Tom Phillips: An Interview

Tom Phillips, who was born in 1937, is a painter, printmaker and collagist, and the creator of ‘A Humument: A Treated Victorian Novel’, which was reviewed by Adam Smyth in the issue of 12 October 2012. The following conversation took place on 16 September 2011 at the South London Gallery, between Phillips (TP), Smyth (AS) and Gill Partington (GP).

AS: Do you have many academic visitors asking you about your work?

TP: Not many come to see me.

GP: Last week I was at a conference about book eating, in Cambridge. One of the speakers was talking about cannibalism and your work: she thought that A Humument was a kind of cannibalism.

TP: Yes, it was cannibalising something. That’s true.

GP: I think she picked up on something you said in the introduction about A Human Document as a feast.

TP: I suppose so. That’s quite good. Since we’re having lunch.

AS: How do you feel about people having these kinds of readings of your work?

TP: There was once a conference about me. Little me. It was in Rouen. All in French. Luckily I speak French. Although I understood French perfectly I couldn’t understand a word they said. It was in the middle of the high structuralist times. It was amazing. The gibberish. They took a text that my mother had written – my mother! About me being a child. This guy spent an hour deconstructing my mother’s writing. Something’s going wrong here. Something’s going wrong. This guy tied these totally different things together. The absurdity of it.

AS: But you like surprising connections?

TP: I love connections, but when they’re not connections, it doesn’t join together. It’s like having magnets pointing the wrong way.

GP: Connection’s a big theme – ‘only connect.’ The different pages connect together. Are those connections somehow in the Mallock text, waiting to be uncovered?

TP: No, I don’t think that for a minute. They’re in the Mallock text waiting to be discovered, but not in an active sense. In a passive or innocent sense. Innocent of what is done to them. What is done to them might enrich them. At least it saved Mallock from obscurity.

GP: Mallock is back in print now. So you’ve revived him.

TP: Well there we are then. Cheers. [glasses clink]

GP: No one would read Mallock now if it wasn’t for A Humument.

TP: Well, he [Mallock] did write a book that is still respected in philosophical circles. But as a novel … he’s not a bad writer. There’s not much in his life, so to speak, that has gristle and muscle. In the end I’ve grown to respect the book quite a lot: the quality of the writing. People wrote very well then [in 1892] anyway. People generally write badly now.

GP: People now will read Mallock after reading A Humument, and so they’re reading Mallock as a secondary text. You’ve become the original.

TP: That’s very intriguing. It would be really nice if someone said ‘I just read A Human Document and it’s the most brilliant novel ever, and it’s absolutely disgraceful that you’ve mucked around with it.’ The copy of A Human Document that Oscar Wilde had in his room also has an interference in it.[*]

GP: What kind?

TP: He spilt some jam on it. The librarian in charge of the Oscar Wilde collection pointed this out. Rather nice, isn’t it? So I’m not the first person to muck around with it. Lots of them have marginalia. Secret love messages in the margins.

AS: What do you feel towards Mallock? Do you feel affection? Do you feel you’ve been involved in a decades' long collaboration?

TP: Well, I owe him rather a lot. I owe him most because his book is jolly good to use. His vocabulary is very large. His syntax is interesting, from my point of view. I’ve looked at other books since, thinking what if it was this book I’d chanced upon, because I did chance upon it, in 1966. And I have a witness, now dead. Ron Kitaj. I said to Ron, ‘I’ll just choose the first book I find for three pence.’ He said, ‘Yeah, yeah.’ So that was the first book I chose. They had a rack of books outside a furniture store.

GP: So you made a rule for yourself.

TP: I’m always making rules. I’m ruled by Mallock.

GP: Do you have rules when you’re making A Humument?

TP: Try and find something good, is the first rule. And the second rule is not to muck about with it. Not to change the place of the page. I’m tied to that. I do little variations but they all scrupulously fall in where they fall. I’m not supposed to cart in loads of stuff from other sources.

GP: Sometimes you use postcards.

TP: Sometimes I use postcards. They belong to me. Anything that belongs to me or that I have done I can reuse. These rules were quite severe at first, but then the first version was open cast mining – finding what I could on the surface.

GP: And now you’re …?

TP: Now I’m going a bit deeper, I think, into me and it. It’s too late to do that again: it’s taken me 45 years to get to this point. I’ve still got a hundred pages to go in the reworking.

GP: Sometimes the original texts comes through a lot. There are pages where Mallock is a kind of ghost. A ghostly presence.

AS: There are other moments when a whole chunk of his text appears continuously. [points to page]

TP: That doesn’t survive in the second version.

[reads] ‘youthful guardsman … water parties ... drawing room … ease at it … armchairs … knickknacks’

GP: It’s filthy in the original.

AS: He knew what he was up to, Mallock.

GP: But that voice – his voice – is quite different to the voice that comes across.

TP: Absolutely. There are many voices. His is one voice.

AS: Is there your voice here? Can we read it in an autobiographical way? At some points you refer in the text to your age at the time of producing the text. Is this in some ways an autobiography?

TP: An autobiography is lodged in it. Yes. I’ll never write an autobiography, so I have an autobiography that appears in this form. Now of course there are other ways like having a blog. So you don’t have to remember things because you write them down at the time. I can’t remember anything anyway. I’ve no idea of past time. Long or short stretches. I’m that far out.

AS: Can I ask about whether you see this as part of a tradition of book-making. You read that Paris Review interview with Burroughs [in 1965].

TP: I went to see Burroughs. The two dead people I got to show this book to: one was Richard Hamilton who died this week; the other was William Burroughs was died earlier on. William Burroughs was very generous in a terrifying kind of way. He said it’s okay, and why wasn’t it science fiction? I had a very tough day with him. Very fierce. Incredible. Fearsome.

AS: But he was really engaging with what you’d produced?

TP: Very much. He was generous in that sense. He took a day out of his life to spend with me. Not that we had lunch or things like that. An entirely bare room with nothing to sit on. Agony, the whole thing.

AS: So Burroughs is one key figure. Are there other key works that you see yourself in relation to?

TP: Everything that’s ever done, yes. I read a lot. I just think one has certain adequacies; one has certain inadequacies. One has certain talents, and one has certain bits that one can’t nourish up to any standard. So I’m not really a poet but my capacity to be as such in exercised in this book.

GP: But you can read it as a poem.

TP: It is a poem. It is a poem. That’s what it is. My poem. It’s as near as I get.

GP: That question about a genre or a tradition you see yourself in. In 1966 when you started A Humument, Jean Rhys published A Wide Sargasso Sea.

TP: A connection.

GP: Are you like Jean Rhys, rewriting a Victorian novel? Is that a tradition you’re in?

TP: That’s a horrible book anyway. It’s a remake.

GP: But is your book a similar kind of remaking?

TP: I think that theory is … up a gum tree.

AS: Can I ask you about two other texts? Have you seen Jonathan Safran Foer’s The Tree of Codes?

TP: Jonathan! Jonathan came to see me about ten years ago. He said he really liked A Humument; he said he wanted to meet the maker thereof. Very likeable guy. We spent a bit of time chatting about it, which I’m not very interested in doing: I do it, you know; you can’t really be interested in what you do. You do what you do, and that’s more interesting. I said, you’re a small Jewish novelist. You must play ping-pong. They all do. He said, yeah, yeah. I said, I’ve a studio geared for international ping-pong round the corner. Then he said, how much? What do you mean how much? He said, how much do you bet on yourself to beat me? I said, we don’t do that in England. I sounded like Mallock: ‘That’s not how we behave in England.’ So we did have a game and I beat him of course.

AS: What do you think of The Tree of Codes?

TP: It’s a bit painful because … He didn’t half borrow from me! It’s clever, isn’t it? I wouldn’t want to look at it, would you?

AS: I read it last night and it’s quite a labour. Just the material process of reading it, because you have to hold each page at a particular angle.

TP: It doesn’t invite me in.

AS: And there’s no humour.

TP: Humour isn’t a big thing with the Safran Foer work. Vegetarianism is more of a big thing. And he’s got a dog as big as a horse. That spoilt our last game of ping-pong in Brooklyn. He’s nice. His brother’s nice, too. His mum and dad, who I looked after in Princeton last year, they’re nice.

AS: Can I ask you about another text from 1630?

TP: I don’t know him, nor his mum and dad.

AS: This is made at Little Gidding, the religious community in the 1630s, who bought printed gospels and cut them up and reordered the text to iron out the differences between the different lives of Christ. [shows an image of a cut-and-paste Gospel Harmony]

TP: I’ve never seen this before.

AS: It seemed to me quite like what you’re up to.

GP: Did you ever come across another Peckham artist, John Latham?

TP: Of course, of course, I know him well. Knew him well.

GP: Did you talk to him much about books?

TP: Like most artists I meet, we talked about money, women, publishers, things that are wrong in the world, the Royal Academy.

GP: But he never belonged to the Royal Academy.

TP: He was never invited, through no fault of mine. John Latham was almost our most famous obscure artist.

GP: The book was a big motif in his work, and he spent a lot of time dismembering books. Are there any parallels between him and your work?

TP: No. No. His was a sculptural thing. An attitude. I don’t have an attitude.

GP: You don’t have an attitude?

TP: He had an attitude, to culture, to life. An attitude that faces up towards lots of things in life: politics and stuff. I don’t. Apart from when I was a child knowing that the Young Conservatives in Clapham, where I grew up, had a much better ping-pong table than Young Labour, and that made me a member of the Young Conservatives for quite a time. Priorities.

GP: How would you characterise your outlook, then? When I read A Humument is seems mischievous and it seems funny.

TP: If life isn’t funny, then what is it? It’s either fucking tragic, or hilarious.

GP: But it’s mischievous in a way that makes a point. There are things you want to talk about and you bring to life from the Mallock text. It’s very sexual.

TP: The Mallock text is very sexual: it’s a battened down aspect to the book. They do have sex: it’s hardly perceptible.

GP: But you want to make it very perceptible.

TP: Well sex is interesting. It’s ceased to be of interest to me now, which is in itself interesting. It occupies one’s attention for certain periods of one’s life i.e. most of it. But it wasn’t a mentionable topic [in 1892]: there was no way of dealing with it, for him. Either in his life, or in his work. I have a large collection of other books by W.H. Mallock. If you ever need to read him or consult him.

GP: Do you enjoy reading him?

TP: I haven’t really read one, to be frank. I haven’t even read A Human Document, as book.

GP: So when you bought it, you started work on it straight away?

TP: I found things of interest in it. I didn’t realise it would go on so long. I’m still doing it.

GP: Will it ever be finished?

TP: I’ve got a hundred pages to go in the new edition. So I’ve either got to speed up, because I’ve not got time to live, or I have to slow down, because by the time I’ve finished, I shall lose some of the urgency to carry on living.

AS: What’s the relationship between the early editions and the later ones? I have the 1980 one here. Do the later editions supersede the earlier ones?

TP: Every edition adds new pages.

GP: But how do you decide which pages to revise?

TP: Something springs up or it doesn’t. With about five exceptions I could do better.

GP: Is there a definitive edition? Could this go on for ever?

TP: It could, but the guy doing it couldn’t. He’s amazed himself going on this far. The definitive edition would be an old-fashioned variorum edition, with all the fragments, all the bits I’ve used on postcards, all brought together.

AS: You can imagine that kind of edition working well online. You began A Humument in the 1960s and now today there are digital possibilities for publishing. Can you say something about the app, and what possibilities the app presents?

TP: The app’s even better. It’s better than the book.

GP: Why?

TP: Because the pages have not gone yellow.

GP: But isn’t A Humument an object, a material thing, something we need to hold in our hands?

AS: Don’t we lose something with the app?

TP: It’s different. It like church windows: brighter, better, cleaner. That’s how we like the world to be.

GP: But don’t you like paper?

TP: Of course I do. That’s obvious from my house. But I like these other things, too. I like the app. I wouldn’t mind a film of it.

AS: Can I ask you about the humour? When I read A Humument, my most frequent reaction is to laugh.

TP: That’s the kind of person I’m trying to avoid. [laughs] It’s a serious piece.

AS: Could you say a little about the humour – how it works? The humour and the sex overlap a lot. I wrote down a couple of lines I particularly liked. ‘Evening Arthur, calm your member.’ That was a good one.

TP: ‘Evening Arthur, calm your member.’

AS: And then: ‘A month in Yorkshire with Stanley’s rear.’ That’s great. I’d call my autobiography that. Is the humour to do with having that 1892 Mallock register produce these surprising phrases?

TP: Exactly. You won’t remember the music hall. The reference in music hall was always to serious things. There was a man who used to do an act called ‘Brush up your Shakespeare.’ It was fed by culture. Things are sort of divided now, so rubbish is entirely rubbish. For the first time in my experience.

AS: So music hall was a popular mode that had these high cultural references.

TP: Absolutely. Even historical references. Very sophisticated. [sings] ‘As I walk along the Bois Boolong with an independent air, I can hear the girls declare, he must be a millionaire, I’m the man that broke the bank in Monte Carlo.’ There is a lot of reference in that, already. [sings] ‘I’m Henry the Eighth I am, Henry the Eighth I am, I am …’ It’s a referential world. So the world is rich. The world is rich when it refers to itself all the time.

AS: Does music hall live on anywhere now?

TP: There are good stand-up comedians, brilliant comedians. The most brilliant thing I saw, better than music hall, was The Life of Brian. Also done by friends of mine. Terry Jones is a very close friend. I’ve played ping-pong with every one of Pythons, except the one who died.

GP: You’ve played ping-pong with every famous person.

AS: Are you more forehand or backhand in ping-pong?

TP: I have to be very sly because I can’t move very quickly. I increase in artfulness as I lose in movement.

GP: If you played Mallock in ping-pong who would win?

TP: [pause] Would he cheat? It hardly existed in his day. It was called whim-wham or wiff-waff. It was invented around his time in the clubs of India by people playing with a cigar box and champagne cork. Mallock would have a firm game. He’d have a polished game.

GP: If you could have a conversation with Mallock, what would you say? What would you make of him? You said before [in the introduction to A Humument] you thought he seems unpleasant.

TP: He does. I said that then. I said that in 1966. Now I’d say he was bruised.

GP: It seems you have more respect for him now.

TP: I do. I have more time for people who have lived their life and it hasn’t turned out as they hoped.

AS: How was he bruised?

TP: He had a big affair, which is reflected in A Human Document. And other books. And it was impossible for him, because he was locked into the aristocratic breed that he was. Although he ended up an isolated figure, with just one manservant, dying nowhere at all and buried inconspicuously in 1926. So yes, I feel sorrow for him. I’m more sympathetic to life’s elderly losers than I used to be.

GP: You revise the text to reflect current events, don’t you?

TP: Like 9/11. On the app. That was a good one, wasn’t it?

GP: So it is continually updating.

AS: How do readers read your book? Do you have a sense of how readers will consume this? In a linear way?

TP: I thought I guided them to do exactly as I wished them to do.

GP: What about the stuff that isn’t text? Because it’s not just reading. It’s using the images, too.

TP: One feeds the other. What would you do?

GP: I was immediately struck here by this illustration. [shows page of phallic image]

TP: That’s nothing to do with me. That’s you. That’s your mind. That’s your problem.

GP: But it is a book in which you ask the reader to do a lot. Things they wouldn’t do if they were reading the Mallock.

TP: I think they’d find the Mallock harder work.

GP: This is reading of a different order. [shows page] There’s text, there’s image. There’s a kind of synaesthesia; it tries to involve all the senses. You’re trying to expand the book and also to get the reader to interact with it in a different way.

TP: I hope they enjoy it, that’s all. And buy it. Buy it folks!

AS: Do you think, in terms of novels in the last thirty, forty years, that A Humument has had a big influence? Can you sees its ripples in other works? In mainstream books?

TP: Not really, no. Should I? I don’t think so.

GP: Is the treated novel an isolated thing?

TP: As far as I know it’s the only one. I can’t think of another one. And when I started there wasn’t anything of the kind at all. Nothing.

GP: There are quite a few pages that look like comics. [shows page]

TP: Made of comics. Made of. American comics I’ve used there. It’s about Mr Bush, isn’t it? [point to page] I was influenced by American comics in 1944, 1945. We used to get food parcels from America in the war; even after the war. My aunt was American. She used to wrap the things in American comics, which I and my brother latched on to very quickly. The first artwork I ever did was a copy of the cover of a Batman comic, DC comics 31 it so happens. Which I love. The batcave. Batmobile. Still pretty good image, I think. The colours are beautiful. The writing’s nice. There’s quite a lot of that influence. I’m paying back my respect to the idea of the comic now. We try our best. Wonderful quote from Henry James that I’m working on at the moment: ‘We work in the dark. We do what we can. We give what we have. The rest is the madness of art.’

AS: How are you working on that quote now?

TP: Mucking about with it. Making a film. Writing music. It writes itself. [sings]

AS: You’ve done other musical objects?

TP: November 1st. Covent Garden. Premiere. Heart of Darkness. Your favourite novella. What more could you want?

GP: How are you creating the libretto for Heart of Darkness?

TP: From the words of Joseph Conrad. Faithfully and religiously.

GP: How do you define faithfully?

TP: Not a word in the libretto doesn’t come from his book.

GP: Is it a process of excision?

TP: Yes, it is excision. The libretto is a fiftieth of the length of the book.

GP: Do you start with the page, like in A Humument?

TP: There’s nothing arty about it.

GP: That’s good to know.

AS: I wanted to ask about terminology. You call this a ‘treated’ Victorian novel. I was looking at the app, and there are lots of moments when you talk about ‘revealing’ a story, and ‘doctoring’ books. What does ‘treated’ mean?

TP: Treated is changed. I’ve changed it in this way. And I give it a treat as well. [long pause]

AS: Do you play ping-pong every day?

TP: I can’t find enough people. I play twice a week.

AS: Is there any ping-pong in A Humument?

TP: Alas, no. Mallock does not give me any opportunity to talk about ping-pong.

GP: So there are restrictions to the process, to what you can say in A Humument?

TP: Oh yes. But you can get an awful lot out that you didn’t think you could. But you don’t cheat. If you cheat, you might as well … forget it.

GP: What constitutes cheating?

TP: Shunting things around. Making them convenient.

AS: Is that out of a respect for Mallock?

TP: It’s a way of making things hard. Like the man who writes the novels never using the letter ‘e’. As soon as he uses the letter ‘e’ he’s finished. Forget it. Throw it away.

GP: So rules are productive for you. They're not restrictive.

AS: No more than rhyme is, no? Rhyme releases you.

GP: I wanted to ask about this page. [holds up a burnt page, the edges browned]

TP: Yes, that’s gone the way of all flesh now. It belongs to another concept. Concept it a nasty word: it belongs to another idea. Finding ways in which the world will treat a book. Fire, wind, air, rain, snow. But I couldn’t do that.

GP: Why?

TP: I didn’t have the time.

GP: But this [points to page] is destruction. Destruction’s not what you think of yourself as doing?

TP: I’ve no interest in destruction at all. Why would I want to destroy a book? Even though I’ve eaten 11 or 12 copies of A Human Document, which are now taken apart, never to be seen again.

GP: Did you set fire to this yourself?

TP: It’s quite nice but it doesn’t fit the idea of the book. It’s no longer there [in later editions]. Don’t worry about it.

AS: How long do you work at a single page?

TP: Couple of months. Or, 4 or 5 hours. Both a couple of months and 4 or 5 hours. [pause] I like the Little Gidding pages. Can I have them?

AS: Yes, of course. Have you written straight fiction, short stories?

TP: Proper writing?

AS: I was avoiding the word ‘proper’.

TP: I wrote a novel, like everybody wrote a novel, luckily its unfindable by anyone. A poor man’s Graham Greene. Who wants to be that? Although he did write one of the best books of the 20th century.

AS: What’s that?

TP: The Quiet American. There are four great short 20th-century novels. The Quiet American. Heart of Darkness. Death in Venice. The Turn of the Screw. Three have become operas now. Grab the rights while you can to the one that hasn’t. I sing every day. My friend Brian, Brian Eno, he says sing every day, and he’s absolutely right.

GP: Have you ever played ping-pong with Brian Eno?

TP: With Brian? We played a game called piano tennis, which we invented. We had an old piano in Ipswich, I was talking about John Cage. Preparing the pianos. So you bought four or five old pianos, took them apart, exposed the working. Then we played hand tennis, and the scores were given for how good the sounds were. I don’t think he plays ping-pong.

GP: He’s got a similar relationship to rules in his music, hasn’t he?

TP: Where do you think he got that? Where do you think he got that? [laughs] Brian’s very bright. He’s the only decent student I ever had. I used to teach. Gave it up as soon as I could. [pause] I’m a games player. My work is a kind of game. A serious game. Life’s a very serious game. And all things in it are, too. Just as we talked about the rules, what game's worth playing that doesn’t have any rules? They always do.

GP: Does W.H. Mallock supply the rules for A Humument?

TP: He has influence over the book, except that he supplies the material. He conditions the book entirely but doesn’t have any influence over it. They’re not the same thing.

GP: You see no limit to the amount of things you can do with the Mallock?

TP: He’s never put up any struggle. In all these years. It’s amazing. It amazes me.

GP: Do you think it’s a special kind of book?

TP: We’re not in Harry Potter times. It’s not a magic book. There’s no destiny. But 9/11. Just look at that page, on your app. [TP starts miming playing the piano.]

GP: Do you play the piano?

TP: I play the table awfully well. [pause] When do you intend this interview to come out, to be published?

GP: Next year, we hope.

TP: Should I live that long, I shall see it.

GP: I’m sure you will.

[*] Not in fact A Human Document, but The New Republic, or Culture, Faith and Philosophy in an English Country House (1877).