About this Recording
NA245312 - WILLIAMS, H.: Sacred Elephant (Unabridged)

Heathcote Williams
Sacred Elephant


‘Nature’s great masterpiece, an Elephant…’
John Donne, Progress of the Soul XXIX

In 1967 actor/writer Heathcote Williams spent three months touring in India. While he was in Rajasthan, he was able to observe, at close quarters, the local elephants and their trainers. At this time, he also had a close association with a circus elephant called Rani, and was able to watch her daily routine and behaviour in captivity. Many years later, these observations were to prove useful in the writing of his first environmental poem, Sacred Elephant.

It was in 1987 that the work first appeared. It had been published by Williams himself, but in a rather unusual form. Three thousand copies of a newspaper were printed on elephant-sized paper and with print ‘large enough for elephants to read’. These newspapers were not sold in public, but given away by the author to friends and associates. In the same year, the poem was performed by Heathcote Williams in a radio production. This programme drew the first of many favourable reviews including one from playwright Harold Pinter who described it as ‘a marvellous poem.’

Before the book could be published, however, Williams had already started work on Whale Nation, the publication that eventually appeared before Sacred Elephant and set the pattern for the books to follow. Sacred Elephant was eventually released in 1989, published by Jonathan Cape but in a considerably revised form. Williams had earlier been working on a script for a film version of the book Elephant Bill by J.H. Williams. This book, set in Burma, describes the life of J.H. Williams and his relationship with the elephants that worked on teak plantations. The observations and scenes in this book enabled Heathcote Williams to extend and improve his earlier version to become the work we know today. Indeed, the second part of Sacred Elephant, ‘On the Nature of Elephants’, contains many extracts from J.H. Williams’ book, as well as various insightful and moving tributes to the elephant such as this one, from Elephant Memories by Cynthia Moss:

‘Elephants are very special animals: intelligent, complicated, intense, tender, powerful and funny. I consider myself immensely fortunate to have spent so much time with them. I have always said that watching elephants is like reading an engrossing, convoluted novel that I cannot put down but I also do not want to end’.

After it was published, the book received many more favourable notices including one from author and journalist Bernard Levin—‘a strange and beautiful book.’

Despite its enormous success, however, Sacred Elephant has not received the same environmental publicity that greeted Whale Nation. I asked Heathcote Williams why he thought this was.

‘The sea is the last great unexplored wilderness. Whales seem much more mysterious to us as a species, less readily observable. Somehow, the desire to preserve the more “familiar” elephant is less pure. As long as the elephant encroaches on human land and impedes the development of housing and farming it will almost always seem more acceptable to destroy it.’

The text of Sacred Elephant, often stark and uncompromising, is also hauntingly beautiful and highly emotive. To all those who are concerned with the destruction of a species, Sacred Elephant is a fitting tribute to all the animals that have been, and will be, sacrificed to satisfy man’s greed.

Notes by Sarah Butcher


The music on this recording is taken from the NAXOS and MARCO POLO catalogues

CIURLIONIS The Sea, In the Forest, Fire Preludes

Slovak Philharmonic/Juozas Domarkas

BRAHMS A German Requiem

Czecho-Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra
Slovak Philharmonic Choir/Rahbari

BRUNEAU Messidor

Rhenish Philharmonic/Lockhart

BRAHMS Symphony No. 2, Serenade No. 2

BRT Philharmonic/Rahbari

RUBINSTEIN Symphony No. 2, The Ocean

Slovak Philharmonic/Gunzenhauser

RUBINSTEIN Ivan the Terrible

CSSR State Philharmonic/Stankovsky

RUBINSTEIN Dimitri Donsky

George Enescu State Philharmonic Orchestra/Andreescu

SAINT-SAËNS Carnival of the Animals

Czecho-Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra/Lénard

MUSSORGSKY Pictures at an Exhibition

Jenő Jandó, piano

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