"My parents were both fictitious"
What Steven asked Bill Lewis, founding member of The Medway Poets and the Stuckist art movement.
Steven went to the home of Medway Poet Bill Lewis to discuss his poetry, what took him to Nicaragua, and exactly what Stuckism is.
Where were you born?
I was born somewhere in Maidstone. Not in a hospital, because I turned up too early. I always turn up too early for parties and stay as long as possible. I was born in 1953.
Why isn’t your birth certificate accurate?
My birth certificate is a pack of lies. The name on it and the day I was born are not the day I was actually born or the name I was christened with. I was born Edward Lewis, but it is now William. The date on my certificate is the one I have to put on official documents. My mum was very vague most of her life. It wasn’t due to age, though she was old when she had me. My dad was the same age as my best friend’s grandparents. My dad was born in the late 1800s and had fought in the First World War. No one knew how old my mother was. When she died, the doctors in the hospital said she was older than she admitted. There was no birth certificate for her at all. When she was 12, she was thrown out on the street, by her stepmother, she had a pretty horrible upbringing. My mum and dad never told each other anything about themselves and my dad wouldn’t have photographs taken of him. He was a bit of a man of mystery really. He had been a shepherd, but the farm we went to live on after I was born was a fruit farm, with some cattle but no sheep, so he ended up being a farm labourer.
And why is your actual birth date different?
My mum would just say the first thing that came into her mind if you asked her questions. If, for instance, you asked her, her maiden name, some days it was Smith, some days it was Brown, and some days it was Jones. It could be anything. It’s often a question you get asked for a security question. Well, I don’t know.
Were you ever able to take a photograph of your father?
No. I did have a toy camera and I pointed it at him, and he snatched it out of my hand and broke it. When I was in America, I was on the radio show in Connecticut and they asked me why my stories are so fantastic in my books, and I said it's because my parents were both fictitious. It just came out of my mouth, and I realised it was absolutely true. They were both works of fiction, and what does it make me, if they don’t really exist? Who am I?
Is that why you took such an interest in myths?
I think myths are interesting because actually it’s facts that tend to change. They change politically what we're all supposed to believe, they change scientifically because at every point in our history, we said we know how this works or that works and 50 years later it will change. Two of our oldest stories are Arthur and Beowulf. One comes from the people who lived here before the Saxons, and one comes from the Anglo-Saxons.
Are there any legends or myths connected with Medway?
There are local legends, and I would differentiate between a myth and a legend, and I would differentiate between a false myth and a true myth. A legend is a local story which tells you about something that should have happened or might have happened. A myth is a deep-rooted metaphor that is often expressed within the story. It’s a function within the brain. I think you are born with those functions in the brain and then you dress them up depending on your society. There is a hero myth in most of our brains, probably, because we tell each other the stories of our lives as we go along. That hero, if you are in Japan is a samurai, here it might be Robin Hood. Around the world, most of the heroes enact a kind of journey, which Joseph Campbell called the Hero’s Journey. I want to state I don’t agree with everything he said, but I think it is pretty much there as part of world mythology, where an ordinary person is called to adventure, and they go on a circular journey, where they meet aspects of themselves. Specifically, their shadow, which is very important for people to do, and then they go to the darkest cave, the depth of their feeling. They might be imprisoned, they might die, then escape or be resurrected, they then get the treasure and bring it back for humanity, coming full circle, but they don’t get it for themselves.
You said there were two types of myth. False myth and true myth?
A true myth is something which is deep within our mentality, and it is something we express only in metaphor, building a story around that metaphor, to reveal a truth that a fact can’t reach. A false myth is when people play with them and use them to show things which aren’t true. Racists do that all the time. Nazis played with the Arthurian myth to try and prove something about the ‘Master Race’ and Aryan culture, which we know was rubbish.
So are there legends or myths about Medway?
I think there is lots of myth-building here. When amazing things happen in an area, people like the idea that it is happening. In recent history, we had the Medway Sound that Billy Childish kicked off. There were bands like The Prisoners and The Dentists and Billy had Thee Milkshakes. There were loads more. People have built on that over the years, and people should be proud of it. All over the world, there are people that collect it and write about it. It’s just people here that don’t know about it. The younger people here would be proud of their town if they knew that. The area lends itself to mythologising because it’s ‘a sacred landscape’. The Romans came here, we have the oldest dockyard, we had the Dutch raid, we had the Victory built here. There are lots of urban legends: The big cats, the Beast of Blue Bell Hill that haunts the place. Our region is not quite like anywhere else in England.
What brought you to the Medway Towns?
I lived in a little village, now a suburb of Maidstone. I left school in 1968 with no qualifications. I was a dim kid in a remedial class. I worked from ’68 to ’75 for Priceright, an early supermarket, but I lost my job. I got low-paid manual work, and then had a nervous breakdown and ended up in a psychiatric hospital for a couple of months. That changed my life. I decided I couldn’t go back to doing those kinds of jobs. I put together a portfolio of work whilst I was in hospital, and decided I would try and get into art college. They wouldn’t let me into Maidstone Art College because I didn’t have any O-Levels. For two years Medway Art College had a genius clause, which I thought was hilarious. They would let a certain number of students in purely on their work. I was lucky to be one of those. It was the same year as Billy Childish. I think the reason they stopped was because it was too much hard work for them. We all had opinions, we had been out in the world.
What work was that at the time?
I was trying to paint. Medway College, you never saw a paintbrush. It was mostly drawing. I did paint a bit, but I was more interested in poetry. In the meantime, early 1970s, my friend Rob Earl and founded a group called the Out Crowd and we met in what was then The Lamb pub in Maidstone. We would sit around and read our latest works. Sometimes there would be 12 of us up there. In my last few months at art college, I got Rob over to do a reading at an event the students were putting on at the college. He met Billy and then Billy came over to the Out Crowd. That was the very beginnings of the Medway Poets, though we didn’t call ourselves that yet. I got a job after college at the West Kent General Hospital, sterilising instruments for operations, and from 1977 to the early 1980s, I started to come over to Medway any minute I could because it was an exciting place to be. Maidstone was culturally dead and still is as far as I know.