The poet is best known for writing about his colourful family but a serious illness has led him to darker places
By Sameer Rahim
21 Apr 2014
The poet Hugo Williams lives in a north London house you could describe as un-carefully preserved. Squeezed on the walls are pictures of his father, the actor Hugh Williams; the shelves groan with 50 volumes of personal scrapbooks; and the living room walls retain their dark pink Sixties hue. One thing that has changed drastically is the house’s worth. When he and his French wife Hermine Demoriane bought the place in 1966 they paid just £5,000. “Our neighbours thought we had been ripped off,” he tells me airily. “In the Fifties these houses went for £500.”
In Williams’s 1985 collection Writing Home, Hugh is a vivid presence. “I was a lovesick crammer-candidate, reading / poetry under the desk in History, / wondering how to go about my life. / 'Write a novel!’ said my father. / 'Put everything in! Sell the film rights for a fortune! / Sit up straight!’” Williams didn’t write a novel or follow his father into acting. Instead he became a poet.
“I tend to be treated as a biographical subject because I’m so colourful,” Williams tells me. “It’s not particularly relevant though, is it?” But when the poems draw so much from his life, curiosity is surely natural? “People think it’s something to do with self-love or fascination with father or showbusiness. It’s not: I write poems and poems need material. I don’t know how to find material that isn’t mine.” He seems a touch defensive for a poet whose first collection Symptoms of Loss was published when he was only 23; and who won the TS Eliot Prize for Billy’s Rain in 1999. But because of his light subject matter and smooth diction – a far cry from modernism’s jagged edges – his work has not always been taken seriously. “It doesn’t seem to go down very well in the academic world,” he says. He switches tack: “These things are written as a higher form of entertainment,” he admits. “Fred Astaire and all that: if it looks difficult you’re not trying hard enough.”
His new collection, I Knew the Bride, returns to family memories and painful love affairs. (He and his wife take a bohemian attitude to fidelity.) The same titles, lines and places crop up from his previous work. Williams has been accused by the critic Robert Potts of being a “one-club golfer”: writing the same poem again and again. He counters that his poems are attempts to encapsulate common experiences: “Love is a universal theme. You’re already halfway there. The rest is just fiddling with the language.”
One increasing preoccupation is mortality. This book’s title poem is a memorial for his sister Polly, who died in 2004. “At the Pillars” is dedicated to Mick Imlah, with whom he worked at the TLS, and who died in 2009. The Pillars refers to the Soho pub the Pillars of Hercules, where Williams hung out with Imlah and other writers in the circle of the editor Ian Hamilton. His early poems were influenced by Thom Gunn but, he says, “I did get over it by the time of my first collection because Ian Hamilton had got hold of me.” He imitated the “intense sensitivity and shortness” of Hamilton’s poems, though Williams was more prolific than his mentor. “I’ve needed poems more than they’ve needed me.”
Does he feel nostalgic for those days? “I feel nostalgic for everything now that I’m ill,” he tells me. Three years ago Williams was diagnosed with kidney disease and now has dialysis treatment three times a week. He writes about the experience in an 18-poem sequence entitled “From the Dialysis Ward”. Were they hard to write? “It was pretty easy because of all the material rushing in.”
On the way to hospital he cuts through St Pancras Old Church Cemetery, where Thomas Hardy once supervised the removal of bodies. Around an ash tree he placed a series of headstones that look, in Williams’s memorable phrase, “like children listening to a story”. “I got a lot of comfort from that garden,” Williams tells me. “The Beatles went there for a photo shoot, and one of Bach’s sons was buried there. I have an idea that Shelley propositioned Mary on her mother’s grave.”
Other dialysis poems tackle the physical process of having his blood cleaned. One poem opens, “Needles have the sudden beauty / of a first line” – an exquisite analogy between the procedure and the painful release of creativity. Another plays darkly on his own improvised freelance existence: “The beauty of dialysis / is that it saves you the trouble / of planning too far ahead”. Williams is not one for self-pity. “I’m very cold-blooded about the business of writing poetry,” he says, adding quickly, “I’m cold-blooded in the execution but not in the feeling.”
In the year since he wrote these poems, Williams’s health has deteriorated. He is waiting for a kidney transplant but soon might be too ill for the operation. His daughter Murphy has set up a Facebook campaign to find him a donor. Williams, in his very English way, downplays the whole thing. “They have tried to dramatise it a bit – though it’s true that if you’re not well you can’t get a transplant.” Without prompting he adds: “Murphy did offer me a kidney but she changed her mind… At the moment three or four people have suggested they might donate. I’ve got a slightly dubious feeling about it all. It seems too good to be true.”
There have been a number of sympathetic comments on the Facebook page – “I’ve always liked your poetry, that kind of thing.” He doesn’t seem comfortable being an object of pity. “All the answers on Facebook are to do with kindness. It’s a bit annoying. I hope this kind of charitableness doesn’t affect the reviews.”
His illness, it seems, has made him even more dreamily obsessed with his past. Before I leave he shows me one of his many scrapbooks. “Whatever happens first is the true thing,” he tells me. “That’s true for everyone.” In one of his dialysis poems, “Zombie”, he speaks of the “friend” who sucks his blood. “He keeps me alive / in the sense that memories are alive.” The friend might be a nurse or a needle; it could just as easily be poetry.