I was searching online for utilitarian overalls to work in when I found the perfect pair. They were drab, military-issue brown cotton, with a button-up front and a alloy cinch buckle. They had no obvious branding except for a stencilled black hangman's gallows and a number on the back. The trouble was, they were 250 pounds (or around $A625). But maybe they were worth it. The overalls were "a limited edition artist's overalls... meticulously researched by Billy Childish". And there was more: "Made in England by adult craftsmen and craftswomen, this strictly limited edition of 20 outfits has been hand stencilled with the hangman gallows by the artist... sets including the overalls, vest and neckerchief (all with hand stamped labels and hand stencilled insignia), and a fine art print of the advert signed and numbered by the artist, 61cm x 40cm giclee print on enhanced matt art paper."
I have always loved Billy Childish. A genuine English eccentric and 'outsider', he paints, he fronts various bands – including the wonderfully named Buff Medways – and writes. He is also, if his expensive overalls are anything to go by, a dab hand at designer merchandising. Just 39 years of age – although he looks as if he's time-warped out of the pre-war England of my imagination in which every man looked a little like the actor, Trevor Howard – Childish (born Steven John Hamper) has produced 2,500 paintings, drawings and etchings, published 40 volumes of poetry and four novels and recorded more than 100 album-length CDs.
Childish's productivity epitomises what I once referred to, in my essay Life Study, as the 'new punk'. "The new punk is about raw skill and having something powerful to say," I argued. "This is particularly important now that... originality has been over-run by appropriation, and artisan skills by software and processing capabilities that can’t quite replicate the slippery inexactness of the hand-made. The new punk isn’t a twenty-first century form of Luddism, nor is it a rejection of electronic facility for some idealistic, nineteenth century idea of the purity or superiority of the human touch. It’s about a restitution of subjectivity, of re-emphasising the direct relationship between an artist’s interior world and the individual work..."Unfortunately, as a recent, excellent profile of Childish in the British newspaper, The Guardian, points out, neither his relentless Victorian work ethic nor his enormous output has helped Childish achieve anything close to the name-brand recognition of Damien Hirst or even Childish's ex-girlfriend Tracey Emin. But he's scores of degrees cooler than any of the best-known Brit Art bunch. Check out the sultry, young-Frida-looking Emin on the cover (above) of one of Childish's early collections of poetry, I'd Rather You Lied, published under his own imprint, Hangman Books. She was never more intriguing than when she was with him.