A review of ‘I Knew the Bride’, by Hugo Williams. A marvellous, memorious collection drawn to the second world war and family heartache
I Knew the Bride Hugo Williams
Faber, pp.80, £12.99, ISBN: 978057130888
Around 1960, I went to work with the literary staff of The Spectator, where I was followed, in a later world, by the poet and diarist Hugo Williams. At this early stage it was possible to feel close to the family that could be inferred from his poems: a mother and a film-star father injured in the war, two brothers, a sister. He was thought, from school onward, to be a member of thejeunesse dorée. His satires could look as if they had issued from the Albany, or other Regency revival buildings. His poems were recognised from the first as elegant and intelligent. Many of them were poems that good manners might write.
It would be silly, of course, to go on as if he were a gentleman rather than a poet, a refugee from a Wilde matinée, but it is nonetheless possible to suppose that his class meant something to his verse, that of a somewhat specialised democrat at times. Let it be said that his activities as a poetry editor, searching for and refusing people’s offerings, were the work of a working man.
I Knew the Bride is a marvellous, memorious collection, once it moves away from the cryptic poems of the early pages. It’s an abstemious collection which is drawn to second world wartime and which sets you down with an aeronautical dump or threat:
A wartime section with sandbags,
gas masks, love letters, lipstick,
an air-raid shelter
with corrugated iron roof,
blackouts, searchlights, adultery,
the King and Queen to the rescue:
blood, sweat and Bovril.
We exit through a luminous arch
set in a mushroom cloud
One of his most heart-rending poems is the elegy for his sister Polly (1950–2004) in memory of what happened when the children were small; Polly was teased and chased in the usual way and it may be that the poem (perfectly judged, not a foot wrong) has a measure of contrition in it:
You fought a five-year war
with that foul thing
which deals in hope and fear,
two against one,
like the brothers who tormented you
The development of the siblings’ relationship gives the structure of the poem; the ragging of the fairytale princess ends in witnessing Polly’s back-parting swept into the flames of a cremation.
A separate sequence of poems on his time (still unexpired) in the dialysis ward of a London hospital follows the Polly poem. The description of processing is plain and factual: a flash of needles, a worshipped Indian nurse, a Dickensian grotesque. The simplest words often turn out to be among the best:
They always ask you how you are
when you arrive,
but they know already of course.
It’s pretty obvious
from the pleading look on your faces
and your dialysis tan
That you’re a regular here
and it doesn’t do
to say you feel terrible
You’re lucky to be alive,
but you don’t see it like that.
You think you’re being brave.
The people are in the ward to have their blood washed and decanted, and a kidney sought.
Not long ago a doctor rang him in the middle of the night at his home (home-executed dialysis had been mooted) and asked him to come in for examination and to be confronted by a new possible donor. Hugo was not successful.
The poems in the new collection seal his claim to be thought a distinguished and endearing poet, while his hospital poems rate as a great human achievement. It is a pleasure to speak well of Hugo’s work: the sensation may date back to the days when it could be felt by some that there was a need for kind words and protection. He is now a national treasure more than a protected species, and I hope I haven’t been grovelling here. Not that he would have noticed, perhaps. He is less dependent on praise than most writers, while as much as ever, in the new book, deserving it.