“Life Is Fun, and If It’s Not Then You Are Doing Something Wrong” – Peter Whitby
by Tanner Seymour
Peter Whitby is a man of great constitution. His travels and experiences are much too elaborate and insightful for an brief news article, and would be much better suited for a novel.
Whitby was born and raised in Ilford, England, which is a part of eastern London. He resided there until he was about eighteen years old, receiving English education at a grammar school. Whitby explains that, “When you’re eleven you take the ‘Eleven Plus’, which is like the SAT. If you are in the top third then you go to a grammar school. The bottom two thirds are sent to a secondary modern, which is where you learn how to do things with your hands, you know, woodworking etcetera. Terrible system.”
I asked Whitby about what significant things happened to him throughout his life and what types of jobs he had done. He humbly responded, “I’ve done everything. I’ve worked out with an eighth grade class that I have had thirtysix different jobs. I’ve cleaned out cows, I’ve cleaned out toilets, I’ve cleaned everything, I’ve cleaned the streets. I’ve milked cows, I’ve picked grapefruit, I’ve picked oranges, I’ve picked everything, lemons are the worst because they have really bad thorns on the trees. I’ve worked in factories making zippers, that was incredibly boring. I’ve worked for one day in a cardboard box factory, actually that’s not true, I walked off the job half through the day, it was just terrible. I used to deliver packages on a motorcycle in London. I made a couple of records, single of the week pressing. I was tip for the top for music in 1985 I believe, it shows how rubbish music papers are.”
As you could tell I was basically in awe with what I was hearing. This man doing all these different things seemed simply remarkable. I was still in a certain trace as he was spinning his intricate web of memories, but I asked him to elaborate on his favorite job. He said his musical career was his most favorite.
“I was out on my own, I traveled around and used West Berlin as my base. That was during the Cold War, so I had to go through the wall all the time. I don’t know how I got the guts for it but I basically used to break into record companies. I would talk my way past the guards and receptionists, then climb over rastafarians all over the floor unconscious. I used to go in and find the guy who was in charge in one place called INR. I used to refuse to leave their office. I would have a cassette tape and say, ‘you need to play this or you’ll regret it for the rest of your life. And I’m not leaving until you play it.’ Because otherwise they just throw it in the trash. And eventually one of them gave me a record contract.”
I intervened, though thoroughly entertained, agreeing with him in saying how most people in these hiring positions and any higher position don’t really see what is around them. He then backs me up and says, “They don’t have to because everyone’s coming to them. In London we call it ‘the front’ — if you have the confidence, or you pretend to have the confidence to get in their faces and say ‘you have to listen to this!’ You don’t want to be the guy to turn me down.”
“Berlin was crazy. Before the war was over and the wall came down, Berlin was like a pressure cooker… the average age of the city was about twentysix. It was like if an entire city was a college campus. It was crazy, crazy, crazy… It is a fantastic city.”
When asked if he was in a band or a single he says, “I was, well, both. But what I did around 1981 I used to play just on my own because I don’t play well with other guitarists. They just get it wrong all the time.”
It was apparent during my interview with Whitby, how many experiences were captured and retained by his eyes. I said blatantly that, “it is obvious you have seen a lot throughout your life.” Which he swiftly replied, “I think everyone does. I just think people don’t reflect on it enough.”
Anyone who had Whitby for any class probably would have heard his outrageous stories such as his “Mugged by a Monk” story or his “Verona Witch” story. He swears these stories are true and are exactly as he depicts them. He was kind enough to retell his “Verona Witch” story.
“I was given a gig in Italy, in Verona, by a ballerina. I was on my way to the gig and as I got out of my car, there was no road, there was just a hole to the side of it and I kind of fell down the hole. I threw myself at the car and I crushed my finger, my guitar playing finger between the door and the car with all my weight against it. You could see right down to my bone it was like, showing through my skin. I was thinking, ‘I can’t play guitar’! The ballerina said, ‘Don’t worry, I have a friend. She is a witch.’
So she took me to this very normal house, actually. Everything was kind of fluffy or had fringe on it including the witch who was actually rather young and beautiful. She basically used something that looked and smelled a lot like poo and piled this stuff all over my finger and said a few things in Italian and all that and wrapped it up Then said ‘Don’t touch for thirty minutes and it will be good.’ Bella, bella. I didn’t and half an hour later I took the wrap off and there wasn’t any bruising or anything on my finger. So yeah, that is crazy.”
In 1999 he moved to America with his wife because of a job opportunity for her. She is a scientist who researches HIV. He said that, “They said (her company) that she was so good, you need more money, and we can’t afford to pay you so you have to leave. So she let it be known that she was available.”
Soon places all over the world were beckoning her to work for them. “She got offers from all over: Sydney, Paris, Georgia, Seattle, and this funny place called Frederick which we never heard of.” The company that resided in Frederick started to throw numbers her way. Within four days of rising their original offer she responded and decided to move all the way from their home to a foreign country to a town that they hardly knew.
I asked him what was his favorite thing to do was, which he quickly responded, “ I don’t have hobbies, I have obsessions. Playing guitar. Yep, singing. I just sit with the TV on sometimes and write soundtracks for what’s playing on the TV.”
To go with this question I also asked him what was his biggest challenge in life. Suddenly everything got a little bit more serious. He starts with a joke and just says, “Living it.” but I knew there was more he wanted to share. He started and said, “I don’t want to get too serious but I was diagnosed with cancer a couple of years back. I nearly died a few years ago. That would be it.”
I told him if there is anything he didn’t want to share with my that it would be totally reasonable and I wouldn’t pressure him into anything. He continued, “I’ve got cancer of the kidney; it’s not going to go away. It’s weird, it’s actually been a positive experience in a way I never even would have thought. I got so many cards from students, ex-students. I’m an atheist, I don’t believe in god and I got churches praying for me in America, in Europe, and Asia. I’m being prayed for in Synagogues and Mosques and all those places. It’s really humbling that when you get somthing like that you just learn, unless you already knew, how wonderful people are. I’ve taught probably about 5000 people over twenty something years I’ve been teaching and I’ve met maybe five bad ones. So if 4995 are good, then it’s a pretty good world out there.”
Near the end of my interview, I asked him what was his philosophy. What are some of your values? I thought that a philosophy from someone as wise and respected as Whitby would be valued by many of my peers. He responded, It’s just, ‘This is it’. That’s it. That’s my philosophy, ‘This is it’. You only get one life; you have to live it. One of my great heroes was actually a storyteller, Terry Pratchett, died yesterday and he wrote about seventy books, all of which were terribly funny. That was his thing, this is the one life and you can’t waste it. Life is fun, and if it’s not then you are doing something wrong.”