Williams, Hugo (Mordaunt)

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WILLIAMS, Hugo (Mordaunt)

Nationality: British. Born: Windsor, Berkshire, 20 February 1942; son of the actor and playwright Hugh Williams. Education: Eton College, 1955–59. Family: Married Hermine Demoriane in 1965; one daughter. Career: Editorial assistant, 1960–61, and assistant editor, 1961–70, London Magazine; staff writer, Telegraph Magazine, London, 1965; Henfield Fellow, University of East Anglia, Norwich, 1981; television critic and poetry editor, New Statesman, London, 1983–88; theater critic, Sunday Correspondent, London, 1989–91. Since 1993 film critic for Harper's, New York, and Queen's, London. Teaches at University of East Anglia, works as a film critic, and writes the "Freelance Column" for the Times Literary Supplement.Awards: Eric Gregory award, 1965; Arts Council bursary,1966; Cholmondeley award, 1970; Faber memorial prize, 1979. Address: 3 Raleigh Street, London N1 8NW, England.



Symptoms of Loss. London and New York, Oxford University Press, 1965.

Poems. London, The Review, 1969.

Sugar Daddy. London and New York, Oxford University Press, 1970.

Cherry Blossom. London, Poem-of-the-Month Club, 1972.

Some Sweet Day. London and New York, Oxford University Press, 1975.

Love-Life. London, Whizzard Press, 1979.

Writing Home. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1985.

First Poems. Edinburgh, Tragara Press, 1985.

Selected Poems. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1989.

Self-Portrait with a Slide. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1990.

Dock Leaves. London, Faber, 1994.

Billy's Rain. London, Faber, 1999.

Recording: British Poets of Our Times, with Adrian Henri, Argo.


Screenplay: Flight to Berlin, with Christopher Petit, 1984.


All the Time in the World (travel). London, Alan Ross, 1966; Philadelphia, Chilton, 1968.

No Particular Place to Go (travel). London, Cape, 1981.

Freelancing: Adventures of a Poet. London and Boston, Faber, 1995.

Editor, "London Magazine" Poems, 1961–1966. London, Alan Ross. 1966.


Critical Studies: Interview with Mark Wormald, in Oxford Poetry, 4(3), September 1989; by Robert Crawford, in London Review of Books, 17(4), 23 February 1995..

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The poems of Hugo Williams are atypical of much contemporary British poetry in their candid ability to express emotion. Some critics have complained that his poems veer into sentiment, but the fact remains that they are noticeably open to feeling in a way that, say, the poems of Philip Larkin certainly are and those of other, younger poets are not. He is also unusual in that many of his poems form part of an ongoing autobiography. His work has a stylistic and rhythmic lightness of touch in which traditional verse forms evolve into something recognizably his own.

When Williams first came to notice in the late 1960s, he was grouped with the poets Michael Fried, Ian Hamilton, David Harsent, and Colin Falck, who (along with other poets) published in the Review little magazine. A typical Review poem was generally short, imagistic, and focused precisely on a single emotion or situation. The idea of a "school" was short-lived and misleading however, and the poets involved soon developed along their own separate ways.

Williams's first book, Symptoms of Loss, hardly fits the Review stereotype. It also does not suffer from the derivative style of many first books but achieves a distinctive individual tone throughout. Symptoms of Loss opens and closes with impressively original poems, from the opening "Still Hot from Filing," a meditation on a newly cut front door key, to the final poem, "The Butcher," which is characteristic of his work in a number of ways:

He is a rosy young man with white eyelashes
Like a bullock. He always serves me now.
I think he knows about my life. How we prefer
To eat in when it's cold. How someone
With a foreign accent can only cook veal.
He writes the price on the grease-proof packet
And hands it to me courteously. His smile
Is the official seal on my marriage.

The language is simple, favoring coolly expressed plain statements of fact, and the poem provides us with a brief glimpse into part of a continuing autobiography. The specific everyday things of life such as "grease-proof" paper and the courteous smile with which the meat is handed over are clearly noted. There is a sense of distance between the two involved in the transaction, yet a sense of relationship too. But the everydayness of the poem is deceptive and can suddenly veer off into unusual flights of (pre-Martian) fantastic imagery and wit, as when the butcher is described as "like a bullock" or when a smile becomes "the official seal on my marriage." This first book showed Williams to have already a fully realized tone and approach of his own. The apprenticeship that led to the maturity of Symptoms of Loss can be followed in the early poems gathered in the 1985 limited edition First Poems.

In many ways marriage and married life are Williams's key themes and a thread running through his early books. He is an original and disarmingly direct love poet, managing to be both honest and engaging, as in "Sugar Daddy," from the book of the same name, in which he confesses, "I'm blood brother, / Sugar-daddy, millionaire to you. / I want to buy you things."

Love-Life was a book centered around the single theme of love—not often particularly happy—from the perspective of marriage. In "Bachelors" we find a sense of the responsibilities of marriage and the view of bachelors as both "denimed Romeos" and "amateurs of passion," knowing little of the reality of love. This somber note is found elsewhere in the book, yet expressed with an almost throwaway lightness of touch that, neither too overcrafted nor too rhythmically loose, brought something new to poetry. Another poem, "Present Continuous," gives us a specific image of loss based on possessions in "fifty pairs of shoes / Still hang around the window on the stairs, / The changing fashions of your years with me." Other poems touch on Williams's interest in clothes, a self-consciously dandiacal aspect (perhaps inherited from his "father's forty-seven suits") unusual in contemporary British poetry and highly suspected and misunderstood by the more puritan of literary critics.

Both Love-Life and Williams's next, and best, book, Writing Home, explore aspects of his youth. Writing Home takes as its theme his relationship with his father, the stage and film actor Hugh Williams. The book enabled Williams, as it did Robert Lowell in his autobiographical Life Studies, to introduce more deeply personal material taken direct from his own family history. The forms of the poems are rhythmically supple, at once fluid and seemingly throwaway, entertained and entertaining, yet moving too. Writing Home has a unified tone throughout. Even in the formal elegy "Death of an Actor" it is amused, ironic without malice, good mannered to the reader, and possessing real humor, elegance, and wit.

The book charts the boyhood and youth of Williams. The opening poem, "At Least a Hundred Words," deals with the letters written by the boys at a boarding school to their parents at homes far away. The poems in Writing Home are letters written by the adult poet to his past:

What shall we say in our letters home?
That we're perfectly all right?
That we stand on the playground with red faces
and our hair sticking up?

The two major pieces of the book are the sequences "An Actor's War" and "Death of an Actor," the latter a formal elegy for his father. But the book is also self-mockingly funny at the expense of Williams's younger self, as in "Early Work" on his conscious teenage attempts to imitate popular hairstyles, "a turmoil of popular styles and prejudices, / stiff with unreality and fear." Williams also perfectly captures schoolboy angst in "A Picture of a Girl in a Bikini," when he is summoned to the headmaster's study:

Inside is the worst news in the world,
my copy of Man Junior with a picture of a girl
in a bikini playing with a beach ball.
I must have left it under my mattress.
The Headmaster looks at me in disbelief
and asks, 'What is the meaning of this?'

The book was a risk, dealing with personal autobiography directly and honestly (there is a poem on his father—"Out of work at fifty, smoking fifty a day"), but it was his most successful and impressive achievement to date.

Self-Portrait with a Slide, Williams's next book, included the reemergence, in a number of poems, of Sonny Jim, a lanky and cheerful children's character from an early breakfast cereal ad. He was first introduced as a Williams persona in Sugar Daddy, and Sonny Jim poems have appeared in books regularly since then. Sonny Jim is self-conscious, boyish, humorous, and vulnerable, an innocent adrift in a complex world. The poems, interspersed among others in Self-Portrait with a Slide, create a thread running through the book.

Whereas Writing Home concentrated on Williams's relationship with his father, his book Dock Leaves takes as its central theme poems occasioned by memories following the death of his mother, the actress and dramatist Margaret Vyner. The return to personal material is fruitful and makes the book another high point for Williams's readers. Early in the book we find "Margaret Vyner," consisting of prose passages on important events in the external world juxtaposed with brief glimpses of the progress of the child from the age of eleven in Sydney in 1925 through her time as a chorus girl, the realization of her ambition to go to Europe, her work as a model, and her eventual marriage to Williams's father. The prose poem ends in the year 1946 with an image of the four-year-old poet carrying about "my mother's empty Patou scent bottle in the shape of a crown."

The poems of Dock Leaves evoke the boyhood of Williams and present scenes from his life in relation to his mother with ease and a characteristic lightness of touch. The reader is offered sensitive and dispassionate views of a personal happiness and of a boy growing up from childhood to adolescence, of girlfriends, and of the eventual responsibilities of adulthood. "The Age of Steam" brilliantly recreates a farewell at a railway station in the 1950s. His mother kisses her son good-bye:

A last gasp of Moment Supreme
as she leans over me, then nothing at all
but the ribbon of her smell unravelling,
the station clock moving on with a little jerk,
the whistle blowing.

The method of a poem such as this is very close to the early success of "The Butcher" of 1965 and demonstrates the stylistic consistency of Williams's work. Throughout Dock Leaves we meet a lucid and careful artistry that aims to present us with realistically portrayed incidents from a personal past. The poem "Joy," with its metaphorical understanding that for every pain there is a joy to balance it—"that there was nothing / worse in all the world / than stinging nettle stings / and nothing better / than cool dock leaves"—could serve as the coda of the book.

Billy's Rain, published in 1999, is a book to read in tandem with the earlier Love-Life. Both books deal with the reality and the complexities of human sexual love. But while Love-Life centers on marriage, Billy's Rain is a book about a love affair. The book was a critical success on publication and received the T.S. Eliot prize, the premier British poetry award. At the presentation, made by T.S. Eliot's widow Valerie, Blake Morrison, who was chairman of the judges, spoke of the book's "seeming artlessness, its unflinching candour and its cumulative power."

Billy's Rain is a book-length sequence of fifty-one poems that chart the development of a love affair from beginning to end. The book has a narrative flow that lends a compelling edge to the poems and holds the reader's attention throughout. The reader is taken into the confidence of the writer and lives through his experience. The story is told in a fair and curiously balanced way, with a lack of self-dramatization. The language takes pride in seeming artlessly plain while also showing that only a true master could construct these poems, as in the subtleties of "Siren Song," which ends,

Once in a while she'll pick up the phone
and her voice sings to me out of the past.
The hair on the back of my neck stands up
as I catch her smell for a second.

Williams expresses brilliantly the highs and lows of the affair, while keeping his characteristic lightness of touch and his sense of humor intact. "Her News," which comes toward the end of the book, when the affair is over, has a twist at the end and reconfirms the strengths of marriage, with all of its affection and its arguments:

But no, I couldn't go through all that again,
not without my own wife being there,
not without her getting cross about everything.

The poems of Williams express real emotions from the past and the present plainly and honesty and with a limpid deftness of rhythm. He has, rightly, been called a writer able to celebrate the moment, and his poems are sure to endure.

—Jonathan Barker

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