I am working on three fascinating short stories by the great French writer, Louis Aragon, which were lost for many years, having been published cladestinely during the war under the pseudonym Saint Romain Arnaud. I found this little book in a junk shop in Paris (picture below).
The stories are about life under Nazi occupation: a bickering elderly couple are visited by a Gestapo search team; a bored country priest becomes the unwitting accomplice to a resistance bomb plot; a sports journalist charts his own political journey via a decade of cycling events.
Witty and chilling at the same time, with an almost journalistic approach to narration, these stories are very unlike his surrealist writings.
Watch this space for availability via Thin Man Press and Kindle.
The ongoing exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, which ends 29 May 2017, places Claude Cahun – whose most important literary work, ‘Disavowals’ I translated from French for Tate Publishing – alongside contemporary British artist, Gillian Wearing.
Both artists, born seventy years apart, deal with universal themes of identity, gender and notions of self-disclosure often via self-portraiture and masquerade.
It took me three years to translate Cahun’s complex and utterly unique work. I was commissioned by Professor Dawn Ades, who gave a very interesting talk about the exhibition (for which she wrote the catalogue introduction) at the NPG last week. I was in the audience, and in the course of the event, she frequently referenced my book and even waved it around so that the audience could see it!
I have to say that I am rather baffled that nobody from the NPG saw fit to invite me to participate in any of the events associated with the show; when Professor Ades talked about self-portraiture and the ambiguity surrounding the attribution of Cahun’s photographs (taken by her companion, Susanne Malherbe) I wanted to jump up and down and spout my theory about this which comes straight from the pages of the book. Ha!
Not wishing to appear bitter and twisted (B&T) allow me to recommend the show to you!
I have to say that Heathcote Williams is an absolute joy to work with. We rushed out his book ‘American Porn’ to co-oncide with Donald Trump’s inauguration and he accepted all my editorial suggestions – even some quite radical ones – with incredible calm, charm and absence of ego.
Last month, Blackwell bookshop in Oxford, hosted an event to celebrate ‘Brexit Boris’ and ‘American Porn’. Williams, recovering from a serious bout of illness, gamely attended and the evening was a great success..
If you are interested in finding out more about the book, just click on the cover!
I very much enjoyed supervising the translation by talented Parisian poet/singer-songwriter, Thomas Baigneres, of Peter Doherty’s latest scribblings to be published by Le Castor Astrale in February 2017… somehow it’s even more intriguing, imaginative and pokey in French!!!
Congratulations to the team at Le Castor Astrale who have done a fantastic job and worked so hard to make this happen.
I AM sometimes quite frightened of the dark and I really resent that. It seems to me that it’s a particularly female fear and very foolish.And yet I also love the night. I am fascinated by altered states of mind and particularly enjoy twilight. As light fades, every shape is open to a new interpretation and the imagination released from certitude.
I also love walking by starlight in the Cotswold village where we have a cottage. No human lights diminish the effect of the moon and stars, and sensing people asleep all around me is very peaceful. The only sound is my own footsteps and Lovell huffing and puffing now he’s gettting on a bit.
These contradictions in how I experience the night are, I think, very interesting and quite common. We are conditioned from early childhood, particularly by fairy tales, to regard the night as a very potent, usually threatening, presence. Later on, night becomes associated with romance, sex, magic and poetry.
I hardly ever work at night. I am very strict with myself and stop around 6pm, spending the evening winding down. When Alan’s performing he gets back very late, high on adrenalin, and that’s the time we finally get together. I’m usually exhausted, having been writing all day, but I drink black coffee and we go to bed ridiculously late.
I don’t often go to watch Alan in plays, though I’m always at his first nights. I identify with him immensely and feel frightened: I know the exact bits where he sometimes forgets the line or gets it slightly wrong; I know all the care and passion he’s put into it. Until quite recently I couldn’t get through a first night without rushing to the lavatory and being violently sick in the interval. Ridiculous] He’s always fine.
Our bedroom is like a uterus, a cloistered private space. It’s the only place in the house where I keep photographs. I don’t like them on public display. I find the way photos freeze time perturbing and see them as personal icons. When Alan’s away I particularly miss his warm physical closeness in bed. I like to put my cold feet on him to warm them up – even though it usually makes him angry]
I have to read for at least an hour before I go to sleep. This often helps me through an impasse I might be having with character or structure in my own writing. Even if what I’m reading is a completely different type of fiction I will wake up with problems mysteriously solved.
I often dream of the characters in my books. I always know who they are, though sometimes they look completely different from how I’ve described them. When that happens I realise there’s another aspect of that person I haven’t yet considered, and I’ll alter them as a result. This close relationship between dreams and fiction is wonderful for a writer.
I don’t think I’m ever in my dreams. I’m always observing – from where I don’t know. The strange, novelistic thing that sometimes happens is changing from being an exterior viewer to an interior viewer, like a narrator switching from third person to stream-of-consciousness. I don’t think it’s important to understand dreams. I prefer them to be mysterious and would never want mine analysed.
I am delighted when I dream of the deceased and wish it would happen to me more. The other night I dreamt extraordinarily vividly of my mother, who died nearly 20 years ago. At the end of the dream she went away somewhere and then telephoned me. I absolutely could hear the phone ring. I picked it up and heard her voice, at which point I woke up. This effect of this moving, indirect communication, stayed with me all through the next day.
I do enjoy sleep and it’s very comforting. I always sleep on any big decisions. You wake up distanced and can look at everything more sensibly. I’m not lazy like I used to be, however. It seems to me now that I spent half my life as a student at Cambridge asleep. I was so hedonistic in those days.
What changed me was having a baby. You suddenly become very aware of your own lifespan being limited and you want to use your time as well as possible. I’m quite terrified of being idle and wake up every morning at 6.30am. I creep down to the kitchen for my first shot of coffee and read poetry – good gymnastics for the mind.
I know that breakfast in bed and a good long lie-in would be the most wonderful sybaritic thing – but it’s simply no longer a possibility.
Sally Beauman is the author of several blockbuster novels. She lives in London with Alan Howard, the RSC actor, their 19-year-old son, James, and a large dog called Lovell.
Sally Beauman’s latest novel, ‘Lovers and Liars’, is published by Bantam at pounds 15.99.
Back with a vengeance: Heathcote Williams’s latest work is a lacerating attack on Boris Johnson
Heathcote Williams, for 50 years a scourge of the establishment, is making waves again. To literary acclaim, he has published a scathing attack on Boris Johnson. And the revolution (re)starts here, he tells his namesake Heathcote Ruthven
“Left to their own devices, the natives would rely on nothing but the instant carbohydrate gratification of the plantain.” These are the words of acclaimed journalist, former Major of London, and so-called “national treasure” Boris Johnson. How this casually offensive toff was ever considered loveable, let alone respectable, will be the wonder of future historians.
Meanwhile, it appals another old Etonian, Heathcote Williams, who has devoted much of his life to undermining an establishment that he knows first-hand – and not as a bien pensant bourgeois, but with real action and anger. A poet, playwright, squatter, magician and more, he has now focused all his fury and wit in a lacerating take-down of supposedly loveable Bojo.
The Beast of Brexit:a Study in Depravity is a pamphlet in the radical, Swiftean tradition of pamphleteering revitalised by Williams and his contemporaries in the Sixties – and still remarkably robust – and this 20,000-word collage of the most maniacal, hypocritical, and cruel things the former mayor has ever said or done makes for electrifying reading. It has even been declared “book off the week” by the influential London Review of Books.
Why? Because, although many of Johnson’s exploits are widely known, Williams has a poet’s ear for the damning and often neglected specifics. By the end of the diatribe, you can’t avoid the conclusion that Johnson is a terrifying sociopath. As for Brexit, that’s not really the issue in this slim volume; nor, says Williams, does Johnson really care about its likelihood. Bojo’s intention, he says, is only to “bounce his 17-stone self into Number 10 Downing Street”.
Here, we read of Journalist Johnson’s carelessness with the truth: from falsifying quotes by his godfather Professor Colin Lucas to sexing up a story about an archeological discovery, to inventing an EU plot to ban dipping bread in olive oil. We encounter his fair-weather loyalties: passionately supporting then-President George W Bush until it suited him to recast Dubya as “a cross-eyed Texan warmonger, unelected, inarticulate, who epitomises the arrogance of American foreign policy”.
Here we’re reminded of his cruelty towards women and the violence in his personal life. We observe his love of the super-rich, whom he once described as “a put-upon minority like Irish travellers and the homeless”. And let’s not forget his friendship with the fraudster Darius Guppy. Would Boris get the address of a prying journalist, so that Guppy could have him beaten up? Sure, said Johnson.
None of which may have much bearing on the future of our pensions or the straightness of bananas. But then, the book’s title – or its first half, at least – is just a peg, conveniently provided by West End, his German publisher. Four years ago, to coincide with the Queen’s visit to Berlin, it published in translation his last major essay, an anti-monarchist polemic called Royal Babylon. “And for that,” Williams says down the phone from Oxford, “I felt a certain obligation to do something specifically for them. But then they asked me to write about the referendum! The idea of writing anything about Europe and Brexit filled me with an earthquake of a yawn.”
Williams’s speech is littered with dramatic turns of phrase, his (now raspy) voice precise in its pronunciation, as he describes how he managed to make the political personal. “The poet Niall McDevitt turned me on to an impending attack”, signed off by Johnson while he was still mayor – namely, the desecration of Bunhill Fields in the City of London; now a public garden, once a burial ground and still the resting place of the visionary William Blake, the patron saint of the English mystic tradition.
“He essentially wants to surround them with these venal tower blocks filled with City slickers, casting a shadow on the anti-materialistic Blake. That really got my goat. It was a step too far,” says Williams. “There’s a German word for people like Johnson: Backpfeifengesicht. It means ‘a face that needs to be punched’.”
Boris Johnson’s sole aim is to become Prime Minister, according to Williams (PA)
As this point, I must admit a complicated relationship with my subject. Although friends with my grandfather, there was no family connection. I was named, if you like, in tribute, after my mother was deeply moved by Williams’s 1988 Whale Nation – a disorientating paean to the largest mammal on earth, and aching reflection on the destructiveness of humanity. I didn’t meet him until later in life, but was reminded of his existence almost daily by people asking: “Where’s that funny name from, then?” There was never a shortage of material with which to answer.
In 1964, the 23 year-old Williams published The Speakers, a surreal ethnography of London’s most famous public ranting spot, Speakers’ Corner. It earned praise from Samuel Beckett, William Burroughs and Harold Pinter (the last of whom wrote: “These are the only people I’d ever want to listen to”). Pinter commissioned him to write a short play, which was to become The Local Stigmatic, later made into a film by Al Pacino, and recently revived at the Old Red Lion Theatre in London for its 50th anniversary.
His first full length play AC/DC premiered at the Royal Court in 1969 and elaborated on its predecessor’s theme of the grotesque inequalities caused by celebrity culture. (“Part comedy, part visionary tract, part psychedelic nightmare,” wrote The Guardian’s reviewer.) Many more gems were to follow, including the poignant Hancock’s Last Half Hour, and there was always a flow of pamphlets, poetry and manifestoes.
Throughout the Sixties and Seventies, Williams furiously involved himself in London’s counterculture – on which he left an indelible mark – and his experiments with alternative lifestyle were just as important as his writing, at least in terms of reputation. He was obsessed with magic, and briefly a member of the Magic Circle. (“I think it’s just breaking rules, really,” he says. “Magic gives the illusion of breaking rules, about gravity, about time, about place.”) And in the first-ever London Review of Books, Francis Wyndham wrote “The Magic of Heathcote Williams”, a piece that hailed him as “a kind of Prospero to the alternative society”.
“He is drawn to overstatement by a genuine indignation mixed with a teasing sense of farce,” continued Wyndham. “He celebrates the irrational in a facetiously punning language with evangelical and apocalyptic overtones.” Williams’s domain was Notting Hill, which was liberally daubed in the poetic graffiti of his milieu. “Squat now while stocks last”, “words do not mean anything today” and “housing is a right, freedom is a career” are some choice classics.
He worked intermittently and chaotically on different magazines: the literary journal Transatlantic Review, the radical vegetarian magazine Seed, and animal rights magazine The Beast (“the magazine that bites back”). Along with Germaine Greer and others, he founded Suck – the first European “sexual liberation” paper – before going on to establish “the independent state of Frestonia”, a squatted neighbourhood in West London’s Latimer Road.
Frestonia applied for a tank from the UN in order to defend itself from the local council. “It was a ploy really,” he says. “We had our own passports, our own stamps. The idea was to firewall these streets with so much publicity – à la the Ealong comedy Passport to Pimlico – that they would have to give us concessions. And it worked. A lot of people got social housing out of it.” Meanwhile, they had their own ministers and passports; walls were knocked down to make the back gardens collective; they took over a defunct local hall and turned it into their own national theatre. “In a way, I suppose that was a Brexit of sorts. That’s the kind I would like, not that of Boris Johnson.”
In the mid-1970s, Williams spent two and a half years running the Ruff Tuff Cream Puff Estate Agency. They would crack empty buildings, change the locks and give the keys to anybody in need of a house. It has been estimated by Tony Allen, the “father of alternative comedy”, that the agency was responsible for housing thousands of people (including a young Joe Strummer). After market days, leftover vegetables would be collected in a cauldron and served as Rubbish Risotto or Portobello Soup. “We were seeing people whose homelessness had caused other dark conditions. Somebody knifed me in the stomach for no reason at all. It was quite hairy sometimes.”
It was rumoured that the police were gathering evidence and intending to charge Williams with whatever they could in order to send him to prison. Mindful of the heat, he got out of town and in the next two decades wrote his best known works, a trilogy of richly illustrated book-length poems on environmental themes. After Whale Nation came its elephant equivalent, Sacred Elephant (1989), and then Autogeddon (1991), a Ballardian reflection on how cars are taking over the planet:
If an alien was to hover a few hundred yards above the planet
It could be forgiven for thinking
That cars were the dominant life-form,
And that human beings were a kind of ambulatory fuel cell:
Injected when the car wished to move off,
And ejected when they were spent.
The following 20 years passed more or less in obscurity and illness. “I wasn’t just lying around” he says, slightly defensively, “I was painting and writing. I campaigned to save Jericho Boatyard in Oxford from property developers.”
More recently, he helped to re-launch the International Times (founded 1966), both online and as a print publication that has so far run to three issues. And in the renaissance editorial, he invoked a spirit that has as much relevance to many young people now as it did nearly 50 years ago:
“One minute IT was a soggy-brained psychedelic hippy, the next a member of the Red Army Faction. It was a paper that endorsed squatting while the entire UK mainstream media liberal ‘lifestyle’ papers such as The Guardian were petrified by it and demonised it. The hidebound Marxist Left regarded IT and all it stood for as hedonist adventurism. So it was. And is. And much besides.”
But now Williams has come out of hiding, what’s next for the croaking old sage? “I’m working on too many things to mention, actually. My head is littered with unfinished stuff. I prefer talking about things when they’re cooked.”
Heathcote Williams’s pamphlet ‘Boris Johnson: The Blond Beast of Brexit A Study in Depravity’ is available from the London Review of Books bookshop for £7.99, tel: 0207 269 9030
A little Hawthorn bush has appeared in the sinister vale of Visnar
Our dear friend Jesus Arias, writer, musician, composer and doyen of Granada, Andalucia, died earlier in the year. He was still young with much ahead of him. Pneumonia swept him away as he slept.
His brothers buried his ashes in that terrible wooded vale just outside Visnar where thousands of men, women and children were shot dead during the Spanish civil war and buried in mass graves… among them Federico Garcia Lorca.
Jesus once went to Visnar with a spade, copious amounts of weed and Joe Strummer, on a quest to discover the actual resting place of Granada’s great poet.
They gave up on digging after a while but smoked so much pot that they felt they were communicating with Lorca and, as Jesus loved to relate, Joe announced, ‘This is a bad place, man, I can feel it’.
There is a square named after Joe Strummer in Granada. Well a square-let, actually, Placeta Joe Strummer.
Jesus loved Lorca and his brothers felt he would like to share this cold earth with his hero and dug a hole in the shade of a large tree and placed his ashes there with tender remembrance.
Jesus’s brother Jose took us to visit and remember Jesus. As you leave the village of Visnar, the small white road snakes between increasingly obscure hills. Even this road is indescribably sinister and you can easily imagine military trucks packed with victims rattling along it, drawing to a slow stop at the place of execution.
Even though it was a sunny Spanish day it was deadly cold as we walked through the trees. The earth itself was thick and cold and lifeless. I caught a chill from that place and was ill for a while.
But… in the very spot where the Arias brothers had placed Jesus’s ashes, a plant had taken root and was now thriving. Fresh and green, it was a hawthorn. It seemed miraculous that this cold earth and this spot overshadowed by a tree could produce this little bush.
Later, we would discover that Hawthorn is not only the symbol of creativity (which Jesus had in abundance) but is the very plant from which Jesus Christ’s crown of thorns was fashioned. Is it fanciful to consider this as a message from Jesus, a poetic gesture from beyond the grave?