Being Childish

How I was inspired by Kent’s prolific visionary

Originally published in The Sunday Times Magazine

Billy Childish can talk. And talk. At school he was told he had verbal incontinence, and it seems that hasn’t changed. He paints, writes, and makes music no less abundantly. He’s produced 2,500 pictures, published 40 books of poetry and four novels, and released more than 100 full-length albums – about half as many again as the Rolling Stones, who have been at it twice as long.

“I’m Sagittarius to the power of a million,” Childish explains. “And I have that with Jupiter, so I can never do enough – absolutely unlimited pffft!”

Despite his extraordinary output, the chances are that you have not heard of Childish. Or if you have, you only know vaguely that he once went out with Tracey Emin, the artist who has since been showered with acclaim and money.

Childish holds Emin’s worldly success in disdain. In 2006, he declined a lucrative offer to appear in Celebrity Big Brother. Indeed, Childish does not watch TV, or listen to the radio, or read newspapers, and hasn’t done so for years. He doesn’t “do” email or mobile phones, and his web presence is taken care of by somebody else. The last time he went to a gig, other than as performer, was in the 1970s. This helps to explain how he has the time to produce so much work. It also explains his extraordinarily scanty grasp of popular culture. “People think I’m being cute when I don’t recognise the names of people they mention,” he says.

Nevertheless, Childish has himself been a cult hero to people around the world, including many who are themselves well known and successful. They include the late Kurt Cobain, PJ Harvey, Robert Plant, and Beck. Graham Coxon of Blur once drummed for Childish’s band. The White Stripes asked Childish to paint live on stage with them on Top Of The Pops. Kylie Minogue phoned him to ask if she could use the title of one of his poems for one of her albums. (“She was very polite and very nice,” he reports.)

His poetry has twice won him National Poetry Prize commendations. The poet laureate, Andrew Motion, said of Childish: “He looks like he’s having more fun being a poet than I am.”

As for the art world: Emin has acknowledged his profound influence on her own work, of which more later, and a new critical study of Childish by the artist and writer Neal Brown describes him as “one of the most outstanding, and often misunderstood, figures on the British art scene.”

Brown “discovered” Childish in the course of writing a book about Emin for the Tate. He couldn’t fathom why nobody was writing similar books about Childish. I can’t understand it either.

“I think it’s because Billy has done such a lot of work,” Brown tells me, “and the sheer range it covers. Also, there’s a sense of embarrassment because of the sincerity of the work. Painterly nuance is not necessarily the point. A conspicuous emotional register is – particularly moods of poetic exhilaration. This expressive excitement is not necessarily pleasant but always emotionally vital, and resonates through the artists painting, writing and music.”

The artist Peter Doig, who has known Childish for many years, agrees: “A lot of people are embarrassed by work like Billy’s – but that’s what’s great about it as well. He is very honest.”

For the record, people who have found his work embarrassing include critics writing in Time Out (“nothing more than a Bayswater Road-style dauber”), Virgin’s inflight magazine (“infantile paintings”) and the East Anglian Times (“some of the worst painting I have ever seen on public show”).

Childish has been compared with William Blake, and with DH Lawrence – like them, he manages both to write and to paint. But as Brown points out, he also shares their sincerity and eccentric other-worldliness.

When I mentioned these names to Childish, he thought for a moment, then said: “I’m not unique. I come from a tradition which only seems to pop up occasionally.” He pauses. “I can imagine how arrogant that will sound, written down.” (He’s frequently accused of arrogance.) “But what I mean is that I’m just not intimidated. I don’t take it too seriously. I’m confident enough to do things regardless of ability. I don’t sweat over them. I’m not fussy. It’s like cooking: I’m good at that, and I don’t need recipes.”

As a journalist, I’m accustomed to meeting creative people who know that they’re rather special. I’ve also met a number of crushed souls who, believing themselves to be useless, daren’t actually try their hand at anything. Childish is a stunning exception: passionately creative in any discipline, but also substantially indifferent to worldly success.

Having followed him for several months – to an exhibition of his paintings in London, and a combined poetry reading-and-music event – and talked with him both face to face, at his gallery, and several times, at great length, over the phone, I find that Childish has quite some influence on me. I’ve written poems, produced dozens of sketches and paintings and not a few lino cuts. So I’ve come to see him at home in Chatham, Kent, to offer him a challenge that I wouldn’t dream of suggesting to most serious artists: can we do some painting together?

In principle, he’s agreed. But it turns out that he’s not feeling well today. He looks uncharacteristically glum, and speaks in a low voice. When I point this out, he says he’s been for certain unspecified medical tests and has had to cancel gigs during the summer.

I offer to go away, come back some other time. But he says that won’t be necessary, then makes me a cup of green tea in a glass cup, and sits down for a long talk.

Childish lives in Chatham, Kent, literally around the corner from where Dickens once lived very miserably. The house, owned by Childish’s mother, stands on a terrace of bedsits. “Most of the neighbours are alright,” says Childish, “but some have issues. You have to listen to them fighting and swearing. The street’s sealed off at least once a year.”

He shares the house with his wife Julie Winn and his young son (by a previous partner) Huddie. It’s like something from another time: there seems to be nothing made of plastic. Fixed to the wall in the kitchen is an ancient telephone that still works. There’s a wooden desk, a Buddha, colourful flags, innumerable hats of every sort, guitars, and many paintings by Childish. Over the door to the garden, the wall has been decorated with primitive animal images scratched into wet cement.

Childish commissions a lot of work from other people, much of it practical: a hefty ladder leading to the loft, wall panelling, a wooden washboard, and the artwork to go on the cover of his latest album. Some of these things were paid for with art: in return for the ladder, Childish painted a portrait of the carpenter’s daughters.

Like the house, Childish himself appears to belong to another era, and not only because of his pointy moustache. Today, he wears a collarless work shirt of the sort worn by Victorian navvies. At other times I’ve seen him in walking boots with real nails in the sole, and a set of replica 1912 Royal Flying Corps overalls – all items specially made for him by friends.

He was was born Steven John Hamper on December 1, 1959. (He adopted the name Billy Childish in 1977 but uses several others too.) He was sexually abused, aged nine, by a male family friend: “We were on holiday. I had to share a bed with him. It happened for several nights, then I refused to go near him. I didn’t tell anyone.”

He’s subsequently made up for that: spilling the beans in his early poetry and the novels My Fault and Sex Crimes of the Futcher. (Severely dislexic, Childish declines to have his unusual spellings amended.)

He’s also written a great deal of other personal material, much of it painful to read – such as the failed suicide attempts of a certain snobbish, philandering relative; his own long years of alcoholism, and a youthful experiment in sexual relations with a dog.

More recently, his work has become mellower, and he’s less likely to be angry than rhapsodic. This has a lot to do with giving up alcohol and taking up yoga, in 1993, but he also acknowledges the influence of Jesus Christ and the Buddha.

“We’re all stardust,” he might say these days. “Nothing new is coming into being. Everything just changes shape and form. My nose, for example, was once a Tyrannosaurus’s toe nail.”

Or: “You have to take life very seriously, and realise that it’s all a joke. That is the art of living.”

His own sense of humour is still dark. “I amuse myself with base, homophobic jokes,” he tells me, explaining: “I’m English, and I was brought up in the provinces.” He likes racist humour as well. “My wife is Black, and American Indian. She says that she is allowed to make those jokes but I’m not. People don’t get all this. Humour is next to taboo. It can be playful. It can be hurtful too, but I don’t use it that way. It’s like using a knife to stab someone or to spread butter.”

When he left school, he decided to devote himself to art because it was one of the few things he was told he was good at. But he was refused an interview at the local art college, so he entered the Royal Naval Dockyard in Chatham as an apprentice stonemason.

During the next six months he produced some 600 drawings, then one day purposefully smashed his hand with a 3lb club hammer and declared he’d never work again. He was 16. He no longer wished to carve identical blocks of stone every day. It was to be his last prolongued period of employment.

He was accepted into St Martin’s School of Art under a “genius clause” – the drawings he’d done made up for his poor academic record. But before completing the course he was expelled.

Shortly after his expulsion, in 1982, he met Emin. She was 17, a nihilistic fashion student at Medway College of Design. “Billy was the first person I’d met who was doing what they wanted to do,” she later recalled. “That was a very subtle and important influence. I was really in love with him as well.”

In her famous “tent” Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995, Childish’s name was displayed prominently.

Their friendship ended when Emin came to public prominence. “Once upon a time she acknowledged me as a ‘major influence’,” Childish told one writer, “but when I didn’t applaud her stuff she got the knife out. I have gone from being thanked by her for my endless support to being some kind of Charles Manson figure.”

To me, he’s more circumspect. He does mention Emin fairly often, but usually asks me not to repeat what he has said because it will wind her up and “cause more aggravation”. Not long ago, Emin popped in to see his mother, to whom she’d long been close, and he says he doesn’t want to spoil things.

Some might suspect a less noble motive: he just wants to get on the good side of Emin, more successful than him in so many ways. Is that right?

“If I was climbing a mountain I’d have done everything I could to stay on the right side of Tracey. My ambition is much bigger than that. My ambition is to do what I want to do, the way I want to do it, and do it right.”

For what it’s worth, I believe him. Far from sucking up, Childish has a tendency to fall out with people quite unnecessarily. He once told GQ magazine that he couldn’t listen to The White Stripes, who greatly admire him.

“It’s a shame it came over that way; I was asked about The White Stripes but in truth, I’m not into the modern sound at all, so I don’t like the modern groups, or many old ones for that matter. I’m not a music fan, if you like.”

(Having released 100 albums himself, he must surely mean only that he doesn’t much like other people’s music.)

He also fell out with the influential group of artists he helped to form – the Stuckists. The group took their name from a poem Childish wrote, based on a conversation he had with Emin. She accused him of being “stuck” in a particular approach to art. Charles Thompson, co-founder of the Stuckists, seized on the word because it reminded him of the Fauves and the Impressionists, whose names also originated as insults.

The Stuckists achieved considerable press coverage, fuelled by Emin’s nomination for the Turner Prize in 1999 – indeed, Childish was thrown out of the Tate for distributing anti-Turner Prize manifestos.

He stands by the trenchant manifestos he wrote for the Stuckists – which stick it to Brit Artists such as Emin, and to critics generally. But he will tell you, unasked, that he left the group in 2001, never attended any Stuckist demonstrations and did not show any work in the large Stuckist exhibition of 2004.

Childish has made a life’s work of founding groups, and writing manifestos, then quitting. But he remains on good terms with Thomson, who interviewed him recently and said: “I’ve known you for over 25 years and spent a lot of time trying to work you out, in particular some apparent contradictions. For example, you can take a very big, deep, philosophical view on things, have a lot of compassion and understanding for others and help people out, when they need it. You can also be very damning and critical, showing little empathy for anyone that doesn’t fit in with your values.”

I couldn’t agree more. Childish rejoices in self-contradiction, and to say he can be damning and critical is understatement. When I asked him about the Stuckist exhibition his vehement response took me back: “My least favourite of the Stuckists,” he said, “was a guy who was good at drawing but pitched it just wacky enough to get the cunts to buy it.”

Does he mean that art which attracts a buyer is therefore less worthwhile? Are people who buy art necessarily “cunts”?

“The question of what is art is “very, very simple”, he says. “Would the person do it if he wasn’t being paid? This would eradicate all of contemporary art! You don’t pickle sharks in your shed for 20 years because you believe in it.

“The good thing about art is that no matter how bad it is, if it’s lying in the street people will recognise it as art. Whereas a lot of the work we have these days would not be.

People should do more art, he believes. “George Orwell, working as a policeman in Burma, had to practice drawing because they didn’t have cameras. This happened a lot in the services. My grandfather was a carpenter in the navy and he had to be able to draw. And the officers too. You had to be able to record things, to convey ideas. And that enables you to see, rather than just look. If you draw something then you can actually see it. And you will see things in the world around you. Drawing and painting open up the natural world. Painting is the medium of self-discovery.

“When I was a kid, from three to six, my painting was loose. Then it was colourful from 11 to 16, then dark and graphic as a 21- to 33-year-old drunk. Since 33, I’ve just been working backwards again. That’s when I became an adult, at 33, and gave up drink and inverted anger.”

Other people don’t produce half as much work as him. Why is that? “I have to pretend I don’t do as much as I do, because it embarrasses me. People sometimes ask me and I pretend I haven’t done anything recently.”

He’s prolific, it seems, not only because he doesn’t watch telly or read the papers but because he’s fast. “I paint a picture in 15 minutes, maybe 20, sometime three-quarters of an hour; if it’s all going to hell, 3 hours. Sometimes time and effort rescues it, but usually it just tortures it. Most times I like the first go, then come back a couple of hours later and decide whether to add one tiny brush mark; that’s the touch that pleases my soul.”

He’s sometimes asked to teach in art schools. As a result, he says, the students produce more in one afternoon than in the rest of the term. “I try to get them to let go, and use no skill whatever. This is an absolute block. They’re so tied up because they can’t bring themselves to do rubbish.”

But why should they? Isn’t the point of being students that they want to move beyond producing rubbish?

“When people say their kids could do such and such a painting, my smart answer is, “Well I would expect your kids to do it, but can you? It takes a lot of work to get that free and easy – to be natural. Skilful means effortless. You can get that with beginners luck but after that you have to do some more work to recapture it, which is what Picasso talked about. It takes a lot of effort to get back to effortlessness, not to draw like an uptight artist.

“I’ve been working between the tension of my skill and allowing the painting to be as it wants to be since I was 33. The first trick was to not care what others might think of my work. The next was to paint and not care what I thought about it myself. Basically, I don’t bother impressing others, then step it up a gear and don’t bother impressing myself. That is where you get real freedom. That is the big one. That’s why I work quickly, and why I don’t look at it again for another week. (He paints on Sundays, at his mother’s house.) “So I can see it as if it was done by someone else.”

This does not mean that he considers all his raw work to be brilliant. But he seems relaxed about work that turns out badly. “I saw some of my paintings today and I’m appalled by them.” For most artists to say that would be devastating, but to Childish it’s just five minutes’ annoyance.

The interesting thing about painting pictures, he concludes, is painting pictures. And with music, the interesting thing is playing it. “When I was a child, people got together and played in the pub, and in the car park. And people knew how to do a turn. They were not having to make do with what was dumped on them.

“People think I’m an amateur. That’s become a derogatory term, like I don’t know what I’m doing. But the amateur is someone who does things out of love.”

That said, when I went to see him perform – to an audience of 100 or so in the basement of his London gallery – he confessed to being not very good at tuning his guitar and asked the audience, “Is that flat or sharp?”

In keeping with the amateurism is his cussedly uncommercial approach. At his gallery, his dealer Steve Lowe showed me copies of the latest Childish novel, The Idiocy of Idears. It was the second edition, Lowe explained, the first having been printed with no price on the cover – indeed, with a notice saying that shoppers should refuse to pay anything at all for it. Copies had been distributed around bookshops all over London. Similarly, after being told that he was committing commercial suicide by releasing too much music, one of his bands. Thee Milkshakes (sic), released four LPs in a single day.

Plainly, he doesn’t care about money: “If you want to be rich,” he tells me at one point, “value what you have got.”

I ask him why, as somebody who has no time for the media, he has given me so much of his time over the last few months.

He gives it a moment’s thought. “I like to influence people.”

He takes me into the office and sits in front of Julia’s gleaming Apple computer – the first piece of plastic high-tech I’ve seen in the house. He opens various music files: tracks from his latest album, Thatcher’s Children. He plays them to me, and every so often laughs unashamedly at the lyrics. It turns out that several of the songs were written by Julia, and sung by her too.

“Most of my girlfriends have ended up painting or singing,” he says.

If there’s one thing that hanging around with Childish has taught me, it’s this: “Creativity is our birthright. But the English don’t like people who are self-taught. They haven’t passed the driving test. It’s not about whether you can do it, but did you go through the right channels?”

This is an incredibly empowering idea, and all the more worthwhile because – to put this bluntly – not absolutely everything Childish does seems to me to be all that wonderfully brilliant. I hugely admire the energy of his music, for instance, and share his amusement at many of the lyrics, but on balance it’s sometimes a bit of a racket.

Still, listening to the music has cheered him up immensely. I remind him that he’s promised to do some painting with me but we’re running out of time. A friend of his – a member of the Band of Historical Hillwalkers – is coming round soon to dress up in tweed, wool and leather (velcro and Goretex are discouraged) then set out to breathe the air (as the Hillwalkers Manifesto, written by Childish, puts it) and engage with the world by making pinhole photographs and painting.

Childish whizzes me back into the kitchen. Looking through my sketchbooks very rapidly he says my drawings look a bit “tight”, but stops to commend one rather hasty study of pine cones.

We tear pages from the huge sketchbook I brought, and throw tubes of paint all over the floor – and in the next 15 minutes we produce no fewer than eight paintings of each other. By the time his hillwalking friend has arrived, the entire kitchen floor is covered in paintings.

The colours are in no way realistic, and the shapes aren’t always right either. “Is my head really that heart-shaped,” he asks at one point. Another time, he laughs at one of my pictures and says, correctly, that it looks a bit boss eyed.

I can’t say that I’m pleased. Painting at speed was exhilarating, but I leave the paintings with him to dry and for weeks make no effort to retreive them. They’re worthless – and I don’t only mean in monetary terms.

Some days later, Childish sends me an email – itself rather a surprise. I almost junk it because he uses one of his many pseudonyms – in this case, William Claudius. The email consists of a poem he wrote the previous night, inspired by our recent conversation: “some say im/ laurence/some say im/ blake/ some say im/ true/ some say im/ fake,” it starts.

I phone him to say thanks, and while he’s on the line I ask why he wanted me to paint so fast. He’s talked and written often enough about the need for sincerity and authenticity in art – couldn’t I have achieved those at a slightly slower pace? Or was it simply that we’d run out of time?

Not at all, he insists. We worked fast, he goes on to explain, to feel truly alive: “Every artist knows that if they get something in a sketch it can be impossible to recapture that energy in another medium. And that’s the kind of energy I’m trying to get into everything. When you paint, you’re in the moment.

“Creativity is the only thing that engages with life. It’s the joining of mind and material. It’s a spiritual thing – and all of life should be like that.”