Billy Childish and the Medway Scene

The influence of the Medway landscape and environment on musician, poet and artist, Billy Childish.

There are not many artists who can claim to be major influences on stars as diverse as Kylie Minogue and Kurt Cobain.

If Billy Bragg is the most prominent singer-songwriter to emerge from the Essex side of the Thames Estuary, then Billy Childish is the founding influence behind the Medway Poets, a group of performance poets, artists and musicians that included Brit-art star Tracey Emin.

Childish may be better known as the ex-boyfriend of Emin and the founder of the art movement The Stuckists, but he is an unusually prolific musician, poet and painter.

Born and brought up in the Medway, where he lives today, Childish has always divided opinion, while maintaining a significant influence on the art and music scene stretching far beyond the Medway.

Emin has described Childish as 'one of the greatest influences on my life', while The Guardian has called him 'Britain’s greatest cultural asset'.

He feels that the Medway, its landscape and environment, is absolutely central to his work. His book of paintings, Chatham Childish, and his recent collection of "medway poems", entitled The river be my blud, is very strongly influenced by the area. His band, The Buff Medways, is named after a local breed of poultry.

In Rochester bridge, Childish who is dyslexic, writes: 'the evening mist makes this sean/somehow primevil/i can imagine this river without man/old and resilient’. In Huddie, he writes: 'for how many thousands of years/have I looked out over this muddy/estuary?/since before the romans came?/ - certanly.'

This interest in the Roman and military heritage of the area, which he also shares with Bragg, is reflected in his involvement with the Upchurch Archaeological Group. Even as a child, he started the Medway Military Research Group.

His love for the Medway often collides with the anger of an artist who refuses to be embraced by the establishment, a theme that frequently emerges in his work. But although he is more trenchant than Bragg in resisting the mainstream, like him he feels strongly that any changes to local communities must build on their existing history and identity.

'We have the biggest Napoleonic defence system in the country. The landscape is one of the best I’ve ever seen. The North Kent Marshes are a little bit of wilderness which don’t exist anywhere else,' he says.

He believes that the strength of Chatham, as a Victorian town, was that it was contained and that development should concentrate on refurbishing some of the fantastic existing buildings in the town rather than promoting sprawl.

'A lot of old buildings are going to waste and falling apart. There are a lot of missed opportunities,' he says. For example, the last custom built cinema has been closed down while the old Chatham Theatre Royal, built more than 100 years ago, has fallen into disrepair although it is clearly a magnificent building. Similarly he points out that Rochester’s Eastgate House, a striking Tudor mansion which featured in The Pickwick Papers, lies empty despite its incredible heritage.

Childish, the poet and punk rocker, may not be the first voice regeneration experts turn to. But as an artist who is profoundly affected by sense of place, his insights seem to have much to offer.

He will continue to divide opinion. The curator and art critic Matthew Higgs has compared him to William Blake while Time Out's art critic has dismissed him as 'nothing more than a Bayswater road-style dauber'. But if his following is anything to go by, he could yet be the Medway’s most famous son.