Bruce Wilkinson, John Rylands Research Institute researcher, writes his seventh blog post on the amazing Dave Cuncliffe Collection, acquired earlier this year:
Billy Childish is probably best known for his garage punk music, putting out over a hundred albums with The Milkshakes, Thee Headcoats and under a variety of different monikers since the late-1970s. He is, however, a true polymath; a renaissance man working across the arts including photography, painting, filmmaking and as a writer, publisher and poet. His verse was featured and reviewed in Dave Cunliffe’s Global Tapestry Journal from the 1980s and the archive contains correspondence with Childish alongside numerous poetry pamphlets, books and records put out via his independent Hangman imprint. He’s very much part of the small press tradition, almost entirely separate from the mainstream art, music and publishing worlds but maintaining an amazing productivity while steadfastly ignoring styles, trends or fashions. Like Cunliffe, BB Books and the general little poetry magazine scene, Childish has built his own entirely autonomous way of working so although mostly ignored by the mainstream media (except brief periods of recognition like his championing by the White Stripes) he can be creative without worrying about press coverage or sales.
Childish was part of the Kentish Medway Poets group which also included musician and artist Sexton Ming, Charles Thomson, Bill Lewis and Rob Earl. Punk-influenced, readings often included appearances alongside bands of the same ilk and, by the late-1970s, they were extremely prolific, putting out cut, paste and Xeroxed poetry pamphlets which (un-coincidentally) look very much like the music zines then appearing around Britain. This is where the small press tradition of publishing cheaply made little poetry magazines connects with the burgeoning punk ethic of do-it-yourself culture – learn three chords, record a tune and put it out as a single on your own label, or type, photocopy and staple your pamphlet or zine. It’s immediate – write a poem and publish it in a matter of days without editorial interference or censorial judgement, using your own language to a developing readership in Billy’s case through what was initially the Phyroid Press which developed into Hangman.
The artist Tracey Emin attended Maidstone Art College and was on the fringes of the Medway group, reading poetry alongside Childish. In a relationship together for much of the 1980s, Emin occasionally appeared with his bands, read at poetry events and ran Hangman from their Chatham home while developing her own art. Cunliffe recalls talking on the telephone with the pair during that period and remembers late-night sweary phone calls from Kent, often berating him (in a mostly friendly way) about what he’d written in his latest Global Tapestry, recollecting Billy fondly, Tracey rather less so.
Childish and several of the Medway Poets founded the Stuckist art movement. A reaction against conceptualism, the Stuckists issued manifestos criticising postmodernism and proposing a return to figurative work, demonstrating at the Turner Prize ceremony, sometimes dressed as monkeys. This fits neatly with the Childish approach to art; his music sticking tightly within the 1960s garage punk ethos of simple singer, guitar, bass and drums playing through authentic period equipment, verse in his distinctive working-class accent unafraid to reference Dostoevsky, Dos Passos or Don Quixote.
Emin and Childish split in 1987 and the Headcoats song ‘Art or Arse (You be the Judge)’ features a recorded phone message from her complaining about the track as its intro. It’s almost certainly no coincidence that his reaction against conceptualism was around the same time as her burgeoning fame as part of the Young British Artists with works including ‘My Bed and Everyone I’ve Ever Slept With’ embroidered tent.
A future blog will deal in more depth with how the archive relates to punk and zine culture but Cunliffe’s relationship with Childish reflects how the tradition of independent publishing continues even in these increasingly web-centric times. The BB Books editor sees something of himself in Billy who works incredibly hard to operate outside the mainstream media’s gaze producing unfettered art without asking for its permission or approval. Hangman and BB Books show that it’s possible to maintain autonomy despite pressure to conform and, although it almost certainly won’t make lots of money, there are still small press alternatives to ever-growing global corporatism.