De-Googled: Chris Petit
Andrew Stevens interviews Chris Petit for 3:AM.
Images taken from the author’s mobile phone camera during a walk with Iain Sinclair from Greenwich Millennium Dome to Wembley Stadium (19.3.07).
CP [in medias res]: One thing is about the painter Manny Farber, author of Negative Space and to my mind the finest film critic. I really liked the way he wrote about film, for not doing it by retelling the story. He once said to me in an interview that the things he liked about film other critics never wrote about. I knew exactly what he meant. What continues to surprise me is that I grew up in such a collective generation in terms of cultural references — much broader than before — yet I rarely find any contemporaries who write about the stuff I like or recognise. That whole literary world remains pretty Victorian, like Ballard said, and lot of novels read like makeovers of those Victorian houses people renovate: let’s put in a bathroom on the top floor. We turned out pretty dull, I think.
3:AM: Where does that leave you?
CP: Rayner Heppenstall noted once seeing a bibliography made out by
Julian Maclaren-Ross, padded out with books he had never written, which is probably the way to go. Waterstone’s is an alternative landfill site: who reads ‘em? And when they do, they read the wrong books. Most channels are just dead TV. So, write up the books and films as though they had been written and made: float them to a point where people start to believe they have seen and read them; nothing and everything exists on the internet. My son’s generation doesn’t read but that doesn’t stop them making out they have.
When he recently posted something on YouTube featuring Iain Sinclair it was generally believed that the clip featured Sinclair driving around interviewing Tony Blair (not true) and had been made by me (not true). The one name mentioned — George Orwell — no one remembers. Sinclair and I have had a website for years, an empty box called Perimeter Fence, which last time I looked had been visited by 50 people in the previous month. We are slowly getting around to doing something with it — the intention is to produce a combination of map, maze and post card, something at any rate that tries to take a website beyond the initial stages of storage and tundra. Something that short-circuits the marketing culture we’re stuck with. Otherwise you join the commissioning queue. An irony of the digital age is that as communication gets quicker, the process has got slower. Dealing with the BBC is now like the 19th century and the court of St Petersburg. They’re all in meetings, on courses or curating the next stages of their careers, trying to negotiate a side-step into academia. Besides, that margin Sinclair and I were able to work for the past fifteen years no longer exists in television. The last thing choice offers is more choice. What you get is more of the same. It’s the same with the papers. The Telegraph yesterday (20.03.07) ran as a news story comments by Stephen Fry, previously published in the Radio Times, saying US actors were better than English actors, which is neither news nor original.
3:AM: Your latest, The Passenger, has been billed by the publishers as “The thinking man’s Andy McNab”. Do you think those more familiar with your previous novels might have found this perturbing?
CP: As perturbing as McNab’s readers would be to find him promoted as “the poor man’s Chris Petit”. It doesn’t work on any level. When Robinson is re-republished I’ll have it promoted as ‘The Bravo Two Zero of London Psychogeography’.
It was one of those moments when everyone took leave of their collective senses. I pointed out that they, the publisher, had come up with the statistic that more women than men now read thrillers but Andy McNab was so Boy’s Own that they might be excluding that market. It did Andy McNab no favours or me, let along the “thinking man” if there is such a thing. In the end, I let it go because the publisher was at least making an effort to promote the book, for a change. Had they gone on to sell 50,000 copies I could have lived with it. When it didn’t they were more receptive to my argument and the line has been dropped from the paperback. I also thought “Terror has a boarding pass” was funny but dumb. I think that’s gone too.
I’ve read McNab in my time and like the way he covered his ground; reasonable fieldcraft. In that sense I didn’t mind the comparison, apart from thinking it didn’t work. It turned out that the publisher was trying to accommodate Waterstone’s and it was some bright spark at Waterstone’s who had come up with the remark, off-the-cuff. As for the cover, I could go on about that until Christmas.
Those familiar with, say, Robinson, probably wouldn’t even have picked up The Passenger, based on strap-line and cover. But then no one really bothers to join up the dots between the different facets of the career. There was one exception — a web review that pointed out how my publisher is in denial about Robinson and there are thematic overlaps ie. that The Passenger was consistent with Robinson.
3:AM: Given how Robinson was rooted in a sense of time and place, do you feel it would be worth updating that in any way? I’m thinking that while Soho is largely becoming, on account of council efforts to make it a family-safe place like Covent Garden, sanitised, there are no shortage of Hamiltonian narratives in London now, albeit in different manifestations.
CP: I have been thinking of a sequel but on the other hand always think of sequels as something lesser. Robinson was misread by a lot of people as a roman a clef. There were some (a few) autobiographical elements but these in fact referred to Berlin rather than London. I think it was that distance, and refraction, which made the book work. I also wrote it with the JP Melville French Resistance film — L’Armée des Ombres — in mind in that I saw Robinson as a novel about the meaning of collaboration, and resistance, in the widest sense of both words. I was also aware of Nigel Balchin’s wartime novel Darkness Falls from the Air. There were cinematic elements too: Fassbinder and Harry Lime. In some ways I wrote it as a prose film. I was pretty aware of what shadows if was being written under, what its surrogates were. If I have a problem with a sequel it is to do with trying to work out its covert meanings.
You’re right, Soho is now theme park. One of the things that changed Soho a lot was the relaxing of drinking laws allowing people to stand or sit and drink outside.
It has all shifted east, and I don’t mean Shoreditch and Hoxton. Were Robinson to return he might be caught up in the sort of rogue economics and corollary of globalisation that has dominated the world since the collapse of Communism. He would, perhaps, have laundered Russian money, making things respectable. He could be seen in a box at Chelsea. He would be on first name terms with Frank Lampard. He would be masquerading as a philanthropist, with several charity fronts. Breakfast in Rome with Bono. Dinner in Beijing. A permanent room in a tower-block hotel in Travemunde overlooking the Baltic. He would be on the inside track for the London Olympics, consulting with Ken, fronted by a couple of Irish PRs who have the black-suited look and soft handshakes of spoiled priests. He would be in the vanguard of the next big shift, towards eco-fascism.
But the difference between 1993 and now is that it was quite easy then to think of shocking or offensive material. Now everything is more virtual and cartoon-like. No one is surprised anymore, even by genocide, and, thanks to the internet, everyone now knows the price of everything. Robinson was an interesting barometer of depravity. What I’m not sure of any more, is what that depravity might be now. The most shocking thing I can think of is that Robinson discovers God and becomes sincere.
3:AM: New Labour’s ‘reforming’ Gambling and Licensing Acts aside, not to mention their botched attempts to liberalise prostitution, the clean-up of Soho is being driven by Westminster council, which is led by someone implicated in the Homes for Votes scandal, as sleazy as you got back then, but is now a moderniser friend of Tory Party leader David Cameron. Don’t you think there are some constants at play here, just in newer suits? As James Bridle said in the review you referred to:
“In 1993 and Robinson, ‘sleaze’ means “grimy sheets, penises, vaginas, mouths, rectums, a sofa for a bit of variation, and a rubber plant for decoration.” In 2006, ‘sleaze’ means politics.”
CP: Politics is the new porn, I’d say, and local politics is soft porn to Westminster’s hard. A lot of it is pretty childish, ie. Boris Johnson. We seem to be becoming more childish generally: Gordon Ramsey and his swearing. I’m all in favour of some good swearing but his is as posturing as his recipes. We now live in a country with too many architects, chefs and comedians, all of whom belong to the new pornography — I’m not sure how, but this sentence connects in my mind with the one quoted above. (All that crappy New Labour housing will be used for domestic porno films. Prezza will be a star of the circuit. The same rubber plant will dress the set.)
Ten-15 years ago you had to brazen it out (Mellor, Hamilton): now the national attention span is so short you no longer need to bother.
Blair came in on an idealistic “generational” ticket, much in the way that Clinton did, and both are left contemplating the size of the sell-out; Robin (was it Robin?) Gibb, Cliff Richard! Clinton was more Rolling Stone, which was always a pretty desperate publication (where George W. is Mad magazine: what, me worry?) and its publisher interested only in the power of his connections. I rather liked Clinton’s brazenness and complete lack of shame but I can’t work out Blair. When he says he believes in God do we believe him? Always a tricky combination to pull off in this country: Christianity and rock and roll. Blair isn’t exactly the Jerry Lee Lewis of politics.
I was interested to see Alistair Campbell on Celebrity Apprentice the other day. Now there’s a man with the look of a failed porn star. Something about the mouth. Since his fall from political grace he has had rather a lost and ingratiating air. He turns up on programmes such as The Apprentice and Celebrity Millionaire where he routinely underperforms, which makes you wonder how good he ever was. The feeling you get from New Labour is of people drunk on power, more so than the Tories, who were busy lining their pockets. Cameron is another with the look of a porno star, with higher production values than Campbell and more wad. Politics gives you enormous pulling power now, more than it used to. The sexual transaction has become routine and predictable. Of course, it always went on, but now it seems inevitable. The change of Livingstone from idealist to sleek mandarin is one of the more interesting examples of the soft sell-out of the baby boomer generation. I think Livingstone understands the shift from politics to marketing and cultural brokering.
I’m interested in the overlap between politics and show business. I’m interested in comedians’ breakdowns: Fry, Tony Slattery. They seem symptomatic of something larger. My dislike of Fry and Jonathan Ross puzzles me. Ten years ago I was indifferent to them. Although I never really believed it, I think I thought things would be different. Fry and Ross represent the fact that they’re not. They are like cultural Quislings.
I’m all for the sell-out, compromise, corruption; what saddens me is the mediocrity of it. We’re the equivalent to Tim Henman when it comes to corruption. Of course they pay for their peerages, what does anyone expect, especially as New Labour doesn’t have any money? Another interesting point about Celebrity Apprentice — Campbell’s New Labour-ish crowd were useless at fund-raising. Piers Morgan failed to deliver the City whereas Tory Trinny, with her PhD in the art of social climbing, delivered huge donations, by putting the squeeze on rich friends, and Ashley Cole’s wife tapped Simon Cowell and the football fraternity. Watching made you feel rather grubby, more than if you had just sat through Hot Spurts.
I have no daydreams or ambitions left other than doing a remake of 120 Days of Sodom starring the MPs of Westminster.
I love all that green stuff, even more than the racket of Red Nose Day: a language rushing to invent itself, followed by the chancers.
The internet is good for two things: conspiracy and porn, and, in the actual world, politics is the bridge. I don’t read much contemporary English fiction because we seem to lack interesting amoral diagnosticians who write about the world as I see it, and I don’t just mean personally. It’s an interesting generation, mine, for its failures, after convincing itself that it promised so much. Now, as mortality beckons, we’re all lining up for our gongs. The fact that we’re all congratulating ourselves for making a film about The Queen pretty much says it all. I fear even Robinson would step up for his OBE these days (services to charity, a thinly disguised excuse for weapons dealing) and feel sincere and ‘umbled.
The only answer is deep underground. I want a life free of challenge. I want to be de-Googled.
3:AM: Which brings us back to your earlier notion of Robinson “discovering God and becoming sincere” as the most shocking thing imaginable under those conditions. Religion. Is that how, as James mentioned in his review, there really is a link between what you were up against with Robinson and now with The Passenger?
CP: If I understand your question… The link between the books is that they are essentially posthumous, underlined by the fact that the old spy master in The Passenger is a ghost: spook as spook. Robinson of course dies half way through the book. There’s a quote in Sinclair’s On the Edge of the Orison from me complaining that the trouble with writing my books is that all the characters are dead. I think conspiracy (and paranoia) are probably symptomatic of the lapsed state, which is why they interest me. All my books, I think, can be read as ghost stories (just as the film Point Blank makes the most sense as Walker’s dying dream), most obviously with Back From the Dead, which was the one everyone had trouble with. It probably isn’t much good. I haven’t looked at in years. What I wanted to do was write a book set in a rock and roll milieu. Where previously it had been hard to insert fiction into such a documented world, I thought the subject had been around long enough to create a convincing fiction and do for the subject what Wilder had done for cinema with Sunset Boulevard. From what I remember, Alan Moore was one of the few people to like it.
I don’t know about the religious angle. I always wanted to avoid being thought of as a Catholic writer. It’s a very easy card to play. Hitchcock. Scorsese. Greene. It’s used as a sort of shorthand with all of them. I always thought life was more existential. On the Roman Catholic Church I was always on Buñuel’s side: a racket. But what a great invention!
3:AM: In his recent essay, Sean Walsh asks of ‘Robinson’,
“Is he like Dante’s Ulysses, the brave adventurer who peers over the lip of the world? Is he just a fraud who’s stumbled into history, a startled Roman tough with a walk-on part in a Caravaggio theophany? Or is he a something more serious, the last man capable of despair? That first glimpse of a perfect woman that Bardamu reports: is his afterlife a postscript to revelation, a disgust at the unreachable divine? Providence and grace rejected, vice embraced: is he merely an old-fashioned sort of sinner?”
What’s your view on the questions he is seeking answers to?
CP: He’s all and none of the above. Robinson is the McGuffin. cf. The Passenger chapter, ‘The Worm of Uncertainty’. “A nice man Ambler, married to Joan Harrison, who worked with Hitchcock. Angleton and Hitch dined together occasionally in Washington. Angleton had given him the McGuffin for North by Northwest. The ideal McGuffin was the perfect zero: the idea that drove everything and explained nothing. Angleton told Hitch that he and Greene had once invented an agent in Rome who didn’t exist. ‘Perfect,’ said Hitchcock.”
Seen another way, Robinson is a projection (of the narrator, of the author), but also like a cinematic projection: a phantom. In that sense he is an extension of Celine’s Robinson: the man who gets there first. I’m interested in belief because I don’t believe in anything particularly, although I was raised in a system of belief (the fag-end of a Victorian tradition). It has always seemed to me very hard to find something to replace that, once one has been indoctrinated. Doubt. Deferral. Indifference. These were some of the states I was interested in exploring. I don’t think the book particularly seeks answers, not when the quote at the front reads: Deep assignments run through all our lives. There are no coincidences. The other quote I thought of using was from Fritz Lang: Death is the only solution.
3:AM: It’s an obvious question, but one I feel obliged to ask: how much of your depictions of the tawdry and shabby side of the capital were gleaned from your experiences as film editor at Time Out in the 1970s? For instance, a lot of the instability of that era — the Angry Brigade, the IRA — only worked itself out a decade or so later, culturally speaking.
CP: It’s not a connection I’ve ever made but you are probably right. I set out to get a job at Time Out because I thought it would be a good way of learning about the city. (I started in the advertising department because I figured there wouldn’t be a lot of competition for the jobs there; I had previously sold advertising space on the telephone for the dreadful Josephine Damage Hart at Haymarket publishing before she married a Saatchi.) I liked Time Out in those days because it was both comprehensive and selective (rather like Ballard), and I liked it for the reason it was disparaged by the rest of the underground press — for its commercial slant. It was a time of terrible posturing generally: man those barricades; no innocent bystanders. The experience of film reviewing underpinned a lot of Robinson (subterranean existence; lost time). My father, who was in the army and had intelligence connections, said he was once alone in a lift with Maurice Oldfield, head of MI6, who said nothing other than to mention my name and Time Out. There were always rumours that one member of staff was a Communist agent, though this was probably MI5 disinformation. The news section at Time Out covered the Littlejohn case (MI6 and bank robbery in Ireland) which fell into my research later in The Psalm Killer. There was an undercurrent, not as pronounced as instability — three-day week, suggestions of a military coup (Stirling and General Walker), the Angry Brigade, Astrid Proll, Tariq Ali (soon to reinvent himself as a BMW-driving C4 commissioning editor and mark out the parabola of the two decades), flickered away in the corner of the city’s eye. Had, say, I got a job as a copywriter at J Walter Thompson I am sure my career would have been very different. I would have ended up as one of those career civil-servant type novelists, festooned with literary awards, on the Euro cultural gravy train, and having my desk and room written up in the broadsheets, with photos showing framed posters of the oeuvre on the wall.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWEE
Chris Petit is a novelist and film-maker. His work in film includes Radio On, Chinese Boxes and (with Iain Sinclair) The Cardinal and the Corpse, The Falconer and Asylum and a film on the M25. His first novel Robinson is republished by Granta Books. He has also written The Psalm Killer (1997), Back from the Dead (1999) and The Passenger (2006). He lives in London.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, March 22nd, 2007.