Head of an Armana royal female, possibly Meritaten
Egypt, 1353-1335 BC
The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge
... AS SEEN BY PETER WHITEHEAD
I arrived in Cambridge in the early Sixties to study Chemistry, Physics and Mathematics at Peterhouse College. After three years of studying science - including crystallography, working in the Cavendish laboratory assisting Dr Francis Crick (DNA), Dr John Kendrew (Myoglobin) and Dr Max Perutz (Haemoglobin) - and winning the Sohal La Bhatia prize, my science degree and experience finally paled into irrelevance. I had meanwhile won a scholarship to the prestigious Slade School of Art to study painting, but where I took up film-making instead; and for the rest of my life I made films, later I built the largest private falcon breeding project in the world in Saudi Arabia, and published seven novels.
What had caused such a dramatic volte face?
The beautiful face of a small limestone sculpture in the Egyptian galleries of the Fitzwilliam Museum. I had casually drifted into the museum on my way back to my rooms in St Peter's Terrace. And my life was changed forever. I wrote my first novel about this experience: The Risen, a comparison between the ideologies of modern physics and ancient Egyptian physics and cosmology; a comparison of the scientific and the mystical.
Years later I worked with a very distinguished shaman in Pakistan (he advised President Zia ul Haq three days a week on how to run Pakistan!), who knew everything about my experience in the museum in the first few minutes of meeting him – despite being illiterate and not speaking English!
I went on to study Egyptology and spent much of my holidays while at Cambridge in the Fitzwilliam, coming to terms with the weird wider implications of this kind of ‘mystical’ experience, as rationalists call it - still classified as a mystery and not be to taken seriously! I am now studying the later work of physicist David Bohm and his work on holographic time and space, and more recent theories of the existence of a fifth dimension (only to be perceived holographically, the technology soon to be worked out) in the space-time continuum.
These are revolutionary new ideas that I personally find easier now to work with in writing so-called ‘fictions’, which are nevertheless (or even nonetheless!) research experiments into the true nature of consciousness; about which we still know so very little. Science deals with the materials. Mysticism (for me) attempts to evaluate the true nature and working of consciousness ... so much we are on the verge of discovering, which may never be explained in a predictable way.
As Meritaten explained to me at our first meeting. ‘Hey you! What are you doing trapped ‘in the prison house of reason?’’ It seems she had learnt Wordsworth off by heart! As well as Rilke ... as well as ... etc. etc.
Peter Whitehead (b. 1937)
Born into a poor working-class family in Liverpool in 1937, Peter Whitehead won a scholarship to Ashville College, Harrogate, and then Peterhouse College, Cambridge, where he read Natural Sciences. It was at Cambridge, on a visit to the Fitzwilliam Museum, that he was first captivated by Egyptian sculpture, a small head of Meritaten, the daughter of Akhenaten and Nefertiti. A formative experience, Whitehead later recalled this encounter in The Risen, a holographic novel published in 1994. Having won a scholarship to study painting at the Slade School of Fine Art, he moved to London, but never picked up a paint brush. Rather, he shot 16mm films, worked with Italian television and soon established himself as a documentary filmmaker. In 1965, Whitehead had his breakthrough with Wholly Communion, a documentary of an International Poetry Reading held in the Royal Albert Hall, which featured, amongst other anti-Vietnam activists, Harry Fainlight and Adrian Mitchell. He was then invited to film the Rolling Stones and subsequently also filmed Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin. His London work culminated in the legendary Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London, released in 1967. Whitehead then moved to New York where he worked on what was to result in The Fall, released in 1969. A self-reflexive film, informed by the death of Martin Luther King and of Robert Kennedy, it included footage from occupied Columbia University and led Whitehead to conclude that he could not change the world by making films.
Daddy (1973) and Fire in the Water (1977) aside, Whitehead essentially abandoned filmmaking in the 1970s. Disillusioned with the West, he spent the next years wandering through Afghanistan, Alaska, Algeria, Iran, Morocco and Pakistan and pursued his next passion: trapping and breeding falcons. As much concerned with the conservation of these precious birds as with flying them, he accepted, in 1981, the patronage of Prince Khalid al Faisal of Saudi Arabia and together they built the largest falcon breeding centre in the world, the Al Faisal Centre in Abha, Saudi Arabia. Here Whitehead worked with wild and captive-bred birds and honed his technique of breeding falcons by artificial insemination. The results were an array of falcons now in the hands of the Saudi royal family and hours of video footage showing Whitehead practising courtship rituals to encourage imprinted birds to copulate with him. His years as a falconer came to an abrupt end in 1991 when the first Gulf War unfolded and when the Al Faisal Centre had to be pulled down. Whitehead was given 125 birds, all of which were impounded by the Spanish authorities when on his way back to Britain.
Peter Whitehead now lives in Northamptonshire. His life and work has been the subject of a three-hour feature film, In the Beginning was the Image, directed by Paul Cronin and first shown in the Tribeca film festival in New York in 2007.
To read from Peter Whitehead's holographic novel The Risen click here.
1964 The Perception of Life
1965 Wholly Communion
1966 Charlie Is My Darling
1967 Pink Floyd London 1966-67
1967 Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London
1967 Benefit of the Doubt
1969 The Fall
1969 Tell Me Lies
1977 Fire in the Water
P. Whitehead, Nora and …, Brookside Press, 1990
P. Whitehead, The Risen – A Holographic Novel, Hathor, 1994
P. Whitehead, Pulp Election: The Booker Prize Fix, Bluedove Publishing, 1996
P. Whitehead, Baby Doll, Velvet Publications, 1996