I first came across Billy Childish 10 years ago when my college tutor handed me a pile of his books which he no longer had a use for. I was doing a project on book cover design and the tutor was being particularly supportive owing to some errors he had made the previous summer. I recognised the distinctive woodcut of the Hangman Press logo and Childish’s own stylised illustrations. I flicked through, read a few of the poems – they were raw and powerful, I was hooked. I liked that his dyslexic spelling  had not been corrected into ‘proper grammar’ by some condescending proof-reader. The words were completely his own.

Not long after this, during my Saturday afternoon stint at the bookshop – generally spent drinking tea, listening to Classic FM and working my way through the Fiction section – one of the Medway poets began popping in.  Bill was in his 50s, as well as a poet he was a storyteller and artist. He was an intelligent man  but it was the kind of intelligence that can be self-destructive.

We met for coffee. He confided in me about things I  was too young to understand. The complexities of marriage. I went to some of his readings and he introduced me to Billy Childish and a few of the other Medway poets. There was something very insular about the whole scene, they were all from Medway and some of them, it seemed, had no intention of ever leaving (although to be fair, Bill had spent many years travelling the world). Medway infiltrated their work in a way that only those who knew the area could fully appreciate. There was something of the dereliction of Chatham dockyard, the unplumbed murky depths of the river Medway, the junkies hanging round Rochester High Street long after the tourists had gone. What was most apparent in Childish’s work (and those who imitated him), however,  was an unashamed desperation, an admission or celebration of failure.

At the time I met Bill, he and the others were only just forming what has now become known as the Stuckist movement.   Bill explained it to me as a stand against ‘conceptual’ art and a re-establishment of the ‘traditional values’ of figurative art. But to me there was no clear distinction between the two . And anyway, what was the point in trying to prevent other artists expressing themselves in whatever way they chose? Surely there was a place for every art form, even the conceptualism of the ‘Saatchi’ generation of Young British Artists like Damien Hirst, Sarah Lucas, and Anthony Quinn. The name Stuckists came from a conversation Childish had a few years earlier with his then girlfriend, Tracey Emin, who accused him of being ‘stuck’ because he had no desire to ‘move onwards and upwards’ – he didn’t want fame, he didn’t need it the way she did. The Stuckists wrote Saatchi’s lot off as pretentious and claimed that ‘artists who don’t paint aren’t artists’ which is a very limited view of art. Perhaps it was the commercial success of the YBA that they disliked or the fact that the YBA were art-college educated and the majority of Stuckists were ‘self-taught’ – a kind of reverse snobbery?  I couldn’t help feeling that the Medway Poets had cheapened themselves through this exercise in re-branding and become ambassadors of an ill-conceived philosophy.  But then again, looking at the majority of Turner Prize entries year after year, perhaps they did have a point? The last time I had been to see the Turner Prize was in 1999, which coincidentally was the year the Stuckists formed. It was also the year that Tracey Emin exhibited her unmade bed. Coincidence? As well as the bed, Emin displayed pornographic drawings and neon signs with messages such as ‘Every part of me is bleeding’ which my friend and I found hilarious for its melodrama.

   Tracey Emin had attended Maidstone College in the eighties. My friends and I joined in 1995 just as she was at the height of her fame with her ‘Everyone I’ve ever slept with’ tent (which, of course, included former boyfriend Billy Childish).  I still remember being shown around by one of the tutors who proudly pointed out that the block of concrete outside the print-making rooms was left there by Tracy Emin. There was nothing special about it, it was just a block of concrete but it was treated almost like a religious artifact and it seemed it was an official landmark on the tour of the premises.  

 So by the time I left college armed with my Billy Childish books, my friendship with Bill and the concrete legacy of Tracey Emin, I felt a familial warmth for the Medway Poets or Stuckists or whatever they chose to call themselves. It didn’t matter that their readings were badly organised, that their manifestos were not entirely logical, that they were big fish in a small pond.   I valued their humility, their humanity and their willingness to be entirely honest.

What makes Billy Childish one of my personal heroes, aside from his completely personal and painfully confessional writing, is the philosophy behind his work. Despite having a fanbase which has included The White Stripes, Nirvana, Beck, Blur, REM and even Poet Laureate Andrew Motion, he has never felt the pull of fame or the money that goes with it. Material success just does not interest him. As long as he has enough money to reinvest into his next project he’s happy.  In a recent interview to the Guardian he told us

My quest through my work is for God…My hero is Van Gogh, a man who understood the battle was with himself, not the approval of others

I celebrate my limitations, I look for failure….Failure and risk are the places you meet yourself.

In the manifesto on his website he reinforces this when he says

I paint these pictures to come up against my painful limitations

Meeting my limitations I come closer to myself

Coming closer to myself I come closer to God

 

 

 

 

 

 

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I’m standing at the sink, washing up and my mother’s in the living room. We’re talking through the doorway. She’s launched into the story of how Syed’s sister in Pakistan is getting married to some guy in London,  that the families had arranged it all about a year ago but no one had mentioned it to us (her, them). I have that sudden awareness that I get more and more these days of not being a part of all that. That village is, thankfully, thousands of miles away yet for them its the only place that really exists.

I’m not sure what she’s expecting of me in this conversation. Just to listen and agree no doubt. THe fact that she tried to get me married off to this girl’s brother when I went to Pakistan and the fact that I had a terrible time out there won’t figure in anything she says, its all forgotten now (by her) so its as if it never happened at all. This just makes me more annoyed, and frustrated. So she waffles on and I find myself telling her that none of this has a bearing on my life, the people, the village, etc – none of these people actually mean anything to me. Its not my life, its hers. This makes her angry. Before I know it she’s launched into her old favourite of how my sisters are also from this country and they went with her and got married and now they’re happy (out of her hair, her duty is done). How she ‘allowed’ me to come back from Pakistan without getting married on the understanding that we would find someone here. She ‘allowed me’? What the hell! Suddenly I wish I nenver started this conversation – ~I don’t want to feel my anger, there’s too much of it. I spend most of my life avoiding my own rage, it scares me more than anything – so like a lot of angry people I keep it bottled up, pushed down. But I really can’t let her get away with saying that to me. I remind her that actually this is my life and a marriage between me and another person would in actual fact require my consent. I certainly did not agree to get back here and go through it all again. So then as usual she curses me and tells me its her duty as a muslim to ensure I get married to someone from the right backround and how her and my father are going to have to account for it when they meet their maker. I tell her that she can tell Him I was beyond her control, on account of having my own will and being a seperate person. Blasphemy is then added to my list of crimes. But how can I be blasphemous if I don’t believe in a God?

I tell her I don’t want a husband, I certainly am not going off to live with a stranger and his family in Bristol, or Luton or wherever else our extended family resides. For my mother to then wash her hands off me (duty done) and for them to treat me as they like. And marry into the family? I know the dangers. For me, the worst thing about the Azad Kashmiri Pakistani community is their insistence on keeping it in the family. An article in the Times quoted from a recent report:

while British Pakistanis were responsible for three per cent of all births, they accounted for one in three British children born with genetic illnesses.

This is shocking and deeply saddening. What the hell is the Pakistani community doing to its young people, firstly there is the pressure for them to marry from within their family tree (first, second, cousins or more distant relations) which is hard enough to deal with, then, particularly in the case of first cousin marriage there is the chance of birth defects or severe disablity. Something that could have been avoided had they married elsewhere. Its very much a tribal culture and there is a lot of territorialism. Marrying into the family is partly about keeping wealth in the family but its also about distrust of outsiders. There is a lot of distrust in the Kashmiri community. My mother has more than her fair share – some of this distrust has been passed down to me and my siblings, at times its difficult to shake it off.

 My mother is really irate now. She tells me if I go off and live alone then my brother-in-laws won’t let my sisters see me in case they turn ‘bad’ as well. I tell her if my sisters want to see me they can, and besides I won’t suddenly turn ‘bad’. She says they have to listen to their husbands because they’re husbands are in charge. And I’m gob-smacked. i ask her if she thinks men are more important than women because I know what she will say. After all, she brought us up to be subservient and treat men with respect whether they deserved it or not. She hasn’t stopped, she’s trying to educate but there’s no logic in what she’s saying. She tells me women carry a child in their stomachs (no word for womb in Punjabi) for 9 months and how dare I think I’m as important as a man. But surely Islam promotes equality of the sexes, mother?

We’ve been here before many times. I’ll spend the rest of the night avoiding her and feeling stressed. None of what I’ve said will have been taken on board. I will never quite be able to shake that feeling of unrest in my soul, heart or wherever such things reside. Tomorrow, I’ll come in from work and it will be as if the row never happened. As if she never swore at me and told me I was the worst. but I don’t forget things that easily.

I stop listening, I’ve had too many years of this already – if I stay here to listen I’ll only get depressed thinking about how much this stuff has held me back. This trying to keep us down, lack of encouragement to ever achieve anything from such an early age that some of it has stuck. Activly encouraging us ot to mix with non Pakistanis even though most of the people we’ve known at school, college and work have been non-Pakistanis (after all . I don’t like this feeling of being cheated and the painful awareness that emotional black-mail has couloured my relationship (our relationships) with my mother for so many years

 

 

Between cultures

June 25, 2008

Between cultures

grey areas exist

you can lose yourself

or find yourself

there are places

without boundaries

unclaimed territory

opportunities

no rules to keep you safe

Who am I?

June 25, 2008

I am British / Pakistani / Kashmiri / Mirpuri /Asian / English / Southerner / Westerner / Eurpoean  

I am Muslim / atheist / agnostic / spiritualist / undecided / meditator 

“I have no country to fight for, my country is the earth and I am a citizen of the world” – Eugene V Debs

Making the tea

June 17, 2008

One of my brother-in-laws and another guy from the village have popped in to see my parents, to welcome them back and catch up on the village gossip. So as usual, my mother ushers me into the kitchen like a shepherd guiding a stray sheep into its pen. And shuts the door. For a moment I feel almost offended, then I remember that she’s being doing this for years, and its not about me or any of her daughters. Its not that she’s ashamed of us or even that she dissapproves of what I’m wearing.  Its just that we occupy an uncomrtable space between two cultures that don’t always come together and sometimes its easier to shut the door than it is to try to find a new way of doing things. Especially when you come from a culture that holds so strongly to tradition. For my mother, living in this foreign country, the traditions she grew up with are sometimes all she has to hold onto. In the same way that the ex pats living in the Costa Del Sol find it hard to give up their English pubs and fish and chips. Its just something to hold on to.

So I get out the tea pan, pour in the water, add the tea leaves and watch it simmer and then boil. Sometimes I find this a tedious task but today is one of those days when I enjoy it. I throw in a cardamom and breathe in the warming aroma. Then I add the milk, give it a stir and wait for it to come to the boil.

I started making the tea when I was twelve, before this time my big sisters had always been around to do it. But when I was twelve  they weren’t around and for a few months I was the only ‘woman’ in the house. When I got home from school I made my dad a cup of tea and a jam and butter sandwich. It became a bit of a ritual and I found it very grounding, it felt good taking care of someone and having a task to do. 

 I stare into the tea leaves and find myself drifting into the past. At moments like this the past feels close. But its impossibly far like a country that no longer exists. I remember the tantalising aroma of my mother’s pakoras and cardamom scented steam rising from the tea. One of my older sisters watching over it to make sure it didn’t boil over, another ready with the cups and tea strainer. My brother and I running in from the garden and snatching away pakoras in dirty fists when we thought mum wasn’t looking. Then racing each other for the swing.

Childhood seemed so secure, its only when you’re older that you realise how fragile it really is. How nothing lasts, the only constant is change.  And sentimental people like me will always mourn the loss of things and people in our lives.  So I enjoy simple tasks lilke making the tea because it connects me with what I’ve lost…