My talented father, Mervyn Peake
Keiron PimThe artist and writer Mervyn Peake was a man of many talents. KEIRON PIM spoke to his son, Sebastian, who will be in Norfolk on January 29 to discuss his father's life and work.Keiron Pim
If Mervyn Peake is less well known than he should be, it is perhaps because his talents were so varied that he defied categorising.
Was he a novelist, a poet, a painter, a children's book illustrator? He was all these and more but, when asked to pinpoint his father's greatest strength, Sebastian Peake suggests it was the fantastical fiction best demonstrated in his Gormenghast trilogy. This is not to play down the other outlets through which Peake expressed his creativity; his poetry is arresting, his illustrations delightfully macabre, and a painted self-portrait hangs in the National Portrait Gallery.
Mervyn Peake died in 1968 when Sebastian was in his late 20s. More than 40 years on, he safeguards his father's legacy by running the estate and giving talks on his life and work, the next of which will take place in Wells in an event organised by the town's Poetry-next-the-Sea festival. The emphasis, naturally enough, will be on his father's verse.
'People who don't really know of him do know of his novels,' says Sebastian, whose own career has been in wine dealing, 'and some might know of his illustrations, although fewer than know of his books. But fewer still know that he was quite an accomplished poet. He wrote five volumes of poetry, three published during his lifetime and two posthumously.'
Last year saw the publication of these and a further 80 poems that Sebastian discovered after his mother died, compiled in a single volume, Collected Poems by Mervyn Peake (Carcanet Press, �12.95). Writing in the Guardian, Jay Parini hailed Peake's 'affecting system of linked sounds and lyric grace', noting that it 'remains a landmark volume of sorts, a testament to a poet who never quite achieved the level of attention that he deserved'.
The event at the Granary Theatre, in Wells, on January 29 is described by organiser Caroline Gilfillan as an 'unique opportunity to discover an extraordinary man, a true 20th century original'. Born in China in 1911 to Christian missionary parents, Peake moved to England in 1923, and at the age of 20 had a painting chosen for the Royal Academy Summer Show. In 1940 he joined the army and moved from London to Sussex, where Sebastian was born; in 1942 he left the army, having been given special dispensation to work on his fiction, and in 1945 he visited the recently liberated Belsen concentration camp as an official war artist. This produced some of his most poignant work, both in the form of a charcoal sketch of a bed-ridden girl dying from consumption and in honest verse that described his guilt at the voyeuristic nature of war art. This brief poem bears repeating in full: 'If seeing her an hour before her last / Weak cough into all blackness I could yet / Be held by chalk-white walls, and by the great / Ash coloured bed, / And the pillows hardly creased / By the tapping of her little cough-jerked head - / If such can be a painter's ecstasy, / (Her limbs like pipes, her head a china skull) / Then where is mercy?'
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So as well as being a creator of whimsical fantasy, he was able to look the grimmest of current affairs square in the face while simultaneously looking within himself. Elsewhere in his poetic canon he addresses issues from unemployment in the 1930s to the horrors of the London Blitz. For Sebastian, admiration for his father's work is combined with fond memories of a man who died, aged 57, after enduring Parkinson's Disease for a decade.
'We grew up on Sark, in the Channel Islands, and one of the most exciting and memorable occasions was during the famous winter of 1947, which has gone down in the annals of history,' he says. One night his father woke Sebastian and his brother and summoned them to the garden.
'It was dark, there was snow outside and we didn't know where we were being taken. I was a little bit concerned. We followed him out to the gardens in our dressing gowns, and there in the garden was a perfectly formed, full-size igloo.
'My brother and I noticed that there was quite a frightening looking person looking out through a missing block of ice. My dad said 'Come on boys', but we didn't want to… then we realised that he done a painting of an Eskimo and propped it in the window. That was very funny; these things are etched on the memory.'
He sounds like quite a character, one who has long held what Sebastian calls 'a small but very dedicated band of followers' for his poetry and a wider readership for his Gormenghast books.
C S Lewis described well their strange quality: Peake's novels, he thought, 'are actual additions to life; they give, like certain rare dreams, sensations we never had before, and enlarge our conception of the range of possible experience.'
t Tickets cost �7 and the event begins at 7.30pm on Thursday, January 29, at the Granary Theatre, Staithe Street, Wells. To book call Susan Marshall on 01328 711813. This year's Poetry-next-the-Sea festival runs from May 8-10.