Author of ten novels where he keeps reopening the crypt, high on cadaverine, spaced on photographic emulsion, curator of his own mythology.
As Iain Sinclair put it: "He passes through border posts without leaving a trace. He cruises with wealthy Arabs in stretch limousines. He brandishes letters from Philip on Windsor Castle stationery. And when the net closes in he vanishes. Appearing, years later, out of the high arctic or the desert to reinvent his own legend." He's always just ahead of the war zone, on the edge of the frame, at the dead centre of the cyclone.
He was everywhere, knew everybody, bedded the beautiful (Bianca Jagger, Nathalie Delon) and the damned (Nico, Anita von Pallenberg). He himself remained an enigma to all but a few high-flying friends (beneficial herb importer Howard Marks, Pink Floyd's Syd Barrett). Shape-shifter extraordinaire, he moved in the world of Pimm's and privilege, eventually marrying one of the fabulous Goldsmith girls, the beauteous Dido.
Here we track him to his home in Pytchley where he lives in hermetic seclusion...
Mondo 2000: Well, hello Peter...
Peter Whitehead: Welcome back to England, Robert.
M2:How are you feeling these days, how's your health?
PW: Much better than I was a year or so ago when we did the last interview...
M2: A few months ago they had a special exposition of your films in Leicester called, "If only... 1968 and Radical Film in Britain." Tell me what role you and your films played in the festival, what it was about, what other films were shown...
PW: Right. Well, they were currently teaching a 60's course at Leicester and so decided to have a big conference and a celebration of it all, and arranged for me to be the guest of honor because they wanted to show my film The Fall which is about the occupation of Columbia University, and the collapse of the protest movement in the United States back in 1968. They also wanted to show with it the Lindsay Anderson film If... which is, of course, a fictionalized version of student rebellion. The Fall is the real thing and If... is the fiction. They also wanted to show Tonite Let's All Make Love In London which is the other side of the 60's: Tonite is the fun side - the swinging London sort of scene - and The Fall is the dark side represented by the counterculture of the period. Now, when people talk about the so-called Swinging 60's and the problems that we've inherited, the seeds that were sown then weren't tended by people in mini-skirts running around Kings Road. Though don't get me wrong, I personally enjoyed watching said mini-skirts at the time! Of course the true seeds were sown by the radicals who were working in various different fields of film, poetry, underground newspapers, and so on.
But anyway, I was invited to attend this festival and then heard that Iain Sinclair had been involved during the previous year making a film called The Falconer. So, it was a great day - They showed my films Tonite Let's All Make Love in London and The Fall, and this new film based upon my work and life, The Falconer, as well as If... and other experimental films from the 60's.
M2: You are known chiefly for the films you've made. For the benefit of our readers, could you tell us about this early work?
PW: My films, usually referred to as cinema verité, were mostly shot in the 60's and were documenting the exploding counterculture. The first was Wholly Communion, a film of the International Poetry Incarnation at the Royal Albert Hall in London, June 11, 1965, at which an audience of 7,000 "hippies" (they'd never been seen before en masse) listened to Beat poets Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Alexander Trocchi, and others. This really was the first collective event that brought the existence of the counterculture into the public eye; the first true full- scale "Happening" and I was lucky to be there to film it. The film won the Gold Medal First Prize at the Mannheim Film Festival and launched my career. Thanks to that I was invited by the manager of the Rolling Stones to film the boys on tour - and this led to my making my second film Charlie is my Darling - the film of the 1965 Tour of Dublin and Belfast with performances on stage, interviews and scenes with Mick Jagger, stoned and drunk, imitating Elvis Presley. I then made Tonite Let's all Make Love in London, a seventy minute, tongue-in-cheek, color documentary about "Swinging London" - with Jagger, the Stones, the Animals, music and performance by Pink Floyd, Vanessa Redgrave, Michael Caine, Lee Marvin, Julie Christie - an ironic send-up of the so-called new and exciting and revolutionary swinging scene of the time - with a fair dose of druggy subversive ambience about protest and violence mixed in. Benefit of the Doubt came next, an hour long color documentary about protesting the Vietnam War, set around a play called US, which was put on - a kind of Living Theatre event - by Peter Brook with the Royal Shakespeare Company with Glenda Jackson amongst others. These two films were shown at the New York Film Festival and Tonite was distributed to U.S. universities and art cinemas by Warners. The Fall - which I consider my most important film - was a two hour documentary shot in New York, documenting the collapse of the Protest Movement and the start of anarchy and the necessity for it. The second half of the film was all shot inside Columbia University behind the barricades during the student rebellion there in April 1968. I also filmed Robert Kennedy, Stokely Carmichael, H. Rap Brown, Mark Rudd, Tom Hayden, Robert Lowell, Arthur Miller, etc. I filmed the police smashing through the front door before beating up the students. I was inside the university with the students filming everything for over a week. A very violent film which aptly documents the times. In 1972 my film Daddy was shown at the New York Film Festival - a two hour feature film made with French/American sculptress Niki de St. Phalle - a series of erotic fantasies about the murder of the father by the daughter. The first truly feminist film - praised by Godard and Jacques Lacan.
M2: Describe your friendship with Syd Barrett. Are you still in contact with him? If so, where does he now live and what is he currently doing?
PW: I studied Physics at Cambridge University for three years, but stayed on a year, privately, to study painting, having won a painting scholarship to the Slade School of Art in London. Syd was dating the girl in the house where I lived and he and the boys used to practice outside my room - while I was playing the Modern Jazz Quartet, Janacek, Wagner and Bartok, very loud, to drown out their noise! (I tell people that my music was the source of Syd's peculiar blend of pop, classical and jazz. And they think I'm joking. Not at all.) I confess, reluctantly, that I thought pop music was utter rubbish at the time. It took me some time to see its significance - and enjoy it - after working with the Stones. I did all their promotional films for a year or so after 1965. Later, when I was in London making Tonite, I had an affair with Jenny Spires, who was also from Cambridge - she was Syd's girlfriend at the time - a very painful situation - they were both high on acid all the time and she took me several times to listen to the band at the UFO Club. Realizing their music was expressing exactly the same mood as the film I was trying to make, I paid for them to record two songs for me which I used in my film - the first ever music recorded by them. There's also some rare footage of John Lennon at the 14 Hour Technicolor Dream. I am not in contact with Syd or Jenny - but they both still live in Cambridge. Jenny got married and Syd withdrew into silence, exile and cunning - or madness. Either way he became the perfect icon for the 60's drug scene - the perfect recluse. The suicide who is still alive.
M2:When did you first become interested in falcons and other raptors?
PW: When I was at Cambridge I became fascinated by the artifacts in the Ancient Egyptian Antiquities collection of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge and fell in love with the sculptured head of Princess Meritaten of the 18th Dynasty. I visited her almost every day for several months. This was drawing me into a deeper interest in the structure and meaning of the Egyptian mysteries, and led me to try and understand the true deeper meaning of the story of the birth of Horus the falcon, to his mother, Isis. The story tells us that she took the form of a falcon, to hover over the dead, fragmented and dismembered body of her husband, Osiris. One day I visited the Louvre in Paris and was taken again - and became utterly possessed and forever since haunted by a single, almost life-sized bronze statue there of a falcon-headed man - the eyes gouged out, from which the jewels that were his eyes had been stolen. That statue possessed my soul and still does. Unconsciously, I knew it was Oedipus of course (as I was, being a fatherless son) and I set out on my quest to try to become initiated into the Egyptian mysteries. Which meant I had to shift from being haunted by Oedipus and become his adversary, and redeemer - the Shaman/Seer Tiresias. This was my attempt unconsciously to gain power over that bronze statue - the person it was created for or the sculptor himself maybe. I never did. I am still his victim. Years later when I read of Aleister Crowley's possession by Aiwass in front of the stele in Cairo of the Falcon- Headed god, Horus-Ra-Herakhy, I recognised the scene only too well. It had happened to me twice - once with the Princess Meritaten and secondly with the falcon, Horus. All shamans are called by a beautiful woman or their totemic creature. For me it was both. I am still possessed and still trying to understand what it means and why. My novel (The Risen) confronts these issues head on. But this confrontation with the bronze statue, and the mystical, magical, symbolic meaning of Horus and his birth, eventually led me to a real falcon - flesh and blood - led me to hunting with falcons, and then trapping them. I spent years in remote places all alone, hunting falcons. Eventually I became obsessed with falcons - training and imprinting the birds and teaching them to copulate with me - further initiating myself into the Mysteries of the Goddess Isis - who took the form of a falcon and with a magically created penis, copulated with her dead husband. What for me had been a literary idea, if you like - the coded texts of the Egyptian Book of the Dead, describing the magical acts of Isis copulating with Osiris - suddenly became a real possibility. It too could become flesh and blood, in my life. I was able to take falcon eggs from the wild, or from birds that were breeding in captivity, and hatch them in isolation. The young chicks were brought up by me as the sole parent with no contact with other birds. This is called imprinting. Later, when they want to breed, they seek me as their mate. I kept them in my room when I worked. They lived with me for years. In the breeding season, the males were trained to fly onto a hat I made specially, where they ejaculated semen. I took this into a syringe. Meanwhile the females were trained to copulate with me too - spreading their wings and cloaca, so that I could then introduce the semen into their bodies. This way I was God himself, wasn't I?! I could choose which males and females I wanted to make hybrids from and all kinds of fascinating, self-created falcons. I was entering into their evolutionary/breeding process. I was also becoming a modern Isis, hovering in the aviary, dancing the erotic dance they needed to arouse them and bring them into a sexual condition - and the male falcon copulated on my head. What had been a secret coded mystical story had for me become flesh and blood - I was living out the essential secret Egyptian Mystery, at the heart of the story of Isis and Osiris, in my own very modern terms.
M2:What is the story behind Prince Khalid Al-Faisal contacting you?
PW: In 1982 I was in Saudi Arabia with some captive-bred and wild-caught falcons and I was contacted by Prince Khalid Al-Faisal, son of Ex-King Faisal, who knew of my previous work with falcons. He invited me to build a falcon center in Abha, in the southern Asir province. The center was eventually built on top of Al Sooda, or the Black Mountain, the highest mountain in the Middle East - 12,000 feet up - on the border with the Yemen.
M2: How long did you work there, and what were your duties?
PW: I was director of the center with total responsibility for everything. I trained the young falcons - imprinting them for breeding by artificial insemination. I spent much of each spring copulating with male and female Gyr and Saker falcons. The center functioned until 1991 when the Gulf War made it impossible for it to continue. I left with 125 falcons to Europe but the project was destroyed by the greed of the Spanish government officials and Mafia. They seized all the falcons and all my money.
M2:How were the falcons raised and trained?
PW: Birds for breeding were usually brought up as chicks without contact with other birds and thus became "imprinted" on me - they were not sure whether I was a bird or they were human. The males copulated on my head usually, ejaculating into a hat (designed rather like the head-dress of the famous diorite statue of Pharaoh Chepren). The females spread their wings and exposed themselves to me - just as girls used to do high on acid in the 60's under the bushes of Hyde Park. Other birds, to be used for hunting, had to be "wild", and were released into the wild from special stone towers I designed, overlooking a 5,000 foot drop into the valleys below. These birds were later trapped in the same towers and trained by Prince Khalid for hunting.
HALLUCINATIONS RECOLLECTED IN TRANQUILLITY
M2: In 1994 you self-published your second novel, The Risen. What made you decide to take up writing and how did Hathor Publishing come about?
PW: I published The Risen in October 1994, but it was originally a film-script I wrote in 1969 called Night Trip. I had always wanted to be a novelist - filming was something I did for fun with a certain natural facility but it never changed me or the world. I gave up filming in 1972, willingly, to devote myself to falcons and to live in poverty in the remote and beautiful territories where they lived - in Africa, the Arctic, Afghanistan, India and Kashmir. But always I wanted to write fiction. I wrote endlessly but never had the continuity to complete the projects. Endless, they remained. I was out in the mountains with falcons and writing seemed momentarily insignificant. It crept back on me and I started writing in 1987. Two days after the billions of neutrinos swept through the body of the earth from the explosion of Super Nova 1897A, I started The Risen. The first draft took three months or so. I decided to publish my own novels under my own imprint, Hathor, since the publishers here in the U.K. are such obtuse philistines.
M2: On the inside cover of the hard back edition is the following "explanation": "The original concept of 'holographic novel' defines a zone where two distinct consciousnesses interfere and become aspects of one mental entity; the brain made whole and harmonious." How is this "zone" generated in The Risen?
PW: I called The Risen a "holographic novel", not solely for the reason that two holographic images are often discussed in the book - one created by John on his computer, of a Delvaux painting, the other by Georgina of the image of the central rite of copulation of falcons in the Isis and Osiris mysteries - but I was also relating the book's structure and meaning to David Bohm's theories of consciousness and time and space - "holomovements" he called them - suggesting everything in the universe was structured holographically. I then took the basic mechanism by which a hologram is produced - two photos simultaneously taken of a single object, one of the images filtered through a half-silvered mirror and allowed to interfere with the other - as the central structural idea of the novel. Two experiments that seem to be separate but are the same one, seen from two angles. One by a physicist, the other by a psychopharmacologist. A scientist and a magician. The entire novel is two narrative texts interfering with each other, like the two snakes wrapped around the staff of the shaman Tiresias. Every word-involute of the novel is suggesting hypertextual readings. Two experiments, two men, two women. But is there not always an invisible third? The viewer. The voyeur. A shaman from the past. The novel is what is seen through the blinded eyes of a shaman from Ancient Egypt wishing to be reincarnated into the present - like Aiwass came to Crowley. Or, rather, Tiresias.
M2: One half of your holo-male-protagonist, John Faulkner, takes a drug called Tiresiamine to: "...induce a new bias-frequency in his brain, inducing receptivity to the so-far undetected R-Field Matrix, enabling him to see holographically..." Later this Matrix is described as gravity waves that communicate information, or that transfer souls from one frame of reference to another. The "R" stands for reincarnation. Now, is this idea simply a literary device, or do you believe there may exist such a Matrix?
PW: I do believe there is a matrix through which we can communicate with other "consciousnesses". And I believe this, thanks to active work over a year or so with a remarkable shaman in Pakistan named Ashraf Kamal Sahib - an illiterate mapmaker - who put me in touch with these other entities directly. There are no words to properly describe them. I do believe we can listen and hear them if we can re-tune our brains. This will be done in the future, by various means, when the full psychopharmacological story of thinking and dreaming is known. Our brains are chemical. At present we can do it through dreams (while ego-reason is asleep). We can also gain such insights and receive messages if we can learn to understand dream language - and there is a lot of this in The Risen. Recurring dreams are visitations - as Kamal Sahib proved to me in Lahore, Pakistan - flesh and blood!
M2: At one point in your life you were a crystallographer. How much of your own personality went into your character Matthew Sutherland?
PW: At Cambridge I studied physics and crystallography and worked as a humble assistant to Francis Crick (DNA) and later John Kendrew (haemoglobin). I would say half of me, alas, is still Matthew Sutherland and manages to survive in the real world if ever more dangerously close to the edge. It gets harder and harder and I doubt if there is much time left. I am also John, but about that I must remain silent. You must read the novel to figure out how much I am John. John disappears, as I must too, soon.
M2: Do tetragonal, pyramidal diamond crystals exist in nature, or are they your invention? What about iridium, the transition element in the core of these diamonds' lattice network? Real or no?
PW: Tetragonal, pyramidal diamonds no not yet exist in nature. Once Snow White's seven dwarfs read my novel, while humming Das Rheingold - they'll come into existence soon enough. Morphic resonance they call it. Iridium does exist. I wrote the screenplay for The Risen in 1969 and talked then about implosion at the heart of crystals and called it cold fusion. And twenty years later it came to pass in the recent Cold Fusion experiments at Utah in which iridium was involved and at which an English experimenter was killed.
M2: There is a great deal of Egyptian ritual magic in The Risen. Do you practice this in real life?
PW: My interest in Egypt all stems from "possession" which was triggered by the head of Meritaten in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, and later by the bronze statue in the Louvre of a falcon-headed man. I have been haunted and possessed ever since. My entire life's work with falcons (real and imaginary) came from this haunting. I do not practice rituals from Ancient Egypt - at least I don't think so - except to trap falcons and copulate with them! No one has the first idea of what those rituals are. I merely meditate and dream and I am changed and transformed. I try to learn "the language of birds" (which we are told is the language Tiresias knew, by which he could foretell the future). One day I will re-trance-late the Book of the Coming Forth by Day - if the fate of Matthew does not befall me first. Tiresias was clairvoyant, but blind. That means he was also mad. My novel documents the lifting off of reason. And what remains? I'll know soon enough.
INVOLUTE OF IMPROBABLE NARRATIVE
M2: Yeah, and very nearly did with the heart attack you suffered on August 3, 1996. Describe the events surrounding this event, and how Christopher Petit and Iain Sinclair first came to contact you about making the film...
PW: It must have been in the spring of 1996 that Iain Sinclair gave me a call... We'd done a reading the previous year together where I read from my novel, The Risen. And what was amazing about it was that at the exact moment I gave the reading, the Shoemaker-Levy comet hit Jupiter, which at the time I considered an amusing coincidence, as my novel has a touch of the apocalyptic about it. Later he got in touch with me and told me he was making a film about a number of maverick people on the fringe of culture, a documentary of sorts, and that he wanted me to be involved. I agreed and he came up to film some interviews with me here in Kettering, followed up by a couple of sessions in London.
I presented him with my new novel, Pulp Election, a kind detective novel and portrait of a modern couple set in 1996 London. And I think the book took him by surprise because he'd never really read any of my novels. He rang me up three or four days later, very excited, and said, "Peter, this is absolutely amazing! What you've written in Pulp Election is exactly what I'm trying to do with this film." I was overjoyed, and he asked me to come back down to London. My mother had recently died and I inherited her London flat, which I was renovating at the time. He wanted me to read half a dozen sequences from Pulp Election that describe parts of the film he was trying to make. I was in London for about a week. I then returned to my home in Kettering before going back once more to London. And I must admit I was beginning to have some health problems during this time; I kept on nearly fainting. These spells kept coming and I was beginning to think that something was wrong, even after a doctor gave me a clean bill of health - typical thing for a fucking doctor to say, isn't it?
AFTER EIGHT PHILOSOPHY
On Friday evening August first, I had dinner with Robert Bauval in London. Now Robert Bauval had just published a new book called Keeper of Genesis. His first book, The Orion Mystery, was a work that completely paralleled a lot of the ideas in my novel The Risen. And we had recently met and become friends, and he'd just read The Risen, so he wanted to talk to me about it. And he said the strangest thing was that since reading The Risen he'd begun to reinterpret his life along mythical lines, sort of like Isis and Osiris. "You know I'm an engineer and a rationalist and I don't usually subscribe to these sorts of things..." he told me. Yet he wanted to know how The Risen related to my life and so I explained, you know, the whole thing about Aleister Crowley, and the fact that I had lived with falcons for twenty years of my life, that it was all connected with ancient Egypt, with Isis and Osiris and Horus. Now Robert had made the discovery that the belt of stars in the constellation of Orion corresponded exactly to the positioning of the Giza pyramids. His new book was basically about the Sphinx because he'd developed some software which could give him the entire star map at the moment of the heliacal rising of any particular star on any particular day up to 26,000 years prior to Christ, and 26,000 years after the life of Christ. So he'd worked it out that the only possible date for the creation of the Sphinx had to be about 12,000 B.C. which corresponded to the heliacal rising of Leo. So we discussed his software and the entire mythology of Egypt, and I talked about the Egyptian concept of resurrection. He said he was absolutely fascinated by the quantum physics ideas in The Risen, and how on earth could a physicist like myself believe so totally in this mystical concept of transmission and channelling? And I told him, essentially, because it had happened to me! I hadn't asked for it! And I didn't do it deliberately, much less consciously. I'd simply lived out this myth all my life whether I'd wanted to or not. The story of my life had been the birth of the falcon, Horus, ever since I'd first met this sculpture, this statue in the Louvre, which had completely changed my life. So Robert was very interested and we dined that evening alone. We came out of the restaurant that night around 11 PM and I said that I'd walk home, and was just starting off when I fell against this wall. So he offered to drive me home. I thanked him for the kind lift, which was out of his way, said I'd be in touch, went upstairs and went to bed. I woke at 5:15 AM the following morning, went to the loo and noticed it was just dawn. I went back to bed but couldn't sleep. I lay in bed tossing and turning, looked at the clock a couple of times, wondering what to do. Then, suddenly, it hit me. I had my heart attack. Now, of course, I'd never ever thought about such a thing, about having a heart attack, and it was a very strange experience I must admit because, first of all you really do sort of... let's just say, it's a trip! It's the closest thing to a real trip you know - you start off by seeing all sorts of bizarre things, and then you start to think in a peculiar way. And, you know the cliché about seeing your whole life flash before your eyes? It doesn't flash by, you call it up. Because what happens is, you lie there and you think, Christ, I'm dying! You know you're dying. And if you resist it, it becomes incredibly painful. So you have to go with it and sink into it and the only way of truly sinking into it is to say to yourself, well, actually, it's all right, I've had a wonderful life, I've done this, I've done that, I've been a falconer for twenty years, I've written some novels which I quite like, I've loved some very beautiful women, I've made some films, I've had some wonderful children. So I lay there, going over it all, trying to convince myself that I'd lived such a fascinating and interesting life that it didn't matter that I was dying at this particular moment. When the pain suddenly kicks in you have to get out of it and the only way, of course, is to leave your body. You float up and out. And you can see yourself lying there and you somehow know that you're not quite dead and you're thinking about yourself and your life, trying to cling to consciousness, 'cause you keep slipping away. You have little miniature strokes because the attack is cutting the blood supply off to your limbs. And gradually the strokes get longer, periods of blackness and lack of consciousness get longer...
Somewhere along the line, reflecting on a few of the things I still hadn't done and thinking specifically about my children, my four daughters, I realized that things were not quite right yet for me to die. Someone rang 999 - God knows why I never rang 999... The next instant I looked up and there stood the guys from the ambulance asking me a few questions. They placed me in a wheelchair and whisked me out to the landing and, I must admit, the most painful moment of the entire ordeal was when I went down on the lift. I went from the eleventh to the ground floor in this wheelchair, and the pressure just contracted around my heart and I thought by the time I hit the bottom I'd be dead. It was like descending through a shaft of time. Like going to the bottom of a hidden, secret passageway in the pyramid. In a way I was going into the bowels of the earth and very fast, and I remember hitting the bottom. Anyway, they then put me in the ambulance and I remember lying in it and hearing the siren and thinking to myself - This is real. The next minute I'm at the hospital, and the funny thing was, one of the guys who wheeled me in and talked to me the entire ride was from Pakistan. (laughs) So I was telling him all about going to Peshower and trapping falcons and I knew Pakistan better than he did. I'd been to the Khagan Valley, and I knew the Patans very well, and did he know the poetry of Krushal Khan Khawtak? And, no, he didn't, and you know, they do everything they can to keep you talking, and I think I told this poor guy my life story (laughs), and how I especially loved Pakistan. So, later I'm lying there and this doctor comes in to the room and says, "You've had a heart attack." And I remember saying "You must be joking."
After everything I'd been through, I still didn't believe it. He informed me that I'd have to stay in hospital for, at the very least, a couple of days. Now, at the time my wife Dido was in France, so I rang Olga, my Russian mistress, and she came over. I stayed in hospital for a few days and then Robert Bauval visited me with his girlfriend Charlotte whom I'd introduced him to one day at the British Museum. We chatted for a bit and he told me how worried he'd been about me and that he'd read The Risen again. Just before they left I said, "Robert, you know that software you were telling me about? Can you punch in 5:30 August 3rd for me? I'm interested in what part of the Egyptian year last Saturday morning was because it seemed to me very strange that my heart attack occurred at dawn." Anyway, he returned three days later white as a sheet because, when all's said and done, Robert is still a rationalist and an engineer - he's not a mystic at all. So he placed the star map printout that he'd done for me down on the bed. And for 5:34 on the third of August 1996 was the exact moment of the heliacal rising of Sirius above the Giza plain in Egypt, which symbolizes in ancient Egyptian religion and magic the precise and exact moment of the birth of Horus the falcon. So, of course, after leaning this I had some strange thinking to do.
Robert also brought me a small piece of granite which he placed in my hands. And I commented, "Gosh, that's amazing, it's in the shape of a heart!" And he said, "Oh, yeah, I never noticed." And so I said, "Well, isn't that why you brought it to me?" And he said, "No, I've brought you this as a present. It is one of three stones which were chipped out from the tunnel, the secret tunnel, underneath the Sphinx. We were allowed to bring them back for analysis." I thanked him.
Now, in the meantime, of course, I'd been making this film, so I promptly rang Iain Sinclair. Now, just prior to my heart attack, Iain had told me how excited he was about working with me and that he and Chris Petit wanted me to be a co-author on their film about me. He told me how they now saw the quest in the plot, a thread developing, and essentially, they wanted me to be the film's central character. So I told him, great! I remember telling Dido how clever I'd been in hijacking their film. Anyhow, three days later Iain and Chris come back and tell me, look Peter, we've been viewing all the material and we're going to make the film now about you and we're going to call it The Falconer. Now, to provide some background, on the day Iain had first taken photos of me, they'd told me their initial idea of using the whalebone box, which is now in the beginning sequence of the film and used in the hotel sequence as well. I had, on the spur of the moment, completely invented a story because I looked at the box and said, "I don't know what's in the box; is it a mummified falcon or is it my ashes?" In fact I improvised the whole thing. Then they took it away and decided it would be in the film. And from then on the film became what it has now become. (rueful pause) And Iain has said in interviews that he and Chris were trying to make another film altogether, and then me and my heart attack sabotaged their film...
M2: What did you think of the completed 56 minute version?
PW: Well, from the idea that we started with, the notion of the quest and so on, then becoming this sort of portrait film... Ummm, Iain did make it abundantly clear to me that it wasn't going to be an ordinary biography. It was going to be, if you like, a mythological biography. Iain's work is about this concept of psychogeography. He'll describe a place or a person... and is interested in the parallel places, the occulted, hidden, psychic and mythic themes that are going on. I also believe totally that people are driven and controlled by mythemes. And my myth is clearly, absolutely and precisely to have lived out the whole story of Isis and Osiris, and produced their falcon- child, Horus. So, I mean, Iain was obviously interested in me because of the clarity of my myth. But now I feel that it's a fictional and not a mythical portrait. What Iain and Chris have done, in a way, was to take some of the elements from my novel Pulp Election and transform me into a character from one of my own novels. Now this wasn't done to explore my myth. The truth is, I think they missed the real story altogether which is embedded in my novel as well as in my various obsessions. Well, to cut to the chase, they really haven't touched on it at all! The Falconer is not about my work. It is instead about a theme, you know, about the father and daughter and so on, which admittedly is an element that has appeared in some of my work - especially in my novel Nora and... and my film Daddy which I made with Niki de St. Phalle, and my book of photos Baby Doll... But that's the Oedipal side, that's the psychoanalytical side of my mythology, which is, yeah, fair enough, part of it. But I don't think the film is what my work is really about. My work is really about the caduceus, and the predicament of the male - that he can only become whole through embracing the female, through being initiated into the female mysteries. I only become whole by embracing Isis. I am Osiris without Isis. With Isis I become Horus. This film is entirely trapped within the narrow frame of the male mysteries. Chris Petit, a castrated Catholic twerp, is totally psychologically incapable of embracing any ideas whatsoever about mythology or the occult, or anything that I am truly interested in in my life. He's one of these typically English fucked-up puritans, who thinks that by merely jumping into a car and driving along a street and taking photographs of buildings going by that he's making a movie. I have no respect for Chris Petit's filmmaking whatsoever. But I have a lot of respect for Iain Sinclair's preoccupation with myth.
Iain has only embraced the one side of my mythology which is that element one might say remains fixed within the male mysteries. Now, it's very interesting that in the beginning the film was going to be called The Lives and Work of Peter Lorrimer Whitehead, and now has become The Lives and Careers of Peter Lorrimer Whitehead. And in that re-titling they have admitted defeat. By that single subtle change. They have not actually explored what the meaning of my heart attack was. What the meaning of my life with falcons is. How and why I have developed the androgynous side of my character and considered myself to be bisexual in that sense. That my quest has been to become whole and that that has been why I have spent my life with creative women who have enabled me to become whole. None of this is touched upon in the film. All that's touched on is this kind of conspiratorial notion of the male mysteries and that this figure who passes through the film actually threatens to subvert it - which I could have and should have done. And if they'd allowed me to do it, to subvert their repressive rationality, we could have made a considerably more interesting film. The basis of my trust was that the film would be about my real work, and in the end, it is not.
M2: The world premiere of The Falconer on July 1 will be followed by its U.K. video release in September and an interactive CD-ROM of the film produced by graphic artist Dave McKean and writer Iain Sinclair. What was it like working with Iain Sinclair?
PW: I think without any doubt that Iain is the best writer writing in English prose working in Britain today. He's been laboring in a particular "mine-shaft" or "mind- shaft", undermining what is called English Fiction for quite some time. His early stuff like Lud Heat and Suicide Bridge are seminal works in this process of deconstruction of that rather boring, unbelievably middle class English kind of writing, which I despise, and am also trying in my own quiet little way to subvert. I think he does it extremely well and I think his novels, in particular Radon Daughters, are fascinating works, very hard to get through - you have to work at them - but... he's a poetic novelist. A very special breed. He's a Celt, and he's very dark and deals with a lot of very dark things. He's a dangerous man, and a dangerous writer. His tradition is Ginsberg and Burroughs and the Beats, with William Hope Hodgson thrown into the mix. He is dealing with the dark, occult mythological side of this curious puritanical Englishness, which Chris Petit perfectly exemplifies. Chris Petit as far as I'm concerned is the David Lodge of the so-called counter culture movie business. Iain, on the other hand, is very definitely something of a magician - though I don't think he told the whole story in The Falconer. He made the film about my outwardness, my worldliness, my life-on- the-fringes. It was really about the Mask, the Persona, the false side that I have shown to the world. But he should have known as a writer that the mask is there to hide and conceal the real truth. But I did actually give quite a lot of the reality to him. He just didn't put it in the movie. Maybe we'll make another film together, who knows?
M2: Talk about the inspiration behind the writing of The Risen and its real life parallels. Also, when did your production company begin?
PW: Lorrimer Films was started in 1965 when I made Wholly Communion. In 1967 I started Lorrimer Publishing, which published in paperback a huge number of movie screenplays. I started writing what would eventually become The Risen in 1969, shortly after I purchased my first falcon. Since I'd been at Cambridge my connection with ancient Egypt was still festering away. So in 1969 it dawned on me one day that I should get a real falcon and so I did and that was a moment of sublime, ecstatic excitement, I must say. Suddenly, it was real! It was an ecstatic moment and suddenly my life changed. It was around this time that I wrote the original version of The Risen which was then called Night Trip. And it was very much to do with my relationship with Penny Slinger - with whom I was living at the time, and who was a sculptress and who made a lot of sculptures related to my interest in Egyptology.
In a way what had happened was that after making The Fall I then had to sit down and write a script. And we lived together - Penny making sculptures and me writing scripts. We took a lot of photographs and published a book together called An Exorcism. (Villiers Publications Ltd, London 1977) I published one of her books - I was still publishing books under the Lorrimer imprint. But I knew the time would come when I must sit down and write a script for the first time - all my films prior to this had been documentaries. And though I wrote a script for The Fall, I was never able to film it as it was written because every time I went out to shoot it, reality was always one step ahead! I wrote a script about an assassination and then everybody I met got assassinated, so in the end I wound up making another fucking documentary. But finally, to move forward, to gain control over film, I had to write it. I didn't quite know where to begin and then suddenly the idea came to me which was very much related to my experiences at Cambridge as a physicist and crystallographer. Crystallography fascinated me - the beauty, the elegance, the mystical significance was seeping into me, undermining my belief in science as a pure way of life. It became clear to me that you could look at crystals in several different ways and I began to see all these extraordinarily beautiful images and started to paint. It was on the basis of some of these paintings that I got a scholarship to the Slade School of Art. I started to write this story about a physicist working with light, laser beams and a pyramid-shaped diamond. It was called Night Trip and it begins with him in the middle of the city, driving away in his car to go to Cornwall to meet his girlfriend and maybe another girl. The entire film was going to be shot from his point of view, starting off in the car, where the windscreen is the screen and is basically about entering this night (Nuit) actually about him moving from his position, his point (Hadit) his light and his diamond, because he'd done an experiment and it didn't made sense and the film was about how it was necessary for him to enter into the female mysteries in order to interpret the data. But as long as he's stuck with the Second Law of Thermodynamics and rationality and science, the experiment remained inexplicable. It broke the laws. I wrote it originally as a screenplay and then tried to write it as a novel. It was presented to the British Film Production Board. They'd previously shown all my films at the London Film Festival and at the New York Film Festival. I was then considered to be, if not the number one, then certainly among the top few independent filmmakers in England at the time. Nobody had had the number of films shown like I had in festivals, so I must admit I arrogantly assumed I would get the money for this film. I was now asking for a trifling five thousand pounds to make this rather strange film about symbolism. But it was England! It was the British Film Industry with its Production Board run by people like Chris Petit... There wasn't a chance in a million. And they rejected me three years running. And it was on that basis and upon these circumstances that I gave up filming. I thought, Fuck it! I can't deal with what I'm dealing with. It is too real. It demands technology, money, people. The only way I can enter the female mysteries is with women, or music, or nature. And with my falcon trip. I had to give up film. Writing is closer. You can write and get into a trance. You can channel text, you can receive. You can transform yourself into a receiver. This happens, I think, to most people who write fiction. But I realized that it wasn't an ordinary novel, because it was dealing with consciousness. The British don't write novels about consciousness. The British are unaware that there is such a thing as the unconscious. And you know the British don't like psychoanalysis or anything Jungian...
Oh, fucking Christ! They're fucking English, you know?! God, they don't like that kind of stuff. Can't cope with it. It's too close to the core. But, anyway, I did realize that my novel was not an ordinary novel, not even David Lodge in drag! That instead it was about a word the French would best comprehend: Consciousness.
You know, my second novel, Nora and... People think I wrote it in French, and that it's a translation from a nouveau roman. Probably because it's set in Paris in 1968. But I do not write for the English. I despise the English. I write for... I don't know who I write for! I write for Amenhotep, basically. Anyway, The Risen was a metaphysical autobiography. Everything in it, the characters and so on, were all related to my own archetypal self. But, of course, that is what we do. If we fall in love with someone and it's very, very intense and powerful and destructive or constructive or whatever, it's usually because that person is not merely a person that you're relating to, it's a person with whom you are identifying. There is morphic resonance happening. They are archetypal. They are, for a man, an anima figure. Penny Slinger served as one of my anima figures. And a lot of my women were phallic women, who were, in a sense, mirroring my own androgynous interests. And I realized that Georgina, clearly, could have been related to Penny, or to Niki de St. Phalle, or Jessica Quinn, or Amanda Fielding, all of whom were sculptresses. I seem to collect sculptresses - and actresses. I was always dealing with the female body, you see. Because an actress is taking her female body and becoming somebody different in it. And that's what intrigued me because that's what I wanted to do. I wanted to be that female. And yet also to be a male. Which is, of course, the Jungian Quaternio - those are the four main fragments or archetypes. So, The Risen eventually is about Matthew and John, Cindy and Georgina, who are my four elemental aspects, or familiars. I could write a novel about them - and did.
M2: And then those fragments are mirrored fragments of the original archetype, the scattered fragments of the body of Osiris.
PW: Well, eventually, if you go deeply enough into your own unconscious you arrive back in the ancient mysteries as Eliot knew very well. The Wasteland was based on a book called From Ritual to Romance by Jesse Weston which was an attempt to show that the secret lore, the occulted and hidden knowledge of the ancient mysteries was kept alive in these various traditions. She missed the point, in my opinion. They're not kept alive by the traditions. They are alive, transforming the traditions. They're alive today and they transformed me. What you're doing is gradually unpeeling the layers, going even deeper and deeper. That's if you attempt it, mind you. If you're English, you go the other way and you buy more and more refrigerators. And you acquire more and more masks and personae. You add layers until you reach the point where you become a cold fish.
THE PASSE-PARTOUT OF A POSH ACCENT
M2: Throughout your life and writings there are hints of involvement with the secret state, and in particular with MI6. Have you ever worked for an intelligence agency?
PW: Ah! The question of MI5 and MI6 at last. Ah! The secret agent/serial killer - The Falconer! Well, you know, a lot of people have asked this question, not only because of my past, but because of friendships with people like the international dope runner Howard Marks who was the best man at my wedding. And it's a difficult question to answer, but I'll tell you the truth: the answer is NO. I was never part of MI5 or MI6. But of course I did spend an awful lot of time in very strange places. Now, if you are a falcon, and I am a falcon, you live where there are no people. You live in the mountains. And those mountains where there are no people are usually on the interface between two countries.
So, if you go looking for falcons as I did in Asia you have to be on the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan, or Afghanistan and India. And I was always trying to go up the Karakoram Highway before it was open. And to go up the Khagan Valley when it was closed. And go into Baluchistan. I went into Baluchistan and spent twenty- one days there and came out with four falcons and was stopped by the British Embassy and informed that the last seventeen people who went into the place where I had been had all been shot dead. How was it that I had gone in and come out? And I said, "Well, I went for falcons." Now the weird thing is that all my life I was doing things like this and because of my looks and my accent, you know, having been trained by a British public school to talk quite posh and to hide and conceal my working class background - it meant I always got on well with Arts Council type people, or Embassy people, wherever I went. So people always assumed that I was working for some kind of intelligence service. Well, the British knew I wasn't working for them so they thought I must be working for the Saudis. The Saudis, after talking to the British Embassy then assumed I must be working for the Russians. So everybody assumed that I must be working for somebody else, which worked out well for me because I was then protected. I remember once the guys in this hotel in Pakistan announced one day that I got a ten percent discount. And I asked, "Why? Is it because I've been here for over a month?" And they said, "No, Mr. Whitehead. It's because we know you work for MI5." So, I didn't complain because I was quite happy to get my ten percent discount! But I also had an affair in Pakistan with a Pakistani woman, who, it turned out, her previous boyfriend, who'd been fatally shot, was the head of the CIA's operation in Southeast Asia.
So it was always the fact that I did meet people, and was always in places where I shouldn't have been, doing things I shouldn't have been doing. Even in south Morocco. I went right across Algeria in the middle of the war in this hunting car given me by a Saudi prince and I decided to take it back to England. And we were in southern Algeria and I thought I'd go back to Morocco and pick up some falcons on the way. So I just drew a line on the map and headed in that direction and wound up in the middle of a war! Which I didn't even know was going on there. But somehow or another I got through unscathed. Look - everybody who would have wanted at any point to stop me and question me would have exposed their methods, which they wouldn't have wanted to do if I was working for somebody else. In this fashion I was always protected by all of them! All of them assuming I was working for somebody else. But it was and is completely UNTRUE. If you look back at my films... I was the first person in the West to publish The Bolivian Diary by Che Guevara through Lorrimer Publishing. In the 60's I was investigated completely by the CIA. When I showed my two films in New York - Benefit of the Doubt, about the war in Vietnam, and Tonite Let's All Make Love in London, with Vanessa Redgrave dressed up as a Cuban revolutionary singing "Guantanamera" - I was instantly stung! Are you kidding me?! And the sting operation had to do with planting on me a very beautiful American girl named Emerald Ying. I have used her in my latest novel, Tonite Let's All Make Love in London, which is about this whole sting operation of which I was the victim, as well as others. She was half Chinese and half Negro - she called herself a 'Chegro'. Born in Chicago. And she was presented to me at the press conference at the Lincoln Center for my films.
She came up and told me how she was an air hostess and we got on rather well and she ended up in bed with me that night in my hotel. So we had this torrid affair which went on and on, and I was stupid enough to never quite ask her why the hell an air hostess was at my fucking press conference. I mean, she actually ended up, I remember, in the box with me at Lincoln Center when my two films were shown. The CIA must have been utterly delighted with her work. She then later came to England announcing that she wanted to become a film editor and could she work with me for free! And like an idiot I allowed her to edit all my Columbia footage. I don't know how I quite fell into all this. Very embarrassing, really. It was only later, afterwards, when I had wised up a bit - after all my phones had been bugged at Lorrimer Publishing - that I realized Emerald was CIA. So my novel, Tonite Let's All Make Love in London has two characters - one I call Chuck Kennedy and the other Emerald Ying. And they are actually two CIA agents who come to Britain to disenfranchise the protest movement over here, and they create the myth of "Swinging London". Essentially, it's about how they attempt to co-opt and buy out British culture - which, of course, they succeed in doing.
M2: Thank you, Peter. This has been enlightening.
PW: My pleasure, as always, Robert.
All of Peter Whitehead's films are available for rental from Movie Image, 64 Shattuck Square, Berkeley, CA 94704 (510)649-0296 and The Pacific Film Archive, 2625 Durant Avenue, Berkeley, CA 94704 (510)642-1412
Robert Paul's book on Peter: Ascension: Holographs of a Fallen God, will be published later this year.