• Review by David Keenan •

The special edition published by White Rabbit Books on August 15, 2024 priced £140.00

Out now in Hardback, Ebook, Audiobook

The central enigma at the heart of the musician, writer and artist Billy Childish is his insane productivity, his restless drive to document his life across hundreds of albums, woodcuts, chapbooks, and paintings. Ted Kessler’s highly original history goes some way towards shining light on the mechanics of this obsessive creativity, most pithily in the title of the book, To Ease My Troubled Mind.

Kessler builds up a composite portrait by speaking to bandmates, girlfriends, family members and collaborators, virtually all of whom conclude that it’s Childish’s way or the highway. Although there’s a lot of admiration for him amongst his fellow travellers, there’s not a lot of active affection, and he comes across as someone who is quite isolated, still working through the early abuse he suffered at the hands of his monstrous father (who he eventually assaults for attacking his mother) and a family friend who was a paedophile. Becoming Billy Childish feels like a strategy, then, an attempt to accumulate enough evidence that he was no longer that damaged boy, Steven John Hamper. It’s a bloody-minded life path that has resulted in a considerable amount of collateral damage. He marries one girlfriend without telling another. Another girlfriend becomes pregnant while he is dating someone else. He encourages a three-way harem and then has himself photographed with them, gazing up at him in worshipful awe, on the cover of an album entitled I Am The Object Of Your Desire.

The structure of the book is as compendious as his back catalogue, combining lyrics and prose and emails from Childish alongside interviews with collaborators, eye witness essays from his publisher Michael Curran of the Tangerine Press and Ian Ballard who runs Damaged Goods, a timeline of his life, conversations between Billy and his friends, recordings of his family members in conversation with the late comedian Sean Hughes for a never-made documentary, as well as some amazing photos, including some fantastic shots of him with his then-girlfriend, Tracey Emin, who to this day he still seems obsessed with. Indeed, his compulsive need to denigrate her feels a little unbecoming and smacks of straight-up jealousy, – ex-girlfriend Sanchia Lewis complains that Childish’s Stuckist movement was basically an excuse to bully Emin, after Emin told Childish that his art was “stuck, stuck, stuck” – but this only contributes to the complexity of the portrait that Kessler pieces together, and it feels more real, more unarmoured and human, in these times of instant cancellation of artists for the slightest of moral faux-pas.

Childish is great on music, his early initiation into punk, his late epiphany with Bob Dylan, although there’s something quite demanding and puritan about what he allows himself to like and what he doesn’t. From an early age he was never one to look for permission to create, and there are some perfectly surprising details, such as how early on he pioneered DIY studies of WW2 industrial architecture by publishing a fanzine about it.

During the writing of the book, Childish suffered two mental breakdowns, and parts of the telling are genuinely upsetting, but most of all To Ease My Troubled Mind is a paean to the redemptive power of art and creativity. It’s touching to see Childish’s son Huddie Hamper follow in his footsteps, although his look – and his art – are so similar to his father’s that it reiterates how to be with Childish you must be utterly subsumed by him or otherwise risk rejection. That’s some intense gravity, and Kessler does a fantastic job of mapping it stresses and strains across a complicated life lived artistically and obsessively.


Photo by Brian David Stevens.

David Keenan is the author of five critically-acclaimed novels; the cult classic This is Memorial Device, which won the London Magazine Prize; For the Good Times, which won the Gordon Burn Prize; The Towers The Fields The Transmitters, Xstabeth and Monument Maker, which was a Rough Trade Book of the Year. He lives in Glasgow, Scotland.

‘This Is Memorial Device’ The Social, London • Monday July 15th. •

Following on from the award-winning theatrical adaptation of David Keenan’s brilliant cult novel, and Stephen Pastel and Gavin Thomson’s acclaimed soundtrack, we’re so excited to announce a one-off evening celebrating This Is Memorial Device.

Hosted by broadcaster Gideon Coe (BBC 6 Music), the evening will see David Keenan and Stephen Pastel joined by filmmaker, musician, and soundtrack designer, Paul Kelly, to dive into and explore the magical world of This Is Memorial Device.

Tickets available here

Limited Deluxe Edition designed by Billy Childish is available to purchase via the Heavenly Recordings Bandcamp store here.