Childish left secondary education at 16, and while training to become an apprentice stonemason produced a portfolio of more than 600 drawings, for which he was accepted onto the painting course at St Martin's School of Art in London. He was soon expelled, however, for his outspokenness and unorthodox methods, and spent the next 12 years 'painting on the dole', during which time he also developed a highly personal writing style, and was associated with many of artists who would come to be identified as the YBA's.
In the art world, Childish is perhaps best known for his relationship with Tracey Emin in the early 1980s, and his lasting influence on her art practice, largely in terms of a 'confessional' style, and the direct, emotionally expressive use of language. His name features prominently in Emin's famous 'tent' piece Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963 – 1995 (1995). He also co-founded the 'Stuckist' movement, at least in part in reaction to a remark made by Emin about his art: "Your paintings are stuck, you are stuck! — Stuck! Stuck! Stuck!" One of the first statements in the 'Stuckist' manifesto was, "Artists who don't paint aren't artists" – a remark conspicuously discordant with the vogue for conceptual and ready-made art among the YBA's. Childish dissociated himself from the movement reasonably quickly, and was typically ambivalent about its validity. But his taste for immediacy and emotional honesty can be traced just as strongly in his poetry, which has an improvised yet forceful quality, the tone at once conversational, brutal and lyrical.
Many contemporary rock musicians also claim to be influenced by Childish's vast discography, recorded over 30 years with groups such as 'The Milkshakes', 'Thee Headcoats', and 'Wild Billy Childish and the Buff Medways'. Most of his output is a melding of blues and punk, and in some senses has a traditionalist, 'backwater' feel, often eschewing digital effects and recording techniques, and focusing on getting across the sentiment of a song, rather than perfecting its production. His attitude pre-empted the lo-fi or anti-folk ethos that became prevalent in indie music from the mid-1990s, and it's not difficult to see how the raw approach to material and media in his music projects (he would avoid the word 'career') aligns with his production of paintings and poetry.
Childish has also published several semi-autobiographical novels, including, most notoriously, My Fault, in which he catalogues his childhood sexual abuse at the hands of a family friend. Like his poetry, his prose style is visceral, self-contradicting and irreverent.
The three poems selected for the Poetry Archive from Billy Childish's CD Poems of a Backwater Visionary (57 Productions, 2007) demonstrate something of the range of Childish's writing: from the confrontational, unforgiving declaration of 'gentle men of gentle books know this:', through the humour and self-parody of 'a sad donky and a fat man smiling', to the tender, slyly provocative, and ultimately moving explanation of his artistic position in 'i am the strange hero of hunger'. Childish is dyslexic, and it is representative of his approach that he leaves in and even plays upon these 'errors', as personal deviations from the 'proper order' of language, in his poems. At their best, the poems are completely individual statements dedicated to art, literature, and music, by someone who has lived and breathed that commitment all his life. In these recordings, Childish comes across as a perhaps surprisingly affable spokesman for his part-outsider status, making clear both the universality and contrariness of his outlook, guiding the listener with the natural, intimate address of his poems to moments of genuine discovery and vision.