NOT the least enjoyment in reading Hugo Williams is the sense one gets of a man pleased with himself for getting through life's drudgery.
Waking up, getting out of bed, washing and dressing and preparing and eating breakfast; for Williams these are reasons to be cheerful and excuses to slap himself on the back. Nothing much seems to happen to him. He shops, he cycles (though perhaps not Hoy-like), he bumbles around his neighbourhood, all the while remembering past lovers, old friends and family and, nostalgically, gentler times when porters helped you board trains and found you "a corner seat/ 'facing the engine'".
For anyone drawn to the quotidian and the underrated sensation of melancholy, Williams is your only man. All he need do to provoke a gasp of sadness is put on an old record, of which he is the owner of many. I first encountered his work in a travelogue, No Particular Place To Go, which took its title from a Chuck Berry song. Published in 1981, it is a hilarious account of a coast-to-coast reading tour of America. Williams was then in his late twenties and addicted to the seedy glamour copyrighted by the US.
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Now, on the foothills of his eighth decade, his gallivanting is circumscribed. He lives in north London, writes an unmissable column for the Times Literary Supplement, and prays to the god of poetry to keep him well-versed. The title of this latest collection comes from another pop song, Nick Lowe's classic I Knew The Bride (when she used to rock 'n' roll).
The poem of the same name is dedicated to Williams's younger sister, Polly, who died of cancer in 2004 aged 54. It is tender and affecting and blackly humorous but above all it is truthful and candid: "You used to do the pony,/ you used to do the stroll,/ but the bride in her wedding dress/ spinning round on top of the cake,/ wound down to a sense of loss/ when your coach didn't come/ and questions of identity/ rained on your party."
Williams has the theatre in his genes. Both his mother and father were playwrights and his sister and brother acted. Had it been up to him he might have been a musician, like Percy Sledge or James Carr or Arthur Alexander. But unlike them, as he writes in Soul Singer, he would have been an undemonstrative performer who stands still "most of the time" and lets "the words do the talking". As a poet (as opposed to an actor), he must rely on his own words. He uses them sparingly, measuring them out like medication. As he ages he is aware that something in him is changing. He has trouble putting a key in a lock, he laughs and cries to himself, and ducks out of sight behind a curtain as old people are wont to do. "Is it too late," he wonders in New Year Poem, "to do something useful with my life?"
The last 16 poems in the collection are dispatches From The Dialysis Ward. Is this God's perverse way of keeping the poet supplied with fresh material? If so, Williams embraces the challenge with wit and bleak courage, like a conscript who has no alternative but to face whatever is thrown at him.
These poems make painful reading, especially if, like me, the mere mention of the word "needle" is enough to make you go green around the gills. We follow Williams to and from the hospital where he goes for treatment. Here, he is a "regular", part of a community whose common factor is kidney failure. In The Song Of The Needles he writes: "Needles have the sudden beauty/ of a first line./ They're always new and surprising/ as they burst from the paper covering./ They sing as they hit the air." He sounds almost elated, but don't be fooled; it's a trick he's pulled before.