7 March 2014
Sorry to hear that Hugo Williams is unwell. The TS Eliot Prize winner has been on dialysis for three years and Heywood Hill, the old Curzon Street bookshop, has sent out an unusual appeal to its customers.
Hugo’s “health is failing fast and soon he will not be fit enough for a kidney transplant,” says its newsletter. It goes on to inform his customers that “His family has just started a Facebook campaign to find him a live donor — please share it far and wide.”
Hugo’s daughter Murphy says the wonderful responses so far have been “his first ray of hope for a long time” with more than 600 people already signed up. “But we are still looking for the one angel who will make the miracle happen.”
by ANDREW JOHNSON
Hugo Williams looks surprisingly well, considering he needs a kidney transplant. The winner of the Queen’s Gold Medal for poetry and the TS Eliot prize is sitting on a well-worn sofa in his home in Canonbury having just got in from dialysis at St Pancras Hospital.
His wife, the artist and former tightrope walker Hermine Demoriane, is there watching over him.
His skin, which belies his 70 years, is full of colour and he looks lean and trim.
But, he warns, I shouldn’t be fooled.
“It’s very funny,” he says. “If you lose a lot of weight people tend to say you look well. I think it’s because they’re secretly horrified. They think: ‘God he looks thin, and ill and old and unwell – better say he looks well’.”
He laughs, before adding: “I have a fairly youthful skin, so for 70 I’m doing well. But I have lost two stone, so for me I look ghastly.”
Williams first learned he had a failing kidney three years ago and describes talking about it as a sort of out-of-body experience.
“It’s a shock, [a feeling that] this can’t be me,” he says.
“There are all kinds of reactions you go through. One is a slight sense of shame, another is depression and a shrinking of the world. People who have been through it before say you just have to get a grip really.
“It’s interesting why one feels shame,” he adds. “I suppose it’s because one is no longer quite the physical specimen one was before. And also feeling ashamed at being so self-obsessed and self-pitying.”
There are moments he forgets he’s ill but these are inevitably followed by the awful recollection.
A bit like waking from a pleasant dream. “In a sense the better time you have, the more of a shock it is to remember what’s really going on in your life,” he says.
“Sick people tend not to be with well people very much because they remind them about being ill too much. Whereas if you’re with sick people you can say, well, I’m not as sick as him.”
The psychologist he was referred to – “a young chap who was doing his best to comfort this old geezer” – had one bit of wisdom, he adds, which was to keep the dialysis separate from the rest of his life.
This is why he troops down to St Pancras three times a week armed with a laptop, CDs and Akira Kurosawa and Curb Your Enthusiasm DVDs.
“It’s five hours there, and four hours on the needle. It takes an hour to get there, so the whole thing is about seven hours. But it is containable in that it’s three times a week. I’ve got my mornings and my weekends.”
Williams was born into a theatrical family, and has the kind of easy charm and sense of humour that public schools – he went to Eton – tend to provide to some of their more sensitive pupils.
His sense of humour is still intact, and he explains that his wife Hermine is also a part of the treatment for the comfort she provides.
He is now on the waiting list for a kidney and looking for a donor. Hermine isn’t compatible but she may be able to join a kidney exchange programme.
In the meantime, there’s a likelihood of three years of painful dialysis.
That’s the average wait, he explains, although it’s not a list you move steadily up.
The computer throws in other factors, such as age, and whether or not you have young children.
“But would I do it myself?,” he wonders of donating an organ. “The dialysis is going all right – sometimes it’s not too painful putting the needles in.”
The laptop is one of the concessions to modern technology he has had to make – he still uses a manual typewriter. Another is buying a mobile phone so the hospital can call should a kidney becomes available.
“Otherwise they’ll offer it to someone else,” he says.
Being a poet, however, has proved to be a “saviour” he adds, because to write means going to a mental state where he is neither ill nor well.
He is thinking of writing a long poem about his condition and has a first line, inspired by St Pancras Cemetery, the grounds of the Old Church in St Pancras Road where he kills a bit of time before going for dialysis next door.
“The first line would be: ‘This is where the Great Western railway cuts through the cemetery of St Pancras Old Church’ to momentarily treat the cutting through of the cemetery as the news of this cutting through of my life.
“Poetry reminds you who you really are and what you do,” he says.
“I’ve never thought of poetry as being self-expression. I’ve always thought of it as a making job, making something that will last. It’s much more of a search than an expression – like trying to find out something you didn’t know. I start working with phrases and see what they can be made to say, rather than making them say things.
“So it’s a collaboration with words. It sounds pretentious. I’m always going on about this and hating myself at the same time. You need lots of peace and sunshine and music and coffee and all that. I was listening to a programme about Chopin the other morning and he was deeply crippled toward the end of his life and when started to play his body relaxed and became recognisably the way it had been before.
“Poetry is like that – a place where there is no illness or wellness.”
Every other day I follow the route
of the Midland Railway
to where it cuts through
St Pancras Old Church Cemetery.
I might go into the church
and heave a sigh or two
before continuing via a gate
set in the cemetery wall
to the Mary Rankin Wing
of St Pancras Hospital.
As a young man, Thomas Hardy
supervised the removal of bodies
from part of the cemetery
to make way for the trains.
He placed the headstones
round an ash tree sapling,
now grown tall, where I stop sometimes
to look at the stones
crowding round the old tree
like children listening to a story.
A Game of Dialysis
The home team appears
in a blue strip, while the visitors
keep on their street clothes.
We find our positions
from the file with our name on it
placed beside our bed.
Now all we can do is wait
for the opposition to make a move.
We don’t like our chances.
The action commences
with the home team wandering about,
or making a tour of the circuit.
Certain moves are typical –
lengthwise, for example,
is a popular move, or scoring points
by passing back and forth
between the glove dispenser
and the needle disposal box.
The visitors can only look on
as the enemy’s game plan emerges.
We score by keeping quiet
about our disadvantages,
or saying something funny.
Whether anyone gets hurt
depends on who is marking whom.
The blues fan out round the room.
Each of them is doing something difficult
to somebody lying down.
The Art of Needling
You find out early on
that some of the nurses
are better than others
at the art of needling.
You have to ascertain
who’s on duty
that knows what they’re doing,
with your fistula arm
and beg him to ‘put you on’.
If he’s any good
he’ll take his time
raising or lowering the bed,
laying out his things on the tray.
He won’t forget the spray.
He’ll listen to the ‘bruit’
produced by your fistula.
He’ll note the ‘thrill’ of it,
feel it with his finger.
Only then will he go in.
Even so, a wayward needle
can pierce a fistula wall,
causing a ‘blow’ to occur.
Then you have to go to A&E
for a fistulaplasty.
A dog has got hold of my arm
and is dragging me down.
Its canines pierce an artery.
Its entrails twitch with my blood.
Whenever I am brought in
for further questioning,
the dog stands over me,
grinding its teeth in my flesh.
It’s like being nailed to the floor
and told to relax.
This is what dogs are for,
to find out who you are.
I watch its eyes going round,
analysing the evidence.
I’ll admit to anything.
The Angel of the Needles
The beauty of the Indian nurse
puts the fear of God in me
when she approaches my bed
carrying the blue tray.
Did she have to take a needling test
like other mortals?
Or did they let her in
for being one of the angels?
I want her to like me,
but I have to look away
when she strips the paper from the needles
and bends over me.
She applies the tourniquet
and lays a finger on the vein.
Something about her touch
makes the needles melt in my flesh.
She takes away the pain
by telling me in a mournful tone
about her son Ibrahim
who is bullied at school
for the mixed pigments on his face.
Ray Blighter appears in the doorway
of the dialysis ward
in all his ruined finery –
waistcoat, buttonhole, blazer,
eyebrows dashed in with mascara –
and pauses for a moment to ensure
all eyes are upon him.
‘MY NAME IS BOND’ he shouts
to the assembled company.
‘JAMES FUCKING BOND.’
He sets off down the line of beds,
muttering, looking straight ahead,
yellowing grey flannels
flapping round his ankles.
He’s two hours late,
having been ‘run over by a bus’,
but God help anyone who’s taken
his precious corner bed.
If the rabbi is there ahead of him
he’s liable to turn around
and go home again.
He sets out his life
on the table across his bed –
beer cans, biscuits, betting slips,
a hairbrush, aftershave,
a radio tuned to Radio 2,
the only one allowed on the ward
because Ray is a ‘character’.
He goes and stands in the fire exit
for his ritual ‘last cigarette’
before he kills himself.
‘Do you smoke Morland Specials
with the three gold rings?’ I ask.
Ray lifts a coal-black eyebrow.
‘Do you think I look like Sean Connery?’
He acted with Sean, he tells me,
in several James Bond films,
including Live and Let Die.
‘And no, not as a bleeding extra!’
When he goes on to describe his role
in Bridge on the Fucking River Kwai
the penny drops.
Trapped in his own Japanese
prisoner-of-war camp for ten years,
he’s lied and cursed his way free.
‘I won’t be coming in on Monday’,
he tells me confidentially.
‘I’m going to the fucking races.’
Of course he is. I may be there myself.
The shock of remembering,
having forgotten for a second,
that this isn’t a cure,
but a kind of false health,
like drug addiction.
It performs the trick
of taking off the water
which builds up in your system,
bloating your body,
raising your blood pressure.
It sieves you clean of muck
for a day or two,
by means of a transparent tube
full of pinkish sand
hanging next to your machine.
Your kidneys like the idea
of not having to work any more
and gradually shut down,
leaving you dependent.
Then you stop peeing.
Dialysis is bad for you.
You feel sick
most of the time, until the end.
The shock of remembering,
having forgotten for a second.
I’m technically dead, they tell me,
but I remember being alive
as if it were yesterday.
I’m covered in mud, like a zombie,
in the storms of a new grave.
I remember the world above
and what it was like up there,
thanks to a friend
who sucks my blood for me.
He keeps me alive
in the sense that memories are alive.
Leaving behind the Gothic frowns
of the former workhouse, I pass through a gate
into a churchyard overhung by great trees,
where the nurses go to smoke.
Mary Wollstonecraft’s tomb,
where Shelley proposed to her daughter,
escaped demolition by Thomas Hardy
and seems to be plunging off into a storm.
Shelley’s heart, wrapped in a brown paper parcel,
Hardy took by train to Bournemouth,
sitting in a first class compartment
with the heart on his knee.