He might have been born and bred in Oxford, but Sam Willetts was having trouble following directions to The Oxford Times office in Osney Mead.
“Is that off the Abingdon Road? For some reason I always mix up Abingdon and Botley roads. You wouldn’t guess I’ve spent two-thirds of my life in Oxford.”
There’s a lot you wouldn’t guess about this 48-year-old poet, who admits to having frequently lost his way in a life all but destroyed by heroin.
This former Magdalen College School pupil, who read English at Wadham College, Oxford, has known homelessness and addiction. But in a few weeks’ time he could taste glory after being shortlisted along with the likes of Nobel Prize winners Seamus Heaney and Derek Walcott for the 2010 T.S. Eliot Prize, with the winner to be presented with a £15,000 cheque by Eliot’s widow, Valerie.
How this son of an Oxford don became the living embodiment of Bob Dylan’s “poet in the gutter” is only hinted at in his first collection of poems, New Light for the Old Dark, which is also shortlisted for the £30,000 Costa Prize.
Critics have described the poems as chronicles of a flawed world by a man who has been “through fire and come back”.
But Willetts knows others will portray him in less heroic terms, as a spoilt North Oxford kid, given the most privileged of educations, who ended up a penniless junkie, majoring in self-loathing.
A glance at the collection’s final poem might confirm such a view, with its opening line: “I was f***ed, living from hit to hit and floor to floor.” “I know it is positioned as a druggy book,” he said. “But I would say that less than ten per cent of the content is directly about drugs.”
There are, in fact, poems about playing truant, recalling his trips to the Thames to escape his school tormenters.
Children’s parties in Victorian North Oxford gardens are recalled, with lukewarm jasmine tea and hammocks between apple trees.
And so is the remarkable story of his mother, Halina, a Polish Jew, who escaped shortly before the arrival of the Nazis, heading eastwards as a fugitive.
His mother, he believes, remained emotionally damaged by her experiences.
“She could be a bit scary, not because she was a bad person. Today she would be diagnosed as having a post-traumatic stress condition. She suffered cancer twice.
“After the first time she became an auxiliary nurse at the John Radcliffe because she wanted to give something back. She loved this country for having taken her in.”
His father, Harry Willetts, a fellow of St Antony’s, had once worked for the Foreign Office in the Moscow embassy, later translating books by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. The great Russian writer was among a procession of exiles and dissidents who visited their home in North Oxford.
This big, messy college-owned house was the setting of a childhood he describes as “chaotic” rather than happy, with Magdalen College School a miserable experience for him.
“I was bullied. I used to play hooky all the time. My poor father would go in to plead my case. He used to say, ‘I spend more time at that school, than you do’.
“I was scruffy and I may have come across as a smart alec to some teachers. In the summer I would go to Port Meadow and the Parks, and in the winter the Ashmolean and Pitt Rivers. I’m surprised that I was never picked up by the police.”
Yet he somehow secured a place at Wadham and completed his degree.
“A bit of a miracle because I was drinking and taking amphetamines,” he now says.
Willetts had first dabbled in drugs at the age of 11, pinching his mother’s valium and librium.
“I was always, from a very early age, fascinated by drugs. I liked their names.”
He also happened to be a fanatical Rolling Stones fan, meaning that, for him, the ultimate in cool was guitarist Keith Richards, whose drug consumption and police busts had already passed into rock legend.
It leaves you wondering just how many impressionable youngsters, buying into that ‘elegantly wasted’ image, followed a similar pathway to heroin hell, learning too late that surviving smack is harder when you are not a multi-millionaire rock star.
“You remember those pictures of Keith when he had those awful teeth? Well, I managed to emulate that,” said Willetts, pointedly adding that Keith’s are now beautifully capped, while his have simply become more awful.
“I dabbled in class-A drugs, taking heroin maybe once or twice a year. I didn’t like it. It made me sick. I used to berate people who used needles. It was 20 years before I became an addict.“ He only began injecting at the age of 37, something he thought he would never be able to do. Blood and needles, which he once viewed as horrific, were to become mundane.
Addiction took hold, ironically, just as his writing career with a national newspaper looked to be taking off.
“Why in my mid-thirties, should I suddenly decide to destroy my life, which for the first time was potentially set up? It was as if I wanted to find a way to sabotage my life. The answer was heroin, and it did that.”
Remaining in Oxford with his ailing father, Willetts admits to having exploited the sorry situation financially, for as his father became more dependent on him, Willetts became more dependent on heroin. While he did care for his dad, the parasitic side of his character was all too evident.
“My father suffered as a result of the situation,” he told me. “I have collected quite a few regrets. But that is my greatest regret.”
Following the death of his father he became homeless, living in the Cotswolds and London.
He says he has never had to huddle in an Oxford Street doorway, although admits to having lived in “extreme squalor” and dangerous places.
His ongoing shortage of money was once briefly eased when he removed a gargoyle from an empty property, which he subsequently sold on for £900.
The fact his poetry eventually found its way into print he puts down to the encouragement of an ex-girlfriend who suggested he entered the Bridport Prize, which he won.
But having lost a decade to heroin and time in rehab on the South Coast, it seems like Willetts has suddenly emerged from nowhere, a fully fledged and significant English poet, whose name is being shortlisted alongside our greatest living poets. It is something of a change in the company he is used to.
“I know addicts from the whole social spectrum; people with aristocratic connections to people with nothing. In rehab, it seemed most of the people were fresh from prison.”
We might yet get to ‘meet’ some of them.
“I am currently working on an extended piece of prose,” he says. “ Somehow the word ‘novel’ always makes me cringe.”
His life is more structured at the moment. He lives in a friend’s flat in London, apparently with 11 noisy cats, where the muse tends to visit in the middle of the night. Sometimes he will get up and write, other times deciding it is not worth the effort of switching on the light.
If he won, he says he would treat himself to a pair of shoes that do not let in water and buy a better gravestone for his father in Wolvercote cemetery.
As he rose to head for the bus station, it is clear he remains obsessed with unpaid debts, and debts that can now never be repaid. “I would like to get a place of my own,” he said. “I hate having to depend on other people. I’m not that thick-skinned.”
Who knows, maybe his time in the light has arrived.
As the poet says: “In a new night, a new moon that isn’t made of scorched tinfoil will turn your tide again.”
- New Light for the Old Dark is published by Cape Poetry (£10).