Royal Babylon by Heathcote Williams review: broadside poetry nailed to palace door
Timothy O’Grady admires a polemic epic poem by the author of Whale Nation and Autogeddon, a remorseless dissection of the ‘Criminal Record of the British Monarchy’
In Heathcote Williams’ Royal Babylon, blood runs in torrents from the throne. Titular head of the armed forces, receiver of fealty, beneficiary of shares in weapons systems, convener of arms-dealing fairs in her castles, signer of death sentences in dominions, bestower of medals on war criminals, seizer of the properties of the intestate dead, Britain’s queen is here displayed as vampiric
I first saw Heathcote Williams when he did a drag act of the Queen at a fundraising event for an organisation aiming to put Britain on trial for its imperial crimes in Ireland. He’d written sui generis plays that had such titles as Remember the Truth Dentist, his thoughts had been inscribed by him in large letters on the walls of Notting Hill, he’d started a squatters’ estate agency, was chief impresario and foreign minister for a London neighbourhood called Frestonia that had seceded from England and pledged in a poem not to pay his taxes “until traffic noise contains information” (you can hear him read it here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KYBsD5BqZ5U).
When activist Michael X was put to death in Port of Spain on a warrant signed by the Queen, he painted the walls of Buckingham Palace. He was gadfly, wit, dazzler, libertine, an erudite, mellifluous polemicist, anarchist, republican, anti-war, vegetarian Puck with a reverence for nature, an empathy for the marginal and a remarkable capacity for the imaginative verbal lash. People said he was “mad”, others that he was just mad “nor’ by nor’west” and still others that he was manifestly possessed in every line he wrote of the sane balance inherent in Chicago humorist Finley Peter Dunne’s admonition “to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable”.
Around the time I saw him with handbag, wig askew and baggy nylons he was developing his own kind of poem: book-length, satirical, informative, with footnotes, illustrations and a moral force in the manner of Zola’s J’Accuse. The first I was aware of was Autogeddon, on the malign and murderous presence of the motor car. His attention was then drawn to large gray mammals and he wrote Sacred Elephant, Whale Nation (you can hear some of it here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zGZ78B3WRjI) and, after a time in Kerry with the Dingle dolphin, Falling for a Dolphin. Whale Nation, at least for a poem, became a global event.
Then, as far as I could tell, he disappeared. I asked people I thought would know for news of him. “He’s a recluse,” “He only paints,” “I think he’s lost a leg,” and “I heard he was crowdfunding a kidney” were some of the things I heard. None of them was true.
Then I read that he’d published a long poem called Shelley at Oxford: Blasphemy, Book Burning and Bedlam (Huxley Scientific Press). I’d long thought they’d intersected at numerous points: both products of Eton and Oxford who’d become scourges of the establishment, both haters of war, celebrators of nature, romantic exponents of freedom in love and politics and the individual psyche. I then learned of two further books, Forbidden Fruit (Huxley Scientific Press), containing poems on science, technology and natural history, and Badshah Khan (Thin Man Press), on a Muslim colleague of Gandhi who’d raised an army of one hundred thousand for a peace jihad.
He had, in fact, been doing what he’d always done, writing poems on a more or less daily basis on subjects both public and personal and publishing them in International Times and other online underground presses, as well as putting them on YouTube. “I’ve always thought the most effective method of distribution is to give your work away,” he said.
Now we have Royal Babylon, on the British royal family. It has been online and bilingually available in Germany, but is published this month by Skyscraper. On the occasion of Victoria’s diamond jubilee this newspaper contributed a Jubilee Ode: “Thou rulest supreme, as no other, / Queen, Empress and Woman, in one – / Our Sovr’n, our Lady, our Mother, / Like whom there is none,” and then noted a break in the festivities caused by a national counter-demonstration, conceived in part by James Connolly, one of those Irish patriots executed by the British in whose honour Victoria’s great-great granddaughter Elizabeth laid a wreath 114 years later. Elizabeth is on the cover of Royal Babylon, with crown and stole and silver candy-floss hair, looking into your eyes like a Nazi eugenicist.
As an American who lived for decades in England I’d often wondered why people there voluntarily demoted themselves from citizen to subject and then masochistically celebrated it. As Axel Nay Hoch says in Williams’ 1964 The Speakers, “These people are only elevated above your position when you make yourself TINY.” Such dissenting constitutional views can be received in England with an attenuated tolerance, but the consensus is that though the royal family may be relics, they “bat for Britain”, “work tirelessly” for charity, generate tourism and, anyway, “Isn’t it good to have someone who is above politics?” Fraught heads can be comforted on the royal bosom. Williams seeks systematically to dismantle these defences and subtitles his poem “The Criminal Record of the British Monarchy”.
In Royal Babylon, blood runs in torrents from the throne. Titular head of the armed forces, receiver of fealty, beneficiary of shares in weapons systems, convener of arms-dealing fairs in her castles, signer of death sentences in dominions, bestower of medals on war criminals, seizer of the properties of the intestate dead, the Queen is here displayed as vampiric. One by one her family and many of their predecessors are laid out on a kind of poetic vivisecting table, among them George V, who tobogganed in St Moritz during the Flanders slaughter; the petulant Charles in tirades over improperly folded shirts spending £30,000 per year of public money on a Highgrove florist and extracting rents from suicidal tenant farmers during the foot-and-mouth epidemic; Harry guiding American bombers to their human targets and later boasting about it at a nightclub; Philip, with four sisters married to Nazis, hoping to be reincarnated as a deadly virus to help solve the population problem; Margaret excoriating “nig-nogs” and declaring the Irish “pigs, all pigs”.
Williams, entering their psychopathology, seems to wonder if they’re really to blame, given that they’ve had guns put into their hands since childhood to point at animals, Andrew’s daughter starting at six. Philip, with 56 rifles, brought down 10,000 pheasants in a single stay at an estate as well as crocodiles, a tiger, stags at other times in a lifelong hunt that “Ranges widely over continents, covering mammals and birds / For the tweedy Duke’s jocular holocaust”. He and Charles killed 50 boar in a single sporting day in Germany. This “vainglorious killer cabal” suffers too from “…saturation publicity / Promoting them as ‘state symbols’ which then makes them go part-mad / Just as zoo animals go mad from being stared at”.
As the poem gathers itself to move towards its end the royal assets and security costs are guessed at, suggestions are made for how better to spend them and vitriol is let loose at “ceremonialist cranks”, this “monstrous carbuncle” and this “toy-town family” of “bit-part actors in a pseudo-religious, catchpenny cult” in the hope that British citizens will “cash in their tickets for the show” and way can be made for Herne the Hunter with his Pan-like presence and royal estates be restored to common land.
This is unrhymed and unmetered broadside poetry that could be nailed to a palace door. If I were its editor I might have suggested a little slimming and rearranging, but this poem is real, vivid, deeply felt, urgent and serious. Amid the royal gossip and worship of the powerful, it asks questions of the institution and its defenders that deserve to be addressed. It’s difficult to imagine a persuasive answer.
Royal Babylon by Heathcote Williams (Skyscraper Publications, £7.99)
Timothy O’Grady’s works include Divine Magnetic Lands: A Journey in America; I Could Read the Sky; Curious Journey: An Oral History of Ireland’s Unfinished Revolution (with Kennneth Griffith); and Children of Las Vegas: True Stories about Growing up in the World’s Playground (with Steve Pyke) due out in June