Paul Birtill was born in Walton, Liverpool in 1960 and lives in London. He has published a number of collections, including New and Selected Poems (published by Hearing Eye). His most recent collection Bad News (published by Wrecking Ball Press) is out now. He is also an accomplished playwright and several of his plays have been staged at London theatres, including Squalor, which was short-listed for the prestigious Verity Bargate award.
I visited Paul at his flat in Belsize Park on 14 February 2020. We spoke for well over an hour about a variety of topics.
Cigarettes and Alcohol:
At my peak of drinking I could drink twelve pints in a night and often used to drink that. But physically there’s no way I could consume that amount now, even if I wanted to. Maybe seven maximum, I just start to feel bloated and sick. My system won’t take it anymore. Which is quite handy really. It just happened by chance some years ago. And it can happen with some heavy drinkers or alcoholics or whatever I am. Sometimes the body just rejects it so you physically can’t consume the vast amounts that you could when you were younger anyway. So the problem is solved in a sense, naturally. That’s what happened to me and I’ve heard it happening to other people too, they just can’t do it anymore. So that’s fine because with me, the problems used to start the more I drank, you know? People used to come up to me in the pub and say to me: ‘How many have you had?’ And if the answer was ‘more than five’ then they would say ‘then I don’t want to talk to you’. I used to find that it was fine up until half a dozen pints. It was only after that when I started drinking more and I got into double figures that nonsense started. That always happened when I drank a lot. Now when I drink I’ll only drink five pints.
In terms of cigarette consumption, it’s fifty a day. My doctor’s a bit unorthodox, perhaps a bit unhelpful even. He told me that the difference between smoking twenty a day and smoking fifty a day is marginal. He said that because twenty is such a lot and so bad for you, that another twenty on top is not going to make any difference really, or another thirty on top. He said that there’s an argument that if you’re a heavy smoker then you may as well go for it. He said it’s like taking paracetamol, if you take fifteen they’ll kill you, if you take a hundred they’ll kill you just the same. And I asked someone else about that, I got a second opinion and he was inclined to agree. My doctor said if you smoke five or less a day then that will make a difference – but twenty a day is such a lot that another twenty or thirty is not going to make a lot of difference. I’m hoping he’s right, you know?
It’s just the amount I smoke. I’ve always been a heavy smoker. Fifty a day has been in recent years but it was always forty a day apart from when I started when I was thirteen and up until I was twenty-one I was a light smoker because I didn’t have much money. For about twenty years I smoked forty a day. Fifty a day has just been the last few years, it’s gone up a bit. Occasionally I can smoke sixty in a day, but it’s normally about fifty or maybe a couple less. I think it will probably be the cause of my death, don’t think it will be alcohol any more. I think it will be smoking probably.
I mean I have to be honest with you, Jules, I’ve got an enormous amount of pleasure out of smoking in my life. I’m somebody that really enjoys it and took to it like a duck to water. I used to watch your dad smoke when he came to the house when I was a child and I used to be fascinated by the light and the burning and I sometimes used to take his butts into the garden and play around with them. I was only about six. So it was your dad who got me interested! I experimented when I was eight but I didn’t take it up properly until I was thirteen. And I’ve got a lot of pleasure out of it all the way through. I’m someone who does enjoy smoking. I have thought of vaping. I did try it briefly a few years ago and it’s not a bad substitute. It’s not as satisfying as tobacco but it’s the next best thing. It’s a good substitute if you want to stop smoking tobacco. It’s the only thing I could use, I think, if I wanted to stop. If I had some big health problem like emphysema, I think I would vape.
John Rety (Hungarian-British anarchist, poet, publisher and chessplayer) didn’t have quite enough money to do my first collection so he published an introduction to it in February 1996. That’s coming up for twenty-five years now. I would say that in the years in between I’ve had a lot more books and pamphlets out. I estimate I’ve sold about six thousand books and pamphlets combined. It could be a bit more than six thousand which over twenty-four years is not bad for poetry.
My first book Terrifying Ordeal was available in all the shops in London so that sold a few hundred copies in the shops, but ninety percent of my sales have been from readings. Again, because I’m pretty good with figures and memory, I would say that in about thirty years I’ve done over four hundred readings. I was thirty-five when my first collection of poetry came out. I’d been writing for some years before the first collection came out. I started writing in March 1984 with a short story, followed by my first play in the summer of that year when the Miner’s Strike was on. I wrote a few plays but I didn’t start writing poetry until a bit later, until 1987, I drifted into poetry by chance, in a way. It was literally a few days after my twenty seventh birthday. My first poem was called ‘Patriotic White Youth’ about Cockneys, because Cockneys were pissing me off at the time. So that was September 1987 and I’ve been writing poetry now for thirty two and a half years and somebody did say, ‘if you’re going to be a poet then do give it thirty odd years’. It takes thirty years. And I think that I have now become quite established and quite well known, but it’s taken thirty years. It’s not quick like rock ‘n’ roll sometimes can be. Poetry in general is a long, hard slog. I’ve probably had about three hundred individual poems published in newspapers and magazines.
I was 22 when I moved down to London from Liverpool. Where I lived, I called it Kilburn but it might have been the Cricklewood border. I had a bedsit, Angela (Paul’s sister) got me that. Then I moved to West Hampstead. Another bedsit, 1984, which is when I started writing. In 1985 I got my first flat, a studio flat in Maida Vale. Anyway, so I was with West Hampstead Housing Association and I got a studio flat there. I liked Maida Vale. Great place to live. Nice pubs around there. In 1986 I moved to Kentish Town, dump of a flat, a basement flat. Another housing association flat but the council took that over in 1987, they just became my new landlord, I don’t know how it quite happened. I went with the council. I could have stayed with WHHA but I knew that if I stayed with the council I would eventually get a good flat and sure enough, two years later in 1988, I got this flat. So I’ve been here since March 1988, 32 years.
I was there in 1990 for just over nine months. Your brother Patrick lived here then. He was selling tickets for the French Railway or something. He stayed here and I think he had a friend staying here. I went to Glasgow March 1990 and came back December 1990, just over nine months and I’ve been here ever since.
To be honest, when I started writing poetry in 1987 I had read virtually nothing. We had decent English lessons at Cardinal Allen Grammar School, and we did touch on poetry there too. Paul McGann went to Cardinal Allen, he was the year above me – and the actor Ian Hart went there as well. I wasn’t happy there, I had a tough time there. I wasn’t very academic and it was a grammar school. I passed the 11+ but… I liked primary school and junior school, I just hated secondary school. I went to Blessed Sacrament RC Primary school in Walton. I hated secondary school and left at sixteen. I found the studying quite difficult, I was lazy, I wasn’t academic, I wasn’t good at sports, and I got into a lot of trouble. I was a smoker and I used to sometimes play truant. They thought I was a baddie, but looking back I think that some of those teachers treated me rather badly. I don’t think I was a baddie really, I was just a bit of a rebel. I broke a number of school rules but so what? I was unhappy there and didn’t enjoy my time there at Cardinal Allen. I was really pleased to leave. Anyway, so we touched on poetry at school but not much, so, as I say, when I started writing poetry I had read virtually no poetry, which somebody actually said later wasn’t a bad thing because I wouldn’t have been influenced or self-conscious about trying to copy someone. It was fresh, in a sense. But then when I started writing it, I started reading it. And I’ve read tons over the years. As you can see (motions to book shelves) I have quite a large poetry collection.
Philip Larkin is my favourite. After that, I don’t really have that many favourites. I like bits of poets’ work. I mean, modern living, contemporary poets I like Roger McGough, Wendy Cope. Do you know Wendy Cope? She’s funny, she’s good. Brian Patten, another Liverpool poet. Dead Poets, I like, Edward Thomas, don’t like Dylan Thomas, Edward Thomas I like. I like a bit of Yeats, a bit of Auden, Stevie Smith. I like the war poets, the first world war poets, Owen and Sassoon I like very much.
John Cooper Clarke deserves a special mention. I’m a fan of his work and he has always been very complimentary about my poetry. I’m grateful for his support.
I’ve always thought that there was a connection with Bukowski, perhaps because of the influence of alcohol in a life that has, at times, been rather chaotic, but possibly because I read Post Office here when I stayed with you here back in the nineties.
Like you, I’ve read a couple of his novels and a book of short stories by him. I’ve read some of his poetry over the year, and actually someone gave me a big book of his for Christmas a couple of years ago. But to be absolutely honest with you, although I have been compared to Bukowski, he wasn’t an influence and I don’t really like his poetry. I think the fact is that we’re both direct and I think that similarity ends there, you know? I don’t like his subject matter.
I guess the difference might be that you do drink but not sex – whereas he does drink and sex?
Willing to Change (2006 collection of Paul’s poetry) is obviously a slogan from 12 Step Fellowships. At that time I wanted to do something about my drinking and… but looking back there are a few poems in there about recovery which I think are a bit embarrassing. There’s one in there that I wish I hadn’t put in because I cringe with embarrassment when I read it. I think alcohol can be helpful in terms of generating ideas but I’m not too sure, to be honest. It’s a bit of an old one that, isn’t it? Whether or not alcohol helps or is a hindrance. I like Bukowski’s novels Post Office and Factotum but I find that the thing with his poetry is that it’s too long for what it is. I think it needs editing. Often it goes into two or three pages and I find that it gets a bit boring. And I find that some of his subject matter is very sort of macho. So, again, I’d been writing poetry for many years before I read him.
(Paul rises from his chair and begin browsing his bookshelves)
Have you read Tale of Two Cities? Sydney Carton, the alcoholic, gives his life up in the end for a woman. He takes the place of her husband at the guillotine. So there’s a few at the end which I find particularly embarrassing. He had a low opinion of himself because he was a drunk.
I didn’t really like that collection. (Willing to Change) I thought that there were too many weak ones in there. I’m glad that you like it though. I sometimes cringe about that so I’m pleased about that.
Have you ever read my friend’s book about alcoholism? The Grass Arena by John Healy? It’s an autobiographical novel. It’s all true. It’s very harrowing. He was a street alcoholic in the sixties, he was homeless. He was in and out of prison, fighting all the time. But someone in prison introduced him to the game of chess. And he became addicted to chess, he just loved it. And he became a chess champion. He just swapped one obsession for another and he got really into chess and he gave up the drink and he hasn’t had a drink since 1972. He’s 78 this year. He have up booze and the fags when he was thirty. But from the age of about 14 to thirty he was a drunk. He was in the army for a couple of years, boxing champion. But he quickly became homeless and for ten years he lived on the streets, assuming that like a lot of his associates he’d die young. So he wrote this powerful autobiography which they made a film out of, also called The Grass Arena. Mark Rylance plays him in the film. Pete Postlethwaite’s in it too. It’s a very good book and one that I think you should read because you’ve had problems with alcohol. I lent it to a friend a few weeks ago, otherwise I’d have lent it to you I think you’d find it uplifting. And he calls here occasionally, lives over in Dartmouth Park. We’re friends, I’d say he’s a friend. He inscribed his book for me. It’s got a forward from Daniel Day Lewis who really admires his work. And he’s a character, you know? To look at him you’d almost still think he was a wino but he isn’t. He’s probably really healthy, he’s a vegetarian too. Hasn’t had a drink since 1972. The only help he got was some antabuse from the doctor.
I remember my friend Ann Beedell. In 1991 I gave up drinking for seven months on my own. And it was her advice really because she said something quite interesting to me one night. She said: ‘You started drinking at fourteen, didn’t you? And your mother died when you were 16 and I know that was traumatic for you. You’ve been a heavy drinker and a drunkard all your adult life. So you don’t know really what it’s like to be a sober adult. Why don’t you try it and see which you prefer? And I thought that was a good point so I tried it and I thought ‘I prefer being sober’ but, being an alcoholic, I suppose, after seven months I just thought ‘I’m going to have a drink. I fancied having a drink one night’. And then the whole thing started again and I was out for six months and then I thought ‘Right. I’m going to stop again’. And then I found that I couldn’t stop again. That’s when I asked for help. I was thirty two and with some outside help I was able to stop for 18 months. After that I was slipping and sliding for a few years.
I had two psychotic episodes in the nineties, two years in between each other. I was sectioned. The psychiatrist said to Angela: ‘The alcohol was probably working as a tranquilizer and stopping drinking may well have caused him to break down’. It ruined my sobriety. For someone brought up by devout Catholics, I took sobriety far too seriously. I often see atheists and Church of England people, who are, more or less, atheists, they just seem to glide through it (recovery). I don’t think they take it that seriously. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that they’re hypocrites, but I think they take a lot of it with a pinch of salt – but I really bought into it and took it really seriously and the end result was a psychotic episode. I was promised a life beyond my wildest dreams but I was walking around The Royal Free Hospital in a dazed state. (Paul laughs) I am still a bit wary of 12 Step programs but I do still recommend them to people who I think might benefit from them. And I’m certainly not saying that was the main reason I had a psychotic episode – but it was a factor.
(At this point Paul gifted the interviewer a copy of the book ‘Chalk Talks on Alcohol’ by Father Joseph C. Martin and they chat for several minutes about the nature of alcoholism.)
Still doing the scratchcards, unfortunately. Not as many. Still lose a bit of money on them. It’s a weakness. I’m trying to control it. I stopped for five months and then I relapsed. I can binge on cereals too. All cereals, although Frosties, Weetabix and Rice Crispies are the main ones. There’s something about them and it’s often late at night, I don’t have it in the morning and I ‘ve found that the only way to deal with it is not to buy them. I’ve lost a little bit of weight but I’m still overweight, partly due to the anti-depressant medication that I take. I’ve been taking Mirtazapine for years and one of the side effects is bit of weight gain. I drink beer as well, which is fattening. But I’m not too bad. I was eleven stone for years. That was me when I was thirty. (motions to photograph on the wall)
(At this point Paul asks the interviews for some feedback on a poem he is working on called ‘Dream’)
I’m very conscious of rhythm and scansion in poetry and I like to get it right whenever I can.
I don’t think that Liverpool has changed much in the years that I’ve been away. I think it’s possibly not quite as poor as I remember it in the eighties – but I don’t think it’s changed much.
I think Squalor is probably my best (and favourite) play. I’ve written a number of plays that haven’t been staged. I’ve written ten actually, they’re all in a drawer in the other room. Five have been staged. Some of them have been staged multiple times. Happy Christmas has been staged three times The Lodger and Good Samaritan have been staged twice – and there have been quite a few rehearsed readings. I can’t see myself writing another play to be honest with you. You need a very strong idea for a play to sustain itself for an hour and a half.
Have you ever read Larkin’s powerful poem on death and dying ‘Aubade’? While you’re here why not read it? Some people say it’s the best poem ever written on the subject of death and dying. Larkin was a real death-phobic. He was obsessed with death his whole life and he wasn’t dying when he wrote this, it was some years before he died but it’s a very powerful poem. Read it now. He liked a drink but I wouldn’t say he was an alcoholic. He was an atheist as well, as you probably gather. Powerful piece, isn’t it? Aubade means a piece of verse from the early dawn which is when he wrote it, in the early hours of the morning. My favourite line is ‘Most things may never happen, this one will’. Because you have lots of fears in life that will never happen but this one will. I showed it to a girl I was going out with briefly and a tear rolled down her face when she read it. She was really upset by it.
Paul Birtill’s most recent collection Bad News (published by Wrecking Ball Press) is out now.