Failing Better: The Last Interview with Tom Phillips

Featured image by Tom Phillips (Quantum Poetics, oil on panel, 123 x 208 cm, 2007-2009)

“All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

— Samuel Beckett, “Worstward Ho”

George Salis: Hey, Tom!

Tom Phillips: Hello!

GS: So I was wondering, how have you been handling the pandemic?

TP: In some ways it was beneficial. It allowed me to work peacefully, but it got a bit boring as time went on. I’ve done quite a bit of work so I can’t complain, and I’m alive!

GS: Has it affected your work at all? I’ve noticed that a lot of artists have been covering the pandemic in their work. Has that happened to you?

TP: I got a page in the Humument about the pandemic, yes. I don’t know whether you saw it. My secretary put it on Instagram or something like that.

GS: Oh, I’ll have to hunt that one down then. Well, I would like to start by talking about your grand project, A Humument.

TP: Well, it’s lasted long enough.

GS: (laughs) Yes.

TP: And it’s still going on.

GS: Do you think there’s going to be a new edition sometime in the future or are you just doing small changes?

TP: The last one was called “Final Edition.” Did you see that one?

GS: Yes, that was the one I read actually.

TP: Well, since the Final Edition, I’ve done about 70 new pages, and I’m trying to hope that the publisher Thames and Hudson will make a Final, Final Edition.

GS: That’s what I was going to ask you, if you considered the Final Edition the apex of what you’re attempting, but it sounds like you’re reaching new heights, as it were.

TP: I don’t know about new heights. If you reach the apex, you can have new heights, but I don’t think I’ve reached an apex of any kind. As soon as I thought I had finished it, I found new things to do so I started to do them.

GS: Do you have a favorite edition or are they just each a version of failing better, to borrow the Beckett phrase you like?

TP: The last one, the one you have is the favorite one because it’s in print. And my new favorite edition is the one to come.

GS: Do you consider these editions in conversation with each other, or do they exist on their own?

TP: No, I think of them as replacements. When I look at the first edition, it’s amazing how much more there had been to find, because when you deem it the first forte in one’s adventure, and then you think, “Oh no, I could do that or something else or, hey, I hadn’t even thought about that” or a word crops up that didn’t exist when I started. For example the verb “text” as in “he texted me,” you couldn’t say that originally.

GS: I read somewhere in The Guardian that you showed early versions of the book to William Burroughs.

TP: Yes, a very early version. He was very kind, inviting me around for almost a whole day; turns out, another spartan day in which he didn’t even eat or drink or sit. He got around to looking at it and somehow suggested that it should be science fiction. I never knew quite what he meant, but he was very kind to look at it at that length.

GS: He said it should be science fiction or that it felt like science fiction?

TP: He said perhaps it should be more science fiction or to become science fiction…I’m not quite sure what he meant because he said it two or three times.

GS: I was going to ask what he meant by that, so I guess we’ll never know.

TP: I’ll never know, and still don’t know. It’s pretty interesting, someone suggesting something so radical.

GS: Yeah, I mean I did notice that there are references to science. In the final edition, for example, there’s a reference to CERN?

TP: A reference to going to CERN, yes, and seeing the great machine, the large Hadron Collider.

GS: Did you visit that?

TP: Yes, I did. It was very exciting, a wonderful sight!

GS: I hope one day to visit. So I was wondering, it seems like nowadays the act of redacting a work is fairly common, but when you started the project in the 60s, I was wondering how common was the act of redacting one work to make a new work?

TP: It was uncommon in the way that I’d never known anybody did it. I found myself doing it and the one genre I was into was a genre unto me.

GS: I know that Burroughs was doing the cutup, but that’s not quite the same thing.

TP: Yes, a lot of those things were a part of me, stuff around that I imbibed. I don’t know, I just did an extreme version. It could be thought of as a toy or a plaything, it got more serious as it went on.

GS: Burroughs was sort of an impetus or an inspiration?

TP: Yes, in a way. He was one of the people who do things when they’re older than you and it’s kind of like giving you a license to use sort of techniques that they’re using.

GS: I was going to ask if you had known that the work was going to take this long would you pick the book up again but I learned that you actually picked the book up knowing it would be a lifelong challenge.

TP: Not knowing, boasting would be more accurate. Yet I didn’t actually think in quite those ways. I was actually working on that for 50 years and more.

GS: Did it ever feel like a chore or was it something that gave meaning to your life?

TP: No, never a chore, it was always a great pleasure to be revisiting it and finding new things. It was great.

Phillips in his studio. (Photo by Nobby Clark)

GS: Maybe you’d recommend everyone find a project like this, something they can always tinker with?

TP: No, I don’t. It’s crazy. (laughs) If you’ve got a life, don’t do that for a change.

GS: It’s the good kind of crazy. Have you ever attempted to write a novel in the old-fashioned way?

TP: Well, only once. It was a great failure. I’ve never published any of that, but I did show it to somebody, a polished chapter. He was speaking very coolly about it; it was never quite right. I was doing the wrong thing.

GS: Do you think maybe writing in the old-fashioned way is, well, too old-fashioned?

TP: No, not at all because I read novels, a great pleasure.

GS: What do you read these days?

TP: Oh, whatever comes my way. I was one of the judges of The Booker Prize a few years ago [in 2017], so I read 148 novels in a year.

GS: I was going to ask you about that. Is that your normal reading speed or did you have to make concessions to accommodate that?

TP: It was my normal reading speed, but a greater amount of time than I usually give to reading novels. But it was wonderful to know what exactly people were writing across a big span, a big number of people. I didn’t like the winner very much. I was the odd-man-out in the sessions we had.

GS: Oh, [Lincoln in the Bardo by] George Saunders?

TP: No, I didn’t like that book. I liked other ones better.

GS: What didn’t you like about it? I would almost imagine that you would find something to like about it because it sort of mimics the Burroughs cut-up, but maybe it’s too old-fashioned these days as well?

TP: Well, I don’t know. I thought it was a clumsy affair. I think, as well, I’m more interested in the people.

GS: I enjoyed it but I don’t know if it would deserve The Booker, but I’m not a judge so I can’t say. Did you find yourselves debating? I’m curious how you came to the final decision.

TP: Oh yes, it was very enjoyable. There were very good arguments. I stuck by my choice but of course I joined in the final majority vote; that’s what you do.

GS: Well for me what makes a great work is the innovation behind it, that’s a big thing for me. I feel like style is substance, but I’d imagine that the judges would have fairly different criteria.

TP: Well, I thought it was innovative in some way, but it wasn’t the thing that was giving me most pleasure, you know, innovation in my experience with people. That’s more my line.

GS: And which novel were you championing?

TP: I preferred the, I can’t even remember the name. It was the one about what happened in the west, the Wild West.

GS: I’ll have to check that one out.

TP: I also liked 4 3 2 1, the big one by Paul Auster; that seems a little bit an experiment too.

GS: Well now I have some extra reading to do! So I read that you have a collection of 50,000 postcards that you’ve been wanting to incorporate into a book. Have you made any progress on this project?

TP: Well I made better books out of it, and one exhibition out of it. But now I no longer own the postcards because they’ve all gone to the Bodleian Library in Oxford.

GS: I wonder, how does one amass that collection?

TP: By diligent carelessness. I used to go to some of those old postcard fairs which were another world. I’d collect them there and then people would start sending them to me. I did write a couple books with those postcards. A catalogue for the National Portrait Gallery and 3? 4? 5 books produced by the Bodleian. I wasn’t satisfied. I don’t think I had enough life to do it because every turn I made had endless possibilities. And I already had enough work on hand.

GS: Well speaking of portraits, you’ve done around 100 or so-

TP: Yes, 100!

GS: Exactly 100?

TP: No, I’ve sort of resigned from portraiture when it started being captains of industry who wanted their portrait done and I wasn’t interested.

GS: Well speaking of that, I was wondering if there was anybody you’d always wanted to paint a portrait of but haven’t. Or maybe if I opened up the question to if you could choose anyone from history, who would you make a portrait of?

TP: Anyone from history? Johann Sebastian Bach.

GS: Oh! Why Sebastian Bach?

TP: What did the man with that magic mind look like? There are only one or two clumsy images of him. I think we know what Beethoven looked like. I don’t think we really know what Bach looked like.

GS: Do you play Bach while you’re working in your workshop on various projects?

TP: Do I play it? Do you mean do I play it on the piano? I just improvise a bit.

GS: No, no! Just listen to it as you work.

TP: No, not really. I don’t listen to music while I work. I don’t mind listening to stories or people reading, but not really.

GS: I was very surprised and delighted to hear that you’ve made several portraits of Salman Rushdie, who is one of my top favorite writers.

TP: Oh good!

GS: I love The Satanic Verses and Midnight’s Children.

Salman Rushdie, oil on canvas, 50 x 60 cm 1992

TP: Yes, I think Midnight’s Children is still the best. I’ve made three or four portraits of him while he was in exile, so to speak, and couldn’t go out. He was in lockdown longer than most people have experienced now. And ping pong, he’d come around and play ping pong and sit.

GS: How did that project come along? Did he just call you and say, “Hey, I want a portrait of myself”?

TP: No, I can’t remember…sort of friends of friends. We decided to get up and play ping pong a bit, and I said, “Why don’t you sit for me as well?” And he said, “Nah, you could paint a portrait of my wife.” One of them. (laughs) By the time I painted a portrait of his wife, she wasn’t his wife, and he was the one sitting.

GS: Uh, oh. And you said he was a ferocious ping pong player. Did you ever win any games against him or was he just too good?

TP: I always beat him!

GS: So he was a sore loser?

TP: Not really, but a bit begrudging, and it was only for fun.

GS: Yeah, so Martin Amis described Rushdie’s eyes as a falcon staring through a Venetian blind.

TP: That must’ve been before he had an operation to lift his eyelids.

GS: Yes! Was that before or after you painted your portraits?

TP: It was during and after.

Samuel Beckett at Riverside Studios (lithograph), 70.8 x 42.8 cm, 1984

GS: And did that make a difference? Because I know when you painted Beckett, you focused on the backs of his ears. Was this falcon stare something that was a major factor in the portrait?

TP: No, with Samuel Beckett, I was there when he was rehearsing Waiting for Godot and he said I could do his picture. [From Phillips’ website: When Beckett was in London last year [1984], rehearsing the San Quentin group in Waiting for Godot at the Riverside Theatre, I was asked by David Gothard, its director, if I would come along and do some drawings. I sat in on five or six days of rehearsal. Beckett is a quiet and kind man, and was indulgent to the small group of earnest academics who hovered about and noted down every cough and whisper that came from him: he endured their parasitism with the dignity of a beast on the plain on whom cattle egrets perch and feed.]

That’s why I came to his rehearsals, and I thought I was going to be too in the way because I was in the line of sight, so then I said to him, “You know, from the back you look exactly the same as you do from the front,” and he thought that was very funny, and it’d be interesting, so I did it that way. And I said, “What you see in the picture I made of you is your work, which is good, and then the back of your head, which is fine.”

GS: And you emphasized how the sensory organs of the ears are very important for Beckett.

TP: With Beckett’s ears, you don’t need to emphasize them. They emphasize themselves!

GS: (laughs) Do you think that that’s the most important sensory organ for writers in general, more so than, say, the hands? Or just in the case of Samuel Beckett and writers like Joyce who love the sound of words?

TP: I don’t think; I mean, that’s something I’ve never thought about! I think the mind would be….

GS: All of the senses entwined?

TP: I guess so, I’ve never thought about it. You need everything to write. You need energy and imagination; I don’t know what organs.

GS: The full package.

TP: Yup, I guess so!

GS: So circling a little bit back, what are your thoughts on Rushdie’s work in general?

TP: That’s a question I don’t really want to answer. I like some things and don’t like others and I’m not really specialized in thinking about it, but I did love Midnight’s Children.

GS: Me too.

TP: We made a sort of book together when I was in Harvard [as an artist-in-residence; the book is titled Merely Connect].

GS: And what was that book exactly?

TP: A little book of pictures and a bit of writing of his that I played about with.

GS: That was Rushdie’s writing? Did it come from Haroun and the Sea of Stories or was that a different work?

TP: It was about that time. It was just a page of the text that he gave me, unpublished, and in his handwriting which I used.

GS: I see. And you also did a portrait of Iris Murdoch?

TP: Yes! That was one of the first portraits I ever did.

GS: What did you learn while doing that if it was your first one?

TP: Well that wasn’t actually the first because I’d done pictures in art school, but it was the first one that ended up published or seen by anybody and it was commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery. She chose me because she met me and I was associated with St Catherine’s College and things like that. A connection we met at a party. [From Phillips’ website: This picture was painted in the usual corner of my studio in Peckham. Iris is sitting in my usual sitter’s chair, half looking out of the window: sometimes, if intriguing people passed by, or dogs (a liking for which we do not share), she would lean out of position to get a better look. Since Iris lived in Oxford and came to London only for the occasional crowded day or two, sittings were irregular. The work in fact spanned three years and involved about fifteen sittings in all, each lasting a couple of hours or so with a break or two for coffee.]

Dame Iris Murdoch, oil on canvas, 80 x 55 cm, 1984-86

GS: And what was she like? I was wondering if you could reflect on your friendship with her.

TP: What was she like? She was lovely! Absolutely lovely, a delightful person to be with.

GS: I read her novel The Sea, The Sea and I loved it.

TP: The Sea, The Sea, yes, she was a terrific writer but she was a terrific thinker too, having studied with Wittgenstein, etc.

GS: Wonderful. So I was wondering if you find any egotism in the concept of a portrait because we now live in the age of the selfie where any insecure or self-obsessed person can take dozens if not hundreds of photos of themselves and post them online. Although the act of a selfie is essentially a split-second compared to a portrait which is time-sensitive and could take hours and hours.

TP: They do take hours! Months! I usually am very slow. But the thing is, when I look for pictures of myself, to show to my children, I realized I got about six photographs spanning 40 years. Now somebody of their age has about 6,000 photographs every other week.

GS: (laughs) Exactly, yes. Do you see that as a negative thing or is some positivity there?

TP: I don’t know about negative and positive. It’s actually arbitrary, isn’t it? It’s how things are now.

GS: Yes.

TP: And that’s the world we live in and adapt to. I adapted to a world where images of oneself were rare.

GS: Yes, and you also did a portrait of professor Peter Goddard?

TP: Yes!

GS: And he is a physicist who worked on the Dirac equation [“which describes all spin-½ massive particles such as electrons and quarks for which parity is a symmetry.”]

TP: The Dirac equation is in the picture.

GS: Well I put two and two together because you have references to CERN in your final edition of A Humument. You also play with concepts of time and memory. So I was wondering how important it is to you to play with and incorporate science into art in general.

TP: I don’t quite know what you mean by that.

GS: Well there are some writers who spurn or ignore the fact that we as a species have split the atom, I’m thinking now of Dali’s “Nuclear Mysticism” manifesto, and we’ve mapped out genomes and things of that nature and all these works seem to ignore these wonderful discoveries.

Sir John Sulston, oil on canvas, 51 x 51 cm, 2004

TP: I did an oil portrait of John Sulston [champion of the human genome project] who was a Nobel Prize winner, and I got him to lend me his notebook. It was full of drawings of the nematode worm, hundreds and hundreds of hundreds of them, which was a very nice thing because I put them in the portrait (not hundreds of them) as well and I enjoyed that. And on one of the pages in his notebook he had lots of little drawings and the phrase “Ah, failed again,” and I thought it was very nice to get that echo of Beckett. All those sorts of things fascinate me.

GS: Me as well. Speaking of what fascinates you, I also learned that you’ve been a keen student and collector of African art since your first visit to the continent in 1973 and that you even curated a major exhibition in 1995.

TP: Yes, an exhibition that I thought was a rather fantastic job. I mean if you’d rather travel to see everything, to handle everything that I showed in the exhibit, perhaps it would inspire anyone.

GS: So you traveled all around the continent?

TP: No, I picked parts of the map, which didn’t do much. I visited 17 countries, which are parts of a huge map. As it happens, I was writing about that three weeks ago in the Times Literary Supplement, doing a review of a book [Beyond Aesthetics: Use, Abuse, and Dissonance in African Art Traditions] by Wole Soyinka, which received in the week afterwards some pretty inciting comments. That’s something you might look up.

GS: Hmm, I will. And you actually came out with a book, Ashanti Weights, about your Ghanaian gold sculptures. Was Ghana the first country you visited in 1973?

TP: Yes, I went to Ghana. Two or three times.

GS: What do you love about African art if you could sum that up for me?

TP: No, I can’t sum it up! There are marvelous things, as in any country. The good things are good; they have a power and a relevance and a humanity.

Figure blowing horn, an illustration from Ashanti Weights

GS: And it’s the cradle of civilization as many scientists will say.

TP: I think we’re still in the cradle of civilization. (laughs)

GS: And Africa is a massive continent of course. So other than Ghana, which other particular countries stood out to you while you were doing your research?

TP: Nigeria takes a lot of energy and the Ivory Coast was very pleasurable. I had some quite alarming experiences and some quite good experiences, but all in all it was a rich endeavor.

GS: I can imagine. Have you tried any of the literature from those countries?

TP: Not very much, no. Music, yes; literature, no.

GS: I recently discovered Kojo Laing and he was from Ghana and so far in my exploration of the literature, he’s the closest writer from Africa to James Joyce with a little Rabelaisian flavor. Very wonderful stuff.

TP: I’ll have to look at that. What’s the title?

GS: The book I read was called Big Bishop Roko and the Altar Gangsters. I can send you the link for that so don’t worry about it.

TP: Okay!

GS: His work is actually very hard to find because most of my efforts involve shining a light on a lot of neglected literature but there is an African publisher who has the novel print-on-demand, so it’s fairly easy to get a copy of that particular one.

TP: Okay, email me something about it.

GS: Indeed, indeed. I was wondering, what are your thoughts on art as a commodity. Has the act of putting a price on a piece of art gone too far?

TP: Well in recent months they’ve explained things have happened that I really I don’t understand about this sort of work of art that’s thousands and thousands of dollars going toward something that doesn’t quite exist, but of course art’s a commodity because it’s a way people earn a living.

GS: Yes, true. One thing that I saw was that someone sold a pixel for a huge sum of money.

TP: Yes, that’s what I read. I can’t understand how that works.

GS: Me either. (laughs) I don’t know.

TP: It’s too late for me to enter a new field even if it’s a million dollars, but I’ve never had that kind of money, but I’ve earned a living all my life, and that’s something.

GS: Yes. Other than those little weird transactions, you don’t think that art has become too much of a capitalist industry as it were?

TP: No, art is art; it’s nothing to do with that at all. The good ones are very good and they’ve got things that aren’t very good but sell for a lot of money but that’s always been the case, I guess. The Rembrandts of the world had good money. But one has got to remember that Meissonier was the highest-paid artist when Manet and Monet were painting.

GS: And the act of patronage was also common back then. I’m not so sure about these days.

TP: Oh I rely very much on consistent patrons. One called Marvin Sackner. His archive was huge. He recently died, and the archive has now gone to Iowa. And without him I would never have been able to do all the Humuments, for example, because he encouraged me and bought things as we went along over an enormous period.

GS: That reminds me of Vincent van Gogh who only sold one painting in his lifetime.

TP: Yes, but his lifetime wasn’t very long!

GS: True.

TP: And he wasn’t very good at the start! I think van Gogh did very well in the end. He produced amazing pictures, but only for a short period. For two and a half years or so, he was the best painter in the world.

GS: Indeed. So moving on, I wanted to talk about illustrating. You’ve illustrated Waiting for Godot; you’ve illustrated Dante’s Inferno, Tristram Shandy, etc.

TP: Oh Tristram Shandy has only just come out so you’re very up to date!

GS: Yes, get your copy now while supplies last! (laughs) I was wondering if you think that illustrations are an underrated artform, perhaps in the way that people often equate them with children’s books or fairy tales rather than quote unquote serious literature.

TP: No, that’s not true. If you go to an art gallery, think of how many of those illustrations are from the Bible.

GS: True, I never thought of it that way.

TP: I don’t like illustrations very much in novels. I don’t want to know what the characters look like.

GS: Like Kafka balking at the idea of putting the bug on the book’s cover. So is that something you avoid in your illustrations?

TP: No, I don’t do that kind of thing. I try to think in the old term of ‘Illumination’. I’ve just been doing The Waste Land.

GS: Yes, and how is that going?

TP: Oh it’s been very interesting to do, but I suppose you might be the one to read that as an illustrated book too.

GS: Definitely!

TP: The pictures that appear in the book try not to diminish anything, they just attempt to illuminate the references.

GS: I noticed in A Humument you’ll have sort of the abstract patterns and then you’ll have something that could look like a scene, a three-dimensional room, for example.

TP: Yes, but I don’t draw the people in the story.

GS: They’re usually sort of amorphous, Toge, for instance. But I think there was an illustration that was more solidified near the end, do you remember that?

TP: Yes, there’s that, there are all sorts of things, there’s no one—I remember just looking at a copy of one of Sterne’s books and it’s all sort of ghastly-looking people and that irritates me enormously.

GS: Well what are some of your favorite illustrations of books?

TP: It’s difficult for me to remember. I think Botticelli is pretty good with his Dante. I don’t know, the world of illustrated books is funny to me…. Well, I like Botticelli and Dalí, scenes in which they pictured Dante and Virgil and so forth, so I’m praising what I normally complain about.

GS: But in general, you’ll sort of lean toward maybe the abstract or painting, say, objects?

TP: Illusions I don’t like, but allusions I do.

GS: I would assume that the act of illustrating is nuanced and sort of depends on each particular project?

TP: I got interested in doing it, sure. Think of the illustrations for Waiting for Godot, there are no pictures of the characters.

Waiting for Godot, Pen & Ink, 2000

GS: Even though we have the two protagonists who are the stars of the show.

TP: Indeed, but I didn’t draw them.

GS: So I was going to ask you about The Waste Land, did receive approval on that?

TP: Approval from whom?

GS: T.S. Eliot’s estate.

TP: No, no. That’s actually a difficult thing.

GS: Oh really?

TP: I’ve done illustrations, but it wasn’t for favor.

GS: Do you still have to get approval before you can publish the book or how does that work?

TP: That’s a tangled story and its resolution has yet to appear.

GS: Well I wish you the best of luck with that.

TP: (laughs)

GS: So circling back to what we were first talking about, A Humument, I know that you tried treating other novels but that always sort of came up empty compared to the Humument project?

TP: Well I looked at other novels to see why I was getting on well with the novel that had befallen me, but none of them were the same thing to me at all.

I’ve been doing some other books based on an author of a similar period called Humbert Wolfe. It’s a book of poems because it has many blank pages so I’ve been filling it up with all sorts of material.

GS: You’re using a similar method with this novel to make poetry, is that what you’re saying?

TP: No, more like a compendium of things I’m interested in and life drawings and some of the poems I’ve treated. It’s what I’m working on right now.

GS: Do you remember any of the novels or any works that you’ve tried to treat?

TP: No, I don’t. Every book I look at I must have half an idea I could use. I just stumbled upon a book that richly provided what I wanted both in terms of its typography and its word-hoard.

GS: Is there a specific novel that you would love to have a similar relationship, like you did with A Humument?

TP: No, it’s a beautiful marriage

GS: There was one thought I had. It’s a bit strange maybe, but perhaps you can humor me, humument me.

TP: (laughs)

GS: I was thinking how you use redacting to create a new work or illuminate it whereas authoritarian governments use redacting to hide and obscure the work. Have you thought about this relationship at all?

TP: No, not really, not in that distinct sense. I know what you mean, but I’m trying to make Mallock’s book better.

GS: Yes, I did read about that in your introduction, how the novel [A Human Document] is a bit of a potboiler, it’s not really that great of a novel.

TP: I think it’s actually pretty good. It’s very well-written, but in a sort of fustian way that’s not done very often now. Actually to be an immaculate writer is quite boring.

GS: To quote from the final edition of A Humument, there was one phrase that stood out to me: “Out of the night, neglected books,” and A Human Document was a neglected book before you treated it and now there are new editions available online that I’ve seen. You have the original going for several hundred dollars or so on AbeBooks.

TP: Yes it’s crazy, isn’t it? But you have to be careful. I used the one-volume English edition. There is an American edition that doesn’t match it as well as the three-decker original edition.

GS: Mhmm. So wrongly or rightly, A Human Document was a neglected book that has become much more known through your artistic efforts.

TP: I know, I used to buy these books used; I bought up to 12 or 15 copies. The first one cost threepence. Now if I wanted to buy one, they cost like a hundred pounds or even more!

GS: My website The Collidescope is mostly dedicated to shining a light on wrongly neglected works, so I was wondering, what’s a novel you think deserves more readers in that sense?

TP: What’s a novel that deserves more readers? I think there’s two…one novel that I have worked on, which is Heart of Darkness. I made it into an opera libretto.

GS: Oh, wonderful!

TP: It’s been performed with music by Tarik O’Regan.

GS: And what was the other novel? You said there were two books that deserved more readers.

TP: I’m just telling you what I really like. The Quiet American by Graham Greene is another.

GS: That’s one I’m not familiar with.

TP: There are marvelous books like Dickens and Trollope’s The Way We Live Now. I can think of 20, 30, 40 novels that I like, but I chose those two because they’re short. They manage to do a lot of work in quite a short form.

GS: Condensed, right?

TP: Yes. If you haven’t read The Quiet American, you’ve got a treat. If you haven’t read The Way We Live Now, you’ve got quite a treat.

GS: I have some treats in store for me. (laughs) Other than A Humument, what is a particular project that you’ve worked on that’s dear to your heart that you would like to have a life after your life, as it were?

TP: Oh, that’s a difficult one. One is always in love with what one is currently working on. In this case, it’s the book I mentioned which will probably be called Humbert. It is in fact a treatment of a whole series of the same book, using about a tenth of the material.

GS: Because A Humument is the big one but I’m curious about the others. You have a very diverse curriculum vitae so that’s why I was asking.

TP: That’s true, I’ve done lots of different things. I hope some of them last long, give people pleasure, that would be great. What’s dear to my heart, I mean…there’s a version of A Humument that’s an opera called Irma, which I published the complete score of. I have seen it done a couple of times. It always seems to bring out something from the people who do it.

GS: I actually heard an excerpt from that. It’s not your usual opera, that’s for sure.

TP: No, but there’s an American group who came to do it here recently; they’re very good. I can’t think of their name right now but they did a very good performance [They’re called The Vocal Constructivists and the performance, which was held on June 17th, 2019, included accompaniments “drawn from our ensemble of analog synthesizers, sarangi (the Indian bowed instrument of 100 colours), theremin, (prepared) piano, alto flute, and tuba”]. That’s something that can live and change and have its own life.

GS: True, very true. So I think we’ve covered everything. Thank you so much for your time. This has been wonderful and I really appreciate it, Tom.

TP: A pleasure! Thank you, thank you. Bye-bye.

Irma: An opera, opus XIIB, Page 21 of the First Edition, full colour, The Talfourd Press

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Photo by Lima Charlie

Tom Phillips is an artist whose work is fuelled by several persistent preoccupations, expressed through an even larger number of formats. These include painting (both figurative and abstract), opera (composer, librettist, set designer), concrete poetry and ornamental forms of writing, sculpture and site-specific designs (mosaic, tapestry, wire frame objects). He has also taken on several para-artistic roles – critic, curator, committee chairman for the Royal Academy, translator – all of which he has folded back into his art. Read his full bio on his website here.

George Salis is the author of Sea Above, Sun Below. His fiction is featured in The DarkBlack DandyZizzle Literary MagazineHouse of ZoloThree Crows Magazine, and elsewhere. His criticism has appeared in IsacousticAtticus Review, and The Tishman Review, and his science article on the mechanics of natural evil was featured in Skeptic. He is currently working on an encyclopedic novel titled Morphological Echoes. He has taught in Bulgaria, China, and Poland. Find him on FacebookGoodreadsInstagramTwitter, and at

2 thoughts on “Failing Better: The Last Interview with Tom Phillips

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