - is a welcome intervention in current cultural debate.

Other impressive poems include an entirely charming and effective 'hymn' in favour of the bee, called simply 'Bees', laced with literary references and intriguing facts (Jean Symons would love this one), a long and increasingly angry defence of Tigers- 'The Tigers of Wrath' - featuring William Blake, of course, and a myriad of factual material, both of the delightful and depressing varieties, and 'A Place in the Sun', a wonderful exploration of our place in the solar system which is both 'down to earth', so to speak, and lyrically expressive, filled with fascinating facts, slyly suggested polemic and lyrics from popular music. Williams builds his argument, which combines a practical hedonism with both a sense of responsibility and a sense of awe, while including a trip around mythology, science and the imagination. I can't help but think that Brian Cox would thoroughly approve. I thought the poem 'Wasp Honey' lost its way a bit but perhaps I wasn't being attentive enough in my reading.

The piece I most liked in this fascinating collection, and the one that I find most moving and enduring, however, is 'Being Kept by a Jackdaw'. I've used the word charm quite a lot already and I mean this in a very positive sense. This is a story about a man and a Jackdaw, which I take - rightly or wrongly - to be largely autobiographical. It avoids being overly sentimental and to a large degree it avoids the common trap of anthropomorphism, although the inevitable slipperiness of language makes this a constant risk. The poem builds from a chance meeting between man and bird - 'I've always wanted to look after a jackdaw' - which develops into a symbiotic relationship which includes humour, a deep sense of a connection with 'otherness' (yes, I know I'm on sticky ground here) and overall a sense of discovery of what I can only call a purpose:

     Almost immediately I became the bird's captive,
     Existing solely to attend to its needs,
     Wondering if I'd experience Stockholm Syndrome,
     Which means you fall in love with your captors.

     But this bonsai pterodactyl was quite hard to love -
     A dive-bombing comet of energy and appetite.
     At daybreak its beak was pushed between my lips,
     Searching for a morsel from last night's meal.

     I'd look up at the sky, studying tree after tree
     And ask people if they'd seen a jackdaw.
     'Pinch something of yours? That's what they do.'
     And I would realise in a way he had.

     Kafka told the young poet Gustave Janouch,
    'We find relations with animals easier than with men.'
     Adding that, 'Animals are closer to us than human beings.'
     The coal merchant's jackdaw struck a chord.

     Unsurprisingly - for birds are the uncredited inventors
     Of music, and all of them continue singing for joy:
     Cost-free, unlike man's derivative warblings for profit.
     'I hope you love birds too?' Emily Dickinson asked.
           
     'It is economical. It saves going to heaven.' I do. It is. It does.
     I still see that questing figure; I pick up on his cries.
     The tchack tchack, eight times. And the eyes, the pale blue iris
     And the intense pupils studying things miles away.

     'Anyone,' Kafka said, 'who keeps the ability to see beauty
     Never grows old.' A jackdaw's hop puts a skip in my step.
               (from 'Being Kept by a Jackdaw')

This reminds me of Shelley. I think Heathcote Williams may be a romantic at heart and good luck to him. Fantastic poem.

         Steve Spence 2012