Hugo Williams

Hugo Williams’s most recent collection is Lines Off.

Poem: ‘i.m. The West Pier (1866-2003)’

Hugo Williams, 23 September 2021

Piers are stepping-stonesout of this world, a line of poetryflung out to sea on a whim,a dazzle of sea lightsglimpsed between floorboards.

For 50p you can study eternitythrough a telescopeand never have to go there,only promenade to nowhere and backin an atmosphere of ice cream

We used to take the speedboat ridebetween the two piers,pulling the canvas up to our chinswhen the spray flew in our...

Poem: ‘A Bed of Nails’

Hugo Williams, 4 April 2019

Days move diagonally across town, meet other days travelling in the opposite direction. Let off the leash, I was roaming the streets after dark, looking for a thread among neon petals splashing in gutters,

when the screech of brakes heralded my destruction. How kind of someone, I thought, to consider de-accelerating on my behalf, no matter that the gesture came too late to save my life. The...

Poem: ‘Tara Browne (1945-66)’

Hugo Williams, 8 November 2018

I read the news today, oh boy, About a lucky man who made the grade.

The Beatles, ‘A Day in the Life’

If you’d apologised just once for green shirts and amethyst cuff-links you might have survived, but who would have believed that Irish-ironical ‘Sorrry, sorrry’ as you fell about laughing? You were only fifteen when we followed you across Paris after midnight,...

Poem: ‘TV Times’

Hugo Williams, 29 June 2017

The gradual disappearance of one familiar face after another, to Manchester, or Ibiza, or the ominous-sounding ‘New Zealand’, fills the screen with ghosts, who seem to exist in happier times.

The reason for their absence, on holiday, or honeymoon, or merely ‘steering clear of the Filth’ in Southend or the Algarve, seems fair enough at the time and the story carries...

Poem: ‘A New Country’

Hugo Williams, 20 October 2016

Do you drop things? Do you trip and hurl cups of tea ahead of you, going upstairs? Do your possessions have a life of their own in which they dither idiotically on your fingertips, then make a sudden leap?

In a flash they find their new home in a dark corner of your room, a distant country. Your face turns red and your head swells up like a balloon as you make yourself bow down.

You see...

Poem: ‘After Midnight’

Hugo Williams, 7 May 2015

It was an old book about crime detection, with pictures of murders and the places where they were committed, including street plans showing you how to get there.

You were supposed to solve the murders then fill in the answers in boxes. It was like looking for the partner to a rhyme and not being able to find one.

As I struggled with my deductions I kept losing my place in the narrative,...

Three Poems

Hugo Williams, 3 April 2014

A Boy Call

The long cry of ‘BOY …’, falsetto, travels down two flights and bursts like a blow to the head through the last door on the left where I am struggling with my essay on the American Civil War. My room is furthest away from the Common Room. Only Barnes is behind me in the scrum of tailcoats and bumfreezers jockeying for position in the corridor. He takes hold of...

Poem: ‘From the Dialysis Ward’

Hugo Williams, 24 January 2013

If I’m Early

Every other day I follow the route of the Midland Railway to where it cuts through St Pancras Old Church Cemetery. I might go into the church and heave a sigh or two before continuing via a gate set in the cemetery wall to the Mary Rankin Wing of St Pancras Hospital.

As a young man, Thomas Hardy supervised the removal of bodies from part of the cemetery to make way for the...

Poem: ‘Eucalyptus’

Hugo Williams, 5 July 2012

I suggested a brave new form of entertainment, one based entirely on the emotions – hope and fear for example, the idea being to do whatever you want, then describe your feelings afterwards. My whole body tingles with excitement because it’s my turn to be ‘it’.

Can you guess what I’m thinking? I open my wallet twice and look at my list of excuses. It’s...

Poem: ‘I Knew the Bride’

Hugo Williams, 19 August 2010

for my sister Polly 1950-2004

You had to go to bed ahead of us even then, while your two older brothers grabbed another hour downstairs. The seven-year gap was like a generation between us. You played the princess, swanning about the house in your tablecloth wedding dress, till we told you your knickers were dirty and you ran upstairs to change. Your hair was tied up in plaits on top of your...

Poem: ‘A Pillow Book’

Hugo Williams, 1 January 2009

1. I lie in bed, watching you dress yourself in nudity for your part in a story you are about to tell me.

Once upon a time, you seem to say, there was a woman who took off all her clothes and stood for a moment with one hand on her hip.

You have my full attention as you pile your hair on top of your head and let it fall down again. Up to this point I am familiar with the story.

Your movements...

Three Poems

Hugo Williams, 24 January 2008

The Reading

If I turn round now I’ll be back at school, arranging the chairs in the Library with Briggs and Napier. Briggs is chair monitor for readings. He’s flicking through a copy of my new book, ‘An Actor’s Life for Me’, and making animal noises. A display card on the table shows me smiling, holding up the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry.

They have taken...

Four Poems

Hugo Williams, 2 November 2006


Hugo Williams sits looking somewhat cowed and apprehensive in the tea rooms of the Waldorf Hotel. His appearance, dark, formal suit and tie, silk handkerchief arranged for show in his breast pocket, makes him look old-fashioned actorish. It is almost as if he were costumed for a funeral service, and in a sense he is.

Old theatrical aficionados of English drawing room comedy and...

Poem: ‘No Chance of Sunday’

Hugo Williams, 26 January 2006

I had an idea that would have made everything all right. I outlined a case that was ‘screamingly funny’. No chance of Sunday, I’m afraid. But wait, there may be.

I’ll never forget my face when I came home unexpectedly. Little imitation things were spread out on the floor. I had an idea that would have made everything all right.

Supposing something bad happened and I...

Five Poems

Hugo Williams, 15 April 2004

All the Cowboys’ Horses

I was trying to remember who shouted out ‘Wakey Wakey!’ Was it Arthur Askey? I couldn’t understand how Kay Kendall and Denholm Elliot slipped through my fingers. Even my favourite biscuits melted on the tip of my tongue. A prayer went missing, as if I wouldn’t be needing it again.

A head full of memorabilia and I couldn’t remember...

Three Poems

Hugo Williams, 12 December 2002

Walk Out to Winter

Are we dead, do you think? I thought we were when I visited your art school annexe and saw your things all over the floor. Someone had nailed a dress to a board and thrown a pot of paint at it. We left the flowers on your desk and went for a walk near the reservoir.

The different sets of broken promises lay in wait for us on the muddy path. What was I really doing last...

Two Poems: at Home

Hugo Williams, 21 March 2002

My News

Now that the sun has made it over the tops of the opposite houses, flaring through the wrecks of wallflowers and marguerites, the seeds from giant purple flowers spiral up over the graves of the chrysanthemums, one-winged sycamore planes revolve on their axes down through the air.

A slight breeze knocks the bell heather. Sun wobbles in the bird mirror. The green shed is humming. The...

Poem: ‘Dear Room’

Hugo Williams, 10 May 2001


Are you still Chinese yellow? Are your blinds still drawn against prying eyes on the tops of buses? How well I remember you, perched beside a traffic-light on the corner of Ladbroke Grove, our tree-house lookout post, shuddering and shaking all night to the jamming of gears, the headlights of cars kerb-crawling the platform where we slept. You held us suspended halfway between heaven and...

Three Poems

Hugo Williams, 2 September 1999

Bar Italia

How beautiful it would be to wait for you again in the usual place, not looking at the door, keeping a look out in the long mirror, knowing that if you are late it will not be too late, knowing that all I have to do is wait a little longer and you will be pushing through the other customers, out of breath, apologetic. Where have you been, for God’s sake? I was starting to...

Seven Poems

Hugo Williams, 31 July 1997


It might have been the word for sulking in animals, Juliette Lewis, Joan of Arc, the smell of television lingering in the morning like a quarrel. It might have been an airedale scratching at your door, papier-mâché heads, a cloud no bigger than ...

It might have been blue satin, Peter Stuyvesant Gold, Deep Heat, umbrella pines, familiar two-note calls repeated at intervals,...

Five Poems

Hugo Williams, 4 April 1996

My Chances

As I grew warmer and the bus went over the bumps, I let my mind wander further and further, checking my scowl in the window of the bus against my chances of bending her over that table, the arm of that chair.

When she answered the door in her low-cut dress I forgot what it was I was going to do to her. I gave her a kiss and asked if she was ready to go out, checking my smile in the...

Eight Poems

Hugo Williams, 23 March 1995

All Right

I’m lying awake somewhere between the double yellow light of the Dimplex thermostat and the winking eye of the fax, making the journey across town, past all the stations in North London, going over Bishop’s Bridge, entering the badlands.

I hear your giggles as I hit the bumps in the curved section of Westbourne Park Road. I see the crack of light in your curtains when I...

Three Poems

Hugo Williams, 10 February 1994

The Ghost of a Smile

I looked up from my plate and saw the ghost of my father’s smile separating like milk across the dining table.

I sat there as usual, a fork in one hand, a knife in the other, and neatly, precisely, divided myself in two.

The Fall

My father lived in the Garden of Allah, an exotic, bungalow-style hotel which Thomas Wolfe told Scott Fitzgerald he could not believe...

Seven Poems

Hugo Williams, 24 June 1993

Old Boy

Our lesson is really idiotic today, as if Mr Ray has forgotten everything he ever knew about the Reformation and is making it up as he goes along.

I feel like pointing out where he’s going astray, but I’m frightened he’ll hold up some of my grey hair and accuse me of cheating.

How embarrassing if I turned out to be wrong after all and Mr Ray was right. Luckily,...

Four Poems

Hugo Williams, 11 February 1993


After we broke up and agreed not to call or write for at least a year, I found myself drawn for a little comfort and cheer not so much to the top shelf of W.H. Smith with its flesh-tinted offers of doom and gloom,

as the bra and knicker counter of Marks & Spencer, where row upon row of carefully labelled dream-tatters in chocolate and dusky peach seemed to encourage a humorous...

Poem: ‘Mirth’

Hugo Williams, 3 December 1992

The lights come up, the stage is bare, the audience goes on sitting there, row upon row of gleaming teeth, set in expressions of dutiful mirth for something they have now forgotten. Someone has spilled an ice-cream cone from the balcony onto someone’s head. It trickles down over his forehead and from there down into his lap. We see the smile fade from his lips, the lips fade from his...

Poem: ‘Sex’

Hugo Williams, 24 September 1992

‘Sex’ seems to be a word that most people understand, so there is a fair chance that the woman will understand what the man is getting at when he mentions the subject.

Perhaps he is finding difficulty getting into the passage and it may be necessary to ask why. Perhaps she is dry because there is no natural lubricant for the penis,

or perhaps she is very tense and unable to accept...

Four Poems

Hugo Williams, 14 May 1992

Early Morning Swim

Every year now you make your face a little fainter in its vellum photo-frame, as if you were washing off your make-up with a towel and catching the last train home.

You have forgotten how to storm and shout about the place, but not how to gaze abstractedly over our shoulders into this room that is not your room any more. What do you see

that we don’t see? Why...

Poem: ‘Siren’

Hugo Williams, 15 August 1991

I was waiting outside my local 24hr Photoprint Services, all unsuspecting of the fate shuffling towards me on the mini-lab auto-printer. I was flicking through the usual haul of barely recognisable ‘Memories in Colour’,

when I found myself face to face with something altogether nearer the truth and a wave of inexpressible sadness, or gladness, swept over me. I realised too late I...

Poem: ‘Standstill’

Hugo Williams, 20 December 1990

A last visit to the long-abandoned ‘Gosses’ on Harold Macmillan’s Birch Grove estate, soon to be levelled as part of the Birch Grove Golf Course.

I apologise to the driver for the branches closing in, almost bringing us to a standstill. He doesn’t seem to mind. ‘I’m like you,’ he tells me, as we move aside a tree blown across the drive by the storm.


Four Poems

Hugo Williams, 11 October 1990

The Age of Steam

Remember porters? Weatherbeaten old boys with watery blue eyes who were never around when you wanted them? You had to find one before you could go anywhere in 1953. It was part of saying goodbye. ‘Quick, darling, run and find a porter, while I get your ticket. I’ll meet you at the barrier ...’

I run off across the station forecourt in a series of sudden...

Two Poems

Hugo Williams, 16 August 1990

Post-War British Photograph Poetry

Everyone screwing up their eyes as if they can’t quite make us out – Jim with his hair fully restored, Johnny with the Simoniz duster, polishing the Jowett Javelin to extinction as long ago as 1951.

There’s no such person as Anne, but Gar is still there, looking quite like her old self again, and Mr Burns, none the worse for New Zealand,...

Poem: ‘Old Scene’

Hugo Williams, 22 February 1990

Jim: No perfumes, nurse. These oils drown my head with their clamour of marriages and mourning, their oozy lava nibbled at by flies. My hair is no bunch of flowers stuck in a vase, exuding forgetfulness. It laps my body in hot smells, as if some animal breathed on me. I lie here stiff with horror at its caresses, while lions watch the listless wreckage of my innocence drop down through my...

At six the cup of tea is set down. How the cup of tea is set down. Quietly, or with suppressed fury. Jim looks at the face of his wife sleeping and decides to be horrible. The bathroom was cold. He forgot to put on the fire.

He crosses to the window in a rage and draws the curtains back. How the curtains are drawn back. Gently but firmly, or practically ripped from their hooks? Jim thinks her...

Two Poems

Hugo Williams, 8 December 1988


Ten, no, five seconds after coming all over the place too soon,

I was lying there wondering where to put the line-breaks in.

Creative Writing

Trying to persuade about fifteen Creative Writing students (Poetry) to put more images into their work, I was fiddling in my pocket with an old contraceptive packet, put there at the start of the course and long since forgotten about.

If you...

Poem: ‘Self-Portrait with a Speedboat’

Hugo Williams, 21 January 1988

You wouldn’t think it to look at me, but I was a hot property once upon a time to my sponsors, Johnson and Johnson Baby Oil.

I reached the final of the 1980 World Powerboat Championship – myself, Lucy Manners, Werner Panic and the rest.

I was going for the record of no hours, no minutes, no seconds and I reckoned I was in with a chance.

I was dancing the Self-Portrait along inside...

Jim returns to his favourite Carnaby St boutique circa 1966 and nods his shaggy head. ‘Hi, Barry! Hi, Stu! Got the new flares in yet?’ The two Goths behind the counter in Plastic Passion have heard about people like Jim. One of them looks out a pair of tangerine elephant loons left over from his father’s ‘Chocolate Taxi’ scene and throws them to Jim as a joke....

Poem: ‘When I grow up’

Hugo Williams, 23 October 1986

When I grow up I want to have a bad leg. I want to limp down the street I live in without knowing where I am. I want the disease where you put your hand on your hip and lean forward slightly, groaning to yourself. If a little boy asks me the way I’ll try and touch him between the legs. What a dirty old man I’m going to be when I grow up! What shall we do with me? I promise...

Poem: ‘An Actor’s War’

Hugo Williams, 18 April 1985

It is difficult to assess the value of the part played by the organisation known as Phantom during this stage of our operations in North Africa.

Official History of the Second World War

Before the British public I was once a leading man, Now behind a British private I just follow, if I can.

Poem: ‘Shelf Life’

Hugo Williams, 4 October 1984


Above our beds the little wooden shelf with one support was like a crucifix offering up its hairbrush, Bible, family photograph for trial by mockery.

We lay in its shadow on summer nights, denying everything, hearing only the impossible high catches for the older boys, their famous surnames calling them to glory.


Why did we take the bed-making competition so seriously? We were only nine....

Poem: ‘Aspects of My Case’

Hugo Williams, 21 April 1983

Wrong Shoes

I was eight when I set out into the world wearing a grey flannel suit. I had my own suitcase. I thought it was going to be fun. I wasn’t listening. when everything was explained to us in the Library, so the first night I didn’t have any sheets. The headmaster’s wife told me to think of the timetable as a game of ‘Battleships’. She found me wandering...

Poem: ‘Some Girls by Hugo Williams’

Hugo Williams, 30 December 1982

How perfect they are without your help, these limited editions. How even in winter they seem to shine when you see them, marching ahead of you, dead set on something. Their breasts toss things to porters, who bow. Their knees touch as they get down into cars. They look so interesting in their savage furs you can’t imagine their parents or their homes or whether their beds have...

Poem: ‘The Spring of Sheep’

Hugo Williams, 1 July 1982

A tube of Pro-Plus Rapid Energy Tablets gave me Extra Vitality when I visited my girlfriend on her father’s stud.

Poem: ‘Sonny Jim’s House’

Hugo Williams, 16 July 1981

The cistern groans under a new pressure. Little-known taps are being turned on in obscure regions of the palace, cutting off the water for his tea. Jim forwards her mail to the garden, laughing because he has hidden the marmalade.

At nine, they both stay home and do nothing, out of work. The ring in the bath and the hacked loaf prove he is on the track of his elusive wife. Her movements...

Gay’s the word

Hugo Williams, 6 November 1980

You knew that the Mercedes was the ultimate gay motor, but did you know that the Corvette was the poor gay’s Porsche? That the Alfa Romeo and the Datsun 280-Z were ‘bright, snappy cars for gays’ or that the Fiat convertible suggested to a gay trick: ‘I am sporty, unpretentious and above all relaxed’? You could probably have guessed that the LA leather crowd drive pick-ups, jeeps and vans, which they park outside the leather bars to retire to, with trick, when the ‘back-rooms’ are too crowded with ejaculating cowboys. But did you know that the leather and Western neighbourhood of LA was Silver Lake, where the rents are still low enough for these blue-collar workers, some of whom have sacrificed professional careers to enter occupations – telephone or television repairs, Pacific Gas – which they consider to be ‘hot’ sexually? ‘We’ve reduced the things of the material plane to mere symbolical conveniences,’ said Isherwood in A Single Man. ‘The Europeans hate us because we’ve retired to live inside our advertisements, like hermits going into caves.’ ‘A Buddhist vision, really,’ thinks White.

Poem: ‘Sonny Jim in Love’

Hugo Williams, 17 July 1980

They left me alone with the pens And I have gone over my loved one’s face In ink, for something to do. I wanted to see how she looked Telling me not to. I let my hand Trail on her cheek like a hook. Wasn’t I her pet, her little marmoset? I traced a well-worn path Back and forth between her eyes In search of crumbs. I ran the gauntlet of her tantrums.

When she drew ahead of me I...


Hello, playmates

15 April 2004

Ross Hibbert is quite right that it was Billy Cotton, not Arthur Askey, who shouted out ‘Wakey Wakey!’ (Letters, 22 July). Silly me. Hibbert might have picked up another howler in the same poem, ‘All the Cowboys’ Horses’. It was, of course, Alan Ladd and not James Stewart who starred in Shane.

Imbalance: The Charm of Hugo Williams

Michael Hofmann, 22 May 2003

It is a curious thing that of the three judges offering superlatives on the jacket of Hugo Williams’s Collected Poems – Edna Longley, Douglas Dunn and Peter Porter – none is...

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Sperm’s-Eye View

Robert Crawford, 23 February 1995

The family, stuff of novelists as different as Rose Macaulay and James Joyce, Virginia Woolf and Lewis Grassic Gibbon, is absent from much great poetry of the early 20th century. T.S....

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Blake Morrison, 21 February 1991

How much do love and sex have in common? Not enough, it seems, for them to appear together in anthologies, which increasingly cater either for the sentimental or the pornographic market. We need...

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Received Accents

Peter Robinson, 20 February 1986

Charles Tomlinson has a poem called ‘Class’ about the Midland pronunciation of the first letter of the alphabet. In the last chapter of Some Americans, the poet tells how for a short...

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An American Romance

Edward Mendelson, 18 February 1982

Old Glory – the book written by Jonathan Raban – is an altogether different book from the Old Glory that was praised in the reviews, but it is no less wonderful for that. The book the...

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A Martian School of two or more

James Fenton, 6 December 1979

Craig Raine’s second collection follows swiftly upon his first, The Onion, Memory (1978). It is as if the poet had been waiting impatiently over us, while we picked ourselves up off the...

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