Pictured Above: Hugo Williams
Published: 12 April, 2012
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.”