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A Quietus Interview

Coastal Reflections: An Interview With Chris Petit
Kiran Sande , April 11th, 2013 07:47

Extraordinary, uncompromising filmmaker and novelist Chris Petit recently released his first LP. Kiran Sande sits down for an extended chat with Petit and album collaborator Baron Mordant to discuss the Museum of Loneliness, Petit's classic novel Robinson and the relationship between film and sound

"After I made Radio On in '79, there was no one rushing up to say 'Come and work with us!', or 'What would you like to do next?' There was nowhere to go."

If "nowhere" is where Chris Petit went, then nowhere is not to be sniffed at. It's now 34 years since the release of Petit's debut picture, a terse London-Bristol road movie now firmly regarded as a British classic, and an important visual document of the country's pockmarked post-punk landscape.

Shot in lustrous monochrome, Radio On marked the arrival of an extraordinary and uncompromising talent: avant-garde but grounded, salty; alive to the menace and mirth encoded in the mundane; and capable of employing continental techniques to articulate a distinctly English sensibility. It should have kickstarted a celebrated and lucrative career in movies, but instead - partly due to his intellectual integrity (he sneers at his contemporaries who "fucked off to Hollywood" and surrendered control of their art), and partly bad luck - Petit has remained a largely underground concern. His desire to keep himself stimulated at all costs, coupled with a need to sometimes simply put food on the table, has resulted in a strange, sometimes awkward but never boring path through film and television: his directorial career has taken in adaptations of detective stories by P.D. James and Agatha Christie, haiku-like shorts, several collaborations (The Falconer, London Orbital, Asylum) with his friend and fellow seer Iain Sinclair, a documentary on his spiritual forebear J.G. Ballard, and digressive essays like 2010's Content.

An inveterate polymath, and an impatient one at that, Petit was never likely to satisfy himself with filmmaking alone, and sure enough he has expanded his practice to include that of novelist, book reviewer, poet and pamphleteer. His first novel, 1993's Robinson - pitch-black London noir that introduces its affectless, alcohol-numbed narrator in the pubs and cutting-rooms of Soho and follows his interior journey into a porn and drug-riven oblivion "directed" by the elusive, obsessive titular character (who has also manifested, in different guises, in the work of Celine, Weldon Kees and Patrick Keiller) - has built up a cult following to rival that even of Radio On, despite being currently, inexplicably out of print.

A typically terse passage from Robinson opens Side A of Museum of Loneliness, a new LP commissioned by Test Centre, the independent publishing house that brought us Iain Sinclair's Stone Tape Shuffle last year. Side A of the record features Petit reading from three of his novels, namely Robinson and the similarly dead-eyed existential thrillers The Hard Shoulder (2001) and The Passenger (2006). Side B, meanwhile, is given over to a fiery, incantatory "performance" of an ever-evolving work that Petit has dubbed 'The Museum of Loneliness'. Keen to deliver something more than a conventional spoken word record, Petit invited Mordant Music - who he had discovered through the BFI's MisInformation DVD - to create an apposite sonic setting for his readings. Baron Mordant (real name Ian Hicks) responded with an extraordinary collage treatment, one teeming with life but deftly balanced, drawing its power from the source material rather than trying to froth it up or worse, compete with it. It's a sign of great humility that Mordant didn't insist on being a named co-author of the work; his contribution to this compelling audio-literary artefact is immense.

After learning that Petit and Hicks live - entirely coincidentally, as it happens - on the same stretch of East Sussex coast, the Quietus headed south to meet them both on an eye-wateringly cold January morning. The interview took place at Petit's home in Pevensey Bay, which opens out onto shingle beach and inscrutable grey sea.

How did the Museum Of Loneliness LP project come about?

Chris Petit: It was one of the rare occasions that I was approached. They [Test Centre] were quite keen on readings - and I wasn't, because I thought this could end up being like an evening at the LRB Bookshop. No one wants a bloke reading.

Two years before, I'd come up with this concept that wasn't really much to do with anything, called the Museum Of Loneliness, which was to do with an application that I was putting in for German finance; a friend had got funding from them, and suggested that I come up with a project and do the same. I was in Berlin the night of the World Cup when Germany kicked England over the crossbar, and lying in bed thinking how can one depersonalise the whole application process and I came up with the idea of a Museum... I thought, it shouldn't be a space, it should be a concept, and then the Museum Of Loneliness came to me and it sort of hung around. I ran it past Iain Sinclair, sort of floated the idea out there, wrote some stuff, produced a series of pamphlets, but nothing really happened. It wasn't until this LP that I thought perhaps I could revive the idea.

Whose idea was it to involve Mordant Music?

CP: I'd started off by saying I don't want to read, I'd rather do some kind of sound collage. But then when it got to the day it had to be done I thought well, I haven't actually done any sound collage, so I'm going to have to read, even though I didn't want to [laughs]. So I read all this stuff, and I thought that's the end of it.

But then they came back to me to ask if I could think of anyone who might work on it. I suggested Ian. [Journalist and author] Sukhdev Sandhu had recommended the BFI's Central Office of Information DVD, MisInformation, which I'd not only gone out and bought but actually watched. So it knocked on from there.

Did you select the passages from your novels that you read from?

CP: Basically, I read what I asked to read. I thought it would be interesting to include stuff that wasn't just from the books, so I also read this Museum Of Loneliness manifesto. I'd done readings of it before on a couple of occasions; normally when I do stuff with [Iain] Sinclair, he's the one who afterwards has the queue going round the block of people wanting to talk to him, while I kind of stand around [gestures with arms open]. But when I read the Museum Of Loneliness stuff, I had people coming up to me afterwards... so it must strike some kind of a chord [laughs]. So I read that.

It wasn't until they sent me the first draft of Side B that I listened to it and thought oh... I didn't know what to expect, but the first thing that struck me was that it had entirely overcome the problem of a bloke reading.

Ian, how did you encounter Chris's work?

Baron Mordant: I suppose I started reading books properly in my late 20s, with each book being a knock-on from the last one. As with the label, I've genuinely never tried to wrangle, or corral, or pursue things; I've relied on serendipity. I'd seen Radio On, but I wasn't aware of Chris's writing until a couple of years ago, when I read Robinson for the first time.

How did you enter into this collaboration, and what challenges did it present?

BM: It was a no-brainer to do it. I hadn't heard the readings when I said yes, but just the idea of it appealed. When the tapes did finally arrive, I focused on trying to utilise everything that had been presented, and nothing external.

I consider the label to be quite 'live', that whispered in the back of the ear feeling... so I do these Travelogues releases, going out and making field recordings and processing them in a short space of time. They're sort of daytrips, and I thought that this [project] would work as an extension of that; rather greedily, I wanted both sides of the LP to have my own sub-plot running through Chris's main narrative. I actually think that [Travelogues] series is going to be the thing I continue as the rest falls away, because really it's the most nourishing thing. [On Museum Of Loneliness] we've got some people behind the counter at Eastbourne post office, and customers outside trying to engage with what the Museum of Loneliness is... there's this Nosferatu-type figure stood outside in a double-breasted suit smoking on a pissing-down day, with a fantastic voice, telling me that there is a real-life Museum Of Loneliness.

Chris's tone and delivery were perfect, but then there were also all these little microphone taps and coughs and all the things that normally get knocked off and cleaned out of recordings. I used them, because to work with Chris's rhythm, we needed something quite unobtrusive but which came from the source material. It's all him, still. When you've got something so strong to work with, it's not that you can't fail with it, but you deserve a good slap if you can't pull it together decently. When you've got lines like "Pillars of old turd..." [laughs]

Radio On is well-known for its deft use of popular music from the era, and on other projects you've worked with the likes of Bruce Gilbert and Antye Greier (AGF). How important is sound to you as a filmmaker?

CP: I've always paid a lot of attention to sound. I had this terrific postal relationship with Bruce Gilbert, almost pre-electronic, where I would send footage off to him and this tape would come back in the post, and we'd stick it on and think yeah, this is exactly what we wanted. There was no kind of discussion. We'd made Radio On in '79 and about 20 years later somebody asked us if we were interested in revisiting the locations of Radio On for a new short film. We had the original soundtrack on 14 cassettes, and Emma said 'We're going to give the cassettes to Bruce Gilbert, and tell him to put them in the car-crusher.' Two weeks later this tape came back: and I said yep, it's a piece of piss now, we can just cut the film to that. [laughs]

The other thing was working on the films with Iain [Sinclair]. Iain is very much of the school of just do it: slap it together and get it out there as quickly as possible. We're opposites in that way, and he used to drive me up the wall. I'd say, it's going to take 14 weeks to cut this, and he'd say "what?!" And at least three of those weeks are going to be spent on the sound. On the film which I think is the best, Asylum, Iain was saying for weeks that it was finished, it's done, and I said "no, it's not". And I think we spent around three intensive weeks really fucking around with the sound on that film. We had 14 monitors around a room and spent hours trying to get the right kind of 'flicker' effect...

Then on Content, which was the last film I did, I was in correspondence with Ian Penman. I said I'm in Berlin, I'm doing this film, and it's going rather badly, and I can't think what music to use. And he said "oh, there's this woman that lives in Berlin, Antye Greier". I checked her stuff out and thought "this is exactly what I want, completely". So again, rather like with Bruce, there was this long-distance relationship, but with everything uploaded and downloaded rather than posted.

What brought Content into being?

CP: It came out of the usual moaning, I think. I'd done some research the previous year for pretty much the last guy I knew in television, who was a commissioning editor for More4. In order for me to do that research for him, he'd had to generate a docket for a future programme. He phoned me up and said: "I've got some money for you - do you want to make a film?" What I discovered afterwards was that he was in the process of leaving Channel 4 - so it was literally a kind of gift. I managed to match that with some money from German TV, but I still didn't really know what film I wanted to do.

It was just after the [financial] crash and initially I thought OK, let's go out and make a proper documentary, talk to lots of people about what's gone wrong, and that lasted about two weeks before I thought, god, this is really boring. So let's all drive down the Westway instead! [laughs]

If you're going to make a film about now, do you really have to talk to anyone about the economic crash? I mean, it was all you heard on the radio, everyone was wise after the event. When Radio On had came out on DVD after years of being pretty much ignored, people started calling it the definitive post-punk film... but we didn't actually set out to make a film about 1979. And yet because nobody else recorded it, that's what happened. Nobody else really bothered to film that landscape, to record what the place looked like at a certain time and roughly what people were wearing. My approach to Content was similar, I think of it as a kind of coda to Radio On.

Robinson is currently out of print, but it remains your most widely known - and admired, and obsessed over - novel.  A reading from it also opens Museum of Loneliness. When you wrote it, did you anticipate that Robinson, of all things, would become such a cult favourite?

CP: I worked out that if I write something that begins with 'R' it gets remembered [laughs]. Looking back, I think certain decisions were made: you can't legislate for anything lasting, but you can legislate for something not dating.

I think with Robinson... there was me and Jonathan Meades, who I knew quite well at the time, and he wrote this terrific novel called Pompey, and we were both being published by Cape in 1993. I remember saying to him, "I think the novel of place, the London novel in particular, tends to go down well - we're going to be home free after this". [laughs] Then Pompey came out, was reviewed savagely and I thought "god, they don't like the fact that Jonathan's done something else" - it was all very much "food critic writes novel". Sure enough, there was a review of Robinson in the Independent On Sunday that made out I'd dictated it while driving round Twickenham roundabout in my Range Rover, in between making films [laughs].

To what extent did you set out to write a London novel?

CP: Ballard is a great instructor. Most of his novels are London novels. But if you're selective enough [with detail] then you kind of transcend that, and I do think Robinson was quite canny because it was very selective. It also got quite a lot of things right... about people drinking out of little bottles of water and having little haversacks... [laughs] So grateful, but not entirely surprised, that it's stood the test of time. And yet nobody's ever shown any interest in filming it. Which is quite interesting. My last book was optioned, but none of the others have ever been picked up by anyone.

BM: I certainly "watched" Robinson as I read it. It's incredibly filmic.

What kind of film could it, or would it, be?

CP: By the time I sat down to write Robinson, my film career had dried up; so in a sense I thought "let's write a book that's a surrogate film, but which at the same time is kind of unfilmable". My only thought with regard to adaptation is that it should never be done in London. It shouldn't be done as a Soho film. I actually think it would have been quite good if it had been made by Abel Ferrara, in the early 90s, set in New York, with Christopher Walken as Robinson and possibly Madonna as the narrator. That would have been rather interesting. The trouble is that adaptations tend to be too slavish, and there's so much you have to throw out.

Speaking of adaptation, I wanted to ask about P.D. James' An Unsuitable Job For A Woman, which you filmed for the BBC in 1982.

CP: Buried, buried, buried [laughs]. After I made Radio On in '79, there was no one rushing up to say 'Come and work with us', or 'What would you like to do next?' There was nowhere to go. The British film industry at that point was pretty much dead in the water - there was very little going on. And a whole generation of English filmmakers had fucked off to Hollywood at the first opportunity.

I thought, I'll happily do music videos, I'll do advertising... but I couldn't get arrested. I thought, OK, no one's going to give me the money to make Radio On II; I don't want to go to Hollywood. What are the options? Well, the English murder mystery is a kind of safe bet. I thought it would be great to do an Agatha Christie in the style of Fassbinder, and I read loads and loads of Christie and I just couldn't find anything. Eventually I came across the P.D. James novel, and I thought this is quite interesting, it's got a female protagonist, and I thought of it as a kind of gothic story of a haunting - rather than just a straightforward policier. My idea was to shoot it in the Fens, with that flat landscape, but they didn't have enough money for that so we got as far as a gravel pit in Reading and that was about it [laughs]. You have this very clear vision of what you want, and then six weeks later you're thinking, what the fuck am I doing? [laughs]

After that I actually got to direct an Agatha Christie - Miss Marple: A Caribbean Mystery. Filmed in a gravel pit in Barbados. No, it was actually filmed in the hotel where Christie wrote the book. I was so surprised to be asked to direct it, that I forgot to say no, and ended up doing it. But Unsuitable Job... it's a long time since I've seen it but I'm sure it isn't a good film.

It's notorious for the heroine trying her hand at auto-erotic asphyxiation. Am I right in thinking that scene wasn't in the original novel at all?

CP: I can't remember! Well, we practically hanged her, I remember that. I remember the props guys saying "are you sure you want to do this?" I said let's string her up and see what happens [laughs]. I wrote another draft, which I wasn't allowed to film, where I made the thing much more extreme in terms of identification and so on. I think the guy gets shot at the end by his mistress, and I thought that she should be shot by the protagonist instead, and that the whole thing should be much more to do with the various degrees of sexual obsession. But then Billie Whitelaw, who'd already been cast as the mistress, put her foot down and said "I'm not going to be in the film if I can't shoot him".

How did you first become interested in the murder mystery, and more broadly speaking the thriller? Even in your less conventional work, the structure and motifs of these genres are explored...

CP: I just used to read them. You get to a point where you think, oh well, time to "put childish things aside", and you move into that literary world. But once there you think actually, most of this is bollocks. You enter into that rather precious world of The English Novel. I mean, if it's a choice between Dorothy Sayers and E.M. Forster... Murder mysteries and thrillers - like B-movies, or certain kinds of bad record - they often tell you more about what's going on than the more respectable or polished stuff. You know, I always found Billy Fury more interesting than Elvis.

For years I reviewed thrillers for various newspapers. I quite like reading bad books fast. And I like narrative. I always found that there was never enough narrative in [literary] English novels, it became - rather like English cinema - all about these strangulated relationships. Or class. Thirty years ago I remember rather naively thinking English class won't exist in thirty years time, but if anything it's become more pronounced. I was at school with Lord Fellowes... and you wouldn't have bet money on him forty years ago [laughs].

Novels like Robinson and The Hard Shoulder function, on the surface, as thrillers, as page-turners, even though the heart of the story is quite ambiguous and discursive.

CP: I'm not a natural storyteller, and so I have to be quite a good mechanic. With something like Robinson, I spent a lot of time tinkering with the mechanics of the thing. Trying to make it... well, it's not just about it being readable. That material has to be attacked at a certain pace. Not only by the writer but also by the reader. You have to get the reader too far in for them to turn back.

Robinson exerts such an extraordinary hold over the imagination. From where, or out of what, did you summon him?

CP: I was sitting in the Blenheim Arms in St Johns Wood and I was watching this guy at the bar. He was talking to somebody else, having a very intense conversation. The moment lasted about ten or fifteen seconds, during which time I just thought, "God I dislike that man". That was probably the basis of it. Then, quite a long time later, I was working with somebody and I thought "you seem familiar", and I realised it was this same bloke. He'd been wearing a white cap in the bar. I got to know him quite well.

BM: Did you ever let on?

CP: No, no. I had certain other ideas - I think Sinclair pointed out that the novel transmogrifies from The Third Man into Fassbinder. I was always interested in the character of Lime in The Third Man, much more than the film. There was also the Robinson character in Celine's Journey To The End Of The Night - I always liked the device where the narrator would turn up in some godforsaken place in the Congo, and hear that Robinson had got there the week before. That was the formula: you have this rather blank narrator whose role it is to comment on the action which is always taking place in the corner of his eye.

Everyone takes Robinson as an autobiographical novel, including my then wife, I think. Whereas it wasn't - I just sat at home and made it up!

What about these booze-soaked charmer characters that recur in your fiction, most memorably Cookie in Robinson and Shaughnessey in The Hard Shoulder?

CP: They're fun to write. They're kind of pre-Tarantino-esque [laughs] - you can give them a page and a half of dialogue and they can keep it running. Cookie was not based on [author Robin] Cook - although I did know Cook, and he was supremely louche, one of these very active drinkers. He really resurrected himself with this second career [writing as Derek Raymond]. He was extremely good at handling his own myth, and he was effortlessly charming as well. And though Cookie wasn't meant to be him, Cook did to some extent inspire the character. God knows his novels were black enough. I thought, what happens if you take this image of this man and see how far you can take it into that territory?

BM: There's a repellent edge to Cookie's charm, charming though he undoubtedly is.

CP: Yeah, and charm is an offensive weapon. Shaughnessey was based on Irish aunts I had who lived in Dunleary. I thought, let's put that into a criminal milieu [laughs]. I did live in Kilburn at a time when it was very Irish, and also because of my grandfather I had all these Irish maiden aunts. So I had the voice. I thought, I can do this, but I can't do, say, Glaswegian. It's a story about family, really.

Are you always writing?

CP: It's really whatever survival strategy is in place at any given time. I would've done MTV, I would've done music videos, or advertising, if anyone had asked me - but on the whole I never really got asked, so it never happened [laughs]. Robinson was rather like Radio On - I thought, nobody's going to pay me to write Robinson II. And I was in the process of separating from my wife, so the matter of money was quite urgent. So I wrote three books, of which The Passenger was the third, which were supposed to be blockbuster thrillers [laughs]. The first [The Psalm Killer] was about a serial killer in Belfast in the 70s, which I think did become the international bestseller, so for a while it looked like I had a career - but by the time I got to The Passenger it had dwindled. I always felt I was out of step with what people wanted. I've spent the last three years writing my Auschwitz novel. God knows why [laughs]. And that without any kind of advance, I've just been doing it myself, which is foolhardy probably. There was a comment that Godard made years ago when talking about that whole area: the only way to tell that story is through the eyes of a female stenographer working at the camp. And I thought, that's it.