Billy Childish: Childish attitude
He's produced thousands of paintings, hundreds of albums and countless poems. And, frankly, he doesn't care if you like any of them - because he does. Katy Guest pops in for tea with Billy Childish, the agent provocateur of contemporary culture
Saturday 27 August 2005
The problem is, Billy Childish is none of these things. He cannot be a punk. That he is in fact an unashamed hippie is obvious from the green tea in his squashed Moroccan teapot, the beetroot he grows from seed in his garden and the waft of joss sticks floating through his homely little terrace in Chatham, the town where he was born.
"Sex Crimes of the Futcher is fiction, as I maintain," he grins, as he settles down at his comfy kitchen table. "I have an alter ego, and what I do is I let him write the books. I have almost nothing to do with that."
The Stuckists are becoming another myth. "This organisation is the bane of my life now," he sighs. He left the group in 2001, admitting that writing manifestos and planning plans were a lot more fun than the follow-through, "Because founding things is fun, isn't it?" It must be: in a few years Childish has founded several bands; a couple of small independent publishers; The Friends of the Western Buddhists;The Friends of the Enemies of the Western Buddhists; and an art movement - and then jumped ship from all of them the minute they started to become popular. Like Groucho Marx, it seems that he doesn't care to be a member of a club that accepts people like him as founders. "I'm also like Groucho Marx, though my moustache is real," he confirms.
Most disappointingly, Childish doesn't even want to slag off Tracey Emin. "I treated her quite abysmally as a boyfriend," he says quite cheerfully. But he hates not being friends with people. He even thinks her work is quite impressive. At least, for a conceptual artist.
These misconceptions are a shame, because Billy Childish is a big fan of the truth. That's what comes of having "Sagittarius rising with Sagittarius sun and Sagittarius moon and Jupiter in Sagittarius", apparently. It doesn't take long in his company to work out that he likes to be thorough. "People say I founded the Stuckists, which I didn't. I didn't go on the demonstrations and I didn't do the newspaper campaigns. And the name is not what people think it is at all. Well, it is vaguely ..."
Summarising is not a strong point. I realise this when my second 90-minute tape runs out, and Childish jumps to his feet. "Don't worry, I'm sure I can find another tape!" he offers. "Now where was I?" He digresses, explains and expands, circling around his point like a hunter around a rare and excitable tiger. He can't stand inaccuracy. "I can't do practical jokes because if I say something that's not true it makes me feel ill. I often give myself bad press because if I think there's a little bit that's tarnished I'll tell people about that bit because I can't stand people not knowing that it's not really totally pure. Because I don't like bullshitting people. It's my nature, I can't help it."
Therefore, he needs to explain this "vaguely". "The reason we called it the Stuckists was this poem I wrote in 1992 or '93," he says. Having written a few thousand poems, as well as producing a couple of thousand paintings and 200 albums, he can be forgiven for not remembering the date. But he does remember the words. "It said: 'You're stuck, stuck, stuck. Still playing that idiotic music, still painting those pictures ...' It came from a conversation I had with Tracey at Victoria station on the telephone. She wanted me to go to an exhibition where a friend was taking cocaine live on stage. And I said to Trace, 'Look, I'm not interested in this piss-poor version of Dadaism which has got no balls to it.' And she had a hissy fit. Because I didn't want to go to a party. She said, 'Well, you're stuck.' And Charles [Thompson, co-founder of the Stuckists] loved it because it reminded him of the Fauves and the Impressionists, whose names also originated as insults, I believe. And art movements are always based on these insults."
If art movements didn't turn out to be very important to Childish, art did. So much so that he wrote in the introduction to My Fault that if he hadn't written the book then he would, "quite seriously, have killed". For the past few years, he has been to Charles Saatchi and the Young British Artists what the little boy in the crowd was to the Emperor's New Clothes.
"I hate conceptual art," he says. "Our contemporary culture is as facile as the f Victorian chocolate box stuff, but not as talented. But people like things or are fans of things because they think it reflects their own intelligence. You'll get someone who'll argue with you that Damien Hirst is good because they can't like something that isn't. They can't say, 'I like it and it's a load of rubbish' because apparently it is them. People don't see themselves as people. They experience themselves through others."
Billy Childish's work, on the other hand, is all about experiencing himself. Hundreds of paintings and woodcuts show him scowling and scarred, in blacks and reds and smudges of ink. He actually has a very nice face: turned down at the eyes, with the Kitchener moustache and a gold bottom tooth and a kind smile. But the sentiments the paintings express are not kind. "Conceptual art is continually discussed in terms of dealing with something," he growls. "They say, 'This brick deals with ...' and it doesn't deal with anything. A dead shark doesn't deal with death; it is dead! Well, actually, when I do some stuff I really do deal with some things." The things his autobiographical novel, My Fault, deal with (mental and sexual abuse, alcoholism, stamping on cats...) are not pleasant. But his work is at least, he says, true. The question of what is art is "very, very simple", he reckons. "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. So basically it's sausages. But not as useful. Because you can't eat it."
Perhaps surprisingly, the outspoken Childish has won a number of fans among those more famous and influential than himself. Not that he's in awe of them. "Blur? Well, Graham used to come to our gigs and stage dive off a one-foot stage on to his face ... Mudhoney genuinely liked us and helped us. But they were one of the few people who are not totally involved in their career and had no problem with the fact that I didn't like their music at all. Kylie rang me up and asked me if she could use one of my poetry book titles for an album title, and she was very polite and very nice. And she used to send me things now and then so I used to send her some things. I think that was when she was interested in being a bit more rough. I think she got over me. She realised that she doesn't want any rough at all, ha ha!" Not that he's more impressed by rough. "The bloke from the Libertines, the wayward one, he's never managed to meet me," he adds. "I've ended up leaving every time I've been supposed to meet him. He's not turned up because he's burned his cocoa or something."
Ask Childish whom he admires, however, and he goes quiet. He opens his mouth to answer, until I add: "People who are still alive, that is." "Heroes?" he says, laughing at the caveat and slowly topping up his green tea. "Who are still alive ...? Well I've got a friend called Neil Palmer, who was in a group called Fire Department. They don't exist but he still writes songs. And nobody liked them very much because he looked wrong. And they wouldn't go anywhere. And they were absolutely perfect. And ... my mum's a good potter. I like her pots. They're very based in the work I do as well, we work a bit together. And I do think Tracey's definitely the best out of all the Britartists, by a long shot. When you go in a room and see Tracey's stuff you automatically gravitate towards it." I point out that he has just mentioned Tracey Emin in response to a question about his heroes. "Well, she was a lot better as a painter though, when she was a kid," he blusters. "But I was the only one who thought that as well."
It is typical of Childish to support the underdog. And typical to bail out when the underdog goes up in the world. But then, he doesn't have much time for social climbing. "If I was climbing a mountain I'd have done everything I could to stay on the right side of Tracey and Sarah Lucas," he says. "I'd have taken the crumbs The White Stripes offered me [Jack White asked him to appear on Top of the Pops with the band]. 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."
So if Charles Saatchi turned up in Chatham, knocking on Childish's door and offering untold riches ...? "That's not too far from something that happened, actually. It was around the time of this Stella person [that would be Vine, the former Stuckist and former wife of Charles Thompson whose work Saatchi bought in 2004] and there were several e-mails from Saatchi's people asking about prices and work. I sounded out my friend [the artist] Peter Doig and he told me what he thought. And I said, 'If Saatchi wants to buy something I will only do it on the basis that I meet with him and talk to him and am convinced that he has a genuine understanding and belief in the same things that I do.' It's a rather harsh view to take with a buying member of the public because it would exclude most people," he concedes. "But in that instance, because of his cynical use of art, it would be important to establish that ... And so basically that probably means I wouldn't be able to sell any pictures." He shrugs, but not regretfully. "It's not the art that's important, it's who you are. Because I don't believe we're here for no reason, I'm not a nihilist."
I think I believe him, even before he tells me, as a parting by-the-way, about his father and brother, the father and brother he wrote about in My Fault, the ones he says almost drove him to murder. "My brother is a painter," he explains. "My brother is the opposite of me. He went to grammar school, the Slade and the Royal College and he got all of his qualifications. And he painted an exhibition's worth of paintings he doesn't want. He can never understand that I do an exhibition and sell nothing and couldn't care less, because I painted the pictures I wanted."
His antipathy towards his father is even more telling. "He was one of the first people to realise about branding. That all these crappy little brand names could sell for money - the sort of thing the printer used to put together for nothing when he was selling something. And he was completely intoxicated by ownership. So he had a Rolls-Royce, he dressed immaculately, he always wore starched collars and had a yacht in the south of France."
Nobody could accuse Billy Childish of being intoxicated by ownership. His own collar is worn soft by years of washing, and held together by a safety pin. His house is decorated with his own paintings. His yacht in the South of France is a studio at his mum's place down the road, where he helps her make pots.
So who is Billy Childish? As I am leaving, I ask one, last, easy question: I've seen conflicting reports, I say ... What is your given name? His eyes twinkle. "This is somewhere I might let white lies in," he says, gripped by the terrible naughtiness of the less-than-truth. "Because names I really like. You've got William John Hamper and Steven Charlie Hamper. At times I've been Charles Hangman. I had a bank account under Kirk Schwitters. Billy Childish was given to me by a friend called Button-Nosed Steve, when I was Gus Claudius. Do you reckon I should tell you?"
In the end, he doesn't tell me who he is. But he knows. And it's all in his garden with its kale that went a bit funny, and the paintings that he probably won't sell, and the music that he hopes a famous fan might cover so he can make a bit of money towards a shirt button.
"Oh, I'm successful," he says. And he is, if success is doing what you want in life and getting away with it. His philosophy seems to be this: "If people could get back in touch with making some marks with powder paint on paper they'd be a lot happier. And not having to be building statues to themselves in the park all the time." And off he goes to his gardening, and his music, and his powdery marks on paper.
'Childish - Made In Chatham', an exhibition of paintings, opens at The Aquarium, 10 Woburn Walk, London WC1, on 1 September. A documentary by Graham Bendel, 'Billy Childish is Dead', is playing at the Raindance Film Festival and will be screened at the ICA later this year
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