Sometimes the universe conspires to put an idea or a book in your path and this is what happened to me this year. Last October, I was purchasing a bottle of water in Edinburgh airport and the shopkeeper insisted that I take the free copy of The Daily Telegraph that came with it. I don’t really buy newspapers anymore, especially large weekend editions, because as an obsessive reader I always feel that I have to read them from back to front. I’m glad that I did in this instance because this is how I came upon Tom Phillip’s remarkable work ‘A Humument.’


The idea for this incredible piece of work came about fifty years ago. Tom and a friend were rummaging through Austin’s Furniture Repository in Peckham when they arrived at a nondescript pile of antiquated books. Tom boasted that the first threepence book he found, he would turn into a serious long-term project. He then chanced upon a W.H. Mallock novel with the intriguing title “ Human Document.” Of course when he opened the cover he saw the aforementioned price and the rest is history.

The article that I read in The Daily Telegraph was aptly headlined ‘Cut out, paint, repeat for 50 years’ and gave a great insight into how Phillips completed this unique project. Essentially for fifty years Tom would spend his days opening the novel on random pages, playing around with the words and phrases and then painting over them. Even when he reinterpreted every page by 1973, he still wasn’t finished. He would often find himself retouching or completely reimagining pages.

As he immersed himself in his work, he found ‘serendipity to be his best collaborator.‘Again and again, his experiments with words written in the 19th century threw up 21st century references such as ‘app’ and ‘facebook.’ Another story tells us that:

‘The first page I finished was page 33. In reworking it, years later, I incorporated part of the original as a memorial to the start of things, now burned and pasted onto its successor. I discovered in the process some additional words lurking on the page: “…as years went on you began to fail better”, echoing a much loved phrase of Beckett, which did not exist until 17 years after my initial version.’

In a tasteful nod to Mallock’s input into the project, Phillips included a photograph of the forgotten author’s grave on page 367 of his final edition. If ever a work exemplified new innovations building upon the traditions of the old, it is this work.

‘I have so far extracted from Mallock’s novel well over a thousand segments of poetry and prose and have yet to find a situation, sentiment or thought which his words cannot be adapted to cover – and all thanks to man who, from accounts of his personality, would seem to be someone I would not at all have enjoyed meeting. I have tested other fictions and discovered nothng to equal him in the provocation of fresh conflations and marriages of word and phrase.’



  • Phillips idea was influenced by the artwork of William Burroughs Nova Trilogy (also known as the Cut-Up Trilogy). Restored editions of this trilogy were published in 2014.