Tuesday, 19 July 2011
Dartington Ways With Words Festival
At the Ways With Words literary festival at Dartington Hall last week, all three of Mervyn Peake’s children, Clare, Fabian and Sebastian, appeared together to talk about their memories of their father and feelings about his work in this his centenary year. As the mediator of the talk observed, the large medieval hall with its faded tapestried banners and hefty oak roof beams was the ideal setting in which to talk about the creator of Gormenghast’s stone labyrinth. He was remembered with evident warmth as a man for whom family was paramount, and in no way an obstacle to work. Fabian pointed out that his studio or work room was always open, and they were free to wander in and look at whatever he might be engaged upon at the time. He recalled seeing his father working on the illustrations for The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Treasure Island, and noted how he would erase unwanted lines by physically scraping away the surface of the paper with a razor blade. The final illustration would thus be a rough and chaotically textured thing, but this wouldn’t come through in the reproduction. Sebastian remembered posing on the table of their house in Sark for the figure of Jim in Treasure Island. The house had no heating save for a meagre portable affair, and he remembers grimly steeling himself against the winter cold as his father pleaded for him to just hold on for one more sketch. To this day, he has no great affection for the character, but can now gain a certain pride from looking back at his young self immortalised as the innocent boy caught up in a world of piratical devilry.
Asked about how their father was able to separate the intense and frequently dark worlds of the imagination peopled with striking grotesques in which he immersed himself from the everyday demands of family life, they said it was just something he was intuitively able to manage. He seemed to find the ordinary world a place of magic and delight anyway, as numerous anecdotes attested. Perhaps his fantastic turn of mind (and the fantastic imagination always finds delight in the grotesque and macabre) was not such a bad attribute when it came to raising inquisitive children who delighted in their own imaginations. The recently published Sunday Books memorialise the stories Peake would tell his children on Sark, accompanying them with spontaneous sketches and drawings. The stories were never written down, but the illustrations remain, and Michael Moorcock, a friend of Mervyn and his wife Maeve’s, has added his own accompanying tales. These Sunday stories show how integral his art was to his family life, and vice versa, something also evident from his innumerable sketches of Sebastian, Fabian and Maeve. As a result, all three children have grown up to be creative in their own particular way. Sebastian edged around the question of the influence of the family on the creation of the Gormenghast books by emphasising the primary importance of his childhood experiences in China on its imaginative construction. Fabian added that, like all artists, he drew from every element of his life, from the deeply felt to the casually observed. They conceded that there was a lot of Maeve in both Fuschia and Gertrude, and Sebastian was the model for the infant Titus (sketches of him adorn the manuscript of Titus Groan). Maeve was remembered by her children as a warmly generous woman who somehow managed to combine the bohemian lifestyle with classic glamour. Other children on Sark would shout out as she was approaching in her Givenchy or Dior-style ‘new look’ dresses, and Sebastian and Fabian would hide behind a hedge. In his memoir A Child of Bliss, Sebastian recalls that she liked to dance to flamenco music on top of the table at the end of her parties, and would always encourage other people to dance.
Mervyn was full of life and vitality, always goofing about and indulging in practical jokes, and his dark, romantic good looks (deriving from his Welsh ancestry, no doubt) and easy charm made him very popular with women. Sebastian recalled his persistent pursuit of a music student at the Royal College of Music whom he sat opposite on the train and wanted to sketch. She demurred and got off at the next stop, but he was not to be deterred. He would turn up at her rehearsals at the College and draw her from the stalls. When she mentioned this to her husband later in life, he commented ‘well, he always did have an eye for the grotesque’. Asked how Maeve felt about such dalliances and his eye for the female form, they said it was accepted with equanimity. Sebastian told the above anecdote with the command of someone who has become expert at public speaking. He above all has been the one who has tirelessly promoted his father’s work over the years. He talks of a moment which defined his father in his eyes. Again, it returns us to Sark, the spiritual centre of the family’s life. Mervyn got the young Sebastian to close his eyes and placed a piece of topaz in his palm. He knew that his father would have had to have climbed down the dangerous cliff-face descending to the sea on the sheer sides of the Coupee, the narrow arête joining the two halves of the island, where deposits of the mineral were to be found. He was also prone to performing daredevil stunts on his bicycle as he raced along the narrow Coupee path. This was what made his father a hero to him, Sebastian said.
All three Peakes gave brief readings. Clare read a passage from her recent memoir Under A Canvas Sky, in which she recalled her father taking her for walks down the Kings Road, near their Chelsea studio flat. He would buy her a Chelsea bun from the baker’s (the Kings Road still had such things in those days), commenting that they were in Chelsea, so they might as well have one; a throwaway remark which would become a running joke between them. They would look in art shops and pick up the tubes of paint, but not the canvasses, which her father couldn’t afford. The evocative names of the paints, the cobalt blues, rose madders, burnt umbers and yellow ochres cast a magical spell, and the studio in which Mervyn worked was a place of warmth and comfort for her. So much so that the smell of turps still has an odd emotional resonance for her.
Fabian, himself a poet and artist, read one of his father’s poems, Love, I Had Thought It Rocklike, written around 1946 and included in the recent Collected Poems volume. It depicts love become evanescent and fragile where once it had seemed so solid and firmly rooted. ‘I had thought it founded like a city of stone’, Peake wrote, ‘but it was thistledown/Or the touch of a wand’. This was one of several poems written at the time (Love’s House, Swans Die and a Tower Falls and Forever Through Love’s Weather Wandering being others) in which Peake seems to articulate a dissociation from his feelings for Maeve. This was perhaps caused by the shock of war and in particular his observation of the horrors of the camp at Belsen. These poems seem to express an inner loneliness, a crisis over the purpose and value of his art. This despair was kept in check to a great extent. It’s certainly not a quality his children remember in him. Sebastian (the oldest of the three children) remembers in his memoir A Child of Bliss that there was a change in his father coming back from the war. He attributes this directly to his experiences in Belsen, asking ‘how can his experience of the camp not have created an eternal helplessness of the soul?’ Indeed, Sebastian became obsessed with the camps himself for a period of time, trying to gain an understanding of just what it was that had wrought such a change in his father.
Mervyn was able to rediscover his love for Maeve (perhaps after a spiritually restorative return to Sark) as the 1948 poem Out of the Chaos of My Doubt makes plain: ‘Out of the chaos of my doubt/And the chaos of my art/I turn to you inevitably/As the needle to the pole’. Fabian interpreted the poem he read in a far less personal way, viewing it as a declaration that the small and fragile can be, in its own way, as strong and vital as the solid and monumental. Drawing an artistic analogy, he said that the thin pencil line can be as forcefully expressive as the thick brush stroke. He sees his father’s approach to poetry as being primarily emotional and instinctive, with technique and structure being applied to subsequently shape such rawly felt material.
Sebastian ended the session with a reading from Titus Awakes, the recently published manuscript of Maeve’s discovered in an old box in his attic. It was her attempt to draw from the skeletal notes made by Mervyn in his declining years outlining ideas for the development of the Titus books and bring his story to a conclusion. But it was also her personal search for the husband who had been taken away from her by the cruel fate of degenerative illness leading to early death. Sebastian reads the final pages, in which Sark once more becomes the magnetic island, drawing Titus to his final place of rest, the endpoint of his quest. As he draws near to the shore, he sees the artist for whom he’s been searching, two boys by his side and a young girl hoisted onto his shoulders. It’s a deeply moving conclusion, both to the book and to the talk, for the artist is clearly Mervyn Peake, and the children Sebastian, Fabian and Clare. Titus is Maeve, returning to Sark one final time, a personal Avalon and blessed isle.
The next day we went to see the wonderful Rabbi Lionel Blue, whose open, liberal approach to religion emphasising kindness and compassion as the values which create a preview of heaven on earth is a welcome corrective to the more judgemental forms which seem prevalent in the modern world. The Rabbi is a little shake and slow on his feet these days after the onset of Parkinson’s disease (and the simple effect of age) but as soon as he sat down he settled into an effortless flow of autobiographical reminiscence, wry observation, modestly offered wisdom and, most of all, jokes. Jewish culture is blessed with one of the richest veins of humour in the world, as documented in Leo Rosten’s excellent dictionary/cultural guide/philosophical treatise and jokebook The Joys of Yiddish. Blue noted how his family and those who lived around them in the Whitechapel area of the East End coped with hardship through humour. He likened this to religion in providing a perspective which allowed people to turn a situation inside out, to view it from a completely different angle. He’s candid about his own struggles with faith, politics and sexuality, an openness which makes him all the better able to empathise with and help those who come to him for advice and spiritual guidance. His view of religion is simple and practical; asked why he is religious and became a Rabbi, he says ‘because it worked for me’. He recalls how horrified his mother was when he announced that he intended to become a Rabbi. She felt that he was turning around and heading straight back into the ghetto from which they’d escaped. It was only when he declared that he was going to seek out a holy man in the Himalayas that she stopped threatening to kill herself and gave him her blessing (the monastic retreat gambit had failed to make the necessary impact). He doesn’t give any easy answers to the complex questions which people bring to him, refusing to supply the magical solutions which some people require of religion. His radical uncertainty (perhaps a healthy development from the radical over-certainty of his youth), his willingness to admit to cluelessness, is refreshing and a sign of unforced wisdom. He says he has no idea what the afterlife will be like, since death involves a cessation of both time and space, the measures by which experience is quantified, but that we can create a preview of heaven through acts of kindness to our fellow creatures.
Along with the jokes, Rabbi Blue also gives us a few lines from some of his favourite songs, in response to a question about what his desert island discs would be (it turns out that he has actually taken part in the programme – twice). He sings a couple of verses of that sentimental old weepie My Yiddishe Momme, guaranteed to have any good Jewish boy weeping within seconds. He also essayed Falling In Love Again, revealing his love of Marlene Dietrich, who, he remarked with a certain amount of fellow feeling, just kept on going, even if they had to glue her elbow to the bar table before the curtains rose. He commented that he tended to listen more these days, in particular to the new female Rabbis (he would have had an opportunity at this festival, as Rabbi Julia Neuberger was also speaking) and was less inclined to immediately leap in with his own opinions. This was presumably an observation of his own division of life into three stages: taking, giving and giving up. He admitted to finding the latter particularly hard to accept. Let’s hope that he continues to resist for a good time yet. The world really needs a gay, ex-Marxist (with remaining tendencies) East End liberal Rabbi right now.
On the Saturday, we went to see Dominic Sandbrook, whose histories of the Macmillan and (first) Wilson eras, Never Had It So Good and White Heat, I enjoyed immensely. These have now been followed up by State of Emergency: The Way We Were: Britain 1970-74, and it was these years which he talked about. He is always keen to separate the myths which accumulate around particular periods with the actuality, and to differentiate the world as seen from a political perspective from actual lived experience. He includes a couple of ‘stealth quotes’ which highlight the complexity of the era, its irreducibility to simplistic divisions. He follows a mention of Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch in the context of the rise of a new wave of feminism at the time with a quote which turns out not to be from the book, although its rhetoric makes us believe that it could be. It is in fact taken from a speech by Margaret Thatcher. Similarly, a piece of firebrand revolutionary rhetoric, firmly demarcating the divisions of the class struggle, is made by one Robert Kilroy-Silk. The government of Heath was a hapless and ill-starred enterprise, stumbling from one crisis to the next, but Sandbrook makes it clear that for almost everybody in the country, the material standards of living were higher than at any time before. He begins by setting the scene for the royal wedding of Princess Anne and Mark Phillips in 1973, and imagines what a time traveller from the previous royal wedding (of the Queen) in 1953 would make of the world they found. He concluded that they would be amazed by how well off everyone was, and by the sheer modernity of the period. An interesting observation given the perception of the early 70s as being somehow backward and technologically primitive. For the time traveller looking back from the present (and Sandbrook makes reference to Life on Mars in this context) inequalities were still very much in place in terms of race, gender and sexuality, although feminist and gay rights movements were beginning to make a real impact. Much popular culture still revelled in contemptuous stereotypes which reflected (or partly created) general and largely unchallenged prejudices. Enoch Powell was repeatedly voted the public’s favourite politician at this time.
Sandbrook has a particularly ready and wide-ranging grasp of popular culture, which is what makes his books such excellent evocations of era as experienced by ordinary folk. I suspected from his previous books that he was something of a Doctor Who fan, as he used several quotes, identified as coming from particular episodes, which were perfectly matched to the social and political themes he was addressing. I was able to ask him about this afterwards, and he confirmed that he was indeed a big enthusiast. This would have been pretty self-evident had I had the most cursory browse through State of Emergency, which I bought later from the independent Totnes Bookshop. His chapter on the development of the sixties counterculture and the emergence of the environmental movement, and general turning away from Wilson’s white heat technological optimism, is entitled The Green Death, for a start. He talks of this story’s opposition by the hippyish Wholewheel scientific commune, who join forces with the Doctor, Jo, the Brigadier and Captain Yates, to the sinister Global Chemicals corporation which is directed by the BOSS supercomputer, an artificial intelligence. He quotes James Chapman’s interesting observation that the Earthbound monsters of the Pertwee era tend to be more ‘organic’ in appearance (Silurians, Sea Devils, Axons, Ogrons and, indeed, giant maggots) than the more shiny, metallic and technological creatures of the 60s, and that scientists tend to be villains and destroyers. The Invasion of the Dinosaurs is also mentioned in an ecological context, with its Operation Golden Age, a scientific conspiracy in which the idealistic Mike Yates becomes involved, representing an extreme version of the dream of a return to a pre-technological age. The Doctor defeats its fanatical scheme to return a select section of humanity to a distant past from which it can start again, but is not unsympathetic to its motivating philosophy. Sandbrook also refers to Doomwatch, The Changes, The Survivors and John Christopher’s post-apocalyptic pastoral trilogy The Prince In Waiting, Beyond the Burning Lands and The Sword of the Spirits in this chapter, all of which seem to return to the vision of a reversion to a medieval England imagined by William Morris in News from Nowhere.
Elsewhere, Sandbrook’s introductory example in his chapter on feminism refers to Elizabeth Sladen’s Sarah Jane taking over from Jo Grant as the Doctor’s companion, with a much more assertive manner and a refusal to be reduced to a tea-making role. Liz Shaw was the real equal companion in the Pertwee era, however, a scientist fully capable of keeping up with even the wildest of the Doctor’s theories and offering suggestions herself. Sandbrook also notes how the programme addressed the issues of joining the Common Market in The Curse of Peladon (1972) and the divisions of the miners’ strike in The Monster of Peladon (1974). In both cases, the Doctor opts for the progressive, more radical solution. Sandbrook also points out that Heath’s policy review unit known as The Think Tank was parodied in Tom Baker’s 1974 Who debut story Robot, in which the National Institute for Advanced Scientific Research (inevitably a front for a semi-fascistic scientific conspiracy) is also nicknamed the think tank. Noting the preponderance of rats in 70s popular culture (he must surely be the only prominent historian who would make reference to James Herbert’s novel The Rats, and also notes their appearance in Doomwatch and The New Avengers) he refers to the giant specimen encountered in the sewers in The Talons of Weng Chiang, and makes the reasonable observation that it is ‘one of the worst-realized monsters not merely in the show’s history, but in the history of human entertainment’. Fair enough, although, as is the contradictory way with Doctor Who, it is also one of the series’ finest stories.
Sandbrook makes further reference to fantastic literature and film throughout, suggesting both that he is an enthusiast for the genre, and that this was a particularly fertile period. Angela Carter’s The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffmann and The Passion of New Eve are discussed, and Brian Aldiss’ The Malacia Tapestry and JG Ballard’s High Rise mentioned. SF writer Edmund Cooper is cited for his wildly sexist views, broadcast not only in his novels (one of which, Who Needs Men? lends its title to the chapter on feminism and reactionary responses to) but in a 1975 Science Fiction Monthly interview from which Sandbrook quotes. Bagpuss is aptly summed up as being ‘gloriously melancholy’. I would take issue with his dismissal of the late 60s and early 70s output of Hammer, however. Some of its was indeed shoddy, exploitation fare (and not even very full-blooded exploitation at that). But there are some fascinating films amongst the studio’s latterday efforts, some of which genuinely attempt to play new variations on the old formulae, and a very few of which really succeed. And Dracula AD 1972 is hugely enjoyable to watch now, as I noted here. But Sandbrook is generally spot on, and his histories are both insightful and hugely enjoyable, as indeed was his talk. You can see a video of another such on his website and blog, over here, where you can also find extracts of his comments from the extras on the dvd release of the Hartnell Who story The Ark.