There’s more to Mervyn Peake than Gormenghast

Written for the Blackshaw blog

This week Richard, Helen and I represented Blackshaw at the British Library’s second Mervyn Peake centenary celebration panel discussion. I’d felt gutted that I hadn’t made it along to the first one (Ellie and Vikki did, and had friendly chats with Brian Sibley and China Mieville, amongst others), but in hindsight I’m glad.

The first event focused on Gormenghast. Until I got involved with Blackshaw, Gormenghast was all I knew of Peake. I first became aware of it (and him) through the BBC2 miniseries, bought the collected tie-in edition of the novels, and never thought to delve deeper.

So while the Gormenghast-focused celebration would undoubtedly have been enjoyable, it wouldn’t have been as educational as the follow-up, which illuminated the many other facets of Peake’s artistry. Besides his novels, he wrote short stories, poems and plays, and was also a painter and draughtsman.

The evening was a flurry of fascinating facts, but these are the ones that stuck most in my mind.

  1. Fabian Peake (son of Mervyn) revealed that his father had a different room in the house for each of his different activities – one for writing, one for painting, etc. This was mostly a practical arrangement, so he didn’t splash paint on his drawings, and so on.
  2. Journalist Hilary Spurling talked at length about the illustrations Mervyn Peake drew for Alice in Wonderland – in particular his free-spirited, nymphettish Alice, who was a precursor to (not necessarily an influence on, but it’s fun to speculate) Nabokov’s iconic Lolita. (And his Mad Hatter was based on a man he saw in a phone box on the Charing Cross Road.)
  3. Sebastian Peake (also son of Mervyn, and someone we deal with regularly – he gets to vet our Titus Groan script before we’re allowed to perform it!) shared a wonderful anecdote: apparently his father used to trick strangers in the street into holding opposite ends of a tape measure, round the corner from one another, under the pretext of helping him ‘measure the corner’. He’d retreat to a nearby coffee shop and watch them. His record was twenty minutes. What a mischief-maker.
  4. Lecturer Rob Maslen introduced us to Peake poems and plays. As a big fan of Spike Milligan and Frank Key, I was particularly excited to hear that Peake wrote volumes of nonsense poetry. After a quick discussion about nonsense poetry amongst the panel, I came away with a reading list including Peake, Ogden Nash and Edward Lear.
  5. A Gormenghast-related one to end on: Peake wrote an alternative song for Swelter to sing at the beginning of Titus Groan. It’s published in one of his collections. Rob Maslen read the first couple of stanzas (in Swelter’s voice) and it’s a delight. As we left, I could see Richard plotting and scheming ways of getting it into our adaptation.

One Comment to “There’s more to Mervyn Peake than Gormenghast”

  1. Just came across your post, thanks for some interesting tidbits on Peake. I’ve recently been reading the Gormenghast series and reviewing them for my blog. Although I have mixed feelings about the books Peake clearly had an extraordinarily vivid imagination, and I can’t wait to see the British Library exhibition.

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