The Falconer: The Three Lives of Peter Whitehead
by Gareth Evans and Ben Slater
My father died when I was very young, so I was severed from maleness. I lived with my mother, this funny working class lad. I went to a public school having been sent there by a Labour government. I lost my father, my mother, my background. I lost everything, to be sent into this world of privilege. I arrived there and I was actually ‘top’ from the day I got there to the day I left. All the psychological things predetermined that I would always question reality.
I finally won a scholarship to Cambridge. I was conned. I really wanted to do English Literature but I was forced to do Science. I tried to change and it was refused. But I spent the first year in the theatre with the likes of Peter Cook and Derek Jacobi. The second year I spent writing for the university newspaper (I was offered a job at The Guardian and turned it down, believe it or not). The third year I decided to take up painting (and sculpture) and won a scholarship to the Slade. I got a third [class degree] or something which wasn’t bad, considering what I’d been through. I had two daughters by then, and Christ Almighty, God knows what else. I then formed a company called Interglobal Invested Services and spent a year selling mutual funds.
I finally went off to the Slade to paint, but I took one look at all the painters and gave it up. I joined the film department which had just opened and didn’t have any students at all. They had a Bolex which I took off the shelf and started filming, and from then on I was making films.
The first one I made was a documentary for the Nuffield Foundation called The Perception of Life. I was asked to do it because I had studied science. I filmed through the microscopes the scientists had used, and the whole purpose of the film is to show that our theories of what living matter is or is not depend entirely on the limits of the technology. I showed that there is always a microscope between you and the outside world, and my microscope was the camera.
It established right from the beginning that there is no such thing as objectivity, which is why in The Fall I put myself in it, and I do believe, he said modestly, that it is absolutely the first totally post-modern film. It’s about transparency, subjectivity, the apparently objective image. People have said it was narcissistic, which I think is very unfair.
You were obviously very into Godard and all those Brechtian devices.
Godard was a great influence. He had this gift of creating the fictional narrative which I didn’t have. I couldn’t reach the point of accepting the fake situation of the actor. I could not accept the lie of the act, but I can when I write.
There must have been an enormous sculpting process to put The Fall together.
I went to New York with two films, Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London and Benefit Of The Doubt. Tonite was a success and somebody emerged out of the woodwork and said, “Would you like to stay in New York and make a film called Tonite Let’s All Make Love In New York?” I said, “Yeah.” I started shooting loads of things. I wanted to shoot protests, and Andy Warhol, and it wasn’t going to cost very much. I then came up with the central idea that the ultimate act of protest has to be when you kill someone on film. This was related to a film I’d seen a long time ago. Everything I ever thought about film was determined by a single experience at Cambridge when I saw a film shot by a Nazi cameraman in the Warsaw Ghetto and he filmed a child digging for food. One thing I could not comprehend is how anyone could stand there and film something so horrific with detachment. In other words how he could be objective, how he could surrender his subjectivity at that moment, and that wounded me forever.
Anyway I came up with the idea of this symbolic assassination, and I decided to write a fictional story incorporating the documentary material about a guy who is making a protest film, decides that it’s going to be a whitewash, and that the only thing he can actually do is to commit a real act of murder at a protest rally and film it.
I wrote this script called The Fall and then I went to Washington and had a press show for Tonite. Everybody loved the film, we all went off to a swanky party and then someone walked in and said, “I’m terribly sorry but I have some terrible news. Martin Luther King has just been shot.” Well, everyone just started to weep, and the next thing is Washington is burning, so I rush off to New York the next day thinking, my God, he’s been assassinated and there’s me trying to make a film about an assassination, so I start filming the aftermath.
Then I think how do I incorporate all this? And then Columbia University gets occupied so I rush off to Columbia and start filming that. By the time I finished this it was late April and I’m back in my flat in New York thinking about what the fuck I’m going to do next. I’ve got all this film, 12-15 hours of the occupation of the University, and I didn’t know what to do with it. So then I put some of it into the lab and it gets wiped. I’m then informed that the CIA are after my film because I was inside Columbia, so I hid it all in a fridge, and I gave my driver 75 dollars to get me a gun. He came back and said, “Listen, Peter, my advice is go.” And I suddenly thought, fucking hell he’s right. We got on a plane, got off it at Heathrow and Bobby Kennedy had been shot. So I arrived with Martin Luther King and ended with Bobby Kennedy.
So I rent a studio from someone down in Chelsea, which I did up as a New York apartment, and started to shoot all the scenes with Alberta Tiburzi to make it all make sense. At the end of this I had a complete nervous breakdown and didn’t speak to anyone for three months. I was very lucky to have survived all that because I was in Sardinia with Alberta at the time and tried to drown myself. Anyway, I came back and in a way I put myself together by putting The Fall together. I started with the image, went into the word, went into the breakdown, the collapse when everything is reduced to zero and then the final section when you have word and image, you have the Columbia rebellion. Every time I tried to invent fiction, fact took over. So in the end that was the movie.
I am not capable of experiencing the real, and never have been, which is why I have had such an amazing life. I have lived out a life of total fantasy. I have lived out Alphaville and Orphée. I was created by my experience of them. I dreamt movies, I worshipped them. I even married a Swedish girl so I could come to terms with Bergman. I published Alphaville [a translation of the screenplay]. It was the only way of freeing myself. It would have killed me. It did kill me. The only way I could escape it was to publish the fucking thing as a book. Only when it was there as a book on the table was I able to say, “I’m free.” I had a nervous breakdown because I had become film. I could not walk down the street without editing, panning, zooming. I couldn’t fuck anyone without deciding that they had to be a star in a movie. I reached a point where I thought the camera was joining me to experience, and allowing me to live out the problem of being haunted forever by movies, and realised of course that it was the very thing that was severing me, standing between me and it. So I gave it up totally and went into falcons.
But you did make two more films: Daddy and Fire In The Water.
They were both sort of after-thoughts or non-films in my estimation. Daddy was a sort of tying up, Fire in the Water was a mistake. I got persuaded to do it. I don’t see it as one of my films.
We were thinking about the feminine and the dynamic between falcons and women that runs through all your artworks. Do you see it as inevitable that Daddy and Baby Doll happened at the time you were starting the falconry in earnest?
No, that started with Penny Slinger [PW’s sculptress lover in the late Sixties and early Seventies], but I agree that I have been as obsessed with the feminine image as I have with the falcons. They are clearly related, they are both to do with anima, or Isis if you like. The moment I trap a falcon I enter the female mysteries. Now, my women have, with very few exceptions, always been sculptresses or actresses, always a female who is outside her body seeking to inhabit it. They don’t live in their own body, they make the sculptures, or they act as if they are someone else. You can fuck them as somebody else, or you can fuck them as a sculpture. The real person is unfuckable anyway, let’s face it. I always wanted to be a sculptor, and that was due to this. [PW points to a picture on the wall of the statue that transfixed him in the Louvre when he was 19.] It is two things: a falcon and a sculpture. When I was at Cambridge I spent a year trying to sculpt and so either I buy sculptures, or I meet someone who is an actress and a dancer and I film them and that’s a moving sculpture, or I live with a sculptress creating a female body outside themselves, a holographic image, their double.
In all aspects of your work you seem to play off different dualities: interior and exterior, science and art, male and female.
I think I’m schizophrenic, or at least schizoid. It is all to do with that dualism. I do believe part of the problem is trying to reconcile the two. We never can. My symbol is the Caduceus [two serpents entwined]. I am always living out this doubling, this question of what it is that haunts the body.
This is very important to me now. I was never aware of haunting before but I was aware I was possessed by the hidden text, and the only thing you can do is either surrender to it and become a total victim, or try and become conscious of it. There’s no way out, no respite to this quest, because that’s life, the gout de l’infini that’s my obsession.
Baby Doll happened around the same time as Daddy and has this private theatre, just as in all the novels. There’s also a theatre outside in your garden.
Well, for me sexuality is theatre. Pornography, porno-graphus, is the dance of the sacred dancing girl. For me the sacred prostitute is the ultimate image, nothing more beautiful. It’s theatre. You’ve got to make it interesting otherwise it’s just ejaculating into a glorified incubator. And what would Isis think if I called her that, she’d throw me out of the temple and say, “Listen old boy, I go to all this trouble, I’m learning to dance, I’m training all these priestesses, I’ve got all these prostitutes to turn you on and all you want is to fucking well fertilise me. I mean, come on!”
When you photographed Baby Doll was there an intention to publish it?
I was going to do it in honour of Mia. I was going to call it I am Mia am I, and it was going to be a graphic novel about how she is outside her body and then she goes into the box, the theatre, the frame of the photograph where she plays out the whole problem of her sexual identity, as to whether she should be the virginal little girl, or the whore. She’s the victim of the voyeuristic gaze of course, but she’s enjoying it.
I showed the photographs to people and they were shocked, speechless. I always thought it was a fucking bore I hadn’t published them. I saw stuff coming out and I thought, “I did that in 1972.” Then James Williamson [editor at Creation Books] said that they’re still very disturbing. They may or may not be erotic but James wanted to do it and I thought, “In a way it does relate to my work, and what have I got to lose?” But I did have second thoughts about it. I wasn’t entirely sure.
Were you interested in Egyptian mythology when your interest in falconry began?
It started in Cambridge and I was immersed for ten years in Egyptology, but not terribly seriously because I was interested in all these other boring things like making movies. It was only in 1969 when I met Penny Slinger and I’d finished The Fall, it was being shown at the ICA and it hadn’t changed anything. I decided to give it all up. Film-making was a total stupid waste of time. Anyway, when I was a kid I fell in love with a kestrel. It was a total mystery to me because it could hover, not going from A to B but outside of time. As an eight-year old I used to follow and trap them.
It was a passion, an obsession. When I get obsessed with something I find out everything about it. I thought, “Why on earth don’t I get a falcon now?” I rang this guy up and he said, “Yeah, I’ve got some falcons from Morocco and India.” It was in this scruffy little basement in Dalston Lane, London and I bought a red-headed Merlin, for £7 and I called him Aten, after Akhenaten. By October I’d been to Scotland trying to trap falcons and I ended up in Morocco, having persuaded somebody to give me some money to make a film which was called Asylum, which needed to have some filming there. So I went in this funny minivan which I had, and I blacked the windows and I had a mattress inside, and I trapped falcons, lived with falcons. It was an absolutely incredible experience.
How did you manage to survive and go on for twelve years? Was that the period when you were smuggling eggs?
That’s an important point. Yes, I did. I was known as the British Connection in a series of scams including a huge falcon bust-up in America which I managed to escape. But I didn’t do it for the money. I had one intention: to build up the largest falcon breeding programme in England, which I had done by the time I left for Arabia, with fifty falcons. In the end I had the Arab connection. They were very nice. I’d say to Prince Abdullah, “I just want to go up to Pakistan again,” and he’d say, “How much is it going to cost this time, Peter?” And I’d say, “Well, I just need a couple of thousand.” Everywhere I went, especially in Pakistan, people thought I worked for MI5. I drove around in a Landrover which I bought from British Defence and I left all the numbers on it. I used to drive up to checkpoints and they’d wave me through. I had a lot of fun in Pakistan. I nearly got shot a dozen times during the period of martial law, but I was definitely protected by the CIA in Pakistan because they always assumed I was working for Intelligence. Actually, I was just trapping falcons. I finally built the falconry centre in Saudi Arabia in 1982. I had a salary but was still making a living selling bits of the films.
How does the falconry relate to the statue you saw in the Louvre, and how conscious were you at that point of your life project, this mythic journey onwards?
I have spent the whole of my life coming to terms with what it was that possessed me that day in Paris, that bronze-headed sculpture, the falcon-headed man. The point is that his eyes have been gouged out. They were jewels but they were stolen. He’s actually Tiresias because Tiresias [the blind seer of the ancient world] was a priest, and all the priests in ancient Egypt were shamans. I began to realise that I was on a shamanistic trip. I’m the type who could very easily become a shaman because of the death of my father, my androgyny and my oedipal background. I was chosen. The shaman is always chosen by one of two things, his totemic animal or a beautiful woman. My entire life has been the pursuit of the falcon and that beautiful woman, Dido Goldsmith, whom I finally found, and married.
No doubt about it, I have lived out my myth, the myth of the opening of the all-seeing third eye, which is what happens when Isis copulates with the live body of her dismembered husband Osiris and gives birth to Horus the falcon. I am Horus. I have lived out becoming Horus. I have copulated with falcons. I replaced one all-seeing eye – the camera – for another. The only difference was that one was pursuing the illusion of the outside world while the other was pursuing the illusion of the interior. My novel The Risen is a symbolic autobiography of the whole process, the essence of the Egyptian mysteries, the paradigm of cosmo-genesis or the birth of human consciousness.
Do you see Egyptian mythology as a uniquely advanced form compared to other structures?
Totally. They knew what it was about, going the whole way. If we do not return to their vision of Isis we will remain dismembered, in pieces. We will always be Osiris.
It’s not too hard to see that in your own personal journey there have been moments when you have been dismembered. There’s the schooling, the breakdown of The Fall, the cliff-accident searching for falcons, your recent operation.
That was the ultimate dismemberment. The shaman, when he makes his trip, is always dismembered. He goes up the tree, flies off as Horus out of linear time and comes back with the Soma, or the soul or the clairvoyance and has to put himself back together. He takes a risk every time he makes a trip. He is Hermes, he is hermetic. The Falconer is the wanderer, the wandering falcon. The peregrine is known as the pilgrim falcon in all languages. And what is he looking for? God, or the sacred, or the opening of the third eye. He’s always looking for a resolution of his own dismemberment. It’s the journey you see.
It seems that in lots of ways you’ve been constantly reinventing yourself, reassembling yourself. As you say in Pulp Election, “Fact and fact copulate to make fiction.” This is the dialectic of these constant dismemberments, this new form, new life from The Fall to The Risen. If we see your life as being in three stages, the films, the falconry and the writing, then perhaps the falconry was this shamanic journey, and the novels are you bringing the wisdom back.
But the irony is that, although I lived out a reality structured by the unconscious, and I was pursuing my myth, the only real thing I have ever experienced was trapping falcons. It was a retreat into the world.
But out of the social world.
When you’re up in the arctic and there’s twenty square miles of ice and there’s one falcon, and you trap it and it’s minus twenty degrees, you are touching the real world.
Do you have any falcons still?
No. After spending ten years with the falcon as an image, twenty years with it as a reality and then having lost my falcon centre, due to circumstances of the Gulf War I then decided it was correct to turn the energy inwards again. I’ve had to deny myself the pleasure of the falcon. If I get a falcon again I’ve had it. I am a… What’s the word?
Exactly, which is another aspect of the peregrinage, the pilgrimage story. I’m having to do it now. If I wasn’t married with four daughters, I’d definitely be living alone in a hut in the mountains, probably with a goshawk, or a peregrine. But what has happened is the only way of writing, doing the things that I’m doing and be a father and a husband. To have given up the falcons is a necessary step. The energy has gone inward again. Have I told you I have worked with a shaman in Pakistan? The most important thing, after meeting that sculpture, was meeting the shaman Kamal Sahib in Lahore. He was an illiterate mapmaker, but he used to see the president three times a week and advise him. He could tell you to the minute what would happen. When he met me he just told me things. I can’t go into all this because it’s too crackers, but I worked with this guy and he explained everything. Everything I’m living now is thanks to him. He changed my life. He put me in touch with my life in ancient Egypt, but that’s a whole side I can’t talk about yet. All this is lies. All this is a facade, but if you do a good job on this I’ll tell you the real story, which is all about my former life, and working with Kamal Sahib.
I write novels because I have read Nightwood by Djuna Barnes, Nadja by Andre Breton, Narziss and Goldmund by Herman Hesse, and The Man Who Died by DH Lawrence. I love holding a book, I love books as objects, I have a vast collection many of which I’ve never read. They are just beautiful objects. It’s a fetish. I haven’t read many books but the ones that I’ve read have absolutely possessed me, destroyed me, haunted me, and it takes time to deal with them. You can’t go on reading them, you end up releasing yourself, or I do by creating them. It really is a sort of channeling, a possession, a voice from the past. The word for me is a magical process, seeing things emerge on the white page. With the images I’m sucked in, but with the writing I strive to escape. It’s that rising out of it with words. I’m not a wordsmith like Iain Sinclair. I don’t find it that easy to put words together. I just write all my novels straight through from A to Z. I’ve got ten novels sitting in my office all of which are in the third or fourth or fifth draft incarnations. I don’t publish a book until somebody is prepared to publish it. Mirabilis read Pulp Election and to my surprise they were prepared to publish that. But in the end time was running out and I wanted it absolutely in time for this year’s Booker prize so I did it myself. And that was pretty prophetic with all the plagiarism.
But you originally based it on the David Lodge thing.
That was my initial trigger years ago, but I’m fascinated by plagiarism. I think the rational mind plagiarises the unconscious, or the other way round. Plagiarism is also incest, plagiarism is to do with accessing the hidden text. It’s to do with the occult. There are lots and lots of resonances. David Lodge was doing a series of articles about ‘literature’ in the newspaper and it came round to plagiarism. He used it is an opportunity to expose a Mills and Boon novel called The Iron Master, as being a plagiarism of his novel, Nice Work, and Mills and Boon sacked the author. She then wrote and pointed out to Mr. Lodge that his novel was a plagiarism of North and South by Elizabeth Gaskill, as was hers. She sued him and he lost. I read her book and thought it was infinitely better than his. Anyway I loved all this because I’m interested in the pulp archetypes, Mills And Boon and the detective novels. To me it seems very significant that when you work out how many books are actually published and read in this country about eighty percent are romance novels. I was trying to find a way of dealing with the David Lodge thing and then I thought it’s got to be the political manifesto, because that’s my theory, that Mills And Boon is really the conservative manifesto.
There’s also some of that Brontë stuff in Pulp Election, isn’t there?
Yes. Another novel that I’ve written is called Brontëgate, again an expose of the English unconscious and the archetypal female. I do believe all that, that Charlotte plagiarised Emily’s second novel and called it Shirley. Anyway, I’m thinking of doing it now as a movie. It’s about the love affair between Charlotte and Emily, and I’m thinking now of going out to shoot it on digital video. I might well be making movies again, in the old way. I’ve only got time, I think, for one more new novel, called Tonite Let’s All Make Love In London, which is another Milton Crookshank mystery, investigating the Sixties. It’s going to be a lot of fun I think. He is set up to trap a couple of CIA agents who’ve been sent here to dis-inform the British protest movement.
Was Pulp Election your first Milton Crookshank book. Where did he come from?
That’s me, the true me. The Risen is based on a poem by Ted Hughes which he sent me as a present on the 25 March 1970, the day I hatched my very first falcon egg. It hatched at five in the morning and I went downstairs to the post and there was the poem. We live out our own myths. The Risen is about coincidences, about the coincidence of three events, but they are not coincidences because they are the same event. Matthew and John are the same person. In fact, Matthew, John, Cindy and Georgina are the same person. They’re me, they are my four archetypes. When I sat down to write it in 1987 I was living in Arabia, on the highest mountain in the east, copulating with falcons. I hadn’t read a book for 10 years, seen a movie for two years. I just thought, I’m going right back to square one, to Night-Trip [a screenplay written in 1969 about a crystallographer, the narrative genesis of the novel]. I’d finished it and published The Risen before I’d heard about the Internet. The whole idea of all the images coming up on the screen, as they do in the novel, is a sort of precursor to the net. In fact, I started writing it before I’d even got a computer. That was totally clairvoyant, the notion of that whole virtual reality. John is this virtual self. What I’m trying to do to you the reader is to erode away your rationality by exposing you to these things. I’m trying to initiate you into the only things John can give you, his texts, and see how you respond to them. I’m interested in the relationship of the text to the unconscious and I think that’s why I have to put them up on the screen. I hope ten people go off and make a version of The Risen with DV cameras and sell a million copies on bootleg. I wouldn’t care a fuck about it. I could be dead tomorrow. Art has to be about giving. You have to be generous. You just input it into the cultural evolution and you hope that it will interact in some way with other people’s minds. You cease to have any control and power. This is why I feel so strongly about the David Lodge thing. If someone rewrites The Risen or Pulp Election it’s an unbelievable compliment. I mean, what a wimp, typical little arrogant shit, teaching at a university, getting up every day saying he knows all the answers. A Catholic, for God’s sake, a fucking Catholic! Don’t get me onto that.
I will now tell you the ultimate story. Have I told you about the moment of my heart attack? I hope this will disturb you. On Friday 2 August 1996 I had dinner with Robert Bauval [a leading Egyptologist]. I’d been ill all week but thought it was stress. At 11 o’clock I was going to walk back but I was too weak, so Robert drove me to my little flat in Battersea. I went to bed and at 5.30 in the morning I had a heart attack. I was in and out of death and consciousness for ninety minutes. I managed to get to the hospital and by a miracle I’m saved. Anyway, two days later Robert arrives in the hospital with a beautiful piece of stone from the Sphinx. Three pieces had just been chipped out from the hidden chamber and he brought one as a present knowing I’d had the attack. What we’d been talking about before was his new software programme where you can punch in any specific date from 25000 BC to 25000 AD and it will tell you the position of the stars at the moment of dawn in Giza, Egypt. For the ancient Egyptians everything was determined by this, and of course there is a star for Isis and one for Osiris. Now, the copulation of Isis and Osiris in the heavens gives birth to Horus, and Horus as a bird is represented by the helical rising of Sirius, and that is the most important moment in the Egyptian calendar. So I said, “Would you punch in 5.30 am on the day of my heart attack?” He came back three days later with the printout, with the position of the stars in Giza at 5.34, which was obviously the moment I’d had my heart attack, and it was the helical rising of Isis. The one day and the one minute. I said, “What are the chances of that?” He said, “1 in 14 billion.” The very second I had my heart attack was the moment of the birth of Horus the falcon and it is there on the star map. How do you explain that?
You can’t. You just go with it, don’t you?
I know I have died, and I know that to have a heart attack is to see this thing disintegrate. And next time, if I don’t reach the hospital, I shall be dead, gone, forever. Having worked with Kamal Sahib, however, I do believe there’s something else. I know. I have proof. When Sinclair has done his film [The Falconer] and I’ve written Tonite, and everyone’s sitting around bleating away about how at last they’re getting an image of this funny bloke from the Sixties, I’m going to publish the truth, and it is very weird indeed. I can’t do it yet because people would just say it’s a total fantasy, but when I’ve established everything else, if I ever do, then I will publish a book which will be called either The Falconer or Once out of nature.
Once I’ve gone all that will remain are these traces, the evidence that I was here, that I have lived in a certain particular time, and I hope that I have documented it, in some valuable way, for the future. If you’re haunted in some way you have to find ways of healing yourself and keeping things going and you find strategies. Now one strategy is making movies, one strategy is falling in love with unattainably perfect, beautiful women. Another strategy is to write or to take photos. My falconry thing is a strategy. They’ve all been attempts to deal with serious rumblings that are going on, that I’ve never been able to escape from.
© Entropy (1997)
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