:: Article

A Sucker Punch in a Crowded Bar

By Tony O’Neill.

Kevin Williamson, In a Room Darkened, Two Ravens Press, 2007

Before I started writing seriously, when I was in the grey area between being a heroin addict and not, I was on methadone in London and up to my elbows in the drug legalization movement. It started as a union of patients in my local methadone clinic, an attempt to get better service and a little bit of respect from the doctors. I soon got plugged into the national drug user movement – organizations like The Methadone Alliance, East London Respect, The National Drug Users Defense Association, magazines like the North West based Monkey, and the still going-strong Black Poppy which provided me with a place for my very first attempts at writing (an obituary for Dee Dee Ramone).

Our labyrinthine dealings with the health care system during those years were incredible. When “user representation” became a government buzzword, we found ourselves courted by civil servants, being bussed up to speak at conferences and the like, put up in nice hotels. The scenes were incredible. 70% of the audience would be drug workers, and health care professionals debating the pros and cons of heroin prescriptions and needle exchanges, while the rest were “service users” (government speak for those of us in treatment). Sometimes there was more activity going on in the bathrooms than the conference rooms.

During this time I devoured a lot of texts. Books on self organizing and biographies mostly – Marxist groups, the Black Panthers and Irish Republicans all provided inspiration on how we could put pressure on the government. But a key text for me – and still to my mind the only rational text on the drug laws in the UK published – was Kevin Williamson‘s Drugs and The Party Line. My copy had been read, re-read, underlined and was completely dog-eared. It had bloodstains all over it. Yet someone still nicked it from me. I got disillusioned with activism around the time that I quit methadone altogether and started trying to get my head together. I felt that the greatest lesson one could learn from all of the “user involvement” that Labour was keen to promote was this: they’ll listen to you. They’ll even agree with you. But unless you point a gun at their heads, nothing will ever change.


Now I am reading Kevin Williamson’s first book since Drugs and the Party Line, his poetry collection In A Room Darkened. I already know that Kevin can write. In fact, writing a book about the ideal state of our drug laws could be seen as a kind of poetic project in and of itself. A prose poem, a bit of idealism in a world that does not value idealists. There is something ultimately futile about poetry, I feel. I feel it with my own poems. If only poems could explode… sometimes I think there is as much poetry in a Molotov cocktail as there is in a perfectly written line. With written poetry, I suppose, the concept is that the damage is a little more permanent.

In A Darkened Room is a fine collection. I have written a little bit on some of my favorite poets and writers before, and have learned that trying to explain why a poem works for you is like trying to explain what the sky is to someone who has never seen it. I know what a bad poem is, I think every reader has an instinctive understanding – but a good poem is that strange, indescribable moment of connection between the reader and the writer. It’s a sucker punch in a crowded bar, that sends you staggering outside, gasping for air.

One of my favorite poems here is a touching lament to George Best. Kevin is smart enough to understand that some of the truest poetry never even comes within spitting distance of the printed page. “Where did it all go wrong? / Your epitaph and noose.”

The title poem is another standout, packed with unforgettable images but my favorite is probably “Snowballs In The Summer” which is a gentle ache of a poem, nostalgic, sweet and sad.

Readers of 3:AM will probably know Kevin Williamson best of all as the man behind Rebel Inc. magazine. Kevin (and his co-conspirator Jamie Byng, when the magazine became an imprint over at Canongate) could probably be pinpointed as the genesis of a whole scene of young writers who were first exposed, via Rebel Inc., to the twin delights of authentic homegrown writers (Laura Hird, Irvine Welsh, etc.) and a suddenly available back catalogue of out of print classics. When Rebel Inc. put people like Brautigan, Trocchi, Fante and Sabbag back in print, they were sowing the seeds of a literary movement that is only now coming to fruition. All of the sons and daughters of Rebel Inc. would be well advised to check out In A Darkened Room. The good news is that Kevin Williamson has still got the magic touch.


Tony O’Neill is a leading light of the Offbeat Generation. He is the author of Digging the Vein, Songs From the Shooting Gallery and Seizure Wet Dreams. More details here and there.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, December 4th, 2007.