Wednesday, 8 March 2017

My Fault - Billy Childish


If I was to vote in one of those Greatest Living Englishman polls, for me it would be a toss up between Mark E Smith and Billy Childish though I suspect Billy Childish would win it by a whisker which, when taking his moustache into consideration, would make sense. It certainly wouldn't be Sir David Attenborough or Stephen Fry, or even Nicholas Parsons for that matter.

What makes a man an artist? Or rather, what makes a man a great artist? Must you suffer for your art or must you have suffered? If so, does this explain Billy Childish? Picked on, beaten and bullied by his father and elder brother. Shat on, spat on and made to eat soap. Betrayed by his mother, dragged into school and yet more misery where - as Childish puts it - 'specialness' is destroyed. The world of nature, innocence and imagination erased. Then raped by a friend of his family.

Childhood is a horror show, no better exemplified by Billy Childish's account not of his molestation and rape by an older man or the physical and psychological violence inflicted upon him by members of his own family but by the cruelty that children themselves are able to inflict through the bullying of their weaker classmates and through the torture inflicted upon lesser creatures. A case in point being his description of him and his friend glueing matchsticks to wasps then burning them alive like some sadistic Japanese prisoner of war camp game, followed by Childish demanding his friend (whose father is a vicar) spit on a cross: 'Come on, God’s kid, fuckin' spit on it, you fuckin' Christ lover! Jesus ain't gonna save you now, so spit on it! Spit on it, you wanker!'
Suffer little children to come unto me.

Billy Childish is an artist, poet, writer, photographer, film maker and musician; and despite being diagnosed dyslexic at the age of 28 has published more than thirty poetry collections and three novels. He's recorded over one hundred albums on a variety of record labels and exhibited paintings all over the world. According to the late, great John Peel he's 'a cult-rock icon'. Billy Childish is a one-man art movement and My Fault is his memoir of his childhood and teenage years.

'All characters in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental', as it states in the disclaimer at the start of the book but clearly that's not the case at all. Tracey Emin, Childish's ex-girlfriend, for example, can be identified fairly easily and the things he's got to say about her are... interesting, to say the least. No wonder she'll no longer talk to him: 'There's nothing that bitch liked better than a thick one up her arse, looking over her shoulder, mascara like a spider. Then I'd pull it out, feeding it into her mouth, and she'd take it full in the face, laughing and coughing through the sauce,' he confides to the world and its mother. It's the kind of confession that might sour any relationship, you'd have thought? Or maybe not?

Other episodes are equally identifiable such as him relaying a conversation conducted among workmen at Chatham Naval Dockyard one day as they sit drinking cups of tea and reading the newspapers:
'"Lucky for me I ain't got kids, but still, in front of my wife, six o'clock, it's bang out of order!"
"Fucking disgusting!"
"But this idiot in here, it says he kicked his TV set in, two hundred quid's worth! It says it here in black and white. Here, take a look for yourself, read it! What do you make of that? Two hundred quid's worth of television, it's a bloody joke! The man's an idiot!"
"I'd have just switched it off."
Without mentioning them or going into any further detail, Childish is clearly referring to the Sex Pistols and the Bill Grundy incident that made headlines in 1976, catapulting them to world-wide infamy and without realising it himself at the time, planting a tiny seed inside of him that would inform everything he would do in the future. By this I mean Punk Rock and the spirit of independence and 'do-it-yourself', where art and creativity are guiding lights and the highest ideals for man to attain to.

Other episodes in the book are - if not identifiable due to being local to the area Childish grew up in - familiar due to almost everyone having experienced something similar. He mentions, for example, the destruction of the woods at the back of his house where he and his friends played: 'The woods, our woods... They moved in and flattened the lot! Crushed to the ground! Without so much as a 'by your leave'. Age old and noble. There's no doubt that those woods belonged to us kids, us kids, the dickie birds and the occasional adder. One day rabbits, spiders and birds, the next: bulldozers!'
I feel the same about the Stonehenge Free Festival that was so violently smashed by out-of-control police in the summer of 1985, known now as the Battle of the Beanfield. Unleashed by the Thatcher government in the wake of the miners strike the previous year. It still makes my blood boil after all these years. I still want it to be avenged.
'People have no rights and kids have less than none. They knocked down our world with no warning, with no consultation. Their only emotion: contempt! An atrocity that should never be forgotten. I write it down, here for all to see, to be documented for future generations. The holocaust against our friends the trees, the grasses, the flowers and all their myriad of friends and relations, four-legged, six-legged, eight-legged, and wings of the sky. I swear to Christ, it makes me see red, even after all these softening years...'

For Childish, however, this event led to his involvement with the Walderslade Liberation Army, a highly disciplined ecological terrorist unit comprised of him and his gang of fellow eleven-year-olds, led by a political mastermind called Goldfish. "We need guns and we need politics!" Goldfish would declare as he wiped the snot from his nose "The politics of our situation!"
Armed with crude, home-made guns made out of old metal pipes and real bombs made from chemicals stolen from the school lab and typical bomb-making materials such as weed-killer, sulphur and saltpetre bought from any hardware shop or chemist, Goldfish led his men into battle with the developers who were trashing their woods. "The first thing an army needs is discipline! Discipline! Food! Guns! And Glycerine!"
I wonder what became of Goldfish? What did he grow up to be? I wonder if Billy Childish even knows? Maybe he went on to form Class War?

My Fault is funny, disturbing, brilliant and harrowing all at the same time. Within its pages are echoes of Charles Bukowski, Knut Hamsun, Dostoevsky, and Henry Miller - and that's a very good thing indeed. Billy Childish is an example to us all. An example of triumph over adversity, of art over commerce, and of integrity of intention. An example of creativity being the heart and soul of mankind.
And Billy Childish gets my vote for the Greatest Living Englishman.
John Serpico