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Multiple jigsaws, almost completed, are laid out in the living room. On the sideboard, porcelain creatures jostle for space with family photos – a marriage scene, a smiling elderly couple, kids in the park. Dolls are piled high on a chair in the corner, arranged in a chaotic arc. White masks, like those from the Venice Carnival, are positioned across one wall. The wallpaper is a scene from a seaside town – spinning Ferris wheels, winding rollercoasters, fairground murals – yet the paper itself is pockmarked with holes and stains.
Richard Billingham, who grew up in this environment, describes the room as “carnivalesque”. When he lived here, in Cradley Heath in the West Midlands, he did so with his mother Liz and, after she moved out, his father Ray. This jam of decorative stuff was all Liz. She had winding, flowering roots and flowers tattooed across her arms. She wore floral dresses and she smoked until the ashtrays overflowed.
When Billingham was 10 years old, Ray was laid off from a job as a machinist. The family sold their home for two grand – a cash-in- hand job to a local conman – and moved here, to what was quaintly referred to as public housing. Ray, who until this point only drank in the pub, began his life as a committed alcoholic and a full-time hermit.