In Conversation with Paul Birtill

Paul Birtill is a poet and playwright. He was born in Walton, Liverpool in 1960 to an Irish mother and English father.  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.

Our conversation took place at the house in which I grew up in Hightown, Merseyside on 7th November 2021. It was the eve of Paul’s brother Tony’s funeral. Later that evening, we would both attend Tony’s wake at the house where Paul grew up, in Kingfield Road, Walton.

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Relationships are a bit of a grey area in my life but I don’t mind telling you a little bit about that. It makes me a little bit sad some times that I haven’t had a partner. I’ve had quite a bit of loneliness in my adult life. I did have a short relationship with a woman in the 1980s in London. And I made the mistake of staying friends with her afterwards. I became a little bit obsessed with her. And she treated me very badly and I ended up severing all connections with her. I haven’t seen or spoken to her in over thirty years. And I still despise her to this day.

I was very sexually repressed when I was growing up and that was partly because of my strict Catholic upbringing. My dad wouldn’t have allowed us to sleep with a girl in the house, for instance. I was sexually quite shy. I mean, I didn’t have any sexual experiences until my early twenties, quite late. I haven’t had much sex in my life but I’ve had some. And although I’m bisexual, it’s almost been entirely with women – but it’s been rather limited, I should say.

Growing up in Liverpool in the 1970s, homophobia was rife and I went to a Catholic school which was even worse. I grew up in a working class area and everyone was calling each other queer at that time, it was like a witch hunt and I remember this poor guy in my year at school, he wasn’t in my class but he was in my year and he came out as bisexual when he was about sixteen and his life was hell. Everyone was just beating him up all the time. So I became aware of my bisexuality when I was about fifteen and I got very depressed about it, suicidal in fact. I knew I fancied some women as well but I was confused about my sexuality to be honest with you so I repressed it right up until I was in my early thirties, I just refused to acknowledge it to myself. To myself and others. And it’s not emotionally healthy, psychologically healthy to do that, to push something down like that. And I think that led to quite a lot of anxiety in myself. Obviously, times were better then but I never really liked the gay scene either. I suppose I couldn’t really relate to the gay scene. I didn’t like all the campness and that. But I did experiment with a bit of gay sex when I was in London. But not much. In fact I slept with a transvestite once, but I kind of saw him as a woman really.

Living in London really, it’s a difficult place to meet people. And I was a heavy drinker right up until ten years ago. And I used to get drunk three or four times a week. And I’d get drunk on dates and blow them out – and a lot of women didn’t like it. Didn’t like my drinking.

And then if I was going out with a girl I would drink more, partly because I was a bit nervous about the sex. I blew out a lot of potential girlfriends when I was young and good looking, as you say. I had black hair and I was eleven stone and I was slim right up until I was thirty-five. Then I started putting on weight. I had plenty of people who were interested in me, male and female – but I had a lot of angst you know, Jules. As someone once said about me in those days: ‘You weren’t an easy man to know’. I was always rowing, I could be quite obnoxious when I got drunk. Never made me physically violent, I’ve never been that way inclined but it did make me verbally aggressive and I could be really unpleasant to people, you know. Women as well. As I say, I blew out a lot of really good dates and sometimes, looking back, I often think about individual girls and nights out and I do regret fucking up on some of them. As for the answer to your original question, I do feel a bit sad about never having met my soul mate. I do. I’ve spent far too much time on my own in my life really. But then saying that, regarding heterosexual sex, I definitely never wanted children and I was aware of that from when I was a teenager. It might have been a responsibility thing. I think I would have worried about them. My dad didn’t do a very good job bringing me up. His behaviour contributed to a lot of my neuroses.

He wasn’t a very emotional sort of person but I knew that he loved me, I suppose. But I wouldn’t say he was loving. I was the youngest and he had mellowed by the time… but he was very morbid and was always going on about death and illnesses and he definitely contributed to a lot of anxiety in me. He treated my mum reasonably well. He didn’t give her enough money, it’s been said. And he certainly didn’t treat her well when he left in the fifties and lived abroad and didn’t always send money home and she was very hard up. But he didn’t treat her badly I didn’t think. But they didn’t get on. The only reason they stuck together was because they were Catholics. The first time he took me across the River Mersey when I was seven… There was a hold-up, a delay, while we were waiting for the boat and he said ‘that’s because a woman’s been found strangled in the toilets and they think the murderer might still be on board.’ It totally freaked me out. And for years I believed that until I found out that it hadn’t happened… some joke. He was just trying to freak me out.

So, kids, yeah, responsibility was a big one. And also, there’s some mental illness in our family, and as you know, I’ve had a couple of psychotic episodes in my life. I’ve been on different brands of anti-depressant but I’ve been on the one I’m taking now for a long time. Mirtazapine. There’s a poem in the next collection called ‘Mirtazapine’ which is about it. I had couple of psychotic episodes which were acute and led to me being sectioned in the nineties. And although they never diagnosed schizophrenia in my case, it was a serious illness. Fortunately, it didn’t last long but there were quite frightening experiences when I was in hospital. And as I say, it does run in the Birtill family. I would have been afraid that my kids would have developed mental health problems in later life so that’s a factor as well. And also having to support them financially. I never had a lot of money in my life. But, you know, I could be completely wrong. It could have been the making of me as indeed it is for so many people who do have children. And I might have found that I loved the experience. Yes, it might have been a reason to stop drinking – or at least to cut down. Because I probably would have frightened them when I was drunk because drunks normally do frighten children.

I think some of it, Jules, is just down to simple bad luck in terms of not meeting my partner. I just never really met the right person for me. And that was partly because of London being a notoriously difficult place to meet people. As somebody said to me before I moved to London: ‘You’ll never meet a girl in a London pub’. And there’s people from all over the world in London and there’s a mish-mash of all these different cultures and I suppose I would have liked to have gone out with a Scouser or a Celt, an Irish person, there. I did go out with an Irish girl in London for a while, quite briefly. She was very good, actually, I liked her but that didn’t last either. That was probably the second most serious affair I had.

I often say, if I’m asked, that I’m half-Irish – but I would never dream of saying ‘I’m Irish’. I don’t identify with Ireland like my siblings do.

I was a Communist in my youth. Right up until I reached middle-age, I suppose. I suppose I was influenced by my brothers and sisters. And influenced by Liverpool at the time where the Militant tendency was prominent. My mother and father weren’t big socialists, in fact my mother was a Tory. Dad was a Labour voter but he wasn’t a big socialist. I think it was because we had a poor upbringing that some of my siblings followed that path. I was a member of the Labour party for a few years, and the Labour party young socialists so I mixed with the Militant tendency who dominated the Labour party young socialists at that time. Although I never actually joined them, but I used to get the paper and I went to a few of their rallies in the mid-eighties and I was friendly with quite a few of them. I quite admired them because they were quite a working class organisation but I just became disillusioned with socialism, I began to have doubts, I suppose.

Interviewer: Would that have been because of perceived flaws in the individuals who make up the movement – or flaws in the ideology itself?

The ideology. And I wouldn’t’ even describe myself as a socialist now, to be honest with you. I haven’t voted in the last few elections, to be honest with you. I’m not really politically active.

I do describe myself as a Catholic. Not a very good Catholic but I am a Catholic of sorts. In fact, I said to my local priest recently that I’m a ‘devout agnostic’ which he thought was quite funny. I do have my agnostic moments. But really I do believe in God – and the resurrection. And I would like a Catholic funeral. Saying that, I think it’s unlikely that I’ll be resurrected (laughs). But I think Jesus was. I think there’s enough evidence to say that he was, you know. And I do believe in God and I describe myself as a Catholic. I go to mass most Sundays, to be honest with you. And occasionally of a week day if the mood takes me. Sometimes 07:30 in the morning, they have a very early mass and if I don’t sleep well, I get up early and go to 07:30 mass. I get some solace from it, you know. Again, I dropped out of Catholicism. I lost my faith when I was a teenager and sort of went back to it after my dad died in 1990. And when I went to AA. I have AA to thank, really, for me finding my faith again. It was really through AA. That Serenity Prayer meant so much to me, I really liked the fact that they said that at the end of meetings. I remember when we all first held hands in a meeting, I thought it was quite emotional. In fact, I say that prayer every morning first thing when I wake up. And I have done ever since I first went to AA. It’s the alcoholic’s prayer. And even if you’re still drinking it can help you in other areas of your life.

Just reading the Big Book and I suppose some of the things I heard in AA, but it was my original sponsor who said ‘why don’t you go back to mass on a Sunday like you used to? You might get something from it.’ And I did. And it was on his suggestion really and I’ve been going ever since. So I have AA to thank for that really.

I like the old films, forties and fifties. Humphrey Bogart’s a favourite actor of mine. And music, well I grew up with The Beatles who I still like. I think they were the greatest, yeah. I went to Eric’s quite a lot. I left Liverpool in 1983 but I saw some good bands there: The Fall, Siouxie and The Banshees, The Damned. And I liked The Clash, I never saw The Clash but I had a couple of their albums. I was a punk rocker myself briefly but I never really got into it that much. It was too close to the bone, really, for me. And then I had very long hair at one point. I had friends who used to go to Eric’s and it was quite scary, really.

At this point, the interviewer hands Paul a selection of his books and pamphlets, asking if he has any recollection of their writing.

I remember the period. It was round about 2006-2007. It wasn’t an easy time. I had neighbour problems. A neighbour upstairs used to jump on the ceiling at three in the morning. No, not really. None of them really. The one I remember the most is the first collection ‘Terrifying Ordeal’ because that took me ten years to write really. I started writing poetry in 1987 and that wasn’t published until January 1998. It was eleven years and I remember the work that went into that and I remember how excited I was getting my first book published. I was thirty-seven. Well, the first one came out which you just picked up then, the red one: ‘Selections from Terrifying Ordeal’, that was actually the first one. And I remember that very clearly as well. That was 1996. Like a lot of my collections, I’d take a title from one of the poems and there was a poem in that one called ‘Terrifying Ordeal’ about sex. You probably remember the one. I was going to call my first collection ‘What the fuck are you laughing at?’ but I decided it was too sort of punky, you know? You asked me last time as well in London, or perhaps it was on the phone, about writers and novels and I was thinking on the way up that the novelists I like are George Orwell and Laurie Lee. I really liked his Autobiographical Trilogy: Cider with Rosie (1959), As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning (1969), and A Moment of War (1991). I read all three of them and I read, I think, most of George Orwell. And I like Christopher Isherwood as well. I read his book: ‘Goodbye to Berlin’. But I’ve probably only read about one hundred books and novels in my entire life. I didn’t read much when I was a kid when I was growing up because I preferred playing out and having fun and watching television. The only non-fiction I’ve read have been AA books really. I did once read a book: ‘You Can Heal Your Life’ by Louise L. Hay. Someone in AA recommended it to me. I have a copy of The Bible at home. I’ve also read a number of plays. I mean, I’ve read a lot of the classics: ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’, ‘The Great Gatsby’ and all those sort of books. I suppose really, a hundred books is probably above average in terms of what people read in their life. I’m reading ‘The Long Goodbye’ at the moment, Raymond Chandler. I read ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’ by Oscar Wilde. I’ve never done a creative writing course, or anything like that – and I’ve never had a mentor.

Joe Orton?

Oh, yeah. I’ve read all his plays. I’ve got his Collected Plays. I’m a big fan of his. He inspired me to write plays. That man, that one man. It was his influence and a little bit of Harold Pinter as well who I’m also a fan of. But mainly Joe Orton. And my work has been described as Ortonesque. He was a big influence in my playwriting. No influences really in my poetry. I think I said in our last interview I had read virtually no poetry when I started. Which wasn’t a bad thing. Although as time went on, I got to admire Philip Larkin and various other poets. But the main play by Joe Orton which I just loved – and still do to this day is ‘Entertaining Mr Sloane’. I just thought it was hilarious. I thought the dialogue was just so witty. I thought the plot was good. And the black humour, that’s what I liked about it because I’ve always been into black humour. So when I first saw him, one of his plays on tele, I said: ‘Who is this guy?’ to one of my mates I was sharing a flat with. And he said: ‘Oh, that’s Joe Orton. He was murdered by his boyfriend in London. It’s a good film that ‘Prick Up Your Ears’. But Joe Orton, he was probably the only real influence I have ever had in writing. I was definitely influenced by him as a playwright and I thought he was brilliant and it was very sad, what happened to him. And I’ve been to see his flat in Islington, Noel Road, where he was killed.

It was jealousy, the main reason he was killed. His partner was a failed writer and they both started writing together and Halliwell was more educated than Orton and he was very jealous that Joe Orton had this witty imagination that he (Halliwell) lacked and that’s why he killed him. I did a poetry reading in their local pub in Islington some years ago which I was pleased to do.

I’ll end my days in London, I think. Or Liverpool. I have thought of coming back here. I do like Liverpool and whenever I get off the train at Lime Street like yesterday, I always feel some emotion. It’s my spiritual home. I do like Liverpool so if I did leave London it would be to come back here. I couldn’t see myself going back anywhere else. To be honest with you, I’ve never really liked London that much. It’s grown on me a bit in later life – but I certainly didn’t like it when I first came in my twenties. I didn’t like it all. I just didn’t like the atmosphere, I thought it was an unfriendly, impersonal, cold sort of place. But saying that, the anonymity of it appealed to me though. So, it was like a little bit of a double-edged sword, London, for me. I mean I liked the fact that you could make a mistake and not have to leave town, you know? You could have a clean slate very day of the week. You can keep reinventing yourself. Whereas small places, you make a mistake and you’ve got to leave town (laughs). You can fuck up. Because I lived in a small community in Liverpool 8 and I was starting to get into scrapes and bits of trouble in Liverpool. But London, it’s kind of like a giant sponge, it absorbs everything, you know? And people I think are quite tolerant in London, more tolerant than in other places. But there are things about it I never really liked. And it’s just the general atmosphere of London I never really liked, I think. But I’m lucky that I live in a nice part of London. I think that’s why I’ve stayed so long, well, I know that’s why I’ve stayed so long. Having a flat in a conversion in leafy Belsize Park, close to the heath, it’s a lovely place to live in. That’s the main reason I’ve stayed so long and will probably stay there until I die.

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Paul Birtill’s most recent collection Bad News (published by Wrecking Ball Press) is out now.

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