Obituary: Brenda Williams
(10 Dec 1948-19 July 2015)
Brenda Williams, poet and protestor, was born on 10th December 1948 in Leeds, the eldest child of four. The circumstances in which Williams grew up were dire: she lived with her parents and three siblings in a damp basement in a relative’s house; later the family progressed onto a council house.
Williams’ father was an alcoholic and could be abusive, sometimes beating the children. Brenda’s mother, an Irish Roman Catholic immigrant, was often terrified by her husband’s behaviour, and Williams remembered from an early age being taken out into street by her in order to avoid her father’s raving. Such traumatic experiences marked her for life.
Williams could have gone to grammar school but her parent’s couldn’t afford the school uniform. Her mother was an auxiliary nurse; her father always worked but spent much of his money in the pub –this taught his daughter from an early age that to be in work, to be employed, did not necessarily bring with it greater virtues.
Passing four O Levels and gaining an A Level in English Literature, Williams aspired to being a teacher, but ended up working as a library assistant. It was by dint of this occupation that she met young teacher and aspiring poet, Barry Tebb, via a mutual friend he taught with. Tebb’s curiosity was stirred by Brenda’s habit of reading Proust while working at the library; and after asking her out for a coffee following another meeting at a house warming party, Tebb soon realised that he and Williams were soul mates.
The couple married in 1967. Tebb’s poetic ambitions led them to take up a secluded, domestic life in an isolated cottage in Huddersfield. Williams, however, never settled to such a Wordsworthian retreat, so the couple moved to a more urban environment. Around this time, Williams gave birth to their son, Isaiah (for Williams, the first of two sons, her second, Ezra, from a subsequent relationship).
Williams and Tebb divorced in 1975 after eight years married. However, the two remained extremely close, Barry moving to a council house in the street next to Williams’ newly bought house, in Leeds.
Williams started writing poetry in late Seventies, and began having poems published in magazines. Around 1990, Tebb started up his own imprint, Sixties Press, under which he published his own and Williams’ work, alongside other distinctive but ‘unfashionable’ poets. Tebb managed to gain many sponsors for his small press imprint, including Rowan Williams (some time prior to his Archbishopric of Canterbury), with whom he had struck up poetic correspondence.
Their son, Isaiah, passed exams to get into Leeds grammar school (which poet Tony Harrison had attended). Around this time, Williams applied to Leeds University as a mature student, but was inexplicably rejected. This unfortunate stumbling block, however, saw Williams the poet assert what would become the other cardinal ingredient to her character: the protestor. Williams did sit-ins at Leeds University in protest against her unexplained exclusion, while Tebb, ever loyally, trooped the corridors of the establishment until he found out the reason for it. It turned out that her entry had been blocked by a ‘professorial veto’ issued by theology lecturer David Jenkins (later to become the Bishop of Durham) who disapproved of her having an illegitimate child (Ezra). Unfortunately, however, Williams’ protest was not efficacious on this occasion.
Ever close to one another, Williams and Tebb both moved to Oxford, still living separately, but close (echoes of Hardy’s Jude Fawley and Sue Bridehead...?). Ironically, Williams had finally and belatedly been offered that place at Leeds University, on the eve of their departure for Oxford. It came too late. They didn’t tell Leeds grammar school that they were moving with Isaiah from the area, which meant that their son was not transferred to Maudlin Grammar School, Oxford, as would have normally been the procedure. This second educational vicissitude spurred Williams to set up public protest in their new home town. This time she at least gained national publicity through a full page feature in the Times Educational Supplement. Absurdly, she had been arrested for ‘obstruction’ by an Oxford policeman, in spite of her pitching daily on a nine foot wide pavement. Subsequently the case was dismissed.
Williams now aspired to live in London, and felt St. John’s Wood had a particularly poetic sound to it, so moved there into a sub-let flat facilitated by Tebb, who, again, moved with her, settling nearby in Chiswick. Williams would remain in this flat for the rest of her life. Tebb would meet his second wife, another poet and fiction writer, Daisy Abey, while attending the Buddhist chapel opposite his new flat. Tebb, Williams and Abey all got on well together and remained a fond triumvirate.
Williams became a prolific protestor following her move to London. Perhaps her most well-known protest was in 2007, campaigning for better treatment from the mental health system in Camden and Islington. She pitched daily outside the Royal Free Hospital, since this was a central site. Camden Council, under all three main parties, continually tried to have Williams evicted from her protest pitch and arrested, her placards being constantly seized from her. These events were covered in lots of local newspapers at the time. Protesting alongside Williams was her close friend, Gertrude Falk, a leading physiologist and Hampstead Labour Party campaigner whose obituary in The Guardian (Weds 2 April 2008) mentioned her stint with Tebb and Williams outside the Royal Free. Williams, how own mother had died when she was just fifteen, had come to regard Gertrude Falk as a surrogate mother.
Williams suffered from severe depression throughout most of her life, spending lots of time at West Hampstead Day Hospital where art therapy helped her. She responded well to the compassionate approach of a psychiatrist, Dr. Peter Raven, who was also Senior Lecturer in Psychiatry at the Royal Free. Williams’ other source of human comfort was her indefatigable friend and ex-husband, Tebb, who continued to encourage her poetic efforts, from which she drew much strength.
Williams’ life was rendered more complicated and stressful due to the course her eldest son Isaiah’s took: after an auspicious educational start to his life (Eton, then Baliol Oxford), he descended into chronic paranoid schizophrenia, and remains hospitalised to this day.
Williams became an elected patient governor at Camden and Islington, and was in the middle of her third term when she died. She went to all the meetings, but her depression had been getting worse. Her mental health issues were exacerbated by trouble in the block of flats where she lived: a multi-propertied landlord bought up most of the block (on monies borrowed from the pre-Crash RBS, in 2007) where he ran a rental racket, herding Turkish-German tenants into the flats, charging them exorbitant rents underwritten Housing Benefit, and then, due to short-term tenancies which left the tenants with virtually no rights, evicting them. This 1920s block was constantly racked by intrusive noise as the property developer had his flats renovated. True to form, Williams set to protesting outside the block, which, by dint of being her own place of residence, meant her protest was legal.
Tebb believes that this, Williams’ last ditch protest, in part, contributed to the acceleration of her frail health, and subsequent untimely death; not least since Williams spent on average between eight and ten hours a day pitched outside the block of flats (141 videos on Youtube document it). Williams was diagnosed with lung cancer at the Royal Free in late December 2013, after a persistent cough did clear up with antibiotics. The supposition was that Williams, who had never smoked, had inherited a genetic predisposition to this particular cancer. She had already been perilously ill with a perforated bowel.
Williams’ treatment was transferred to the Marsden (via Tebb’s petitioning due to not being satisfied with her treatment at the Royal Free), but by this time the lung cancer was at ‘spread stage 3’, cellular and incurable. Williams was given a prognosis of 18 months. Then, in 2014, her cancer was unexpectedly deemed ‘77% cured’. However, sadly, by January of this year, the cancer again intensified, in spite of continual chemotherapy, and her doctor gave her 3 to 4 months to live, though she managed to live another six months.
A compulsive and prolific poet, Williams was still writing only a few weeks before her death, on 19th July 2015. Her final poem was the pointedly titled ‘Words Towards an Obituary for Poetry’. In the last few years of her life, Williams became ‘obsessed’ by the sonnet form, producing hundreds of poems in this fourteen line structure, her ambition being to outnumber Shakespeare’s. In her will, Gertrude Falk had left Williams £6,000, which was used to pay the printer to publish a large number of copies of her Collected Poems, under Tebb’s Sixties Press imprint. Shortly before her death, Williams made Tebb, her lifelong soul mate, friend, champion, carer and custodian of her many cats, her official ‘next of kin’ and, implicitly, publisher and executor of her literary estate. (Posterity will tell if the lifelong mutual devotion and trysts of Tebb and Williams might one day join the canon of the likes of Graves and Riding, Barker and Smart, Hughes and Plath, Redgrove and Shuttle et al).
Finally, some words from this writer: it was my pleasure to have met Brenda once and fairly briefly, but memorably, when she attended the launch reading of Emergency Verse – Poetry in Defence of the Welfare State at the Poetry Library, Southbank Centre in January 2011. I recall in particular how friendly, warm and effusive she was towards me, seemingly delighted at the anthology and its attempt to make a poetic stand against the then-new Tory-led Coalition Government. Brenda simply said that she had to “hug” me for my effort, and promptly did so.
This was a real surprise for me since I’d been led to expect a dourer person from the description given of her by someone to whom she had presumably not felt particularly enamoured. Like Barry (Tebb), Brenda did not suffer fools gladly, but was demonstrably someone who would warm instantly to anyone who was of a similar wavelength and values (poetical and political), and I felt privileged that she warmed to me on our first and only meeting.
When, some months on from that launch reading someone I had previously counted as a friend and poetic champion, the veteran poet and reviewer, John Horder, triangulated a highly personalised and irrational critical assault on Emergency Verse (via a three-pronged duplication/circulation in the Camden Review, West End Extra and Islington Tribune), in spite of his having attended –in Brenda’s company– and read at the launch (though not as a contributor to the book, for my having not been able to get hold of him for permissions while selecting for it –hence, presumably, his sudden animus against me!), I was deeply touched when Barry told me how “incandescent” Brenda was on my behalf. She apparently promptly annulled her long-standing friendship with John as a result.
Brenda realised the importance of that anthology, at such an ominous and hopeless time politically, but also, as Barry related, felt genuinely aggrieved and angry on my behalf after the considerable effort and labour I had gone to in producing the 111-poet-strong tome, replete with epic polemical Foreword and Afterword. I remain forever grateful to Brenda for her empathy, respect and loyalty –loyalty, only after having met me once!
Alan Morrison © 2015
Brenda Williams (10 Dec 1948-19 July 2015) is survived by her sons Isaiah and Ezra, by her two younger brothers and sister, and a grandson.
Click here to read a selection of Brenda Williams’ last composed poems which it is The Recusant’s privilege to publish here for the first time.
Click here for two tribute poems to Williams by her ex-husband and lifelong friend and carer, Barry Tebb.