Tuesday, 18 March 2014

The Book of Misplaced But Imperishable Names

Bill Lewis The Book of Misplaced But Imperishable Names (2005)
I first encountered Bill Lewis back in the eighties as he'd begun to achieve some fame as one of the Medway Poets, a group of writers hailing from the next town along when I was taking a fine arts degree. At the time I actively disliked poetry, or at least a great deal of that which happily identified itself as such, and I continue to do so in a general sense. Few writers, so it seemed to me, were ever at their best in verse, and the rest may as well be chuckling Richard Stilgoe types composing odes to the amusing misery of making a claim on one's car insurance so far as I was concerned - the sort of smirking crap that eventually rendered BBC Radio 4 almost completely unlistenable. I was therefore astonished to find that I very much enjoyed the poems of Billy Childish, mainly because they resembled nothing I had experienced as poetry, and did a lot of the things I generally like writing to do, just in shorter and sharper form. I saw Billy read, sat smoking at a desk in his old man's suit, reciting accounts of his continued survival as though delivering statements in a police interview room. He'd been caught red handed, but he was fucked if he was going to say sorry.

Bill Lewis was, so far as I saw it, the other big name of the Medway Poets. He seemed to have the highest visibility and was an undeniably dynamic performer, violent and explosive where Billy seemed to brood and simmer. His material too felt more travelled, somehow more universal in compensation for lacking the visceral edge of Childish's writing. He seemed like someone who could have hung out with Ginsberg or Lenny Bruce in another life; plus he knew at least one tribal shaman and had involved himself in South American revolutions from time to time. Drawing on this wealth of experience, he generally manages to communicate something vital without it coming across like an affectation, as it could have done and has done for other more cynical and hence lesser talents; and although I must own up to never quite enjoying his use of a traditional native drum, that isn't really Bill's fault.

Anyway, still going strong thirty years later, this collection serves as a reminder of all that defined the voice of Bill Lewis as carrying such a distinctive tone back when I was younger and not quite so fat. The poetry is well represented in his consistently elegant use of language and thoughtful narrative, although the form taken tends towards short stories, essays, observations, and vignettes - probably easier to just call it writing. He shares that same roughly working class edge as Billy Childish without it serving as either a substitute for content or letting it define him, as beautifully illustrated in Tomatoes, another autobiographical snippet in which he introduces a fellow worker to the poetry of Pablo Neruda:

'Sod off! I'm reading a poem.'

The woman and the two men next to her started to take the piss 'Oh lah dee dah... we didn't know we woz mixing wiv the gentry. It's Lord Muck of Turd Hall.' They soon grew tired of it and went back to their lunch.

'Sometimes I think we're our own worst enemies. The British working classes might as well walk around with a Kick Me sign stuck on our backs,' he said and then returned to the page.

He read the title again, then he read the poem. He read slowly. I saw him smile a couple of times.

Yes, I've been there. In fact I was there for about twenty years, and for me this piece epitomises what I like best about Bill's writing and, by extension, about Bill himself: his endless enthusiasm and sheer passion for communication and that which excites him, and that he's plainly the real thing and doesn't really give a shit what the rest of us may think. That is to say, what you get in this book is not some projected persona, nor anything representing strategy in any shape or form - another aspect he shares with Childish. Of course, honesty and enthusiasm by themselves would be useless were it not for the author's willingness to get out there and experience the world on its terms, even in places where curiosity can get you killed. He dips toes - at least up to the waist - in native American lore; which is something which would ordinarily bring me out in hives for the reason that if I want to know about indigenous cultures of whatever form - as I often do - the last thing I want to know is what some white guy thinks, for that way lies Sting, Bonio, and other tosspots taking their cheap holidays in someone else's ethnic diaspora; but Bill gets away with it, and even brings back something interesting, because he understands myth and its place in common human experience; and he does it without losing his sense of humour.

Of course there are some points he makes which just don't work for me - which I mention here for the sake of quantifying the praise - but Lordy - I don't see that anyone with functioning brain cells could fail to find this an absorbing and enlightening read. Bill Lewis is a true original.

Not sure about availability but you might do worse than trying Bill's site.

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