Signing on for a three year fine art degree at Maidstone College of Art back in September 1984 was a big move for me. I'd just turned nineteen and probably had not previously been away from home for longer than a couple of days. I was loosely familiar with beer and the genitalia of one specific member of the opposite sex, but I was otherwise generally naive; and now I was living in Kent amongst complete strangers. Home was Warwickshire, which may as well have been on Mars, or so it seemed at the time.
Whilst I was doing my best to remain open-minded to new experiences, I had developed a general scepticism regarding poetry as something which really wasn't for me. What poetry I'd been obliged to read at school and then in further education would, so I believed at the time, have worked better either converted to prose or set to music, and poets themselves seemed a self-involved bunch. Admittedly I didn't have a great wealth of experience with poets amongst my vague circle of friends, but I'd watched The Young Ones on the box, and Steve the poet with whom I now shared a student house in Leeds Village was doing nothing to disabuse me of the impression fostered by Rik Mayall directing condescending odes at his enemies. Steve was both funny and amiable at a certain level, but I always had the feeling of everything being part of some larger chess game to him. He was barely able to buy a packet of crisps without it resembling strategy. His poems, so far as I could tell, amounted to everybody stop what you're doing and look at me. He almost certainly would have told me about the Medway Poets, about Billy Childish and Bill Lewis - these being people he clearly admired - but it wouldn't have made much sense to me. As I say, I wasn't really drawn to poetry as a medium.
Traci Emin, a noisy Turkish girl in second-year printmaking was in the habit of scaling tables in the college canteen to announce some event or other, and she would do this roughly every two or three days. The events for which she evangelised were rarely ever anything which caught my interest, and I wasn't sure what to make of the girl, so I generally paid her no attention. She knew Carl, then Student Union president, one of the first people I got to know at Maidstone, and still a close friend today. Carl had briefly introduced me to Traci, just as she barged into our conversation to haggle over Student Union business of some kind. She scowled at me and observed isn't your 'air 'orrible! with her wonky gob, dropping the aitches like a younger, vaguely Turkish Irene Handl.
Charmed, I'm sure, I didn't bother replying as I began to weep bitter internal tears of self-loathing.
Now she stood on the canteen table bellowing like a lonely mountain goat, and the words resolved into something about a poetry reading in one of the lecture theatres. My curiosity outstripped my scepticism as I recognised the name of one of those who was to read - Billy Childish. I didn't know much about him, beyond whatever it was that Steve had told me, but apparently he was a local name of some distinction. I now realised that I had read about his band, the Milkshakes, in Sounds music paper a year or so earlier. I'd never heard their music, but it seemed like it might be interesting to watch some bloke who had been in Sounds reading out his poems, and it was something to do.
The hour came and the lecture theatre was dark with just a table at the front. Billy Childish had short, severe hair and wore what appeared to be his grandad's demob suit. He didn't smile. He didn't look like a man who had ever found any good reason to smile. In the midst of flourishes of artistic flamboyance, he appeared streamlined, efficient, even ruthless. He rattled off his poetry as though reading out a statement in a police interview room. He demonstrated neither charisma nor stagecraft, a deficit which seemed curiously highly charismatic in its own way. He sounded bored, as though he was trying to get through the fucking things as quickly as possible. The performance was, in spite of itself, incredible.
Then there was Bill Lewis, loud, theatrical, and intense. It was poetry performed more as I had anticipated it would be, and yet it was impossible to keep from being swept along by the force of his words and their delivery. He had a presence with which one could not argue.
Traci later made an announcement to the effect that she was selling various books of Billy Childish poetry. I had a hunch that I would regret it if I didn't go and see what she had, and so I did. I ended up buying the lot - Poems from the Barrier Block, Prity Thing, Will the Circle Be Unbroken and five or six others. Poems from the Barrier Block was a proper square bound collection, but the others were slimmer volumes of cranky dyslexic verse - if you could really call it verse - all hammered out on a broken typewriter. There were few concessions to grammar or spelling, but for want of a better qualifier, you could tell it was the real thing, the genuine article:
t.v. poetry scotch n piss
the t.v. said - 'we wanna make a film'
they said 'you read with this group of poets'
so i said 'yeah'
n they get us to do some readings
n this producer said to me -
'yeah great stuff - this is your program - you make it - we just film it' n i said 'yeah'
the contract said -
they give us a couple of qwid
for the filming then they could
use the film anytime they liked
with no payment
they said time place n the way to dress
this was ment to be a documentary about the real stuff
well a thew qwids a thew qwid so i said 'yeah' n signed
i got a cigar of one t.v. bloke n a double scotch of another
i went to the bog
i couldnt find the gents so i went to the ladys
i put me scotch down n had a piss
most of it got in the bowl
but some spatered in me scotch
it stank of piss but i drank it anyway
Reproduced without permission and probably (c) Billy Childish June 1982.
The oldest of the books I had bought was called The Man with Wheels, dating from 1980 and revealing Billy's formative interest in Kurt Schwitters, which made one hell of a lot of sense to me. I could see the progression. His poems were made of the dirt and the rubbish. They were unvarnished - raw and invigorating. Poetry had been men in silk cravats scoffing vol-au-vents and spicing overly elaborate love poems to unremarkable girls with a naughty word here and there, not so much to let us know that they were themselves from the mean streets, but that they knew at least one chap who was, and he was a really splendid fellow with his working class accent and leather jacket. Whatever Billy Childish was doing, it bore no relation to such distractions. It was not something in which he dabbled for the sake of something to do. It seemed like he was writing in an effort to keep himself from braining someone.
Some of the books were signed for Traci, with love - Billy, or addressing her more intimately as Dolli. The two of them had been romantically involved for a while, and I guess that this was around the time they began to drift apart; and so she sold me his old stuff, the books he'd had printed and had dedicated to her.
Over the next couple of years I became acclimatised to Kent, it being the county in which my adult personality was formed, adult in this case quantifying age rather than development. Finishing at Maidstone, I moved to nearby Chatham because half the people I knew seemed to live there by that point, and the town had some great bands. In fact the town had a scene in the sense by which Liverpool and Manchester have on occasion been described as having scenes. There were pubs which put on gigs, bands which played live and even put out records, fanzines, poets, artists, and people generally doing their own thing regardless of whether anyone else liked it.
Alun Jones of the Dentists said that Chatham, or specifically the larger Medway conurbation of which Chatham was part, was in some respects like a northern town transplanted to the south of England. At the time I rolled my eyes a little, having come to resent the popular cliché of the north of England as some sort of cultural Mecca inhabited by a friendlier, more down-to-earth, somehow more valuable people. I've never found people in the north of England significantly friendlier than those in the south, nor more culturally vital, and as for down-to-earth...
What would I need with your fancy book learning and your so-called toilet paper and indoor lavatories? I'm down-to-earth, me.
Nevertheless, Alun was right. Medway was a reasonably tightly knit community with its own distinct identity founded upon a major naval dockyard established in the 1500s and significantly expanded during the industrial revolution, around the same time as all those sprawling northern towns founded upon coal, iron, weaving and Hovis advertsing. Even in the 1980s Medway felt like the setting of Ada's Apron or some other typically harrowing television drama in which pramfaced chain-smoking schoolgirls made veiled references to men's cocks and disapproving matriarchs would address each other as chuck from across the washing line. It was the rain-soaked rooftops of utilitarian housing, row after row after cramped bricky row of hardened smokers coughing up their lungs in time to Herman's Hermits. You get the picture.
Within weeks of my settling in to the septic tank I had rented in Glencoe Road, I discovered Gruts café, a small establishment just before the railway bridge on Chatham High Street. A couple of summers earlier, my friends and I had discovered Ivor Cutler and had become so quickly and dramatically obsessed with his haunting monologues that by the time school came back around in September we were having trouble shaking off the soft Glaswegian lilt we'd developed during the holidays.
I walked past the café a couple of times, deeply impressed that there could be an eaterie named after one of my favourite Ivor Cutler pieces. Eventually I summoned the courage to go in, probably having at last spotted someone I vaguely knew sat on the other side of the glass. Being unemployed and without access to a television by which I could watch children's programmes and other daytime broadcasting at the taxpayer's expense, I became a regular customer at Gruts; and given the pitiful state of both my cooking and the cupboard which served as my pantry, the toasted ham and cheese sandwiches prepared and served by Gerald and Caroline - mine hosts - were probably what kept me alive long enough to see the nineties.
I had mastered the art of sitting around in pubs a few years earlier, and had reached the stage at which one realises that it can sometimes be fun to walk in a straight line or to wake in the morning without a splitting headache; and so I quickly adapted to the Chatham equivalent of café society because it was cheaper than the pub and better than sitting at home. Of the regulars I already knew there was the aforementioned Alun of the Dentists and Prez of the Martini Slutz, one of the most entertaining bands I've ever seen live. Tim Webster of the Sputniks and later Johnny Gash ran his own musical instrument repair business out of a workshop over the road, and would wander across for lunch with his apprentice, Tim O'Leary - lunch being one of Gerald's guitar maker's fancies, which Tim O'Leary recalls as being possibly the best egg mayo baguettes I've ever had.
Bill Lewis has written of Gruts as having been known as the poets' café. I don't remember this at all, although maybe that's because I was never a poet. The description is probably justified by the regular presence of himself and Billy Childish, and even Sexton Ming on a couple of occasions. I got to know Bill Lewis fairly well as it turned out that we were almost neighbours and had mutual interests. Any idea I've ever ripped off from an American underground comic artist can most likely be traced back to the huge stack of comics by Harvey Pekar, Robert Crumb, Skip Williamson and others that Bill sold me. Bill would drop around for tea and tell me about Sandinistas and his time in Nicaragua, tales from a world I was yet to discover. I tried to paint his portrait, but my efforts were so awful that I threw the thing away. Like Billy Childish, he seemed in some ways a man out of time, someone who always seemed like he should have known Allen Ginsberg and Lenny Bruce; but it was only that he contrasted so dramatically with the feckless apathy of our respective generations.
I had never been introduced to Billy Childish and was slightly in awe of him. He was an imposing presence before which I was sore afraid, suspecting that whatever came out of my mouth would probably be dog shit.
Excuse me, Mr. Billy, I think your poems are really ace!
Happily the fears of my inner teenage girl fell by the wayside as Billy spent so much time in Gruts that my self-consciously marinading in silent awe whilst attempting to effect nonchalance in the presence of relative greatness became impractical, and obviously ridiculous. Aside from anything, it turned out that he was, if not exactly a nice guy by conventionally sappy terms, thoughtful, ruthlessly honest, and very, very funny. He was also pretty good at chess, a game I'd only recently been taught by Tim Webster and Prez one afternoon as we sat in the café slurping tea and smoking. The game became something of an obsession, and I took to playing every day, but unfortunately everyone else was better than me. I played Billy, and the match was over in about four minutes. He wiped me off the board. He'd spent most of that time staring out of the window or talking to Gerald. His matches against Alun, Prez or Tim Webster lasted longer, and were more enjoyable for the spectator. I seem to recall that he usually won, although I could be mistaken.
An exchange student from Germany named Andreas became a regular for a couple of weeks. He and Billy would talk about Hamburg, and he too was drawn into the never ending chess tournament. After one particularly long, drawn-out game he beat Tim Webster and Billy bought everyone a round of tea in celebration.
'I don't get it,' I said. 'It's not like this is the first time anyone has beaten Tim.'
'I know.' Billy sported the faintly disturbing smile of Harry H. Corbett. 'But this is the first time he's had an international thrashing.'
Gruts became much more than just a place to hang out with friends and talk crap. It became our place, almost a livelihood. Poets and writers sold their work from a small bookcase next to the counter, and Billy's own Hangman Records had taken to releasing an album more or less every month - beautifully pressed brand new long playing vinyl records of himself, Sexton Ming, the Pop Rivets, and others, and these were joined by releases from the Dentists' Tambourine label. Even the subject matter was locally sourced in Wally the 2nd Hand Salesman - one of the noisier compositions on Sexton Ming's Which Dead Donkey Daddy? album - being named for Wally, the proprietor of a junk shop just on the other side of the bridge. Billy had gone in there to give the man himself a copy of the record, so he told us. Wally had mumbled some token of potential gratitude and tossed the album into an open trunk full of rusting nuts, bolts, spanners and the like. He didn't really seem like a big record collector.
'Well, that's nicely filed away for future reference,' Billy observed, although I'm not sure if that was what he said to Wally or simply part of his account as told to the rest of us.
The albums were a fiver each, which meant that Gruts actually served as a better record shop than Our Price a few hundred yards along the road, not that Our Price was really up to much in the first place.
At one stage, I hung a load of my own pseudo-Futurist paintings on the walls of the café, following on from previous exhibitions by Billy and others. Mine weren't for sale, but the main point was that they were seen, and this even drew interest from the local newspaper, the Chatham Standard, who sent Judith Mullarkey along to do a short feature on me. The first entry in my comments book came from Billy:
I've seen this man's work before, and I said, and say it again - to the funny farm with him!
Sometimes we would watch the local crazy woman as she passed by outside, shouting mysterious accusations at the river. She too seemed to appreciate the art, and once dutifully came in to hand Gerald a drawing she'd produced of crabs at large on Easter Egg Island, according to the caption. Her technique wasn't great, but you had to admire the spirit in which it was done.
For a while life seemed to revolve around Gruts to the point that my friend Carl phoned the café on a couple of occasions, knowing I would be there, sat on my arse and weighing up my employment options. As I had no telephone, it was a better option than calling directly at my bedsit in the hope of my being at home.
It felt like being part of a family, and at the same time, because of all the stuff that was going on in and around Medway, it felt like we were part of history even at the time. It felt as though one day we would all be looking back and recalling where we were when we first heard Billy's calypso cover of Anarchy in the UK.
We were in Gruts, obviously.
He'd just bought in a freshly minted stack of the Blackhands album, and Gerald had stuck it on the record player so we could all have a listen. Some people remember seeing the Beatles at the Cavern Club, and some of us remember Gruts.
Naturally it didn't last, there being a limit to how much tea anyone could reasonably be expected to drink in a single afternoon, and although the place was nearly always full, or at least rarely ever empty, whatever Gerald and Caroline were making out of it wasn't enough. They closed, and it became the Bridge Roll, a well intentioned but similarly doomed tea room style café with laminated Gingham tablecloths run by a couple of middle-aged women, whose enthusiasm reminded me of my grandmother once harbouring an ambition of being known as good for a cup of tea and a bun amongst long distance truck drivers. The Bridge Roll wasn't terrible, but the new decor had the feel of something aspiring to the custom of a better class of diner, or at least better than we were.
Like all good things, it was over.