The Fantastical World of Mervyn Peake: Islands and Seas

[This is the text of the talk I gave at the British Library on 24 February 2024. The talk was designed to accompany a mini-exhibition of the same title, itself designed to supplement the major exhibition Fantasy: Realms of Imagination which came to a close that same weekend.

This explains why the post is so image-rich; I couldn’t make my case without the use of multiple pictures. Some of the images aren’t too good, since the recent cyber-assault on the British Library website meant they couldn’t send me files containing the images I needed. As a result I had to use photos from books I owned, and in two embarrassing cases, photos taken in the mini-exhibition itself. Please forgive the results!]

Cover of first edition of Treasure Island illustrated by Peake.

The writer-artist Mervyn Peake had a lifelong obsession with islands; G. Peter Winnington’s seminal monograph on Peake, The Voice of the Heart, includes a whole chapter about them.[1] Peake’s favourite book as a boy was Treasure Island (1883), and the place he kept returning to throughout his life was the Island of Sark, a one-time nest of pirates off the coast of Normandy. He first lived on Sark as a member of an artists’ commune in the 1930s, went back to live there with his family between 1946 and 1949, and visited several times in the 1950s.[2] Mervyn Peake’s most famous literary creation, Gormenghast Castle, is a building so vast that nobody can ever know it in its entirety; it’s landlocked, but Peake keeps comparing it to an island, cut off from history by its resistance to change, cut off from the outside world by its steadfast refusal to recognize that world’s existence. In the second of his three great Titus novels, Gormenghast (1950), it even becomes an actual island after a flood. His other works are filled with islands of one sort or another: from the pink island to which the pirate Captain Slaughterboard retreats with the love of his life, the Yellow Creature, in Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor (1939), to a floating lump of ice the size of Kent on which a nameless explorer and his companion, a ‘turtle-dog’ named Jackson, find themselves stranded in Letters from a Lost Uncle in Polar Regions (1948); from the many strange and colourful islands Peake painted in the illustrations to his book of nonsense poetry, Rhymes Without Reason (1944), to the boat fraught with all the animals and people in the world in his play of the 1950s, Noah’s Ark. In this talk I’d like to suggest that his love of islands, and of the strange seas in which his islands are located, tells us something important about his love affair with Fantasy. In a number of ways, I think, both Mervyn Peake and many other people of his time were islanded – a word Peake used in his poetry; and their islanding found its most potent expression in the impossible worlds they conjured up, many of which feature in the Peake mini-Exhibition in this building.

Kuling, early 20th century

Peake was born in 1911, in a resort for missionaries called Kuling (now Guling) in Jiangxi Province, eastern China. He lived the first eleven years of his life in Tientsin, now Tianjin, in northern China, where his father, a missionary doctor, ran the MacKenzie Memorial Hospital.[3] In this port city the Treaty of Tientsin was signed in 1858, at the end of the Second Opium War, a conflict started by the British and French; the treaty opened several new Chinese ports to foreign trade, permitted Christian missionary work in China – of the kind Peake’s parents practised – and legalized the importing of Opium, which gave the British a crucial advantage in the Chinese market by literally addicting Chinese people to the products of the British Empire. The Peake family was effectively islanded in Tientsin, since they lived inside the hospital complex, a rectangular chunk of late Victorian Britain segregated from China by a protective wall. Peake’s Tientsin childhood was islanded from the rest of his life by what he calls a ‘misty sea of time’, so that he later felt ‘severed’ from it, since ‘the pictures in my mind seem not to be part of me, but are like some half-forgotten story in a book’, containing adventures that happened to an entirely different child.[4] Having spent several years of my childhood in Singapore I know what he means; the images I have of that part of my life are remarkably vivid and resonant, but stand out from the rest of my memories precisely because they have so little in common with anything that happened after I came to live in Britain. Peake coming to Britain from China at the age of eleven, in 1922, may have felt profoundly islanded from the bulk of the British population who had not been through these experiences – though he went to a boarding school full of similarly islanded children, Eltham College, which catered for the sons of missionaries like himself.

Peake, The Ancient Mariner

The book-like quality of Mervyn’s memories of China helps explain, I think, his willingness to turn to illustrating books in the Second World War – something that happened, he claimed, because he couldn’t get hold of paint after he had been drafted into the army. Many of the books he illustrated feature protagonists severed from the world they know: from the Baker, the Banker and the Billiard-player in Lewis Carroll’s poem The Hunting of the Snark (1941) to Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner (1943), adrift in a ship full of corpses; from Carroll’s Alice books (1946) to Johann Wyss’s The Swiss Family Robinson (1949), where an entire middle-class family finds itself stranded on an impossible island crammed full of beasts from all five continents.[5] Immersion in books like these tends to isolate the reader, especially the child who is capable of cutting themselves off from the world for as long as a story lasts. Peake describes this childhood reading experience with amazing intensity in a poem he wrote in 1942, when a nervous breakdown led to him being hospitalized in Southport. Patients at the hospital were distinguished from the general population by the distinctive sky-blue suits in which they were dressed. Here’s how he sums up his state of mind at this difficult time of personal isolation in the middle of the Second World War:

Blue as the indigo and fabulous storm
Of a picture book long lost where islands burst
Out of the page, exploding palm on palm,
Are we, whom the authorities have dressed.
For we are bluer than the fabulous waters
That lap the inner skull-walls of a boy
So that his head is filled with brimming summer’s
Dazzling rollers which make dull the day
Surrounding him, like an un-focused twilight,
Such waters as uplift a rippling acre
Of naked jelly through the sunfire drifting
With at its centre a vermilion ember
Across whose fire the transparent eyelids rove
O fiercer than the azure lights that flare
At the lit core of fantasy.[6]

I love Peake’s comparison of the boy’s mind while reading to the mind of a swimmer caught in tropical breakers, his eyes squeezed shut against the salt water but still able to see the sun shining through the ‘naked jelly’ of the waves as a ‘vermilion ember’, reddened by the veins in his eyelids. The eyelids themselves are rendered ‘transparent’ by sunlight, and move or ‘rove’ in response to the movements of the eyeballs behind them. That’s a glorious image for the sensation of reading or remembering particularly vivid picture books, which spark an inner light that makes ordinary daylight into ‘an un-focused twilight’. That inner light, Peake tells us, is ‘fiercer than the azure lights that flare / At the lit core of fantasy’; fiercer, perhaps, because the images in illustrated stories are more focused than those conjured up by the unaided imagination. Peake’s retreat from the humiliating experience of being in Southport Hospital, and of leaving the hospital building to be paraded along the esplanade in a bright blue suit with an orange tie, was to retreat to this realm of exploding islands where his imagination could have free play, like the swimmer no longer constrained by the law of gravity. In fact he retreated to his own picture book quite literally in Southport. As therapy for his breakdown, the staff there encouraged him to write the later chapters of his first novel about Gormenghast Castle, Titus Groan (1946). Part of the process of composition involved drawing pictures of the major characters, some of which you can see in the Fantasy Exhibition next door.

Peake, illustration from The Swiss Family Robinson (c. 1949)

The final picture in the Peake mini-Exhibition, showing a boy from the Swiss Family Robinson lassoing a turtle from a raft amidst the foaming tropical seas (c. 1949), perfectly complements this account of the boy whose mind is shaped for the life of an island castaway by vivid pictures in books. It bursts with youthful energy, straining to escape the page’s rectangle. Notice how the curves of the turtle’s head and shell are echoed by the curves of the barrels and sail on the raft, how the raft and its users have been tilted to one side by the waves and the straining turtle, how the waves themselves are exploding into lacy shawls of foam while the boy who holds the rope hauls with all his might against the turtle’s direction of travel. The picture is dominated by the diagonal line of the taut rope that slashes across the middle and the two tilted right angles it strains between, the hard right angle of the mast and the soft right angle formed by the turtle’s neck; the hardness on the one side and the softness on the other show clearly who is going to win this tug of war. The brilliance of the tropical sunshine is conveyed by the shadows that conceal the boy’s eyes, the shadows on the upper rims of the barrels on the raft, the shadows on the underside of the turtle’s neck and flipper. Peake’s art was shaped by the work of an artist who specialised in illustrating action scenes like these in books for boys, Stanley L. Wood, and in early days he signed his pictures Mervyn L. Peake as if in homage to his idol.[7] Another favourite book of his, Under the Serpent’s Fang (1922-3) by J. Claverdon Wood – about pirates on the island of New Guinea – was illustrated by Stanley Wood, and Peake pays homage to Wood’s strenuously energetic pictures for the novel in a talk he gave on book illustration in the 1940s. This picture strikes me as one of Peake’s most Wood-like images.

Stanley L. Wood, Frontispiece to Under the Serpent’s Fang (1922-3)

Peake’s islanding, as I’ve described it, was not exclusive to himself. Throughout his life he gravitated to other people who had been islanded in one way or another. The Irish nationalist writer James Stephens, author of the Fantasy classic The Crock of Gold (1916), who emigrated to England after Irish independence because he was disappointed by the kind of country Ireland had become. Gordon Smith, Peake’s best friend, whose childhood had also been spent in northern China. The avant garde sculptor Jacob Epstein, an American Jew who suffered from British conservatism and antisemitism and whose work Peake defended in a poem.[8] The Eltham schoolmaster Eric Drake who founded the Sark Group of Artists in the 1930s, and who was another child of Chinese missionaries. The writer Maurice Collis, another Irishman, who found himself at odds with the British imperial project he was expected to uphold as a civil servant in Burma, and whose version of the Ramayana, The Quest for Sita, Peake illustrated in 1949;[9] and many more. Maeve Gilmore, Peake’s artist wife, was herself islanded, first by her strict Catholic upbringing, then by the many pressures on her as a woman artist and a mother of two in wartime, whose husband was first drafted into the army then invalided out of it. Peake describes Gilmore’s particular kind of islanding in one of his poems:

Always you are remote and islanded
In silences that so belie the ardent
Torrents that course beneath your gentle clay[.][10]

Only recently have the ‘ardent / Torrents’ of Gilmore’s creativity been heard and seen as they deserve to be, thanks to a major exhibition of her work at the Voltaire Gallery in 2022.

Peake, ‘Floating Islands on the Waves’ (c. 1928)

Countries, too, were in some sense islanded in Peake’s lifetime by seismic events that severed them from the past. China was severed from its long imperial history by the revolution of 1911, the year of Peake’s birth, which established the Chinese Republic. Britain was severed from its own imperial past by the trauma of the First World War, which lent urgency to the radical questioning of imperialist values that found expression in artistic movements between the wars, Surrealism, Vorticism, Cubism and the rest. Starting with Ireland, Maeve Gilmore’s father’s birthplace, the British dominions were breaking away like floes breaking off a Polar ice cap. The sense of having been cut off by these seismic breakages from the colonial past – like Arctic explorers stranded on one of those ice floes – is what gave rise, I think, to the genre of fantasy as it developed between the wars. The first picture in the mini-exhibition (c. 1928), which shows floating islands precariously balanced on heaving waves, encapsulates the experience of having been uprooted and come adrift which many people shared in the 20s and 30s. It invokes, as the notes suggest, Hokusai’s famous print ‘The Great Wave off Kanagawa’ (1831);[11] but Hokusai’s picture is stabilized by the presence of Mount Fuji in the background. Peake’s seascape is all upheaval and turbulence, with no stable land in view; though its cartoonishness, the pastoral calmness of the floating islands and the single drop dripping off the crest of the biggest wave suggest that the young artist was untroubled, as yet, by the turbulent world he had inherited. There’s no indication that his islands have been colonised or subjected to missionary activity, and this may explain their pastoral appearance. The imagination could invent countries where the toxic inheritance of imperialism could be offloaded onto goblins or dragons, as it is in Tolkien’s The Hobbit (1937), which takes place in a world that’s fallen to pieces after some bygone quasi-mythical age of unity and prosperity, leaving a trail of islanded settlements in its wake.

Hokusai, ‘The Great Wave off Kanagawa’ (1831)

Peake’s own imagination inclined to piracy. Pirates can be seen as enemies of imperialism, though they can of course also serve as its parasites and stooges. They have a contempt for human laws, national and international, and a well-earned reputation for random acts of violence; but they’ve also been linked to anarchism, the political movement that rejects authority of all kinds. The seventeenth-century pirate Roberts drew up a celebrated set of egalitarian laws to be observed on the ships he commanded, while the most famous example of pirate anarchism on land is Libertalia, a democratic pirate republic set up on the Island of Madagascar by a Frenchman, Captain James Misson, in defiance of the Empires that were carving up the world between them at the time. The story of Captain Roberts is told in The General History of the Pyrates (1724) by Captain Charles Johnson, thought by some to be a pseudonym for Daniel Defoe; Johnson’s account of Libertalia comes in the second volume (1725). Peake may well have known the General History, which is a source for his favourite novel, Treasure Island, and his interest in Madagascar may also have been piqued by the fact that his grandparents and uncle were missionaries there – that it was in some sense the ‘family island’.[12] In fact Peake uses Madagascar as a metaphor for the process of making a family, in a poem he wrote after the birth of his first child, Sebastian, in January 1940. Addressed to Maeve, the poem represents birth as a process of islanding for everyone who experiences it:

Grottoed beneath your ribs no longer, he,
Like madagascar broken from its mother,
Must feel the tides divide an africa
Of love from his clay island, that the sighs
Of the seas encircle with chill ancientry;
And though your ruthful breast allays his cries,
How vulnerable
He is when you release him, and how terrible
Is that wild strait which separates your bodies.[13]

By this point in Peake’s life, after the outbreak of the Second World War and having been called up for military service – he was awaiting mobilization as he wrote – the sea surrounding each human island has mutated into something much more ‘terrible’ than the comic-book waves of the first picture we looked at. And the island metaphor he chooses for his son – that of Madagascar – is associated with the precariousness of piracy as well as its anti-authoritarian credentials. Captain Misson’s pirate republic, Libertalia, is said to have been destroyed in an attack by Malagasy warriors; Misson himself drowned at sea a short time after. Captain Roberts was killed in a skirmish when struck in the throat by grapeshot. Piracy for Peake, as for many others, always had two aspects, the spirit of freedom, adventure, egalitarianism and loyalty on the one hand, the spirit of violence, random cruelty, treachery and imminent sudden death on the other. The strain between these two aspects of piracy is key to the power of Peake’s fantastic imagination, which rejects simplistic dualisms of good and evil while retaining a deep consciousness (as the son of a missionary must) that these dualisms govern many understandings of the way things work – including, at times, his own. Peake repeatedly represents himself as an uneasy double figure, made up of a ‘rebeller’ and a ‘conceder’, as he puts it in his wartime poem ‘They Move With Me, My War-Ghosts’ (1941) – a conceder being someone who concedes to or is complicit with the horrors being perpetrated in Europe.[14] He embodies these two aspects of himself in the figures of a cold angel and a fiery, sensuous centaur or devil – though these figures don’t neatly align with the notions of rebelling and conceding, or bad and good. He locates this ‘double cargo’, as he puts it, in a ship,

[…] half love,
And half, that rides
The self-same sea-groove with wild laugh
Across these fickle, these infested tides.[15]

That the ship is a pirate ship seems likely enough, given that it’s invoked by a writer-artist who dressed as a buccaneer in the 1930s (complete with earring) and whose obsession with pirates is still startlingly present in his late novels Mr Pye (1953), about an eccentric missionary on Sark who takes to wearing a piratical bandanna to conceal a pair of growing horns,[16] and Titus Alone (1959), in which the self-exiled Earl of Gormenghast becomes the unofficial leader of a loosely-knit anarchist rising against the authorities of a nameless state, seconded by a man called Muzzlehatch with a rudder nose and a one-time sailor called Anchor, both of whom have a pirate’s hatred for the law and its instruments.

Mervyn Peake, illustration for Treasure Island (1949)

The dual nature of pirates, as deeply attractive emblems of adventure and resistance and as murderous salt-water thieves, was visible everywhere in the pirate books being published in the first half of the twentieth century, from William Hope Hodgson’s The Ghost Pirates (1909) to John Masefield’s Lost Endeavour (1910), J M Barrie’s Peter and Wendy (2011), Under the Serpent’s Fang (1923), Gerald Bullett’s The Spanish Caravel (1927), Richard Hughes’s A High Wind in Jamaica (1929), Arthur Ransome’s Peter Duck and Missee Lee (1932 and 1941), Daphne du Maurier’s Frenchman’s Creek (1941) and Eric Linklater’s The Pirates in the Deep Green Sea (1949). These divide themselves broadly into texts that favour the pleasures and perils of piracy and texts that celebrate the victories of agents of the imperial law against piratical opponents. Often the same book does both. Treasure Island, for instance – the granddaddy of them all, along with R M Ballantyne’s The Coral Island (1857) – adopts the point of view of the order-loving upper and middle classes, embodied by the shipowner Squire Trelawney, the physician Dr Livesey, and the cabin-boy Jim Hawkins, a family friend of the Doctor’s. Trelawney and Livesey regard their quest for buried treasure as wholly legitimate, since any profits will go to themselves, members of the ruling elite. But Stevenson also represents their class enemy and rival in the treasure hunt, the sea-cook and pirate Long John Silver, as a deeply charming man, capable of drawing middle-class medics and upper-class shipowners into the web of his geniality as easily as he seduces his working-class shipmates into mutiny against them. To the Squire and the Doctor, Silver poses as a loyal member of the servant classes, well content with his station; to his fellow pirates he is a cunning, ruthless killer; but to everyone he is admirable, including the reader, who delights in his capacity to switch sides and personalities whenever it suits him. Even his willingness to murder people who resist his advances offers evidence of his astonishing energy, versatility and poise. When Silver kills the sailor Tom for refusing to join his mutiny he first seeks to sweet-talk him with honeyed words, then suddenly leaps away ‘with the speed and security of a trained gymnast’ and hurls his crutch to knock Tom down, charging after it ‘agile as a monkey, even without leg or crutch’ to bury his knife ‘up to the hilt in that defenceless body’.[17] Peake’s full-length picture of him in the mini-Exhibition (from 1947-1949) wonderfully invokes his seductiveness. He’s got a beautiful face, with heavy lids, prominent eyelashes and a fine head of curly hair, and he peers sideways out of the picture with a smile, suggesting his capacity to extend his influence well beyond his physical proximity. His powerful body is visible through his clothes, and there’s a general sense that he’s disorienting, conveyed both by the way his body tilts in two directions as he leans on his crutch (his leg, left arm and head tilt in one direction, his torso and right arm tilt in another), and by the shading in the background, whose lines begin to curve sideways as they rise from ground level, passing from the horizontal through an area of cross-hatching until they’re diagonal to the rectangular frame of the picture at the level of Silver’s head, so that everything seems in motion and off-balance.

Silver’s politics are interesting, too; it would be easy to see them as rooted in the Enlightenment ideal of rational democracy, as against the feudalism of the Squire. Silver abides by the Roberts code of piracy, being elected captain by his messmates, giving them the vote on key decisions, and assuring them that all will have an equal share in the buried treasure. The name he and his pirates give themselves – gentlemen of fortune – makes them equals, unlike the Squire and Doctor, who embrace the class distinction between themselves as gentry and the commoners who work for them. No wonder the hero of the book, Jim Hawkins, seems to fall in love with Silver, like Peake in his boyhood. Every picture of Jim in the exhibition has him tilted at all angles like Long John Silver: tossed on the waves in Ben Gunn’s coracle…

clinging to the bowsprit of the Hispaniola…

aiming his pistols at Israel Hands as he leans from the Hispaniola’s crow’s nest:

In each picture he comes closer to being a pirate, culminating in the moment when he runs his fingers through the treasure of Captain Flint in Ben Gunn’s cave:

The pirate Silver coveted that treasure, the former pirate Ben Gunn dug it up, the half pirate Jim Hawkins got a share of it; what really divides them? In Peake’s pictures, as in Stevenson’s book, Jim is tainted with Silver’s anarchism. John Silver is the embodiment of resistance to the authorities that frown on exploratory teenagers like Jim – though the pirate also claims to have plans to become a conventional gentleman, and even a member of parliament. Not too conventional, however. In an age when slavery was legal in the British Empire, Silver’s lover – who we never meet in the book – is Black. The sea-cook roves far more freely beyond the imperial frame, it’s implied, than most of his white British male contemporaries.

Map of the Three Principalities, as featured in The Dusky Birron (1929-31)

There’s a queer element to piracy, as anyone knows who’s followed the HBO series Our Flag Means Death. Peake seems well aware of this fact, and the two pirate books he wrote and illustrated – The Dusky Birron and Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor – attest to his awareness, whether or not he acknowledged it openly. The unpublished Dusky Birron (1929-31) was a project he developed with his friend Gordon Smith, and it has a distinctly Chinese quality, as the two authors drew imaginatively on their shared experiences of China. Smith wrote the words, Peake drew the pictures, and the book begins with a sailor man being marooned by pirates on a group of islands, whose monosyllabic names – Soz, Ho, Foon, Chee – bear a faint resemblance to Mandarin, which both Smith and Peake could speak. The first picture from the book in the exhibition shows a European ship sailing through a giant flooded forest, possibly the pirate ship that marooned the sailor…

while the second shows the pirates themselves, looking thoroughly European…

Apologies for the quality of this photo!

But the next two pictures show some very Chinese-looking rocks and mountains…

Lawrence Bristow-Smith, a former British diplomat in China, compares the rock where the Maranesa sits to the rock formations in traditional Chinese gardens, ‘slabs and blocks of stone assembled to form a fantastic, exaggerated landscape with water, paths, steps, bridges and carefully-planted shrubs and trees’.[18] The mountain scene, meanwhile…

Apologies for this photo too!

recalls the Chinese practice of shan shui hua, ‘mountain water art’, as exemplified by Huang Gongwang’s ‘The Remaining Mountain’:

…so that the place where the sailor man finds himself contains a variety of aesthetic elements assembled, like those Chinese gardens, into a ‘fantastic, exaggerated landscape’. In Gordon Smith’s account of the book, the sailor-man’s guide through this fantastic landscape is the Dusky Birron, a naked man with flowing hair and the beard of a prophet:

and the two companions spend most of the book looking for the ideal place to set up house together. They find it at last in Chee, the most laid-back island in the archipelago….

This is not, then, a story of colonisation but of companionship between people of different cultures, in a land full of exiles; the Maranesa, for example, comes from Borneo, but seems happy living in Soz alone on his ‘pointed stone’, as Smith’s words put it. The sailor, by contrast, finds a friend to share his life with, as his mentor and fellow adventurer. There’s a Chinese connection here, too, I think. Peake’s surviving notes for an unwritten book about China – sometimes conceived as an autobiography, sometimes a work of fiction – are full of such cross-cultural friendships, from the Chinese boy who lures a red-haired British boy from his bed into the world beyond the hospital compound, to the one-eyed Russian boy with no shoes whom Peake calls his ‘God’; from Peake’s friend Tony Liang, who ‘did drawings which were copies of Lawson… dogs and parrots and monkeys’ – probably Lawson Wood, who drew animals for The Boy’s Own Paper – to the Chinese boy befriended by a British girl called Laura on a winter’s journey across the mountains.[19] These relationships are full of the seduction of the unfamiliar, something that works both ways in the case of the boy with red hair, whose appearance marks him out as exotic to his Chinese guide.

That seduction turns boldly queer in Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor (1939). The Captain sails his ship, the Black Tiger, between ‘little green islands’ on the ‘bright blue ocean’, accompanied by a crew of bizarre eccentrics clearly inspired by the crew who sailed with Captain Hook in Peter and Wendy.[20] Billy Bottle the bosun, for example, has arms so long that he can knock ashes out of his pipe without bending down; Hook’s shipmate Noodles has equally unusual arms, since his ‘hands were fixed on backwards’. Timothy Twitch is ‘the most elegant in battle, his left hand especially’, just as Hook’s shipmate Gentleman Starkey was ‘once an usher in a public school and still dainty in his ways of killing’…

Slaughterboard’s shipmate whose portrait we see in the exhibition, Charlie Choke, ‘covered all over with dreadful drawings in blue ink’, is closely related to Hook’s shipmate Bill Jukes, ‘every inch of him tattooed’…

Slaughterboard seems immune to the charms of these men, even the elegant Timothy Twitch, but when he spots a Yellow Creature through his telescope he can’t resist its beauty…

That his attraction is erotic as well as aesthetic (he spends hours, we’re told, admiring the butter-yellow colour of the creature against the blue of the ocean) is implied by the fact that many commentators think Peake modelled its face on the face of his wife, Maeve Gilmore, who posed for him hundreds of times throughout their marriage; Maeve also features, if you look closely, among the tattoos on Charlie Choke’s left arm.[21] The creature’s gender is indeterminate – Peake sometimes gives it the pronoun ‘it’ and sometimes ‘he’ – as is its species, since its ears and bristly horns are not quite human. Slaughterboard’s first reaction to it is that of the colonial slave-trader or collector; he sends his men to catch it, then carries it off for his own amusement. On board his ship, too, he at first treats the Creature as an exotic object to be displayed to his fellow sailors, who quickly grow tired of being urged to admire it…

But as time goes by, the power dynamic begins to shift. One by one the crew is killed off until only the Captain and the Yellow Creature are left, and by this time they behave as equals: they dance and eat together…

…and the Captain begins to show an interest in the Yellow Creature’s home environment, the island where he found it, and eventually turns the ship in that direction. The book ends with the Captain and the Creature living together in married bliss; the Creature does the cooking, and they both enjoy the company of the other islanders, or lazily fishing for wonderfully strange fish from the island’s ornamental-looking piles of stones. As Peake’s son Fabian points out in his introduction to the 70th Anniversary edition, the pair of them seem to have found utopia. More specifically, they have found their Libertalia, complete with its stock of unprecedented fauna. The anthropologist David Graeber has recently argued, in his book Pirate Enlightenment, or The Real Libertalia, that the roots of Libertalia lie in the fusion of pirate culture with the indigenous people of north-east Madagascar; just one of the many cultural fusions that have shaped the island’s history.[22] Captain Slaughterboard and the Yellow Creature duplicate this fusion, their gleeful rejection of apartheid or segregation placing them a million miles from the British imperial project. Or the German one, of course; the book was published in 1939, and the first edition was mostly destroyed in a German bombing raid.

The magic of Captain Slaughterboard is its refusal to embrace the sort of conventional moralising that dominated contemporary children’s narratives. The Captain exists outside the imperatives of Empire all the way; his initially colonial actions are a personal choice, and he seems free to dispense with colonialism whenever he feels like it. In J M Barrie’s Peter and Wendy, Captain Hook is tormented by social anxieties, brought on both by his public-school education and by Peter Pan’s self-evident superiority as a pirate and an anarchist to himself. Stevenson’s Long John Silver is intensely conscious of the forces of the social hierarchy ranged against him – of the power of the ruling classes and the disastrous lack of discipline among his fellow pirates – which means he suspects from the start that things can’t possibly go his way. By contrast, Captain Slaughterboard rules his narrative ‘every inch’, as he rules his ship. There are no naval officers, squires or missionaries in his story, just the strangest of sea-wolves and the weirdest of creatures. Instead of moral trajectories, Peake’s book is full of limbs and torsos getting out of control, clothes flying in all directions, bursts of sea-spray, spurts of cannon-smoke or pipe-smoke, and a ship that expands and contracts like a living organ, its decks covered in writhing bodies, flapping swathes of canvas and unbalanced bottles of rum…

The Captain’s resistance to moral imperatives makes him wholly indifferent to the slaughter of his men – we never hear how they died, and he never mentions them again after their deaths. He only pays attention to the fascinating details of the Yellow Creature’s appearance – its delicate body, arms and legs, its enormous eyes, its long, drooping nose, which offer the perfect foil to his own massive body and hands, his button nose, his tiny eyes….

The Captain’s eyes look at everything with cunning; even when introduced by the Yellow Creature to its friends on the island he watches them slyly as if measuring their market value…

But his cunning consists in the recognition that the only treasure he needs is what gives him pleasure: his brightly-coloured lover and the seemingly infinite variety of creatures on the island and around its shores.

Peake: poster for the movie Black Magic, with Sidney Toler playing the detective Charlie Chan in ‘Yellowface’ (see the novel by R F Kuang)

Peake was familiar, of course, with the racist caricatures of Chinese culture that circulated between the wars, from the fictions of the so-called Yellow Peril – such as Sax Rohmer’s tales of Dr Fu Manchu – to the crude pastiches of China that featured in British pantomimes like Aladdin, or Albert Arlen’s play The Son of the Grand Eunuch (1937), for which Peake designed the costumes.[23] He also had friends like Maurice Collis who had a serious interest in South and East Asian art and history, and a father with similar interests who brought him brushes from Hong Kong after the war, giving him a chance to experiment seriously with Chinese painting techniques. Captain Slaughterboard embraces Peake’s childhood in China by representing a kind of queer marriage between formerly hostile cultures, as well as between Chinese and European schools of art. As a statement about its particular moment in British history – on the cusp of the Second World War, when the earth itself was tilting off balance – this picture book seems to me well worth revisiting in our own unbalanced times.

[For an account of pirate references in the Titus/Gormenghast books see my blog post ‘Mervyn Peake and the Poetics of Piracy’.]

NOTES

[1] See Winnington, The Voice of the Heart: The Working of Mervyn Peake’s Imagination (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2006), chapter 3, ‘Islands’.

[2] For more on Peake and Sark see my blogposts ‘Mervyn Peake on Sark’ and ‘Mervyn Peake and the Queering of Sark’.

[3] The best account of Peake’s life is Peter Winnington, Mervyn Peake’s Vast Alchemies: The Illustrated Biography (London and Chester Springs, PA: Peter Owen Publishers, 2009).

[4] For Peake’s ‘Notes for a Projected Autobiography’ see Peake’s Progress: Selected Writings and Drawings of Mervyn Peake, ed. Maeve Gilmore (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1981), pp. 469-487.

[5] The dates given here are those of the first editions of Peake’s illustrated versions.

[6] For the full poem see Mervyn Peake, Collected Poems, ed. R. W. Maslen (Manchester: Carcanet, 2008), p. 120. For more on Peake’s Southport experience see my blog post ‘Mervyn Peake at Southport’.

[7] See Winnington, Mervyn Peake’s Vast Alchemies, p. 56.

[8] See my blog post ‘Fantasy 1939: Mervyn Peake and Jacob Epstein’.

[9] See my two blog posts, ‘Maurice Collis and Mervyn Peake, Quest for Sita (1946)’, Part 1: Text and Part 2: Drawings.

[10] ‘Tides’, in Peake, Collected Poems, p. 129.

[11] See Mervyn Peake: The Man and his Art, p. 36, which cites Peake’s friend Gordon Smith describing the Puy de Dôme near Clermont-Ferrand in France as ‘a most charming hummock, like a miniature Fujiyama’. Smith and Peake saw this ‘charming hummock on a French holiday together in 1930, two years after the date assigned to the picture, ‘Floating islands on the waves’. For a full account of the holiday see Smith, Mervyn Peake: A Personal Memoir (London: Victor Gollancz, 1984), pp. 14-20.

[12] See Winnington, The Voice of the Heart, p. 57, footnote 1: ‘it was the family island, so to speak’.

[13] Peake, Collected Poems, p. 78.

[14] Peake, Collected Poems, p. 93.

[15] Peake, Collected Poems, p. 94.

[16] See Peake, Mr Pye (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978), p. 205.

[17] Robert Louise Stevenson, Treasure Island, illustrated by Mervyn Peake (London: Methuen, 1976), pp. 96-97.

[18] Lawrence Bristow-Smith, ‘The Chinese Puzzle of Mervyn Peake’, Peake Studies, Vol. 3, No. 3 (Winter 1993), pp. 37-39.

[19] Peake, ‘Notes for a Projected Autobiography’, Peake’s Progress, pp. 471, 474, 477-478, 483.

[20] All quotations are taken from Mervyn Peake, Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor, 70th Anniversary Edition (London: Walker Books, 2009). This edition is not paginated.

[21] See Winnington, Mervyn Peake’s Vast Alchemies, p. 130.

[22] David Graeber, Pirate Enlightenment, or the Real Libertalia (Dublin: Allen Lane, 2023).

[23] See Winnington, Mervyn Peake’s Vast Alchemies, p. 107.

The Ecofantasies of Mary Fairclough, Part 2: The Blue Tree (1960)

[This is the second of two blog posts on a genuinely lost writer-artist, Mary Fairclough, who seems to me to be a genuinely major practitioner. You can find the first blog-post here. The book described in this, the second part, could hardly be more relevant to our situation at this particular moment in the twenty-first century.]

Fairclough’s dustjacket for The Blue Tree, illustrating the ancient Iranian art of wrestling.

After finishing Little Dog and the Rainmakers, Mary Fairclough waited more than a decade before publishing her next novel. In the intervening years the Cold War tightened its grip on the world, and the United Nations found its ideals of international cooperation and respect for human rights on the verge of obliteration. As a result, perhaps, The Blue Tree is a much more complex book than its predecessors, and this may account for its disappearance from the collective memory of readers and book historians. Socialist-internationalist politics and a powerful green undercurrent tie it to its predecessors, Miskoo the Lucky and Little Dog and the Rainmakers. Its interwoven plot, however, featuring a vast array of characters from different classes, cultures and religions, marks a radical advance in literary technique, while its focus on a single setting – a small local space that gradually emerges as having economic, ecological and spiritual ties with every corner of the continent that holds it – sets it apart from the tales of long journeys at the centre of Fairclough’s earlier fictions. Journeys are still present, of course, but each one begins and ends in a small city-state on a plain surrounded by mountains. Fairclough’s mother urged her to ‘Do your best in your own little corner’, and Fairclough responded many years later with the crucial question, ‘where does one’s own corner end?’, not overturning but radically building on her mother’s philosophy.[1] The local is always and everywhere also the global, her words suggest, and The Blue Tree – a fiction for the United Nations, if ever there was one, though without any formal ties to that organization – provides the perfect illustration of her point.

It’s hard to say what age-group The Blue Tree is aimed at. Fairclough published it with her own illustrations, and this may have marked it out for many as a book for children. It contains Djinns and sorceresses, protective amulets and magical curses, and these too may have confirmed it as a fairy tale for younger readers. But it can also be read as a book that challenges the paradigm of adult fantasy set by Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, which had been published a few years previously, in 1954-5, but had not yet gained the level of global popularity it would achieve in the 1960s. Fairclough’s book is set not in Europe but Western Asia – specifically Mesopotamia, the ‘Land of the Two Rivers’ as it’s known in Greek and Arabic (p. 7) – a place where a rich diversity of peoples and cultures converge, exchange ideas and live together in cooperative interdependence. It concerns, not a journey across a little-known landscape, but a city seeking to throw off the shackles of oppression; not a picked band of questers, chosen by an unelected Council of the Wise for a secret mission, but a network of friends from different classes and cultures drawn together by similar needs, whose mutual affection helps them turn the tide of tyranny and fashion a brief but brilliant Golden Age for their interlinked communities. The outcome of the book hinges on, not a single grand gesture that liberates the world from the threat of spiritual annihilation – casting the Ring into the Crack of Doom – but the continuous, exhausting, satisfying process of maintaining a small society in good order, as far as possible under the historical circumstances. A Ring is present in Fairclough’s novel, but it’s a Ring that once belonged to a just, wise ruler, not a despot, and for most of the book it’s assumed to have been lost, an apt metaphor for the fragility of just governance in a world where powerful people see the powerless as animals, and animals as commodities without rights or feelings. In addition, Fairclough’s Ring is not singular; it is one of multiple tokens and talismans which bind one community to another in a network of trust and affection – as against the bonds of fear and sorcery that bind the subservient rings in Tolkien’s text to the One Ring that controls them. Like Tolkien’s, Fairclough’s novel is exquisitely plotted, with a design like the richest of Persian carpets (though Fairclough’s illustrations call to mind miniatures, not rugs). And it draws attention at every point to the complementarity of art, politics and the natural world: a subject clearly close to Fairclough’s heart throughout her lifetime. In this, it serves as a perfect summary of the qualities that define her as an artist ahead of her time.

Anonymous miniature, 1431: Majnun in the desert with wild animals, from The Hermitage, St Petersburg. Click for details.

The book is divided into three parts. The first and longest (Chapter 2; I count Chapter 1 as a prologue) tells the tale of the Wazir Barmek, a shepherd from the mountains who finds himself unexpectedly appointed first minister to the new Sultan of Kashkot, an imaginary city-state somewhere in the north of the so-called ‘island’ between the great rivers Tigris and Euphrates.[2] The Sultan is an indolent young man called Khalid, Barmek’s best friend since childhood, who has himself been elevated from mountain shepherd to head of state with equal suddenness. Abruptly transplanted by the hand of God from his upland village to the city, from herding sheep to herding people, Barmek is forced to seek support from as many people in Kashkot as he can manage to make his friends: from the merchant Ali Houssain, to whom he once sold fleeces, to Hafiz, the Librarian of the Royal Palace; from Daresh, the Captain of the Sultan’s Royal Guard, to the bandit-rebel Khalidad; from the young dam engineer Farhad to the misanthropic caravan-master Austa Muthanna. His efforts to create a more or less equitable society are opposed by the Sultan’s wife, a sorceress who uses magic to pervert the city and its occupants into tools in her scheme to install her dead father Douban, the former Wazir, as Kashkot’s absolute ruler. Her machinations come to a climax with the transformation of Barmek into a Ram and his banishment from the city. The Wazir’s disappearance leaves her with unchallenged control over the Sultan, whose lazy self-indulgence plunges the city-state into tyranny as the Sultaness tightens her grip on its unfortunate people.

The second part, shorter than the first (Chapters 3-7), tells the story of various individuals who find themselves in exile from Kashkot before and after Barmek’s transformation. Chief among them is Zeid, the young Prince of Kashkot, who flees the city to escape the Sultaness’s schemes to sacrifice him in a bid to restore her father to life through sorcery; and Barmek’s young daughter Saffiya, who flees from the Sultaness’s machinations with her mother, guiding her to safety in Barmek’s old home in the mountains before setting off on a lonely quest to find the lost Wazir. The paths of these two young exiles eventually lead them back to Kashkot, and it’s there that the third and final section of the book takes place (Chapter 8), as the various threads of the narrative combine to bring about the restoration of Barmek to human form, the fall of the Sultan and Sultaness, and the installation of Zeid and Saffiya as joint rulers of the city. Their placement on the Sultan’s throne marks the transformation of Kashkot into a kind of Utopia; but as with Fairclough’s other stories this effect is achieved only after a book-long struggle, and its stability is not guaranteed. By that stage in the novel we have learned too much about the historical forces ranged against all Utopias to believe that any one of them can last for ever.

My summary describes what could be called the human aspect of Fairclough’s plot; but running through the book is a second thematic strand, devoted to the troubled relationship between humans and animals. Fairclough’s Mesopotamia is dependent on beasts of many kinds, from the sheep tended by mountain shepherds like Barmek to the donkeys, mules and camels that make up the caravans that traverse the great trade routes across the whole of Asia. At the same time, many of the Mesopotamians despise the nonhuman creatures they rely on, especially the dogs who guard their sheep and homes from the depredations of wolves both real and metaphorical. There is a similar disdain among many of Kashkot’s citizens for the lower orders of human beings who keep their homes and businesses running. Like other city-states in medieval times, Kashkot relies on slaves as well as beasts for its essential needs, and treats enslaved humans with as little dignity as dogs, mules and donkeys.

The same attitude prevails among the inhabitants of the spiritual realm that forms the third thematic strand in Fairclough’s novel. The lower orders of spirits are enslaved and treated like beasts by their more powerful superiors, with some notable exceptions such as the legendary sorcerer King Solomon, who might have served as a model of decent governance were it not for his failure to abolish the practice of slavery altogether. The presence of enslaved people and abused animals throughout Fairclough’s narrative gives it a darker tone than either of her previous works of fiction, and ties it more closely, perhaps, to the dark times it was written in.

The Lord of the Rings, First Edition.

The Lord of the Rings draws largely on European sources, from Beowulf to the Icelandic sagas, from the romances of William Morris to the quirky fantastic narratives of the first half of the twentieth century. The Blue Tree takes inspiration from a very different set of texts. These include The Thousand and One Nights, the Persian epic the Shahnameh, and the work of the great Iranian poets, such as Sa’adi – whose uncompromising advice to rulers is effectively embodied in the words and deeds of the Wazir Barmek – or Nizami, whose epic treatment of the legendary lover Majnun is mentioned in relation to the Wazir’s forced separation from his wife and daughter (p. 109). The Thousand and One Nights provides a model for the book’s interwoven narratives and themes, which run through each of its three sections, while the Shahnameh appears in the text as ‘The Book of Kings’, which is slowly being embellished with sumptuous illustrations under the direction of Hafiz, the royal librarian. The folktales of the incomparable Mullah Nasruddin may well have fed into Fairclough’s confection, relying as they so often do on Nasruddin’s friendly proximity to animals, especially his beloved donkey, which he is said to have ridden backwards while dispensing witty words of wisdom. Animals feature prominently in Iranian art and literature, from miniatures depicting the insane lover Majnun being protected by wild beasts to rugs like the Wagner Garden Carpet in Glasgow. All but two of Fairclough’s thirteen illustrations for her novel – a frontispiece in colour, the rest black and white – feature animals or mythical creatures as well as humans, thereby pointing up the three narrative strains – human, beast and mythic – that run through the text.[3]

The Wagner Garden Carpet, from the Burrell Collection, Glasgow. Click for details.

Another source is the many legends of King Solomon, as collected in St John Seymour’s Tales of King Solomon (1924) and elsewhere. Solomon’s legend was perhaps best known to British readers of Fairclough’s generation from its presence in H. Ryder Haggard’s bestselling novel King Solomon’s Mines (1885). One can detect Haggard’s influence on The Blue Tree in the presence both of a hidden kingdom next to Kashkot – the tiny realm of Lamissar, ‘a warm, sleepy valley ringed round with high mountains, whose people mined rubies while their lords practised magic’[4] – and of a powerful sorceress with power over life and death, who is referred to not by her name but as ‘the Daughter of Douban’, just as Ayisha in Haggard’s She (1887) is known for the most part only as She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed. Fairclough’s novel, however, comes across as a critique of Haggard rather than a homage to him. At the beginning, the mountain kingdom of Lamissar is joined with the city on the plain, Kashkot, through marriage, as the Lamissar-born sorceress, the Daughter of Douban, weds Barmek’s boyhood friend Khalid, the new Sultan of Kashkot. Lamissar, then, never exists in a state of mysterious seclusion, unlike Haggard’s Kukuanaland; it is tied to the world by multiple strands or channels, some of them literal, such as the canal that carries water from a waterfall in Lamissar to the Kashkot Plain. In addition, the Lamissar sorceress’s bid to become She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed is successfully resisted, not by a pair of upper-class British adventurers, but by a diverse collection of rebels from all classes and cultures united by their friendship for Barmek. Instead of a colonial quest into a hidden kingdom at the heart of the colonised territories, Fairclough’s story concerns (among other things) certain residents of that hidden kingdom, who then become residents of the neighbouring city and exert their influence over it. Besides the scheming Daughter of Douban, these include her fellow Lamissar native Abu Misimir, a ‘serene and efficient’ steward who becomes one of Barmek’s closest friends and imparts to him the magic talisman, the Blue Tree of the title, which protects him against the sorceress’s machinations. The mines of Lamissar serve not to enrich its rulers, or some white adventurers who penetrate its secrets, but to meet the needs of the people of both kingdoms under Barmek’s wise governance. Fairclough’s anti-lost-world romance is a work of social inclusiveness and multiculturalism rather than a bid to romanticize the exploits of British colonists.

Indeed, the only mention of European people in the book is as a distant crusading menace. In the second part of the novel, male members of a nomadic Bedouin tribe, the Beni Hillal, set off to combat that menace in support of the legendary commander, Salah-ed-Din or Saladin (p. 152); and at this point their adoptive son, Prince Zeid, returns to Kashkot to fulfil his destiny, symbolically turning his face away from Europe and towards the complex ecology of Asia. Kashkot, then, represents the polar opposite of a colonial narrative, and its exclusion of English or even European elements affirms Fairclough’s repudiation of the imperialist aspects of her British heritage.

In support of this anti-imperialist agenda, it’s worth noting that The Blue Tree embraces an unparalleled richness of different cultures, none of which gains precedence over the rest. These cultures are encountered not one by one, as they are in Tolkien’s there-and-back-again narrative journey, but as interacting with one another at each stage of Fairclough’s novel, and as coming together to spark off a popular insurrection in its third and final section. Within Kashkot’s territory there are the tall, proud folk of the mountains among whom Barmek grew up, cut off from Kashkot by snows throughout the winter months and fiercely independent in their characteristics and customs; the people of Lamissar, whose Zoroastrian heritage survives in the magic they secretly practise; and the Gamru Khel, small, tough men and women who wear knives even in bed, and who subsist in the poorest part of Kashkot’s demesnes by mining and working iron. Representatives of each of these peoples live in the city, alongside Jewish merchants – represented by the wise and empathic Ben Ephraim – and folk from distant lands – like the so-called ‘Black Pearl’, whose African tribe is known for producing ‘very great warriors’ (p. 103). All Kashkot’s inhabitants, including the enslaved Lamissar steward Abu Misimir, Kalidad the leader of the Gamru Khel, Ben Ephraim the Jew and the African Black Pearl, are drawn into the network of friendship that surrounds Barmek. Beyond Kashkot’s borders we meet the nomadic Mongols, waiting patiently for the moment when they will rise up to build the greatest empire in the world; the intellectuals of Ispahan, a city ‘seething with scholars, mad for learning, [and] drunk with argument’ (p. 45); the Children of Han in distant China, represented by the Chinese engineer who teaches the young Kashkot nobleman Farhad how to build canals; the Beni Hillal Bedouins, with whom young Prince Zeid finds shelter in exile; and the Mongolian shaman, Kamut-Shann the Merry, whose reputation for wisdom and magic extends from the Arctic north ‘where the white falcons breed’ to the ‘roof of the world’ – the Himalayas – and beyond, into ‘Hindostan’ (p. 179). All these people, too, find a place in Barmek’s story, sometimes at two or three removes. The Beni Hillal tribe, for example, are connected to Barmek through their rescue and raising of Prince Zeid, who ends by marrying Safiya, the Wazir’s daughter. The Children of Han are linked to Barmek by inspiring Farhad to build his canals – Farhad being the Wazir’s young protégé and friend. Little Dog learned in his quest how four different human peoples in North America were interconnected, and how they interacted in diverse ways with beasts and the land. The Blue Tree incorporates multiple cultures and communities into its portrait of a single city, refusing to privilege any one perspective, in direct defiance of the British imperialist tradition.

 

Many of Fairclough’s cultures have a special relationship with particular animals. Barmek’s mountain people, for instance, are shepherds, and so have a high regard for dogs: ‘although the Prophet (may Allah bless him!) did not like them,’ Barmek observes, ‘I have known many excellent dogs’ (p. 39). The Mongolian herdsmen privilege their horses above most humans. The Beni Hillal favour camels, and pass on their affection for these unruly beasts to their adoptive child, young Prince Zeid. Unusually close relationships with animals feature prominently in another text from Fairclough’s time associated with Solomon: Konrad Lorenz’s bestselling book Er redete mit dem Vieh, den Vögeln und den Fischen (1949), translated into English in 1952 as King Solomon’s Ring. The book’s English title references the Ring or Seal of Solomon, which certain legends identify as the source of his magic powers, while others affirm it gave him the power to communicate with animals. Lorenz’s book describes his own attempts to communicate with birds and beasts while developing the theories of animal psychology that eventually led to his being awarded the Nobel Prize. Fairclough’s interest in Grey Owl could well have led her to read King Solomon’s Ring as a natural follow-up to Belaney’s account of his relationships with Canadian beavers (she could not have known, in the 1950s, of Lorenz’s membership of the Nazi party, nor of his early linkage of his theories to the pseudo-science of eugenics). The Ring of Solomon features in The Blue Tree, though more as a source of magic than as a means of translating animal languages. Unlike Miskoo the Lucky or Little Dog and the Rainmakers there are no talking animals in Fairclough’s last novel; communication with beasts is achieved only by careful and sympathetic observation, of the kind Lorenz advocated. But Fairclough’s Ring does represent a covenant or agreement between a monarch and his people, a promise on the part of the king to protect his subjects – among whom he numbers animals and spirits as well as human beings – from oppression by the powerful. And her story of the Ring, and of that other protective talisman, The Blue Tree, features human-animal relations throughout its length. The topic is not foregrounded as it is in Fairclough’s other narratives, but emerges in the end as a crucial theme – perhaps the central theme – of this work of art.

The novel opens with a reimagining of the story of Solomon’s Ring (Chapter 1, which serves as a prologue). King Solomon, here named as Hazrat Suleman, is flying around his kingdom on his magic carpet, which also carries representatives of his various subjects: humans, animals, birds and spirits. At each corner of his carpet stands one of these representatives – the Prince of Men, the Prince of Demons, the Prince of Beasts and the Prince of Birds – keeping it ‘steady’ and the world in equilibrium (p. 7). Suleman’s generous understanding of the term ‘subject’ arises from the fact that in his lifetime the world is bigger than it is today, ‘with room in it for other races besides the race of men’ (p. 7). Indeed, the first use of Suleman’s Ring we witness – the only use, in fact – is to protect a nonhuman being, a Djinn from the island of Zanzibar, off Africa, who is being pursued by a malevolent Peri or female spirit, who wishes to enslave him. The Djinn is not Suleman’s subject, but he is a jeweller of great skill, a manufacturer of works of art in metal like the Ring on Suleman’s finger; and the King, we are told, has great sympathy for artists under duress, being a ‘fine architect’ himself who has been forced to make ugly buildings at the behest of his many wives (p. 8). The Peri, on the other hand, has terrible taste in jewels – her bracelets and bangles make Suleman ‘wince’ when he sees them (p. 10) – and no interest in artistic or personal freedoms, since she wishes the Djinn to fashion jewels exclusively for her. Suleman agrees to protect the Djinn by sealing him up in a mountain cave for a thousand years, using his Ring as a magic key. By the end of this time, he hopes, the Peri will have ‘found another jeweller and forgotten you’ (p. 8). Unfortunately, however, the King reckons without two things: that he may lose the Ring, which he needs to release the Djinn, and that the Peri may have a long and vindictive memory. The occurrence of both these eventualities triggers Fairclough’s plot. But before saying more, we need to dwell for a moment on that opening fable.

Fairclough, King Suleman’s Magic Carpet. Note the four representatives of Suleman’s subjects standing by the king, and the Djinn in the foreground clinging to the edge of the carpet.

The tale of the loss of Suleman’s Ring is a parable of multicultural open-mindedness pitted against capitalistic self-centredness and greed. The focus of this opening story – an artist threatened with slavery –  sets the problem of making good art in a troubled and unequal world at the heart of the novel that follows. Suleman understands the artist-jeweller’s problem as his own responsibility, regardless of boundaries between nations, races, classes or indeed species. He does his best to resolve it, suitably enough with a work of art he possesses, the Ring: using jewellery to save a jeweller, so to speak. Not long afterwards, however, he loses the Ring that will release the imprisoned artist, an incident based on Arabic sources (according to one legend, Solomon’s Ring was stolen from him by the demon Asmodeus, who ruled in Solomon’s place for forty days while the King wandered the earth in rags, before being restored to his throne by the Ring’s recovery). As a result, the Djinn finds himself alone and in darkness for over a thousand years; an apt metaphor for the condition of art under oppressive regimes. Such art and its practitioners do not cease to exist; they are merely locked away and rendered inaccessible, waiting for the moment when conditions are right for their release. Suleman, too, is lost in this period, since he dies not long after he imprisons the Djinn, and with him dies the art of equitable governance. With him, too, dies the sense of the world as something more than the province of human beings, as well as the sense of one’s responsibilities as extending beyond the interests of one’s nation, city, species, class, or self. Fairclough’s book addresses all these losses and the attempt to recover them; and as an artist, she represents that recovery in terms of art.

Like the term ‘subject’ in Suleman’s lifetime, which has a wider compass than ours, Fairclough’s understanding of the term ‘art’ extends far beyond the work of self-identified ‘artists’. Among the craftspeople she celebrates in her novel are the Librarian, who spends his life working on a true history of his times to counter the sanitised official version; a canal engineer, who seeks to construct a water system to irrigate the Plain of Kashkot and bring much-needed water to the city; the Captain of the Guard and one of his guardsmen, who specialise in the arts of combat, including wrestling; a caravan master who is also an adept in the art of travel; two women (Barmek’s wife and mother) who practise the art of running a household; and many more. As Wazir of Kashkot, Barmek becomes patron and enabler of all these forms of art, showing as much appreciation for, say, the art of training horses or the art of wrestling as he does for the telling of tales and the weaving of carpets.[5]

Fairclough’s painting of Keynsham in Keynsham Library. My thanks to Tim Whyte, Keynsham Library Manager, for taking the photo. Click for details.

Fairclough’s own appreciation of the arts extended well beyond the conventional province of the art school graduate. A substantial painting she produced for Keynsham Library – which can still be seen there – embraces a range of specialist activities, from music and spinning to chocolate-making and playing with a ball. There is a portrait of the composer Handel, who is said to have gifted Keynsham church with a peal of bells in exchange for its organ; a cinema showing Walt Disney’s great animated feature, Bambi (1942); a workman manufacturing the brassware for which Keynsham was once famous; a huntsman on horseback chasing deer; a chocolate maker at Fry’s factory in Keynsham; a footballer and a cricket player; a soldier arm-in-arm with a dragon, which could represent the Keynsham Mummer’s play of Saint George, in which the saint is killed by a soldier called Slasher (although there is no Dragon in this version of George’s story);[6] a blacksmith shoeing a horse; and many industrial workers and farm labourers. All these people could be described as artists in their own practices, and Fairclough’s enshrining of them in a work of art unites them all under art’s umbrella, celebrating their craftsmanship just as Barmek celebrates and supports the craftsmanship of Kashkot’s diverse citizens.

Along the bottom of Fairclough’s Keynsham painting runs a series of animal paintings (badger, stoats, fox, rabbits, squirrel and otter), as if to confirm nonhuman beings as the roots or foundations of human life. Animals are scattered through the painting, too, including sheep in a field and on a boat. The sheep may remind us that the foundations of the Wazir Barmek’s success as a ruler lie in his skills as a mountain shepherd, an intermediary between humans and beasts. In his home village he is not a leader, but rather ‘one of those reliable people to whom other people leave all the work’ (p. 13), especially the work of looking after his indolent friend Khalid, the care of the community’s flocks, and selling fleeces in the Kashkot market. He knows the vagaries of the seasons, moving his flocks from high ground to low as winter turns to spring.  He knows the practical needs of his people: as he transports his fleeces to market he keeps going over the shopping list his community has given him, which includes salt, coffee, rice, and ‘a fine copper coffee-pot for my mother’ (p. 13). And he knows the needs of the mules that carry the fleeces. When a cheeky melon-seller pops his load of melons onto the lead mule’s back, hoping to cadge a free ride, Barmek tells him to transfer the melons to another beast because ‘This mule is loaded heavily enough’ (p. 15). When he reaches Kashkot and finds it buzzing with excitement at the prospect of the selection of a new Sultan after the death of the old one, Barmek again thinks first of his mules – ‘a string of restive mules […] not used to crowds’ (p. 16) – and makes sure they are soothed and watered while Khalid rushes off to enjoy the spectacle. Fairclough’s attention to the detail of Barmek’s work with animals tells us at once about the man’s personality; he takes less care for himself than for the needs of the people and creatures who depend on him, and his particular care for animals identifies him as humane as well as well-organised, two qualities that prove essential for his political career.

Fairclough: Barmek watches from a distance at the ceremony of the choosing of the Sultan. Note the drummers on black camels and the white horse bearing Khaled, the new Sultan. Click for details.

As I’ve already suggested, animals permeate The Blue Tree, and while this may not be obvious at once to Fairclough’s readers, Barmek proves unusually attentive to their presence. For instance, Barmek’s perception of the ceremony for selecting the new Sultan is entirely mediated through his response to the nonhuman beings involved. He notes how there is a horse at the centre of the ceremonial parade, and how ‘so glorious was the horse […] that although its bridle was purple and its headband set with rubies, yet they looked cheap upon it’ (p. 17). He notes too that the leading actor in the selection process – a Hawk whose choice of Sultan must by tradition be respected by Kashkot’s citizens – is a ‘slim small streak of a bird, white and lovely as the horse’ (p. 17). When the Hawk turns its head towards him, he promptly bows as though ‘to a small and terrible king’. Barmek’s values, the scene suggests, are based on his personal judgment of living creatures, not on conventional human priorities or hierarchies, and the creatures and people he values respond to Barmek’s qualities as he responds to theirs.

For Barmek, animals are foundational to his working life as well as to the political life of the city. His recognition of their importance is reflected in his treatment of them, just as his treatment of people reflects his recognition that every one of them forms an integral part of the community he belongs to; for instance, he has a fountain in the city constructed so that animals as well as people can drink from its waters (p. 110). His acknowledgement of the kinship between beasts and humans stems from the fact that he sees himself as no more than equal to the animals that serve him. His job as the new Wazir, the chief minister and effective ruler of the city (p. 20), represents a great sacrifice on his part – he would much rather go back to his life in the mountains, with sheep, mules and dogs; and this makes him effectively the Sultan’s indentured servant for the term of the Sultan’s life. In the end, in fact, it makes him the Sultan’s slave, since he is increasingly treated as a slave by the Sultaness, who first deprives him of wife and daughter by sending them into exile using her sorcery, then transforms Barmek himself into a speechless Ram. As a result, Barmek has a high regard for his fellow servants – who include animals like the Hawk, the white horse, and a ferocious stallion known as Blood-for-Breakfast (p. 98) – and for the enslaved human people who become his friends.

The new Sultan, Khaled, fights with the Wazir Douban, as he seeks to consolidate his hold on the throne. Note the vultures overhead, which Fairclough discusses in detail on p. 31.

Indeed, the Wazir ‘reads’ human beings as animals repeatedly. For him the Captain of the Guard, Daresh, resembles a dog, who worries at problems ‘like a dog with a burr in his tail’ (p. 22). So does the steward Abu Misimir, though he also has characteristics of a sheep (p. 39). Barmek’s friend the Khan of the Southern Marches has a close physical likeness to the eagles he hunts with (p. 51). The loyal guardsman Dhiab first recalls a dog (p. 60) and later a mule (p. 70); the Keeper of the Royal Treasury calls to mind a ‘tortoise in a cave’ (p. 66); Barmek’s wife Najla resembles ‘a duck on a swift current’ as she rides to her wedding (p. 82); and the warrior-brigand Kalidad has the reflexes of a feral cat (p. 91). All these people are Barmek’s allies, but his enemies too have nonhuman qualities. The carpet-seller Ibrahim, whose lack of talent as a maker of carpets leads him to despise and betray more talented people out of envy and self-interest, resembles a crow: one of those ‘crows that follow many ploughs, the makers of patch-work, taking an idea here and a colour there, a form of words, another man’s methods, and striving to make a new thing without power to create’ (p. 112). The analogy ties him to the unscrupulous crow Kahgahgengs in Little Dog and the Rainmakers, who thieves from his fellow animals and endangers children’s lives for his own amusement. The Daughter of Douban, meanwhile, shifts her animal nature as it suits her, sometimes recalling a ‘wicked cat’ (p. 36), at others a bat (p. 104), and ending her days as a bird in a cage (p. 105), suitably enough for a person who has specialised in caging others. Like Ibrahim, however, she most closely resembles Kahgahgengs the self-serving crow. When she contrives to send Barmek’s family into exile, Barmek forces her to observe them every day through her magic powers, like the wicked Queen in Snow White (1937), reporting back to him on their wellbeing, though she cannot tell him where they are or what they are doing (pp. 104-5; p. 167). In the same way, the Jossakeed of Lost Lake in Little Dog forced Kahgahgengs to keep an eye on Little Dog’s progress across the continent in search of rain, reporting every day on his wellbeing, though the crow too could not say where the boy was or what he was up to. As with Ibrahim, the Sorceress’s willingness to make other people her instruments ends by condemning her to becoming an instrument herself, a fate all the more terrible for her in that she has no concept of self-sacrifice for the common good, unlike Barmek and his friends.

Barmek, on the other hand, is concerned with the wellbeing of the whole community, not just himself and his family, and repeatedly finds common ground with his fellow citizens. At one key point in the novel, for instance, he makes friends with a dishevelled young man who resembles ‘a trapped, half-starved animal’ (p. 42) of the kind he might have encountered in the mountains. The Wazir is drawn to this young man when he sees a model the boy is making out of mud in the palace garden, which he recognises at once as a model of Kashkot and its territories, with a non-existent canal running through the middle. Barmek can ‘read’ the model, so to speak, thanks to his shepherd’s training (‘Every hillman has an eye for country, and having once seen a place can recognise it again, even from a different direction’, p. 42), just as he can ‘read’ the young man’s character thanks to his shepherd’s instinctive sympathy for ill-treated beasts. He ‘tames’ the wild young man, whose name is Farhad, by kindness, ‘moving and talking quietly as if he were dealing with a frightened animal’ (p. 43); and in the process learns that Farhad’s father was put to death by the former Wazir, after which the boy and his brothers sought to avenge themselves ‘like wolves on the world that had killed him’ (p. 47). For their insurrection against the corrupt old Sultan and his wicked minister, Farhad’s brothers were executed, while Farhad was made a slave for Douban’s amusement. The wolf analogy links him to the young warrior Steals-in-the-Snow in Little Dog, who likewise seeks revenge for the death of his family. Steals-in-the-Snow and his older brothers resemble ‘gaunt […] winter wolves’ or ‘lone wolves who have been turned out of the pack’ (Little Dog, pp. 92 and 100), and all of them meet a violent end. Farhad, on the other hand, finds safe haven with Barmek: he is embraced by the new Wazir, restored to freedom and given a useful job. In recompense, Barmek finds in Farhad an expert engineer, whose plan to supply Kashkot with fresh, clean water transforms the city and its environs, bringing new birds and crops to the area formerly known as the ‘Waste of Kashkot’ and ensuring that the Wazir can install his lifesaving fountains in the city streets. Barmek’s sensitivity to beasts and beast-like people, in other words, helps revolutionize Kashkot’s ecology, making it a byword for good land management in twelfth-century Asia.

Barmek’s future wife, Najla daughter of Daresh, watches as Barmek and Farhad ride by on their horses. Najla drops snow on Barmek’s head to draw his attention.

Before joining his brothers’ rebellion, Farhad learned his engineering skills in Ispahan (now Isfahan), an Iranian city ‘seething with scholars [and] drunk with argument’ (p. 45). Here he met a Chinese engineer, with whom he travelled for three years through Mesopotamia, studying the ancient canal systems that criss-cross the land between the Tigris and the Euphrates. The young man, then, embodies the pan-Asian connections between different human cultures that enable Kashkot to flourish. Another of Barmek’s unlikely friends, the caravan master Austa Muthanna, embodies the pan-Asian connections between human beings and animals. Indeed, animals are responsible for all pan-Asian connections, providing as they do the locomotive energy for the caravans that link Kashkot to Samarkand, Charchan and China (p. 72). Farhad and his Chinese teacher must join caravans to travel safely through Mesopotamia; the merchants of Kashkot, including Ben Ephraim, rely on caravans to send their goods to distant clients; and Austa Muthanna is the most trustworthy caravan master the merchants know of. He is hard on the human ‘riff-raff’ who travel with his caravans, but looks after his animals with the tenderness of a father, and ‘never, never, has he been known to lose one bale of merchandise entrusted to him’, Barmek learns (p. 73). Between them, Farhad and Austa Muthanna confirm Kashkot’s reliance both on its wider Asian context for its prosperity, and on its nonhuman associates to maintain ties with its distant collaborators.

But Austa Muthanna also confirms how far this urban civilization has gone from the easy interdependence between humans and beasts that characterised Fairclough’s first two works of fiction. Animals ‘afflicted of Allah and men’, such as dogs and donkeys, flock to Muthanna in their droves whenever he visits Kashkot, their injuries bearing witness to the violence with which they are handled (p. 72). Barmek sees the caravan master tending to their wounds and speaking to the ‘wolfish’ dogs of Kashkot ‘as to his friends, or his children, his voice rising and falling in a soothing growl’ (p. 75). This makes Muthanna the sole remaining custodian of the ability to communicate with animals that seemed to be common to all humans in Miskoo the Lucky and Little Dog. Muthanna’s own body testifies to equal ill-treatment at some undisclosed period in his past: ‘His face was […] evilly scarred, with one eyelid drooping, a long crooked nose and a bitter mouth’ (p. 75), and the only human associate he can bear is a disabled henchman whose face recalls that of a ‘wistful monkey’ (p. 75), making him ‘as like to an animal as might be’ (p. 76). Muthanna’s disgust for all other human company suggests that the abuse of beasts (and unfortunate human beings) is prevalent across the continent, every part of which he has visited in his travels. The Daughter of Douban’s propensity for diminishing people, as she sees it, by treating them as she treats animals – which is what made Farhad ‘wolfish’ – and the Peri’s delight in making them actual animals through her magic, would seem to be symptomatic of a wider breakdown in relations between human peoples and their nonhuman neighbours, of the kind Grey Owl exposed in the Canadian wilderness.

Barmek, looking out of the window, yearns for the mountains. Beside him is one of the Peri’s magic carpets, which will shortly change him into a Ram.

As one might expect, Barmek’s own understanding of animals allows him to gain the respect and trust of the misanthropic caravan master, and with it some of the insights he has gained from his travels. Being a close and impartial observer of the ebb and flow of the natural world, Muthanna lays claim to the role of a historical commentator like the Royal Librarian, Hafiz, who writes an accurate account of his times in secret while simultaneously preparing a doctored version for the eyes of his tyrannical master, Sultan Khalid. Muthanna is able to speak with authority from a number of positions unavailable to a scholar confined to his library: ‘as the Caravan-master, responsible for lives and merchandise; as the traveller whose eyes are open for the use of a lively and open mind; and as that sometimes terrible thing, the historian who sees the inescapable pattern reaching from the past into the future’ (p. 108). His most striking insights come from an inspection of the condition of the Asian grasslands, on which nomadic horse-herders graze their beasts and whose health or sickness determines their movements. ‘A great, torn, patched green cloak lies over the earth from the Land of the Bright Emperor to the lands of the Feranghis [the European foreigners]’ he tells Barmek, ‘the cloak of the grass’ (p. 108). ‘Out on the cloak of the grass,’ he goes on,

moving with the seasons, were villages, colonies, townships of felt-covered yurts, each owning some Khan as leader to whose war-banner they would rally. And round each cluster of yurts were the herds, the unbelievable herds of the horses, and where the grazing was, there the herds must go. […] For it is the grass, look you, nothing but the grass. Neither love of wealth nor hatred of their enemies will move those hordes, but grass for their horses. They ride into Bokhara and Samarkand, they sell hawks in learned Ispahan, and what do they see? Land that is wasted, for there are cities and gardens on it instead of grass. (pp. 108-9)

One day, Muthanna warns, the dwellers in yurts will decide to clear away these urban centres to make new grazing grounds for their animals; and on that day ‘Bokhara shall become a mud-heap and Thaikan a salt-lick and Ispahan a pile of skulls’ (p. 109). When Barmek thanks him for this warning, Muthanna laughs his laugh ‘like the scream of a peacock’ (p. 106) and reassures him this will not happen for generations. He has told Barmek the story only to comfort him with the thought that after his death the city he ruled will be swept aside, helplessly subject to the changing climate and its consequences. Muthanna has noted the sadness in Barmek’s face, born from the loss of his wife and daughter, and wishes to help him as best he can – including with a bag of pearls, which later supports the poor of Kashkot through a harsh winter, and the gift of another Ring, a ‘great carved emerald’ as green as the grasslands, which the Wazir keeps as a token of their friendship (p. 106). Barmek’s post-loss bitterness chimes with Muthanna’s, but both men find comfort in the knowledge that in the other they have found ‘faith and compassion and courage’ in a human being, and not solely ‘among the four-footed and the winged’ (p. 110). At this late moment in the first section of the novel, Barmek has come to recognise that such qualities are rare among humans and to treasure them all the more wherever he finds them.

The child Prince Zeid rides on a donkey as part of Austa Muthanna’s caravan. A dervish who was once King Suleman walks beside him and Muthanna can be seen in the distance.

The Daughter of Douban, meanwhile, deploys her magic skills not to complement the natural order but to supplant it. She aims to resuscitate her father, killed – or placed in a magical state of suspended animation – by Barmek’s arrow in the course of the fighting that followed Khalid’s selection as Sultan. After she marries Khalid, as part of her plot to install Douban on the Kashkot throne, her first work of enchantment is to make roses grow from pots in winter, their fragrance serving to confuse the senses of those who are exposed to it for any extended period:

from each briar sprang sprays of small green leaves, from each spray a stalk of golden buds, and each golden bud opened into a white velvety rose with a golden centre; and from the last rose to open flew a golden bee and lit on all the other nineteen briars in turn, so that each of them split and budded and blossomed, and the whole Palace was filled with their scent (p. 52).

These roses, the Sorceress claims, will bloom every day while Khalid lives, counting out the days till she can replace him with her resurrected father. They emit the scent of death, not life, and on the day of Khalid’s assassination their corrupting nature becomes apparent as they wither and stink while continuing to grow, ‘filling the Hall, reaching, spreading’, in mimicry of the Sultaness’s relentless quest for power (p. 191). Her second act of enchantment after her marriage is to fashion a Figure of wax and pierce it with pins, thereby wracking Barmek’s body with pain and making him lose a wrestling match in front of the assembled courtiers (p. 60). As a consequence of this incident, Barmek’s friend Abu Misimir gives into his keeping the talisman known as the Blue Tree, which protects him for the rest of his time as Wazir from the worst effects of the Sultaness’s sorcery (p. 64). The talisman confirms Barmek as the Daughter of Douban’s polar opposite, just as his possession of Muthanna’s green Ring identifies him as an ally of the so-called ‘Watcher of Grass’ (p. 108). By the end of the first section of Fairclough’s narrative, the opposing factions have been established and the stakes they play for have been identified. These are nothing less than opposing ways of relating to the environment, which the Sultaness would exploit for her own advantage, while the Wazir would render it hospitable for all his subjects, human and nonhuman alike. The next two sections of the novel trace the complex processes by which the Wazir’s vision emerges victorious from the conflict.

The child Saffiya leads her amnesiac mother towards the house of Barmek’s mother. One of the few pictures in the book with no animals in it.

Human-animal relationships are key to this unlikely victory. The Wazir’s transformation into a Ram is effected by the wicked Peri, as she seeks to impose her will on the children of men in open mockery of the equitable government of Hazrat Suleman, by turning people into what she sees as the nearest equivalent animal. But the Daughter of Douban and the Peri are clearly allies from the start, their green-painted eyes and pleasure in self-adornment and self-serving magics linking them long before we learn, in the third section of the novel, that they count each other as ‘kindred spirits’ (p. 168). Suleman, meanwhile, passes on his wisdom as ruler to Barmek (p. 38), who thereby becomes his successor in the art of just governance. This means that Barmek’s removal from power serves the interests of both Peri and Sultaness. His bestial transformation forms part of a larger scheme on the Peri’s part to transform representatives of four ‘races’ of men into beasts, in formal pastiche of the four strange beings that sat at the corners of Suleman’s carpet – the Prince of Men, the Prince of Demons, the Prince of Beasts and the Prince of Birds. She effects the transformations with her own form of magic carpet, commissioned from the crow-like carpet-weaver Ibrahim: four carpets, to be exact, each sporting a pattern as hideous as that of her jewels, with a closed eye at the centre (to signify the shutting down of the senses and the mind) and a swarm of black and red beetles all around (to signify the Peri’s perception of human beings as no better than insects). With these magic carpets the Peri hopes to entrap in animal form four individuals from the major human religions: the Christian monarch Richard the Lionheart; an anonymous man from Confucian, Buddhist and Taoist imperial China; a member of Suleman’s own Jewish nation; and of course the Muslim Wazir. Her plans go awry in several ways. Instead of Richard, the Sultan’s lost son Prince Zeid is accidentally transformed, Barmek goes missing after his transformation, and one of the carpets is seized by the Mongolian shaman Kamut-Shann. But the metamorphoses of Barmek into a Ram, Prince Zeid into a Camel and Ben Ephraim into a Monkey provide perfect working models of the demeaning philosophy of the Peri and the Sultaness, both of whom see their fellow human and nonhuman creatures as animated objects to be exploited for gain. In this they resemble the post-war profiteer and murderer Harry Lime, memorably played by Orson Welles in Carol Reed’s movie The Third Man (1949), who sees his fellow men as no better than the insects they resemble when viewed from the summit of a Viennese Ferris wheel.

Ranged against these potent demeaners of living creatures are the individuals who cherish beings of other species.  Suleman, Barmek and Austa Muthanna are three of these, along with that lover of eagles, hawks and horses, the Khan of the Southern Marches. But the younger generation, too, includes its share of animal lovers. Prince Zeid, for instance, as a child on the run from the Sultaness, takes an injured donkey to Muthanna for treatment, thereby endearing himself to the caravan master as far as any human can. Muthanna responds by smuggling him out of Kashkot with his beasts of burden, but is later tempted to sell him in Baghdad for a bag of pearls – the same pearls he later presents to Barmek in partial compensation for his betrayal of Prince Zeid. The boy, meanwhile, is rescued from slavery by Muthanna’s beastlike henchman, Ahmed, who spirits him away to be adopted by the Bedouins; and it’s among the Bedouins that Zeid develops a deep knowledge of and affection for camels. Indeed, his love of camels leads to his transformation, as he seeks to lighten the load of a beast which is carrying one of the Peri’s magic carpets (p. 154). The carpet’s magic is unleashed as soon as he touches it, and Zeid becomes, for a while, one of the camels he loves, before being freed from camel form by a young woman who can see ‘human’ qualities in animals. Zeid’s narrative, in other words, is determined as much by his own and other people’s humaneness towards beasts as by the willingness of other humans to show humanity to a lost child – that is, to see themselves in him and to see him as one of themselves.

Prince Zeid after being raised as a Bedouin. One of his beloved camels can be seen in the background, as well as his adoptive sister.

The woman who restores Prince Zeid to human form is Saffiya, Barmek’s daughter. Saffiya shares with her father a lifelong affinity with nonhuman creatures, especially dogs. Driven from Kashkot with her mother Najla by the Sultaness, she finds her way to a haven in the mountains, where three dogs appoint themselves guardians for Najla, whose memory has been suppressed by the Sorceress’s magic. The three dog-guardians are joined in their task by the doglike wrestler-guardsman Dhiab, who was also banished from Kashkot by the Sultaness; and with these four highly qualified sentinels watching her mother, Saffiya feels free to set off alone to seek Zeid, with whom she forged an unbreakable bond in early childhood. In her wanderings she makes friends with a colony of Bats, the ‘leather-winged children of the night’ (p. 157), who first liberate her from the fortress of an assassin master, Hasan-i-Sabbah, then escort her to the cave where the Djinn is imprisoned – another nonhuman being with whom she bonds. One year later, the same Bats inform her of the transformation of Prince Zeid, which can only be reversed by someone who can recognise the victim and ‘without hesitation declare their love for him’ (p. 158); in other words, by someone capable of seeing beyond the surface ‘ugliness’ of a beast. The Bats lead Saffiya from the cave to a valley dominated by the statue of a human-nonhuman hybrid, a lama or sphinx that represents a dead monarch who combines the human virtues with the virtues of the beasts with which he is melded. The image unites ‘the powerful lion’s body, the great bird’s lifting wings, and the serene watching head of a man’ (p. 159), recalling the four Princes on Suleman’s carpet who took the shapes of a human, a more-than-human being, an eagle and a lion. The statue, then, could stand for Suleman, the dead king who still has a hand in human affairs; and it could also stand for Saffiya’s father Barmek, Suleman’s living representative. Studying the statue, Saffiya sees in it characteristics of the lost Wazir; and moments later she recognizes a passing Ram as Barmek himself, though she cannot make him human because that is a task for her mother. Soon afterwards, however, she recognizes a Camel as Prince Zeid, the young man she has been looking for; and she is able to humanize him at once. Like Zeid’s, then, her story is driven by her capacity to embrace human-nonhuman relations as an integral part of what makes her herself. In this, the second section of Fairclough’s narrative (Chapters 3 to 7), bats, camels, donkeys, lions, dogs and eagles combine with the efforts of human beings to bring Zeid and Saffiya together. And in the third and final section (Chapter 8), revolution itself becomes a matter of collaboration between human and nonhuman entities, making common cause against the forces of oppression.

The third section is also dominated by climate catastrophe, which here as in Little Dog and the Rainmakers has potentially disastrous consequences for humans and animals alike. Hafiz the Librarian remarks on the rainfall in every entry of his clandestine annals of this late period in the Sultan’s reign. He notes, too, the Sultan’s failure to respond to the dangers this rainfall embodies – the greatest danger being that the dam constructed by Farhad to feed his canals will burst and overwhelm the city. Farhad orders raw materials from distant lands to help shore up the structure, but the materials are commandeered for the Sultan’s purposes, and anyone who resists his orders to repurpose them gets tortured or killed. As a result, parallel with the mounting floodwaters runs the mounting resentment of the people, to which we are given access through the eyes and feelings of Barmek’s friends. One after the other these friends conclude that the Sultan himself must be killed: the Librarian Hafiz, whose knowledge of the Book of Kings is supplemented by eavesdropping on the dire goings-on in the royal palace; the Lamissari merchant Ali Houssain, who keeps tabs on the city’s failing economy; Farhad the canal engineer and former rebel; Kalidad, the chieftain of those knife-wielding ironworkers, the Gamru Khel; the blacksmith Mushtaq the Ironmaster, who is one of his relatives; and the caravan master Austa Muthanna, who finds himself caring for Kashkot because of the good Wazir, now lost, who once ruled it wisely. Each of these people except Hafiz have been linked in the past to some form of hostility against Kashkot’s rulers – and as a historian, Hafiz is intensely conscious of the causes and effects of this kind of hostility. While Barmek held power, the Wazir succeeded in uniting them in communal work on behalf of their fellow citizens; but in his absence they begin to realign themselves (still on behalf of their fellow citizens) as enemies of the Sultan. Flood and rebellion, then, threaten the land like aspects of each other; and Austa Muthanna links this sense of an imminent dual catastrophe to a second approaching crisis caused by the climate: the prophesied attack of the Mongol hordes, as their horses consume the resources of Asia’s grasslands and they begin to look elsewhere for pasturage. Muthanna is concerned that Kashkot will be destroyed alongside grander cities – Samarkand and Isfahan – in that human deluge; but the concern he feels for the little city state brings it hope even as he expresses it, in the shape of Muthanna’s one close human friend, whom we only meet in this final section, as he pours out to her his fears for Barmek’s kingdom.

Austa Muthanna with the shaman Kamut-Shann, whose animal guests include a fox cub and a fawn. Surrounding them are the horses which will change the course of world history.

That human is the Mongolian shaman Kamut-Shann the Merry. We first meet Kamut-Shann at her yurt in the company of an abandoned fawn and a wolf-cub – natural enemies united under her aegis, like the scriptural lion and lamb. Her appearance in the narrative signals the confluence of all the many narrative strands Fairclough has so far kept in play; in each case, these strands reach a point of crisis in this third section, and Kamut-Shann the Merry represents the hope that they may be resolved and their many characters and communities reconciled, as the wolf and fawn have been reconciled in the shade of her yurt. As a Mongol, Kamut-Shann is well aware of the imminent rising of the Mongol hordes, and she makes no promises that she can fend them off from Kashkot: after all, she tells Muthanna, ‘shall one woman and a [shamanic] drum turn aside the armies of Jenghis Khan?’ (p. 180). But she willingly gives her aid in the smaller conflict with the Sultan, the Sultaness, and their supernatural patroness, the Peri, and with Muthanna she begins the long journey from the grasslands where her yurt is pitched to the plain where the city stands. On the way they pick up members of Barmek’s household – Abu Misimir and the Black Pearl, Saffiya and her lover Prince Zeid – as well as a ‘small shimmering cloud’ of migrant butterflies, which spontaneously joins the growing pilgrimage in homage to the shaman (p. 186). The resolution of political crisis, Fairclough implies, cannot be achieved without reconciliation with the natural world, whose delicacy and energy is perfectly captured in the ‘small shimmering cloud’. And it cannot be achieved, she also implies, without paying attention to the politics of the household. Kamut-Shann’s nomadic existence – transferring her yurt from place to place, while her fame extends from polar regions to the Himalayas – makes the local global, while the presence in her household of wild animals as well as people extends the definition of the home far beyond the walls that enclose its traditional occupants. Kamut-Shann, in fact, embodies the ever-changing interface between humans, animals, the climate and the land, and her appearance at the point of crisis signifies the resurgence in Fairclough’s text of utopian possibility; a possibility based on a more inclusive philosophy than even Barmek embodied in the book’s first section.

Together, Muthanna and the shaman, Barmek’s family and his friends converge on Kashkot, bringing with them the potential for a Tolkienesque eucatastrophe – the sudden turn from certain disaster to unexpected joy, as expressed in Tolkien’s essay ‘On Fairy Stories’. At this very moment, other strands of Fairclough’s narrative converge. First, the Captain of the Guards, Daresh – the first friend Barmek made in the palace after his appointment as Wazir – makes up his mind that his loyalty is to the people rather than the Sultan, and stabs Khaled to death at the foot of his throne. At the same moment, the small, fierce people known as the Gamru Khel – as famous for fighting as for working iron – attack the city, aiming to bring down the oppressor. At the same moment the climate crisis comes to a head. Farhad’s dam bursts its boundaries, unleashing its waters on the Plain of Kashkot. Daresh and the royal Guard, mounted on their horses, head for the dam; so too do the Gamru Khel. In a gesture of collective self-sacrifice Daresh, the Guard and their horses hurl themselves at the gap in the dam, staunching it with their dying bodies, while the Gamru Khel use their skills as engineers to consolidate the temporary repair. Self-sacrifice and artistry or craftsmanship combine to save the city, just as self-sacrifice and ritual artistry ended the drought in Little Dog.

So much for the human strand that plays its part in this final section (though the horses of the Guard play a crucial role in this strand, too). The animal strand follows, as Austa Muthanna enters Kashkot – riding, like the palace Guard, on a beloved horse – to deal with the Sultaness. He has been sent on ahead by Kamut-Shann to marshal the natural world as it exists within the city walls against the city’s oppressor. At his invitation, the despised dogs of Kashkot descend on the palace ‘like flood water’ to drag the Sultaness from her private chambers to the public square (p. 192), where she is caged like an abused animal in full view of the citizens and beasts she has persecuted. The day of her defeat becomes known as the Day of the Dogs, reversing the centuries of marginalization and abuse that have been visited on them by inscribing their species into the annals of history. Her reduction to the level at which she measured both beasts and disempowered humans coincides with the restoration of the final victim of the Peri’s magic to human form, as the merchant Ben Ephraim is recognised and embraced – despite the monkey shape into which the Peri changed him – by his nephew. Meanwhile the shaman, when she arrives, subjects the Daughter of Douban to the magic of the Peri’s carpets, allowing the sorcery which has so far served the Sultaness so well to transform her into the humiliating shape of a goose. Trapped by her own strategies in the shape of a being she has always considered base, the Sultaness is given her freedom by Kamut-Shann, liberated to fly wherever she wishes after leaving the city. But her own philosophy, which drives clear wedges between human and nonhuman, ruler and oppressed, ensures that she will never enjoy that freedom, unless by some revolutionary upheaval in her mind she can reconcile herself to a new, inclusive way of thinking.

Najla recognises her husband Barmek in the shape of a Ram. Her now elderly guard dogs can be seen in the foreground, while the one-eyed Guardsman Dhiab watches from above.

Meanwhile, the animal strand of the narrative comes full circle as the white Hawk flies twice to select a new Sultan to replace the old one, in obedience to the ritual function it fulfilled in the early pages of Fairclough’s novel. Before the revolution began, readers saw it land on the chest of the newly-restored Barmek (p. 166), whose wife Najla had earlier recognised him in the shape of a Ram, expressed her love for him, and dissolved the spell that held him, confirming as she did so that she had fully recovered her memory. We learn a few pages later that the Hawk left the palace when Muthanna set fire to it on the Day of the Dogs (p. 193). Barmek, in other words, plays no direct part in the revolution that brings down the Daughter of Douban – though the revolution might never have taken place without the friendships and alliances he forged. His principal gesture, in fact, is a repudiation of involvement in politics, as he gives up the position of Sultan bestowed on him by the Hawk and instead sends the bird flying towards Prince Zeid, the last Sultan’s son (p. 197). Zeid’s face is so like Khalid’s that at first Barmek takes him for Khalid himself, before realising that he is young and uncorrupted – a Khalid as he might have been under different circumstances. The Hawk, then, ends the book by correcting the false course it took in the opening pages, settling on Zeid and inaugurating a new era for Kashkot, an era in which Saffiya replaces the Daughter of Douban as Sultaness; an era when the Sultan is guided by his wife’s empathy for both human and nonhuman creatures. A bird and some dogs, along with the horses that carry Barmek, Mouthanna and the Guard, usher in Kashkot’s new era, just as a horse and a Hawk ushered in the old one.

The supernatural strand of the narrative, meanwhile, arrives at a state of eucatastrophe before ever Muthanna or Barmek reaches the city. Before entering Kashkot, Kamut-Shann stages a final showdown with the Peri, summoning the spirit to her with a whistle like the ones shepherds use to call their dogs (p. 186). There follows a fight between Peri and shaman (p. 187), a duel of magic that evokes the duel between Merlin and Madam Mim in T. H. White’s The Sword in the Stone (1938), or the Wizard Howl’s duel with the Witch of the Waste in Diana Wynne Jones’s Howl’s Moving Castle (1986). Fairclough’s duel, however, is between two female practitioners of magic, not a male wizard and a female witch, a form of combat which invariably ends in the death of the woman. It is fought out in the form of beasts and other forces of nature – ‘waves of the sea, […] two fishes in a stream, two ants in the grass, two hawks in the sky’ (p. 187) – before the shaman brings it to an end by striking her opponent in the form of a thunderbolt, destroying her utterly. The Peri’s destruction unleashes a shower of tasteless jewellery, including the Ring she purloined many years before from Suleman; resurrected as an ascetic wandering Dervish, the King has been searching for this Ring for more than twenty years, and all the time it has been hidden up the Peri’s sleeve, reduced to an object as worthless and impotent as her bangles. With the Ring’s help the King is able at last to release the Djinn, though the prisoner has in fact been free to leave his cave for many years, ever since the waterfall that veiled its entrance was diverted from its course to feed Kashkot’s canals (pp. 155-6). The Djinn may yet refuse to leave, Kamut-Shann points out, from ingrained habit (p. 188); as the Daughter of Douban showed in her form as a goose, freedom is as much a state of mind as a physical condition.

Saffiya and Prince Zeid confront a small green beetle, next to the statue of a lama or sphinx.

The freedom state of mind can be summed up by a look at the beetles in Fairclough’s text. As we’ve seen, beetles feature prominently in the Peri’s malicious acts of magic, swarming out of each magic carpet she sends to an intended victim as if to convey the Peri’s contempt for bug-like mortals. But beetles also feature in a benevolent act of sorcery worked by Barmek’s mother, who provides Najla and Saffiya with magic necklaces to protect them from the Sultaness’s malice. Part of the process of making the necklaces involves throwing six beetles to six passing bats, who discard ‘bright shards’ of beetle shell as they consume them, which the Widow Zora then incorporates into the necklaces (p. 138). Long afterwards, a colony of Bats notices the necklace Saffiya wears, and stop her as she is about to jump from the window of a fortress to escape the attentions of its owner, the assassin Hasan-i-Sabbah. ‘We perceive,’ two of the Bats point out in chorus, ‘that you wear round your neck a blue thread bearing the shards of Beetles. You are therefore under our protection’ (p. 146); and they proceed to guide her to the Djinn’s cave, where Hasan cannot find her. A year later, just after she has rescued Prince Zeid from camel form, Saffiya sees the Prince looking fearful when he spots a passing beetle, associating the harmless insect with the magic that changed him. She at once scoops up the beetle and shows it to him, confronting his fear with a close-up view of the creature that terrifies him, but which most people barely notice. It is ‘Little and green as Paradise,’ she points out, ‘the same as the ones whose shards I wear around my neck’ (p. 160). Those shards, she adds, made the Bats befriend and free her. Meanwhile the beetle on her hand has feelings and an agenda of its own: ‘The beetle with an inquiring wave of its feelers, crawled from one hand to the other, and suddenly brisk, scuttled up a finger; finding nowhere to go, it snapped its wings open and zoomed upwards’. Zeid sums up the incident by wondering: ‘Do all fears become so small [and] without harm when one faces them?’ Close attention to any living creature, it would seem, confounds all attempts to make it Other – either as an instrument of oppression, a tiny monster, or nourishment for passing Bats. This series of encounters with representative specimens of Coleoptera, the largest of animal orders (comprising about a quarter of all known species) despite the tininess of its members, charts a progression from the warped perspective of the Sultaness to the loving attention applied to the natural world by the curious child, the naturalist or the artist.

The progression is a kind of magic, and sets itself up in opposition to the necromantic powers of wicked Sultanesses and other oppressors, embracing anarchistic equality between all beings instead of feudalism or any other form of hierarchy. Kamut-Shann describes this form of magic in conversation with Muthanna: ‘There is magic of the open sun and the grass growing, as well as of the darkened room and the reluctant dead’ (p. 186), she tells him, and adds that one day ‘men will grow out of the second, but it will be sorrow to them if they forget the first, for the one can fight the other and save them from the dark’. She goes on to illustrate the point by defeating the Peri, in a struggle that also illustrates the wholesome effects of living in collusion with the natural world. Kamut-Shann derives her power from this collusion, as she explains just before the duel: ‘I am she who drums in the spring, and the grouse drum also, and the wild geese fly up from the south. I am she who whistles in the autumn and the ptarmigan whistle and the fur of the ermine turns white and they play in the snow. I am the Friend of the Mares’ (p. 187). Her self-description does not elevate her above the land and its animal inhabitants, or the seasons they respond to; she claims no agency over the spring, merely that her drumming echoes the springtime drumming of the grouse and the geese’s wings, her whistling the whistling of the ptarmigan in autumn, and her transformative powers the power of the ermine as it changes colour to prepare for winter. Intimacy with nature’s transformations bestows a power superior to anything available to self-serving, solitary sorcerers – the collective, empathetic power that propels the Kashkot revolution.

The Captain of the Guards, Daresh, abandons the game of chess he was playing with the librarian Hafiz, having made up his mind to kill the Sultan.

In the course of the duel, Suleman’s Ring is restored to him, but its restoration has little impact on the narrative. As we’ve seen, the talisman is not even needed by this time to free the Djinn, whose prison has been unlocked by an accident of history rather than by any individual act of heroism or mercy. Other items of personal jewellery prove far more effective than the Ring in Fairclough’s narrative, but not one of them is effective by itself. The Blue Tree, for example – the protective talisman given to Barmek by Abu Misimir (p. 41) – works for many years to shield him from the Sultaness’s magic, but cannot shield him from the magic of the Peri. The Black Pearl gives Saffiya another amulet to shield her in exile from the dangers of the road, a so-called ‘Safety’ that takes the modest form of a black berry ‘worn on a string round her neck, which her mother gave her out of Africa’ (p. 103). But the Safety cannot rescue the girl from Hasan-i-Sabbah’s fortress; for this she needs the necklace of beetle shards given her by Barmek’s mother – as well as a ring given her by Hasan-i-Sabbah himself, which she keeps ‘to remember him by’ (p. 146), and which ensures the master of assassins does not send killers after her or her father in revenge for her escape. Hasan-i-Sabbah’s ring, too, loses its point once Saffiya has been reunited with Prince Zeid, so she buries it ceremoniously at the foot of the sphinx. The green ring given to Barmek by Austa Muthanna has no magic in it at all, but betokens a friendship between them which helps set off the Kashkot revolution; so it could be said to hold the promise of power through collective action, though Fairclough does not mention it again when the revolution happens. The pearls that Muthanna seeks to obtain by selling Prince Zeid into slavery turn out to have been intended as a present for Kamut-Shann (p. 180), but they never fulfil that purpose; instead they provide a seemingly miraculous delivery from hunger for the poor of Kashkot, when Muthanna gives them to Barmek in compensation for his wicked intentions towards the Prince. The silver headpiece made for Saffiya by the Djinn during her year-long stay in his cave has no function at all except to express his appreciation of her beauty (p. 158). Each of these items of jewellery serves as part of an organic network of friendships, intimacies and alliances, forming a great tree with many roots and branches which may well be what Fairclough is referring to in the title she gave her novel – the wholesome counterpart of the corrupting web of magic roses planted by the Daughter of Douban in the royal palace.

Each of these items of jewellery, too, can be seen as an expression of the function of good art. Most of the items I have listed are either kept hidden by their owners, in recognition of the need for secret relationships and clandestine promises to sustain communities in times of oppression, or accorded little value in the marketplace; in fact none of them even enters the marketplace apart from the pearls, which Muthanna sees as having been blemished by their role in his efforts to sell a young child into slavery. Their value derives instead from the people who present them as gifts: a descendant of great warriors, the Black Pearl, who is herself named after a jewel; a defender of abused animals, Austa Muthanna; a loyal household servant, Abu Misimir; a wise mother-in-law, mother and grandmother; an imprisoned craftsman, grateful for an unexpected friendship; and so on. As works of art they participate actively in the unfolding lives of their possessors, much as decorative illustrations participate in the unfolding of Fairclough’s interweaving plots. Fairclough’s novel itself, as a work of art, presents itself to its readers as an active intervention in their lives, offering hope for a new dream of the United Nations which enshrines the rights of the natural world alongside the rights of human beings of every class and culture. Jewellery in general, as an embodiment of craftsmanship, takes a central role in her narrative, not any single jewel such as Suleman’s Ring or Abu Misimir’s Tree.

The best way of understanding Fairclough’s book, in terms of her philosophy of art as I’ve just described it, is through its representations of the books in the royal library, the books written and embellished by Hafiz, the royal librarian. The finest of these books, in Hafiz’s opinion, is the Book of Kings, and this can be taken as a kind of miniature working model for the fictional city of Kashkot, Fairclough’s major achievement in fantastic world-building. Seeing Hafiz’s illustrated copy of the Book of Kings for the first time, Barmek is overwhelmed, describing it as a potent work of enchantment. ‘I think there is here a miracle,’ Barmek observes:

That you should be able to show an ignorant man such as I, not just people and horses, rocks and flowers, but – but the idea of these things together, making a new thing. For it seems to me that these pictures are not – not just the images of things in heaven and earth, such as the Prophet (on whom be the Blessing) forbade us to make, but something new in the world, something with its own laws. (p. 24)

This ‘new thing […] in the world’ is what the Wazir seeks to establish in Kashkot during his time as Wazir; though he only sees it fully embodied in the new Kashkot that rises from the ashes of the revolution, after he has given up the role of Wazir and returned to being a shepherd in the mountains (p. 200). Fairclough gestures towards this new Kashkot at the end of the book, but we never see it in any detail; after all, Utopia means nowhere, and has not yet been described to anyone’s perfect satisfaction.

If Utopia were to be described it would need a new form of writing, incorporating visual aids as well as words, much as Hafiz’s Book of Kings incorporates miniatures as aids to the understanding of its text. Hafiz finds it hard enough to record the utopian episode of the Kashkot Revolution, also known as the Day of the Dogs, in his history of the city. ‘How shall I describe these days?’ he asks himself:

In the simplest and purest words; in the most exquisite script, the ink powdered with gold-dust (I have a little left); leaving ample space and margin for adornment; all that is obvious. But – but what words, out of all the many upon the tongues of men? (p. 189).

The answer is given him by a young man who happens to have been recently selected as the new Sultan. This man directs him to write in a way that is ‘quite simple’; to give honour to the simple, ordinary people who collectively preserved Kashkot from inundation and tyranny; and to refrain from addressing the young man himself with unnecessary honorifics (‘could you not, sometimes, say to me simply, O Zeid?’, p. 191). History, then, is ideally written in collaboration, just as historical acts are collaboratively accomplished. History can never be utopian, since it remains bound by problematic conventions handed down from earlier epochs. The young man remains a Sultan, for all his dismissal of honorifics, and he neglects to mention the role of animals in the Day of the Dogs (though the name of that day implies that they will in fact get an honorable mention), or the role of a woman in defeating the Peri. But history can afford glimpses of possible utopias; and fiction too can afford these glimpses, as can works of visual art such as miniatures, jewellery, paintings, and woven carpets.

Works of art of this kind deserve to be treasured. Let’s treasure the remarkable art of Mary Fairclough.

Barmek wrestles with the Guardsman Dhiab. Barmek is the man with the red beard, who is clearly winning. Note the lions woven into the carpet, and the four officials, one at each corner, recalling the four beings on Suleman’s magic carpet.

APPENDIX

The Sons of Adam are limbs of each other
Having been created of one essence.
When the calamity of time afflicts one limb
The other limbs cannot remain at rest.
If thou hast no sympathy for the troubles of others
Thou art unworthy to be called by the name of a man.

From Sa’adi, Gulistan (The Rose Garden) (1258), translated by Edward Rehatsek. The stanza is woven into a carpet gifted to the United Nations in 2005 by Mohammad Seirafian of Isfahan, which can be seen in the United Nations Headquarters in New York.

The carpet woven with the words of Sa’adi, on display at the United Nations Headquarters in New York.

NOTES

[1] See my previous blog post, The Ecofantasies of Mary Fairclough, Part 1, note 2.

[2] Another name for Mesopotamia in Arabic is Al-jazira, meaning island or peninsula.

[3] Another likely influence is a novel by Betty Bouthoul (Betty Vera Helfenbein), Le Grand Maître des Assassins (1936), which introduced the European world to the legendary Master of Assassins Hasan-i-Sabbah, whose motto is ‘rien n’est vrai, tout est permis’ – nothing is true, everything is permitted, a phrase popularised by William S. Boroughs and the Assassin’s Creed video games. Hasan features in the second part of Fairclough’s novel when Safiya briefly becomes a houri in his Garden of Paradise, before escaping from his fortress with the help of some Bats (pp. 142-147).

[4] Fairclough, The Blue Tree (London: Gerald Duckworth and Co., 1960), p. 11. All quotations are from this edition.

[5] Fairclough refers to wrestling as an art on p. 52 (‘There was one art, much loved in Kashkot’), and graces the dustcover of her novel with a picture of Barmek wrestling with his friend the Sultan. In this way she effectively joins the art of wrestling to the art of the miniature maker. She refers to wrestling in metaphors throughout the novel, in fact, making it an integral part of her fiction; see e.g. p. 157, ‘A wrestler’s shoulder may touch the ground once and twice, yet the last throw be his’. For a summary of Iranian wrestling in relation to politics and religion see Anon, ‘Wrestling in Iran: From Mysticism to Politics’, here [https://fanack.com/culture/sports-and-politics/wrestling-in-iran/]. Elsewhere, Barmek’s personal support of both craftspeople and artists is specifically mentioned: ‘There were in those days many artists and great craftsmen in Kashkot, for the Wazir revered them’ (p. 112).

[6] You can read the Christmas Play of Keynsham here.

The Ecofantasies of Mary Fairclough, Part 1: Miskoo the Lucky (1947) and Little Dog and the Rainmakers (1949).

[This is the first of two blog posts on a genuinely lost writer-artist, Mary Fairclough, who seems to me to be a genuinely major practitioner. The follow-up blog-post can be found here. I am grateful to the following for making it possible: Beth Whalley, Development Officer for the Sustainable Communities Directorate, Bath and North East Somerset Council; Tim Whyte, Keynsham Library Manager; and Richard Dyson, Chairman of the Keynsham and Saltford Local History Society. I feel as if I’ve forged a permanent link with Keynsham by embarking on this little project of recovery and hope.]

Mary Fairclough, Traveller Woman.

All lovers of bookshops have the same dream: to stumble across a book you didn’t know existed and find that it’s something special. For me, second-hand books have a particular fascination. An unknown book may light up a period of history – often, in my case, nineteenth- or twentieth-century history – and slightly redraw the map of the past you held in your head. A recent visit to the legendary Bookshop in Wigtown, which I’ve known since it was owned by the equally legendary John Carter, long before Wigtown was crowned Scotland’s Book Town, yielded a treasure: Mary Fairclough’s West Asian fantasy novel The Blue Tree (1960). I very nearly didn’t pick it up, distracted by more familiar titles on nearby shelves. Luckily, though, I glanced at a couple of rave reviews online before moving on (thank you Academe and L Mart!), and added it to my pile on the strength of these, though I hadn’t any great expectation of having the readers’ ravings confirmed when I started to read.

My copy of The Blue Tree, cover picture by Fairclough.

They were more than confirmed. I was utterly bowled over. The book changed the shape of my knowledge of fantasy in the mid-twentieth century, and introduced me to one of the finest author-illustrators of the period. I don’t know much about Mary Fairclough, but everything I do know adds to my respect for her.[1] It’s clearly time she was brought back into focus, not least because she is one of the great writers of eco-fantasy at a time well before the green movement began to gather momentum. My preliminary research suggests that she was a lifetime socialist, that her perspective was international, that she cared as much for beasts as for people (indeed she often refers to animals as people), and that she was infinitely curious about cultures and places not her own. They also suggest that she lived all her life in a small town near Bristol – Keynsham – where she co-founded the Keynsham and Saltford Local History Society; so she clearly had intensely local interests as well as international ones. I have no idea if she travelled in body, but a talk she gave in April 1989, at the age of 75, makes it clear that she travelled in mind. She cites the words of her mother, Rose Fairclough: ‘Do your best in your own little corner’, and asks the question: ‘where does one’s own corner end?’ The implied answer is nowhere. Fairclough’s talk also cites the words of La Pasionaria, Dolores Ibárruri, hero of the Spanish Civil War: ‘Better die on your feet than live on your knees’. For Fairclough these words invoke her time as a Bristol art student in the Depression, when locals from all over the world made their way to Spain to fight alongside Dolores in defence of Spain’s Republican government against the Falangist fascists. Fairclough may not have fought in Spain, but her whole career was spent making the international local by embracing other people’s local spaces and struggles as her own through the medium of her art.

Mary Fairclough, Native American Woman with Horses.

I’m not sure I can think of any other writer or artist who did this with such consistency. In the course of her seemingly secluded life – she never married, she never moved from Keynsham, where her grandfather owned a dye mill and her father worked as a clerk for the tobacco firm Wills and Co. – she made pictures of Roma women, Indigenous people of America, cattle drovers on the road to the Indian city of Varanasi/Benares, Malaysian schoolchildren, and a Japanese politician – and these are only the subjects I’ve stumbled across on random websites. She wrote and illustrated three books, the first featuring a friendship between an Inuit child and a Sámi family, the second a series of encounters between four different Indigenous American peoples, the third an invented country in Western Asia during the Golden Age of Islam, which serves as an imaginary meeting point for a dazzling diversity of global religions and communities. Each picture and each book gives evidence of careful research into the culture depicted; Fairclough clearly took considerable pains to adapt both her verbal and visual styles to her chosen material. At the same time, she does what she can to avoid falling into the pitfalls of a colonialist perspective. Each of her books involves little or no contact between the chosen culture and the peoples of Europe – indeed, her Native American novel takes place before first contact – thus imaginatively shutting out the dominant culture whose language she uses. Each makes use of terms from the chosen community’s language, forcing the British or American reader to learn and perhaps afterwards to seek further knowledge of the ideas, actions and customs these terms embody. No non-Indigenous reader has the right to judge if she succeeds in her aim of resisting colonialism; but the aim, I think, is clear, and confirms Fairclough as a key British practitioner of a fantasy that is truly international in its perspective – the very obverse of the Anglocentrism of much post-Tolkienian fantastic fiction in the Twentieth Century.

Mary Fairclough, illustration for The Road to Benares.

Her ecological concerns come across in the 1989 talk I mentioned earlier, a lunchtime address to the Rotary Club of Keynsham with the title ‘The Environment’.[2] The talk is as much concerned with phraseology as it is with ecopolitics. It begins with a rejection of the cant term ‘Doom and Gloom’, which was currently being used by reactionary politicians to dismiss the concerns of green campaigners: ‘It’s the sort of phrase that’s invaluable in elections if you can suggest that your opponent is indulging in it – rhythmic, catchy, sticks like a burr and somehow belittles the subject’. She goes on to point out the anxiety caused to politicians and voters when vague promises to address green issues confront calls to genuine action, because this involves ‘spending money – losing money – it will touch our sacred pockets’. Time, she insists, is running out, and compares the urgent need to address current concerns (she lists ‘Acid Rain, the Ozone Layer, the Rain Forests, the Greenhouse Effect’ among them, deliberately using the key ‘buzzwords’ of the contemporary green movement whose familiarity could be seen as making them seem less ‘real’) with the same urgency she had felt, along with other young people, to confront the rise of fascism in the 1930s. And she underlines the sense of time running out by bringing environmental concerns back home to Keynsham. She describes how Keynsham has been increasingly damaged in her lifetime as its population expanded. Without idealizing the past (the ‘orderly beauty’ of the village in her childhood was, she knows, based on the prevalence of ‘cheap labour’, just as the democratic system of ancient Athens was based on a tacit acceptance of slavery) she laments the loss of the care and beauty once manifested everywhere, adapting the lyrics of Pete Seeger’s anti-war song (1955), ‘Where have all the flowers gone?’, to the context of Keynsham’s lost treescape: ‘Where are all the orchards gone? Gone to car-parks, every one’. Change, she acknowledges, is essential to all living things, and ‘Being a living Place we had a necessity to change’, but it should be for something better, not for something worse, as has happened all too often to the architecture of Keynsham’s High Street:

[W]e have destroyed and continue to destroy small, unimportant but comely things, odd windows, doors – an entrance to an old stableyard that was still perfectly adequate when the stable became a garage, but it was demolished and the new entrance is an eyesore by any standard. (p. 33)

I love that phrase ‘small, unimportant but comely things’; the word ‘comely’ has a fine dignity, not overstating an object’s claim to be beautiful but insisting on its suitability for the needs and desires of its users. The same term could, I think, be used to describe the emphasis on attractive objects, places and customs in all three of her works of fiction. ‘Cumulatively,’ the talk goes on, ‘these things are part of the Environment of a small town and we should be wise to preserve them until we can put something better in their place’ (p. 34). Her talk, then, moves from the macro-economics of global climate change to the micro-economics of small-town geography, and similar sweeping conceptual or physical movements from the large to the small, and conversely from the small to the global, can be found throughout her writing. In Miskoo the Lucky (1947) a young boy makes his way across the polar regions from Canada or Greenland to Scandinavia and back again, without much idea of where he is going, but forging lasting emotional connections between these far-distant places as he goes. Little Dog and the Rainmakers (1949) sees a young Indigenous boy travel southwards through North America from Canada to New Mexico in search of a solution to a climate catastrophe that threatens all the continent’s inhabitants, human and nonhuman alike. And The Blue Tree takes a snapshot of inter-relations between all the countries and ecosystems in medieval Asia as it paints a picture of a tiny city-state, a kind of utopia. The success of all these endeavours depends not on parties or politicians but on inter-personal relationships, though these are solidly based on the material needs of the communities among which they take place. And The Blue Tree culminates in a collective effort by the whole city-state to avert yet another climate-driven catastrophe, the bursting of a dam. Like the books she wrote and illustrated, Fairclough’s 1989 talk is couched in simple, witty and slightly world-weary language (she adds at the end, since it is a lunchtime speech, ‘Gentlemen I hope I haven’t given you indigestion’, p. 33), but betrays a complex political consciousness, and a philosophy of the local as the global that had much to teach the listening ‘Gentlemen’, if they were able to hear it.

Mary Fairclough, Corn Stacks, 1937.

Interestingly, for someone who showed such respect in her work for other people and cultures, Fairclough’s interest in ecopolitics may have had links to a famous fake: a man who appropriated colonised cultures for his own purposes, albeit (from his own point of view) for the best of reasons. The author Grey Owl, who claimed Apache and Scottish ancestry, was in fact an Englishman from Hastings named Archibald Stansfeld Belaney. His books, films and broadcasts made him something of a global superstar in the 1930s; my grandmother owned a number of his books. Belaney spent many years working as a trapper in the forests of Canada, and his account of his conversion from trapper to conservationist, Pilgrims of the Wild (1935), ascribes his change of heart to the concerns of his second wife Anahareo, a Mohawk Iroquois who made him understand the destruction men of his trade were doing to the Canadian ecosystem. He also credits four beavers he raised with accelerating his conversion, dubbing himself, Anahareo and the animals the ‘Beaver People’ to stress the kinship between them. ‘The Beaver People’ became the title of the first film to feature Grey Owl (1928), and Pilgrims of the Wild could well have influenced Fairclough’s practice of calling animals ‘people’ in her books. Most of Belaney’s books became international bestsellers, their sales boosted by his hugely popular lecture tours as Grey Owl in Canada and Britain. Richard and David Attenborough were two of his early admirers; Richard made a movie about his life in 1999, with Pierce Brosnan playing Belaney. Fairclough seems to have been another. In the year of his inaugural tour of Britain, 1935, she made a black-and-white linocut print of ‘Grey Owl’ in his persona as an adopted Ojibwe, and two of her colour linocuts from the same period (‘Woman with Three Horses’ and ‘Bark Canoe’) draw on similar First Nations subject matter. As I’ve indicated, her fascination with the Indigenous people of North America endured; in 1949 she published her children’s novel Little Dog and the Rainmakers, whose action opens with a people who seem to be based on the Ojibwe, judging by the words and customs she describes, and goes on to draw on the languages and customs of Indigenous peoples elsewhere on the American continent. Her fascination with Indigenous communities is also present in her first self-authored picture book, Miskoo the Lucky (1947), which tells of the young Inuit boy who gets swept away by an iceberg, is rescued by some of his animal friends, and finds his way to Sápmi (formerly known to the British as Lapland), where he learns to live as an active member of a Sámi family. Each of these books has what might be called a green agenda, and throws light on the similar agenda that underlies Fairclough’s masterpiece, The Blue Tree. And the context of Miskoo the Lucky also suggests that her green sensibilities were honed by the experience of living through the Second World War.

Mary Fairclough, Grey Owl, 1935.

 

Making Your Luck in Miskoo the Lucky (1947)

In his final book, my late colleague Stephen Prickett – author of a seminal monograph on Victorian Fantasy – mentions Miskoo the Lucky as an example of the very different fates that befall different exemplars of fiction for children. ‘Who now remembers,’ Prickett asks, ‘Mary Fairclough’s Miskoo the Lucky, a beautifully illustrated book published to great critical acclaim in 1947?’.[3] Prickett clearly remembered it – perhaps he was given a copy as a child (my own copy was given to a boy by his father in 1948) – but he is right about the acclaim that greeted its publication, and he is right too about its subsequent disappearance from the collective memory. Fairclough’s picture book won the children’s section of the inaugural United Nations Literary Competition – with prize money of £10,000 – which was sponsored by the publishers Hutchinson’s in 1947. The existence of this competition seems to have dropped out of history along with the names of its winners, if its absence from the internet can be taken as evidence; I’d love to know more about it. The UN was founded in 1945, only two years before the book’s publication, with the objective of preventing future wars by maintaining ‘international peace and security’, developing ‘friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples’, and achieving ‘international cooperation in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian character, and in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion’, to quote from its first Charter (p. 3).[4] The judges of the UN Literary Competition seem to have recognised that Fairclough’s picture book spoke to these objectives; but Fairclough also introduced into the mix certain key green concepts that were absent from the UN Charter. For Fairclough, equal rights extended from human beings to their fellow creatures, and the need for ‘self-determination’ and ‘cooperation’ embraced ecosystems that take no account of national boundaries.

Mary Fairclough, Miskoo the Lucky (1947).

Miskoo the Lucky shares with the work of Grey Owl the conviction that a human life well lived needs to take full account of the needs of the nonhuman peoples who share our space. The little boy, Miskoo, acquires his nickname, ‘the Lucky’, after playing with a pair of polar bear cubs and meeting their mother; as the narrator observes wryly, ‘If you live in a country where there are Bears, and you get on well with Bears, you are lucky’ (p. 7), and Miskoo’s parents agree when he gets home that ‘he was very lucky indeed not to have been chewed up’ (p. 11). Miskoo’s good relations with bears builds on his good relations with his family’s dogs, who must be included in any account of his family, the narrator insists, because they pull the sledge on which the Inuit depend for transport in winter. The mother polar bear in turn makes little distinction between her own cubs and the cubs of an Inuit mother: she tells off Miskoo for ‘Wearing holes in those fine red Kamiks [i.e. traditional sealskin boots] your poor Ma must have spent no end of time on’ (p. 10). Later Miskoo’s knack of making friends with animals saves his life, when he gets himself stranded on a small iceberg and must rely on a series of beasts to push him ashore: first a seal called Arrk, then Worrug the Walrus, and finally a whale called Beluga, who carries Miskoo, Arrk and Worrug to the coast of Lapland (as Arrk calls it), where Miskoo spends some time with Aark’s family at the foot of a cliff. Taking leave of Miskoo, Beluga gives the boy some advice that might have come straight out of the books of Grey Owl:

‘You might remember one thing […] if you really want to be g[r]ateful. Your people eat whale-meat, which comes from my brothers and sisters; and they carve things out of tusks, which they get from Worrug’s brothers and sisters, and make clothes out of skins from Arrk’s brothers and sisters. Well, that’s all right. I eat Plankton, the little tiny creatures in the sea, and Worrug and Arrk eats [sic] fish […] Everything […] has to eat something, and usually somebody, and as I say, it’s all right, BUT NEVER TAKE MORE THAN YOU NEED.’ (pp. 31-32)

Miskoo takes this advice to heart. After scaling a cliff and tramping through a wood to reach a human family, he refuses their offer of more to eat than he really needs, mindful of the promise he made to Beluga (p. 62). Fairclough drives home the whale’s words about eating and being eaten on this occasion, too, with characteristic directness; the food on offer is a stew made from the ‘forty-second cousin’ of Kakil, a reindeer belonging to the Sámi family who cooked it (p. 62). The interrelatedness of human life with the many beings who share its space could hardly have been pointed up with greater honesty.

Mary Fairclough: Miskoo and his family, with wolves in background, dogs in foreground.

As a former trapper, Fairclough’s ecological mentor Grey Owl/Belaney came to recognise the damage being done to the wilderness he loved by the fur trade, and to regret his own part in the massacres of beaver populations in pursuit of needless profit, which left tracts of Canada’s wilderness bereft of the national animal. In Miskoo the Lucky the role of the predator who takes more than they need is assumed not by trappers but by wolves, the one animal species with which Miskoo’s father warns him not to make friends. ‘Wolves aren’t really animals,’ his father insists, ‘they’re just Bad Luck on four feet, with a lot of teeth’ (p. 14); and the picture that accompanies his words shows the wolves as disembodied heads menacing the Inuit family’s igloo, their severance from their bodies suggesting the severance of the wolves from the ecosystem that embraces all the Arctic’s other inhabitants. Later in the book, Miskoo and his new Sámi friend, a girl called Gullmag, are attacked by wolves while gathering wood, and are rescued by the animals they have befriended: a fox called Yipyap, a pair of reindeer (one of whom is Kakil), and an owl called Nyktia. Wolves, of course, have had a terrible press in fable and fiction, but their position in this book is carefully considered, in an artistic sense at least. Fairclough’s illustrations emphasize both the difference and the close resemblance between the wolves and those family members known as dogs. Gullmag’s family, which includes the reindeer, also includes an elderly dog called Yokk, too old to do anything much except guard against wolves at night. Yokk and the wolves are represented in Fairclough’s pictures in more or less identical ways, the sole exception being that her wolves have empty eyes, as if bereft of emotion and thought. The wolves’ destructive instincts can even turn against each other: when attacked by the owl and the reindeer they soon attack their fellow wolves, leaving only three of the pack alive; this makes them the obverse of a family like Miskoo’s or Gullmag’s, which survives on cooperation. Yet the wolves are the dogs’ alter-egos, and so also the alter-egos of those human beings who depend on dogs, since humans and dogs in this book are effectively kin. Distinctions between one category of animal and another are hard to make; the dog Yokk dislikes the fox Yipyap, who is a friend of Gullmag’s, because he sees him solely in terms of his kinship with wolves (he is ‘third cousin to a wolf’, as Yokk explains, p. 82), glossing over his own much closer kinship with the same species. Being part of a family and being its enemy is a matter not of blood but of behaviour, and it’s implied that a person can slip with disconcerting ease from the first category into the second, simply by ignoring the advice of Miskoo’s whale.

Mary Fairclough: Miskoo, Gullmag and Yokk watching a waterfall; Miskoo and Yokk rescue Gullmag.

In this story, then, a person makes their own luck, and making things in the proper way is part of that luck-making process: using animal parts only for what is needed, killing only as much as the body requires – whether for food, clothes or shelter – and eating only as much as will satisfy the stomach. Being ‘Bad Luck on four legs with a lot of teeth’ – the description of wolves first uttered by Miskoo’s father and later repeated by Gullmag’s uncle (p. 90) – is a matter of always making the wrong decisions, decisions based on greed. Like her mentor Grey Owl/Belaney, Fairclough clearly saw Indigenous ways of living as models for living well or luckily; and she fills her book with careful pictures of Indigenous practices based on a symbiotic relationship with the environment: the construction of an Inuit igloo from blocks of snow; the drying of fish on whalebone frames; cooking, eating and playing a drum in a Sámi ‘kawta’ or tent; lassoing a reindeer, milking it, making cheese from its milk, and curing the hide of its ‘forty-second cousin’ with birch bark; building a Sámi winter shelter. Grey Owl’s books, too, are full of drawings and photographs showing scenes and activities he presumed to be unfamiliar to his non-Indigenous readers in Canada and Britain. His drawings in Pilgrims of the Wild show two people paddling a birchbark canoe, storytelling in an Indigenous camp, various methods of trapping beaver, dragging sledges through a snowy forest, a beaver building its house.[5] Fairclough’s illustrations supplement her words by means of a visual narrative, equal in status with her prose; many of her pages show multiple actions on a single page, like a comic strip, and nearly all of them show interactions between human beings and animals, such as the series of illustrations of Miskoo climbing a cliff, in which he is supervised and encouraged by a gull called Waveglider (pp. 42-45). Together, complementary words and images reinforce her message of cooperation and equality between peoples, both human and nonhuman – a message that clearly appealed to the judges of the UN Literary Competition.

Mary Fairclough: Miskoo and Gullmag making things.

She goes further than the United Nations, however, in choosing as her focus two peoples who pay no attention to the boundaries between modern nations. The story ends with any such physical boundaries conclusively demolished, as its two families adopt a new way of life which involves seasonal travel to each other’s homelands. When winter makes it possible to travel overseas on a sleigh drawn by reindeer, Gullmag and her uncle take Miskoo home to his family, where old Yokk makes friends with Miskoo’s dogs, the reindeers make friends with Miskoo’s old friend the musk-ox, and Gullmag and her uncle become acquainted with Miskoo’s parents. And when the time comes to part again, the two families make every effort to ensure they will meet again:

Then they all said ‘Good-Bye’ rather sadly; but it wasn’t really good-bye for very long; for next Spring Miskoo’s Mother built herself an umiak, a boat a bit like the lost kayak, but big enough to take the whole family, dogs and all, and every Summer after that they all paddled down to Lapland for a holiday. And every Winter that it froze hard enough the others would come up over the ice to Farther-North-Still. (p. 110)

The new understanding between the two families, then, remakes the map of the world. Barriers are no longer marked by official borders but by the constantly changing contours of the pack ice, as it expands and contracts with the changing seasons. Hidden in Fairclough’s text is the quiet suggestion that the very existence of geographically demarcated Nations might need to be jettisoned if the dream of cooperation is to become a reality. And this is an idea she takes much further in her next two works of fiction.

Miskoo returns home to his family with the help of Gullmag and her Uncle Yorgen.

 

Sacrifice and Self-Interest in Little Dog and the Rainmakers (1949)

Miskoo the Lucky is presumably aimed at readers of around Miskoo’s age, five or six. Fairclough’s second book, Little Dog and the Rainmakers, has a target readership of perhaps nine or ten, and this gives it scope to elaborate Fairclough’s philosophy as represented in her prizewinning picture book. It is divided not into chapters but into four parts named after the four peoples among whom the child protagonist, Little Dog, lives: the Forest People, the Plains People, the Desert People and the Canyon People. Superficially these names apply to the Indigenous human peoples who inhabit four different environments in North America; but nonhuman peoples too are included in each category, most obviously the first – the Forest People – since Little Dog’s people acknowledge as equals the many other creatures that roam the wilderness where they live. Among these, we learn, are a family of Beavers, introduced to us at the beginning of the story on equal terms with Little Dog’s human family: the two families live at each end of ‘a very long, deep lake […] like a long shining mirror’, and each is guided by its own Chief, Ahmeek the Beaver and Hole-in-the-Sky the man (p. 6). A little later Fairclough refers to the former family as the ‘Beaver People’ in open homage to Grey Owl (p. 10); the homage is confirmed by Fairclough’s later assertion that they have ‘hands’ instead of paws (p. 33), an observation Grey Owl makes in Pilgrims of the Wild.[6] The forest also harbours Muskrats, Moose, Otters, Chipmunks, Crows, Bears and a great many more, their kinship with their human neighbours being cemented by the custom of Little Dog’s people of selecting (or having selected for them) a spirit animal as their personal totem at the point when they reach adulthood. Each of the other three Peoples on the continent embraces nonhuman creatures as well as humans. The Plains People are made up of Cougars, Horses and Buffalo as well as human tribes such as the Crow, the Dakota, the Osage and the Mandan; the Desert People include Antelopes, Rattlesnakes, Coyotes, Lobos (wolves) and Pack-Rats; and the Canyon People count Horses, Bears and Spirits or Salimapiyas along with humans among their number. As in Miskoo, the use of preliminary capitals elevates each nonhuman descriptor to the status of a human proper name.

My copy of Little Dog and the Rainmakers.

In the first part of the novel, the child protagonist Little Dog – whose name affirms his bond with animals, which is reinforced by his ability to understand their languages – undergoes a ritual solitary fasting and becomes a man, albeit a very small and young one. The process of becoming an adult among his people involves acquiring an animal totem, and while Little Dog hopes for something large and splendid, such as the Chief Moose, Mus-wa, he is instead awarded a creature more appropriate to his size: the Chief of the Chipmunks, known as the Great Big Chipmunk, who is still small enough to sit on Little Dog’s head. The names of our hero and his totem remind us that size is relative, and so too, it seems, is the question of which community one belongs to. An animal totem must accept its human charge as well as being accepted, and the Great Big Chipmunk’s acceptance is quickly followed by Little Dog’s induction into the full community of the animals, since he is at once invited to attend the Animal Council. The Council, we learn, has been called to assemble at the very same time as the Human Council, to discuss a problem that affects both communities equally: a cataclysmic drought. And when Little Dog volunteers to try to end this drought by seeking out a far-off human people who can make it rain – the Rainmakers of the title – his totem volunteers too, ensuring that the mission is a joint one between the human and animal communities. Great Big Chipmunk is not Little Dog’s sidekick or servant but his equal partner, and when they are later joined by another animal called Little Horse he too becomes an equal partner. Miskoo’s bond with animals is taken one step further in this book by the fact that Little Dog is accompanied on every step of his journey by animal companions, and by the human protagonist’s awareness that they form part of his own identity; without them he would not be Little Dog.

Mary Fairclough: Little Dog at the Animal Council.

The resolution of the climate disaster in this book, then, requires close cooperation between beasts and humans, and a willingness on the part of both communities to sacrifice their individual interests for the sake of everyone on the continent. The whole book demonstrates how such cooperation and sacrifice might work in practice. Little Dog is selected to seek out the Rainmakers by the Animal Council, which is advised by a human Jossakeed or shaman, the Jossakeed of Lost Lake (a Grey Owl substitute who has abandoned human companionship for a life among the beasts). The boy carries with him a bag of magical gifts for the far-off Rainmakers, all of which are provided by animals. The bag is intended to be exchanged for the gift of rain, but in the course of his travels Little Dog keeps encountering other people who need help from the magic gifts, and these people may be human or animal – Little Dog makes no distinction between them. One magic arrow made from a porcupine quill helps him rescue Little Horse from a puma; another saves the lives of two buffalo calves from marauding lobos; the enchanted stink of a skunk prevents the entire Buffalo nation from stampeding over a cliff to certain death; and a magic snakeskin cures a young human warrior who is dying from a venomous snake bite. In each case, Little Dog’s act of mercy brings him much-needed assistance on his arduous journey to the land of the Rainmakers. By the time he reaches that land, the bag is almost empty – but he would not have made it at all without giving up the gifts, and in any case it turns out that what the Rainmakers need from him is not a bag full of magic objects but the willing sacrifice of Little Dog himself in exchange for the gift of rain. The world Fairclough offers us is founded not on the accumulation of expensive possessions but the willing surrender of one’s own interests for the needs of the collective – a surrender predicated on the recognition that both sets of interests are finally the same.

Mary Fairclough: Little Dog and Little Horse ride with the buffalo. As usual, Great Big Chipmunk is on Little Dog’s head.

At each stage of his journey, Little Dog gets to witness the devastating effects of drought on animal cultures as well as human ones. The Great Plains contain both Dakota people, who migrate for miles in search of water, and vast herds of Buffalo who range from one dwindling water source to another, and who know full well that many of their number will die before the boy can procure the rain. The Desert harbours both the human community of the Secret Water, who jealously guard the resources of their hideout for themselves, and herds of pronghorn antelope who can only drink from the shrinking oases at risk of their lives. In both locations corpses and bones tell the tale of the many people of both kinds who have died of thirst. Meanwhile, at the end of the journey Little Dog finds that the water-rich Rainmaker people freely share their land with huge herds of horses, and their rainmaking skills with all who need them, human and animal alike, even at the risk of over-watering their own fields and orchards. Through these encounters Little Dog comes to an understanding that the needs of one community are best served by providing for the needs of all, and that self-interest to the exclusion of the interests of others must always prove self-destructive in the end.

Mary Fairclough: Little Dog and Little Horse ride with the pronghorn antelope.

At the same time, Little Dog keeps meeting people who have a very different philosophy. In his home country of the forests, the crow called Kahgahgengs is known as the Thief, always stealing food from others instead of finding it for himself (p. 23), always ready to torment the dying or to lead young children – such as Little Dog – into needless danger, presumably in hope of feeding on their corpses. Kahgahgengs is punished for his selfishness by being forced to serve others through the magic of the Jossakeed of Lost Lake; for the whole of Little Dog’s absence on his journey he must stay with the shaman of the human village and report the boy’s progress to him, remaining at his task until either Little Dog gets safely home again or ‘it is known that he is dead’ (p. 39). An equally self-centred and damaging person haunts the Mandan village where Little Dog stays when he is crossing the Great Plains. This is a ‘false Jossakeed’ known as Turtle (p. 70), who exploits the drought to terrorize the Mandan, stirring up hatred between them and other human peoples of the Plains and exiling joy and pleasure from the Mandan lodges. His defining characteristics are humourlessness, a love of violence (his leggings are ‘solidly fringed with scalps’, p. 64), self-interest – reflected in the protective shell of the creature his name invokes – and a facility for spreading fear wherever he goes. The oldest Jossakeed of the Mandan compares this sower of hate with a bird of ill omen like Kahgahgengs. ‘Many times,’ he reminds a gathering of his tribe,

‘have the birds of sorrow flown over this people; many times have we driven them away from us. Now they come thick again about our heads, as our corn dies in the dry ground, the river runs low, and the buffalo are far away. But this time […] the evil birds build their nests in our lodges.’ (p. 67)

Sure enough, the false Jossakeed carries a spear ‘tufted with crow-feathers’ (p. 64), confirming his kinship with Kahgahgengs. And the true shaman deals with him far more mercilessly than the Jossakeed of Lost Lake dealt with the crow: his warrior grandson drags Turtle outside the stockade, leaving him in a condition where the ‘buzzards are the only people who will trouble about [him] now’ (p. 71).

Mary Fairclough: Little Dog and Little Horse approach the dwellings of the Mangan People.

The most intriguing of the self-serving peoples in the novel is a community which is never graced with a name, who inhabit a hidden valley in the desert because they have alienated all the other peoples who live nearby.[7] From Little Dog’s first encounter with this people they are associated with wolves, who in Miskoo were widely considered ‘Bad Luck on four feet’; and the transference of this concept from wolves to humans makes much better sense in Little Dog’s universe. Crossing the desert on the way to the Rainmakers’ mountain home, Little Dog comes across a young man dying from a snakebite, whose older brothers sit helplessly by, ‘as grim-looking as winter wolves’ in the face of their helplessness (p. 92). Little Dog wins their friendship by curing the sick man with the magic snakeskin from his pouch, but he quickly learns they have few other friends, having stolen ‘far more horses […] than so small a band could possibly need’ (p. 98), killed people ‘for the fun of it’ (p. 100), and kidnapped women, including a woman of the Rainmaker people. Stealing horses is a kind of game for many human peoples of the Plains, but the people of the Secret Water have taken the game to excess, violating the principle laid down by Beluga in Miskoo, ‘NEVER TAKE MORE THAN YOU NEED’. As a result they are ‘like lone wolves who have been turned out of the pack’ (p. 100) – a better characterization of a universal enemy than Miskoo’s blanket condemnation of wolves in general.[8] In Little Dog, however, even lone wolves can be looked on with compassion. The child protagonist genuinely likes the brash boy-warrior whose life he saves, and notices that his older brothers like Steals-in-the-Snow too, acting towards him ‘rather as a mother wolf with only one cub might’ (p. 97). When the young warrior falls victim to a retaliatory raid by the Rainmakers, Little Dog mourns him much as Huck Finn mourns his equally brash friend Buck when the boy gets shot in a family feud. The echo may well be a conscious one: in both cases the victim plunges into water at the fatal moment, and in both cases the child who witnesses the victim’s death – Little Dog or Huck – is haunted by posttraumatic flashbacks for a long time afterwards.[9] The young warrior’s plunge into the Secret Water his people have been keeping to themselves is particularly symbolic in the context of a drought. His disappearance into its depths, fighting furiously with his enemies, and his later re-emergence from it only to set out on a doomed quest to avenge the deaths of his brothers at the hands of the Rainmakers, underlines his total isolation from a world that has come together in a collective bid to bring the rain. Steals-in-the-Snow is as much a lone wolf in death as he was in life.

Mary Fairclough: Little Dog and the Secret Water People.

If crows and wolves are set apart from other people by their bad habits of taking more than they need and killing for fun, there is a smaller menace in Fairclough’s book which deserves to be set alongside them. A little later in their desert crossing Little Dog and his friends come across a Pack-Rat living in an abandoned human pueblo on top of a mesa (a table-shaped mountain); and the Rat, they learn, is obsessed with collecting objects he does not need. Among these objects are precious things that may have been stolen from human corpses; but the Pack-Rat steals something far more valuable from the companions, which is a quiver-full of magic corn that was given them by the Josakeed of Lost Lake to help them on their journey. The Pack-Rat maintains that this act of petty thievery is no more than a fair exchange – what he calls a ‘trade’ – since he leaves a few bits and pieces from his own collection in place of the corn; but his trick very nearly proves fatal for Little Dog and his friends. The last leg of their desert crossing turns out to be much harder and longer than expected, and without the magic corn starvation and thirst come close to killing them before it is over. Fairclough’s self-centred rodent foreshadows a time when the American continent will be wholly subjected to the dubious rules of trade, and when those rules will be stretched to breaking point in the interests of private gain, like the rules of the game of horse-thieving as played by the wolflike people of the Secret Water. In Little Dog, the Pack-Rat Pikawee is an exception among the many peoples who work together to end the drought; but adult readers may well suspect that he stands for the packs of capitalistic rats who later came to run the country at the expense of their fellow Americans.

Mary Fairclough: Little Dog and his companions struggle through the desert after their corn has been stolen by Pikawee.

Diametrically opposed to the self-centred loners in the book – the lone Wolves, Crows and Pack-Rats – is the three-person band known as the Rainseekers, who sacrifice themselves for the collective. When Little Dog volunteers to travel across the continent to the Rainmakers he does so in a spirit of adventure rather than sacrifice: he is excited at the prospect of the journey, and ‘it would be FUN,’ he thinks, ‘to see that Rain-Dance!’ (p. 36). But Mus-Wah the Moose, who once saved Little Dog’s life, sees the journey in sacrificial terms: if successful, Mus-Wah thinks, the quest will wipe out the boy’s debt to himself, since he will have saved both the Moose Chief and all his people from certain death (p. 40). Little Horse, meanwhile, when they meet him, has already been nominated as a sacrifice by the Mandan people, having been driven out of the community with all their fears and misdemeanours symbolically loaded on his back like the scapegoat of the ancient Jews, in a last despairing bid to end the drought. Little Horse feels guilty, as a result, for being rescued from the claws of a puma, until Little Dog persuades him that he will make a better sacrifice of himself by helping the travellers reach the Rainmakers (p. 50). Little Dog helps Little Horse by using one of the magic gifts he carries in his bag, gifts intended to be offered to the Rainmakers in exchange for rain. Each time this happens in the book – each time a gift designed to help the collective gets used instead to save an individual life – could be considered a sacrificial act, since it jeopardizes Little Dog’s larger mission. The rightness of these smaller sacrifices, however, is confirmed at the end of his journey by the Rainmakers themselves, who take these little sacrifices as good reason to show generosity on their own part: ‘You did well to use the other gifts as you did,’ one of them reassures him, ‘and, Little Dog, as you helped others so we will try to help you’ (p. 138). Their judgement is endorsed by the fact that the only gift left at the end of the journey – one of the three magic quills put into the bag by Kahgi the Porcupine – plays a central role in the Rain-Dance ceremony. Ahool, the Spirit or Kachina of the Sun, uses the quill as an arrow shot from his bow towards the north, taking Little Dog and his two companions with it as well as the life-supporting rain, and so accomplishing the most crucial act of sacrifice in the whole adventure. Reciprocal gestures – gifts freely given, often to the detriment of the giver, which elicit equally generous gifts from the recipient – structure Little Dog’s journey from start to finish. This sets the shared values of the Rainseekers, the Rainmakers and the communities that rely on their mutual understanding directly at odds with the values of the ‘thieves’.

Mary Fairclough: Little Dog at the Council of the Rainmakers.

The last and greatest sacrifice made by Little Dog is to offer his life in exchange for rain. Appropriately enough, this turns out to be a reciprocal gesture. The Rainmakers explain that once they have summoned the rain someone needs to volunteer to draw it away from their land, wearing a Kachina mask to mark them out as one of the Great Spirits and hence worthy to be followed; otherwise the rain will bring only destruction to the fertile southern farms (‘the beans [will] be washed from the ground, […] the corn [..] beaten down into the mud’, and the people will starve, p. 147), while the rain-starved lands of the north will remain in drought. Whoever undertakes this dangerous northward journey may not survive. At once Little Dog’s two best friends among the Rainmakers, Green Corn Woman and Root Digger, volunteer for the role. But they are interrupted by the Great Big Chipmunk, the only one of the three travelling companions who has not yet explicitly sacrificed himself. Green Corn Woman and Root Digger, he points out, are needed by their people. He, on the other hand, is a Totem, and hence already part of the spirit world; he does not think that posing as a Kachina or Spirit will kill him. In any case he is happy to undertake the journey north, bringing water to the continent, since that was always his intention: ‘Little Dog and I were sent here to fetch the Rain,’ he sums up, ‘and fetch it we will, if it drowns us!’ The speech balances the much shorter speech made by Little Dog near the start of the book, when he volunteered for the journey south at the Animal Council on the shores of Lost Lake. The Chipmunk’s speech takes place at a Council too, a human one in this case. Both the southward journey and the fulfilment of its object, then, are the result of collective decision making, and the collective includes both human and nonhuman people. The same sense of collective solidarity is expressed in the preparations made for the northward journey, as it was in the preparations for the journey south, which chiefly involved collecting magic items to put in Little Dog’s bag to trade with the Rainmakers. For the northward journey Little Dog is ritually dressed as a Puebloan person, while the Great Big Chipmunk is fitted with a Puebloan mask to symbolise his status as a Kachina or Great Spirit. At the same time they are enjoined to fix their minds on the places they know where the rain is needed: the Great Plains where the boy and the Chipmunk met Little Horse; the forests of Little Dog’s northern homeland (p. 158). They prepare for the sacrifice as perfect amalgams of the peoples who are helping them and the peoples who need their help, a completed circle that embraces all the inhabitants of the continent. Fairclough was at heart a designer, and her orchestration of the final journey accomplishes the design of her narrative aesthetically as well as morally, like the symbolic patterns made in different coloured sands that decorate the floor of the kiva or sacred underground room where the Rainmakers’ Council took place (p. 146).

Mary Fairclough: Little Dog at the Rainmaking Ceremony.

At the climax of the Rainmaking ceremony, when Ahool the Sun Kachina shoots the magic porcupine quill from his bow towards the north, the companions magically follow the arrow through the air in a movement that retraces and justifies every step of their southward journey. As they go, they catch glimpses of the various friends, human and nonhuman, who helped them on their way: the dying Buffalo on the prairies, the lodges of the Mandans, two young Cougars who helped them pass the Great Red-Pipe-Stone Quarry, a Bear who showed them the way across the river that separates the forests from the plains. Fairclough does not forget anyone of importance who gave the companions assistance, and in mentioning every helper she includes them all in the final gesture of fulfilment and mutual friendship. As a model for collective living, the last few pages of Little Dog and the Rainmakers can hardly be bettered, and mark the book as essential reading for young and old at a time of climate catastrophe like our own.

Mary Fairclough: Alders

Fairclough’s meticulous use of available scholarship on the indigenous peoples of the north American forests, the Great Plains and the Pueblos is reflected everywhere in her representations of the way they live: in her words, in her black-and-white ink drawings, and in the colourful, intricate linocuts interleaved with the verbal narrative. She is clearly fascinated in this book, as she was in Miskoo, by the material and spiritual processes by which people make conscious use of the lands they inhabit. This is evident in her account of the rites of passage to the status of warrior undergone by Little Dog and his older brother, in her description of the ceremonies of the Animal Council, in her account of another Council in an earth lodge of the Mandan, and in her evident enjoyment of Puebloan rituals of all kinds. Her explanation for the relative elaborateness of Puebloan ritual is deeply affectionate: the Pueblo People, she tells us,

living quietly on their high mesas, or down in their deep canyons, thinking as much of growing crops as of hunting animals, and only fighting if they really had to, had given a lot of time and attention to ceremonies, from beautiful elaborate ones for rain and corn-planting and so on, down to small kindly ones for making guests feel at home. They hated anyone to feel awkward or embarrassed. (pp. 136-137)

The combination of engagement, respect, affection and extensive research suggested by Fairclough’s verbal and pictorial narrative seems to me to embody a number of practices recommended by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward in their celebrated handbook Writing the Other: A Practical Approach (Seattle, WA: Aqueduct Press, 2005). This handbook draws on Shawl and Ward’s experience of teaching a course with the same title, and aims to consider ‘what works (and what doesn’t) when writing about characters of races, genders, sexual orientations, abilities, religions, nationalities, and other traits and features different from your own’ (p. 4). As suggested by Shawl and Ward, Fairclough has clearly read, viewed and thought a good deal in an effort to achieve ‘authenticity’, as she understands it. She also claims to have listened to Native Americans – ‘I heard an Indian say once that only careless people have adventures when travelling’, she tells us (p. 40) – although one wonders whether the ‘Indian’ she mentions was in fact the interloper Grey Owl, addressing spectators on one of his lecture tours of Britain. In addition, her narrator stands respectfully outside the various cultures she describes (‘I heard an Indian say’) – something Nisi Shawl considers a useful strategy when writing about characters different from yourself: ‘When at all plausible, the best point of view from which to recount a transcultural tale is one that in some way mimics the tale-teller’s position vis-à-vis the culture: that of an alien’ (p. 89). If nothing else, Fairclough’s fascination with and desire to be respectful of the four Indigenous cultures she depicts shine through in every sentence. Her book, like the original charter of the United Nations, is based on the principle of cooperation between peoples, and that cooperation extends to Fairclough’s honouring of each distinct community she represents – even that of the outcasts of the desert, the lone wolves whose courageous cub, Steals-in-the-Snow, is mourned and honoured in his death by Little Dog.

Mary Fairclough: Glamorous Night

As with Miskoo the Lucky, however, nations do not exist in Little Dog’s world as they do in the world of the United Nations, as tracts of land arbitrarily divided by borders whose contours cannot be seen except on a map. Little Dog is given a map at one point by one of the Mandan men, but it doesn’t indicate any borders; it’s solely designed to help him find his way from waterhole to waterhole as he crosses the desert. In any case, the map is burned to ashes when the People of the Secret Water are attacked by the Puebloan Rainmakers; so he does not have it for much of the journey it was made for, crossing the desert. Fairclough’s American continent is divided not into geographically demarcated nations but into ecosystems: forests, deserts, mountains, plains; and the inhabitants of these four ecosystems are united by a great deal more than what divides them.

Mary Fairclough: Heavy Horses

In fact, space itself doesn’t operate in Fairclough’s first two books as it does in the world of her mostly Anglo readers. Both Miskoo the Lucky and Little Dog and the Rainmakers introduce their readers to systems of communication that overcome both spatial and cultural distance, as more modern forms of communication in her time – radio, telegraph, film, television – simply cannot. One such system is the presence in each book of a messenger with wings, a bird that can oversee and inform distant people of the progress of the protagonist on his epic journey. Miskoo’s journey from his homeland to the land of the Sámi is observed by Nyctia the great Snow Owl, and she makes sure that his family knows he is safe and well so that they will not fret during the short Arctic summer he spends with his new friends. Little Dog’s journey, too, is observed by a friendly bird, Kiniou the great War-Eagle, Chief of all Birds. It is also observed by Little Dog’s enemy, Kahgahgengs the Crow, who is forced by the Jossakeed of Lost Lake to report regularly and truthfully on Little Dog’s progress to the Jossakeed of Little Dog’s people, Man-Whose-Dreams-Are-True. This second communications system confirms the spiritual ties that bind the shamans of all peoples on the North American continent. The Jossakeed of Lost Lake is not known to Man-Whose-Dreams-Are-True, but they share the same understanding of natural magic, and this allows them to speak to each other wordlessly, even at a distance. The old Jossakeed of the Mangan People knows the Jossakeed of Long Lake from a meeting long ago, and willingly helps Little Dog to fulfil the mission which his fellow shaman set in motion. The shaman of the Puebloan People, who is also the Chief of the Desert People – Many Drums Speaking – specializes in making music that brings different peoples together, physically as well as emotionally, which is the supreme form of communication or ‘speaking’, as his name suggests. Even the shaman of the outcast People of the Secret Water, their singer and storyteller, tells the same stories as other shamans, though he uses different names. ‘All over the world’, the narrator tells us, ‘different people have different ideas about these things’ (p. 102); but ‘these things’ remain the same, and can be understood by those who listen carefully, no matter which people they belong to. Shamans of all Peoples speak the same language, tell the same stories, perform the same kinds of magic, and share the same understandings, and this mutual sharing across space and time far outstrips the dream of the United Nations in its potential for bringing people from diverse communities into cooperative syncopation.

Mary Fairclough: Janet in Red

Little Dog and the Rainmakers, then, is a United Nations book, like Miskoo the Lucky; indeed, it was published by the same publishers – Hutchinson’s – and its dustjacket includes an advertisement for the earlier book, reminding readers that it was ‘Hutchinson’s £10,000 United Nations Literary Competition Prize Winner’. Both books, however, go well beyond the United Nations in their inclusiveness, embracing entire ecosystems and discarding all artificial borders in their embracement of cooperation. The Blue Tree has a very different tone, but its inclusiveness is just as generous and striking. Its differences from and similarities with the other books will be the subject of the post that follows.

[The follow-up blog post can be found here.]

Little Dog and the Rainmakers, dustjacket, rear view

NOTES

[1] For example, she wrote the book for an opera, John Barleycorn, with music composed by Bruce Montgomery – aka the crime writer and science fiction afficionado Edmund Crispin…

[2] The full text of her talk can be found here.

[3] I found the quotation here.

[4] The 1945 edition of the UN Charter can be found here.

[5] His most lavishly illustrated book is a novel for children, The Adventures of Sajo and her Beaver People (1935), which again contains both drawings and photos. It can be found here.

[6] See Pilgrims of the Wild, chapter 2: ‘Their hands—one can call them nothing else—were nearly as effective as our own more perfect members would be, in the uses they were put to. They could pick up very small objects with them, manipulate sticks and stones, strike, push, and heave with them and they had a very firm grasp which it was difficult to disengage. When peeling a stick they used them both to twist the stem with supple wrist movements, while the teeth rapidly whittled off the succulent bark as it went by, much after the fashion of a lathe.’ Pilgrims can be found online at Project Gutenberg, here.

[7] It’s worth noting that they are not ‘the desert people’, who are called upon by the Rainmakers to help with the spell for summoning rain; the nameless people of the Secret Water occupy the desert by default, having been expelled from their original communities, whatever they were, for violating the rules of communal living as explained by Beluga. The name of Little Dog’s friend from the Secret Water people, Steals-in-the-Snow, suggests that they come from a much less arid setting than a desert.

[8] Elsewhere in the book we meet more community-minded representatives of lupine society, such as the Chief of the Wolves, a ‘grey slant-eyed shadow’ who licks the hand of Little Dog’s mother as they wait together for her son’s return (p. 171).

[9] See Mark Twain, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn (London and New York: Everyman, 1977), p. 283: ‘I wished I hadn’t ever come ashore that night, to see such things. I ain’t ever going to get shut of them – lots of times I dream about them.’ Compare Little Dog, p. 113: ‘the Very Big Chipmunk was still glum, and Little Dog began remembering things again’.

Mervyn Peake, Boy in Darkness (1956), and the Nightmare of Complicity

[This piece was written for a conference, ‘Dark Fantasies: Aesthetics of the Nightmare in the 20th Century’, organised by Sheila Dickson and Hans-Walter Schmidt-Hannisa, which took place at the Goethe Institut, Glasgow, on 11 and 12 May 2023. The conference marked the opening of an exhibition featuring the art of Caspar Walter Rauh and Frank Quitely, which is why the piece begins with a comparison of Peake and Rauh. Warm thanks to Sheila and Hans-Walter for inviting me to participate.]

Mervyn Peake, Strange Bird, n.d.

The British artist Mervyn Peake and the German artist Caspar Walter Rauh were born within a year of each other. The careers of both took off in the 1930s. Both entered into creative dialogue with contemporary movements such as Expressionism, Surrealism, New Romanticism and Fantastic Realism, without becoming fully attached to any of them. Both men’s careers were interrupted and profoundly reshaped by the Second World War, and the art of both has long been associated with fantasy and the fantastic. Both were fascinated by grotesque bodies marking the intersection between humans, beasts and trees; both illustrated the fairy tales of the brothers Grimm; both penned their own fantastic stories. Between them, in fact, they offer striking case studies relating to the emergence of fantasy and the fantastic in the verbal and visual arts as among the most resonant responses to the cataclysmic middle years of the Twentieth Century.

Caspar Walter Rauh, ‘Vogelmensch’ (1973)

For both men, the cataclysm found its birth in the human mind, and in Peake’s case, at least, in his own unconscious. His art exposes disturbing parallels between his lifelong creative impulses and the impulse to dominate or wreck the world, as manifested first in the career of Adolf Hitler and later in the threat of global nuclear war. I’d like to consider what I’ll call Peake’s fantasy of complicity in relation to his last masterpiece in prose, a ‘long short story’ called ‘Boy in Darkness’.[1] This novelette was first published in 1956 as one third of an anthology, Sometime, Never, reprinted the following year as ‘A Ballantine Science Fiction Classic’.[2] The other two contributors were William Golding and John Wyndham, whose novelettes, set respectively in ancient Rome and the time to come, make up the first and second parts of the collection under the headings ‘The Past’ and ‘The Future’. One might, then, have expected Peake’s text – the third and final part – to come under the heading ‘The Present’, but instead it was designated ‘The Dream’. Dreams pervade this little collection, from the transient vision of an alternative Roman history conjured up by a Greek inventor in Golding’s ‘Envoy Extraordinary’ to the dream of a near future with no men in it in Wyndham’s futuristic narrative ‘Consider Her Ways’.[3] The book as a whole is the product of a period infatuated with Freud, which recognised that sleep takes up a third of a person’s lifetime and sought to represent the pervasive influence of dreams on contemporary culture through all available media, from paint, fur and feathers to household appliances. For artists working in this period, the distinction between dream and wakefulness was barely valid, and a serious attention to dreams – and their dark siblings, nightmares – was an urgent necessity if the modern world was to be fully accounted for, and perhaps restored to some semblance of health.

There’s no direct indication in ‘Boy in Darkness’ that the Boy protagonist is asleep and dreaming, but the story begins with him throwing himself on his bed in a teenage huff, and a sense of nightmare suffuses the text from this point onwards. The source of the nightmare is the dissolution of boundaries: between dream and reality, childhood and adulthood, play and earnest, humans and beasts, past, present and future, and above all between good and evil, as defined by religious institutions, politicians and moral philosophers. All these boundaries had, of course, already been breached by the time Peake wrote his story, largely thanks to the First World War, which weakened or destroyed all the old grand narratives. But ‘Boy in Darkness’ addresses their dissolution with unique intensity, re-affirming the contemporary sense that life itself had become a dream, and demonstrating how rival forces were engaged in a struggle for possession of the modern dreamscape.

Mervyn Peake, sketch of Ithell Colquhoun (1939)

The contemporary movement in art most concerned with dreams was of course Surrealism, which sought access to the unconscious through automatic drawing, psychoanalysis, and close attention to the dream life of the artist. Peake’s links with Surrealism mostly came through association. His wife, the artist Maeve Gilmore, has been linked to the Surrealists by a recent exhibition of her work at Studio Voltaire, whose website compares her work to that of Eileen Agar, Leonora Carrington and Ithell Colquhoun (Peake drew pencil sketches of Colquhoun in 1939).[4] One of Peake’s closest friends of the 1930s was the Surrealist painter and set designer Leslie Hurry, who illustrated three of his poems.[5] Another friend was Dylan Thomas, closely associated with Surrealism at the time, whose poetry had a powerful influence on Peake’s early verse. We don’t know if Peake visited the London International Surrealist Exhibition of 1936, but given that he was teaching at the Westminster School of Art at the time it’s hard to imagine he didn’t. He could well have read the famous introduction, by the art critic Herbert Read, to the anthology that accompanied the exhibition, Surrealism (1936). And if he did, he might have found several things in it that resonated with his own concerns.

In his introduction Read argues for a close affinity between the Surrealist movement and a well-established fantastical strand of the English literary imagination, which includes ballads, the Gothic novels of Mary Shelley and Matthew ‘Monk’ Lewis, the Prophetic Books of Blake and the nonsense of Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear.[6] Lovers of Peake will notice how closely this list aligns with his interests: he illustrated Coleridge’s ballad The Ancient Mariner, Stevenson’s Gothic novel Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and Carroll’s Alice books, as well as writing a number of ballads, several novels and short stories with many Gothic features, a poem on Blake and a great deal of what he called ‘Nonsence’.[7] For Herbert Read, Surrealism was a form of Romantic art which, by taking account of the unconscious as well as the conscious life of human beings, achieves what he calls ‘super-realism’, as against the restricted ‘realism’ of much art and fiction.[8] Realism, Read argues, acknowledges only the conventions recognised by the conscious mind and so fails to represent the full range of human experience, as does the reason-and-rules-based approach known as ‘classicism’. Romantic surrealism, by contrast, maintains a constant tension between reason and the life of the unconstrained imagination as encountered in dreams. Read’s essay culminates in an account of the transformation of a dream he had into a (very bad) poem, as a means of demonstrating the techniques by which an unconscious experience can migrate into literary form. The poem in turn serves to confirm the fact that ‘In dialectical terms there is a continual state of opposition and interaction between the world of objective fact – the sensational and social world of active and economic existence – and the world of subjective fantasy’.[9] This opposition and interaction, Read goes on, ‘creates a state of disquietude, a lack of spiritual equilibrium, which it is the business of the artist to resolve’. Writing poems or stories based on dreams is one way of transacting this ‘business’, and to do justice to dreams artists must feel ‘unimpeded by the irrelevant standards of morality’ – morality being no more than a set of conventions or codes subject to change with each new generation.[10] Read’s essay, in other words, sets out radically to destabilize conventional notions of good and evil, identifying the fantastic art of the Surrealists as a crucial tool in that emancipatory process.

A more radical approach to dream, which did not seek to ‘resolve’ its contradictions, was published three years later by another of Peake’s friends, the poet Walter de la Mare. Angela Carter described de la Mare as a Surrealist, presumably on the grounds of his lifelong obsession with the oneiric;[11] and though he never joined this or any other movement, his mammoth introduction to his anthology Behold, This Dreamer! – published in the year the War broke out, 1939 – could have served as a field guide to dreams for Surrealist artists. For de la Mare the distinction between waking and sleeping is always uncertain. The border between the two states defies cartography, waking dreams are as common as sleeping ones, and what recollections in tranquillity we may have of dreams is only ever achieved in our waking moments, contaminating them with conscious thought. A section of his introduction is titled ‘Day-Dreams’ and concerns the phenomenon of ‘reverie’: a kind of waking sleep in which the mind spins subjective visions from what Read calls ‘objective fact’.[12] Peake famously entitled one chapter in his novel Titus Groan (1946) ‘The Reveries’, sinking his reader into the daydreams of his principal characters as if in response to de la Mare’s essay. Another section of the introduction to Behold, This Dreamer!, ‘Day-Life and Dream-Life’, asserts that waking experience is no more coherent than that of sleep. Reality, de la Mare points out, is made up of random elements – ‘the clump and clatter of a country horse and cart, the demoniac scream of a motor horn, the rumble of a distant train, the crowing of a cock, a maid polishing a brass door-handle, the barking of a distant dog’ – with no rational connection between them except for their simultaneous reception by a pair of human ears.[13] And he goes on to point out that we sometimes lose certainty as to whether we’re awake or asleep, selecting a recent international incident to drive home the point:

Few experiences […] can have exceeded in intensity and dread that of living through the recent European crisis[…]. Yet even then, on the brink of that abyss, how many of us must have paused, as I did myself for one moment, at the inward enquiry, ‘Is this a dream?’[14]

The reference here is to the September Crisis of 1938, when Britain and France sought to avert war with Germany by handing over part of Czechoslovakia in response to German aggression.[15] The logic for doing so – that it would ensure peace – was quickly shown to be no logic at all, and the appeasement of Hitler branded Britain and France as directly complicit with Nazi expansionism. The prospect of impending war awakened by the Crisis, then, is for de la Mare a real-life nightmare, and his response to this brutal intrusion of dreams into reality was to publish two successive anthologies – Behold, This Dreamer! and Love (1943), to the second of which Peake contributed a poem – that focussed on dreams rather than nightmares, intimacy rather than conflict. If the world was in the grip of a dream, these collections imply, perhaps the most committed of dreamers could somehow help to alter the kind of dream it was…

At the same time, de la Mare’s own dreams as reported in Behold, This Dreamer! are packed with acts of disturbing aggression and retribution. One dream involves his murder of an elderly woman and his vain attempts to conceal the crime by mopping up her blood. Startled by something, he spills the bucket of blood he has collected, allowing it to run all over the floor, while simultaneously the blood-red light of dawn spills in through the window like a premonition of the crime’s discovery (p.71). In another dream he imagines that the house where he committed the murder has been sold without his consent, meaning that someone will certainly find the corpse in the locked room where he left it (p. 72). In another he sees himself punished for the murder by being tortured on a machine with many wheels (p. 74); in still another he sits awaiting execution, then makes a sudden dash for freedom and is shot dead by a guard (p. 75). All the atrocities of the Twentieth Century seem to be visited on the poet in his sleep, marking him out as the man responsible for them and promising to track him down with the same closed circuit of elusive but deadly logic that trapped the nameless narrator of Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman (c. 1940), or the unfortunate Josef K in Kafka’s The Trial (1925, translated 1937).

Peake met de la Mare when he drew his portrait for the London Mercury in 1936 – the year of the International Surrealist Exhibition, and the year when Peake’s writing career began to take off. From 1937, Peake’s verse was widely published in magazines, and it was de la Mare’s encouragement that led him to submit his first collection, Shapes and Sounds (1941), to Chatto and Windus. Peake’s fascination with dreams was almost on a par with the older poet’s, and three at least of his published works take the form of dream visions: the short story ‘The Weird Journey’, first published in 1948; ‘Boy in Darkness’ (1956); and the children’s play ‘Noah’s Ark’, written in the 1950s. Interestingly, all three of these texts have religion at the core. In ‘The Weird Journey’ the protagonist falls ‘wide awake’ to find himself striding like a clockwork giant along a Dali-esque beach surrounded by multicoloured parrots, who carry books of the Old Testament in their beaks.[16] ‘Boy in Darkness’ contains a monstrous Lamb which is clearly a perversion of the Lamb of God, while in ‘Noah’s Ark’ a young child falls asleep to find himself in the story from Genesis, caught up in a conspiracy of carnivorous animals against Noah, the only person who can guide their vessel through the stormy seas of the scriptural Flood.[17] Peake grew up as the son of dissenting missionaries in China, and married a Catholic whose religion he found hard to stomach (as did Gilmore herself, eventually).[18] It’s not surprising, then, if his dream works vividly represent the actual or threatened dissolution of faith, from the dismembered Bible of ‘The Weird Journey’ to the suicidal plot to take over the ark in the children’s play. And ‘Boy in Darkness’ goes one step further, making the Boy himself complicit with faith’s dissolution, a double-dyed blasphemer against the oppressive faiths of his dreamworld, and thus a stand-in for the blasphemer-artist himself. If de la Mare’s dreams made him a murderer, Peake’s made his protagonist a god-killer, completing an artistic trajectory that began in his pirate fictions of the 1930s, around the time when he met de la Mare.

The symbiosis between art and violence was already present in Peake’s early novel fragment, Mr Slaughterboard (c. 1935), whose titular protagonist is a pirate captain who regularly kills off members of his crew ‘in the cause of artistry and to prove the inevitabilities of the illogical’.[19] A few years later, during the war, Peake drew a series of pictures designed to display his talents to the War Artists’ Advisory Committee, from whom he sought employment. Titled ‘An Exhibition of the Artist Adolf Hitler: The New Order’, these consist of images with conventional academic titles – ‘Landscape with Figures’, ‘Sea-scape’, ‘Peasant Dance’, ‘Study of a Young Girl’ – each of which depicts a wartime atrocity.[20] The landscape shows refugees moving through a corpse-strewn city, the seascape a young woman adrift in water after her ship has been torpedoed, ‘Peasant Dance’ shows a man and woman dying in a hail of bullets, while the young girl has been shot in the chest. Most striking of all is ‘Self-Portrait’, which shows the artist Adolf Hitler staring at himself in horror, with haunted eyes, sweat beading his forehead, mouth compressed. He is presumably looking into a mirror as he draws his own likeness; but the artist who really drew him was of course Mervyn Peake, and the notion that the artist might see himself mirrored in Hitler is profoundly unsettling, as unsettling as the notion of wartime atrocities as a form of art. The conceit is lent a perverse wit by the fact that Hitler really was an aspiring artist, and the whole project raises a number of questions about the function of art in wartime; if to represent acts of violence, real or imagined, does this make the artist somehow complicit with those acts, like the appeasers who accepted the logic of Hitler’s violence by rewarding him for it? To draw a man like Hitler convincingly, wouldn’t one have to imagine oneself as his double, see things through his eyes, even if only for a moment? Did Peake’s own propensity for writing about art as violence, à la Mr Slaughterboard, predispose him to achieve this feat of identification? Presumably the War Artists’ Advisory Committee didn’t want the public pondering such questions, since the picture series was never published in his lifetime.

Mervyn Peake, ‘Self-Portrait’

But the concept of the violent artist continued to haunt him. The antihero of the first and second Titus novels, a young man called Steerpike, is an accomplished draftsman and actor whose technical skills are utterly divorced from any emotional investment in his art. What delights him, in fact, is mimicking the effects of art to worm his way into the trust of art’s admirers – and to make a horrible art of his own by accomplishing ingenious murders and getting away with it. As Peake informs us, ‘He could not sink himself. He was not the artist. He was the exact imitation of one’.[21] And the possibility of that ‘exact imitation’ – with no artist’s heart at the core of it – seems to rock Peake the artist with recurrent anxieties over his own status as creator. Was he in fact the artist, or was he merely the mimic, his art no more than a parasitic copy of the great artworks he admired? Was he unable to sink himself, to emotionally invest in his creations? Peake’s nightmare throughout his life is his coexistence with the artist’s double – indistinguishable from the true artist – whose skills are placed at the service of totalitarianism, i.e. of the shaping of life itself into an exact copy of the worst of nightmares, a cold, calculating, self-interested mind. At other, more stable times in history this vision of the artist-dictator might have seemed excessive; but at a time when the political reality surpassed the most appalling of dreams, the notion that there might be any such thing as ‘excess’ in politics may no longer have seemed entirely valid.

Mervyn Peake, ‘Steerpike’

Like the Titus books, ‘Boy in Darkness’ begins in the setting of Gormenghast Castle, a vast and ancient edifice which has been governed by nonsensical rituals for thousands of years – though the name of the castle is never mentioned in it, erased from the protagonist’s and reader’s minds like names themselves in Alice’s wood of forgetting. The rituals performed in the castle resemble a religion whose meaning has been leeched from it by the passage of time; but they derive an oppressive authority from their titanic architectural setting, a setting whose veneration lies at the core of each ritual. Stone itself is the object of worship in Gormenghast, and the bodies and minds of its mortal denizens are expected to mimic stoniness in their dedication to the singular functions laid down for them by long-dead zealots. In Titus Groan the bodies of the kitchen cleaners called the Grey Scrubbers seem to be morphing into stone, while the Earl of Groan’s personal servant, Flay, has kneecaps that resound at every step, as if succumbing to petrifaction.[22] Yet in ‘Boy in Darkness’, there is growth at the heart of this implacable structure. Tiny organisms sprout in abandoned cellars and lost staircases; creatures scamper with a ‘husky scuffling sound’ across the floors of abandoned halls;[23] and the central human figure in the Gormenghast hierarchy, the Earl of Gormenghast – the Boy himself, whose name, ‘Titus’, is never mentioned, like the name of the castle – stands on the cusp of maturation. In the novels Titus Groan and Gormenghast, change was deemed blasphemy by the castle’s rule-driven Masters of Ritual; but in ‘Boy in Darkness’ change suffuses both the castle and all its denizens, represented here by the hordes of excited, sweating children and dynamic riders who participate in the night of celebratory ‘high barbecue’ with which the story begins.[24] And as the narrative unfolds, change itself becomes the focus of a struggle over the soul of art and the artist, enacting the struggle over art’s position as the recorder and agent of change in the twentieth century.

The story divides itself into two distinct parts. In the first part, the young Earl rebels against the rigid structure of the castle hierarchy – a structure driven by arbitrary conventions, like Read’s notion of Classicism – by making up his mind to run away. The Boy’s rebellion could be taken to represent the insurgency of Romanticism against the regulations of the Enlightenment, and by fostering such rebellion – limited as it is – the castle could be said to nurture creativity; indeed, the sheer absurdity of its ceremonies makes them seem endlessly creative. In the second half of the story, the Boy flees from the familiar confines of the castle into a changeless wasteland: a post-apocalyptic Dead Zone littered with industrial remains, ruled over by a monstrous sentient Lamb addicted to change – or rather, to changing other people’s bodies, then trapping them in his unchanging service till the end of their days. The wasteland itself is a corpse, no longer useful as a healthy biosphere, or as the site for a farm or working mine, while the disused mine where the Lamb resides is littered with the bones of his worn-out slaves, whose transformation at the Lamb’s cold hands eventually kills them. In the first part of the story, the Boy of the title represents the creativity and vitality of childhood; he tells himself stories, then acts out those stories using himself as his principal player, escaping from the castle into the wilderness beyond in imitation of his reveries and sleeping dreams. In the second part, the Lamb is the heartless pseudo-artist of Peake’s nightmares, the ersatz changes he effects representing a calcification and compression of the human bodies he gets into his power. Once changed by him, none of his formerly human subjects can ever change again, and this changelessness, it’s implied, is what destroys them, militating against the life principle that sustains their flesh and blood.

The two parts of the story represent the past and the future, which converge on the dream of the present much as they did in the famous treatise by J W Dunne, An Experiment with Time (1927).[25] Dunne’s influential book argued that dreams consist in equal parts of fractured images of the past and the future, and he went on to devise a complex theory to account for the elements of precognition he detected in his own dreams; Peake’s friend and first editor, Graham Greene, was deeply interested in Dunne’s theories. The first part of the novelette, in which the Boy figures as a feudal lord in a Gothic castle, represents the past, while the second, set in a terminally damaged landscape full of evidence of lost technologies, represents the future – most obviously in the scientific ‘experiments’ conducted by the Lamb, whereby he transforms human beings into their closest animal equivalents (spiders, lions, goats, monkeys) in order to subject them to his own sadistic uses.[26] The Boy finds himself stranded between these two timelines, desperate to free himself from the oppressions of the feudal past, desperate to resist and overcome the oppressions of the technocratic future – an embodiment of the uneasy post-war present. But he also takes on aspects of both past and future. By rebelling against authoritarian ritual he upholds the decidedly modern philosophy of individual self-determination – a form of anarchy, of the kind with which Peake became partly aligned in the post-war years, as James Gifford has argued.[27] Meanwhile the Boy’s one-person ‘insurrection’ against Gormenghast echoes the revolts, protests and revolutions that have characterised the twentieth century, from the Russian Revolution to the General Strike to the independence movements in Ireland, India, Burma and the rest.[28] But he also incites the Lamb’s servants to rebellion using feudal ideas, promising them ‘golden thrones’ of their own to replace the Lamb’s quasi-ecclesiastical seat; and he deploys a tool from the mythic past – a long knife or sword – to destroy the Lamb at the story’s conclusion. Adrift in a nameless, history-less space – like the Boy stowaway in Peake’s play about Noah’s Ark – he has to construct his own personal narrative to escape the controlling narratives imposed on him against his will, and makes use of all available resources from past, present and future to steer himself to some form of resolution. In doing so he becomes contaminated by the sins both of his ancestors and his descendants, losing an ‘innocence’ that has been usurped by the sheep-shaped dictator of the industrial wasteland, and finally coming to embody the complex condition of the modern artist.[29]

Loss of innocence – that vexed term, with its Christian and Blakean connotations – lies at the centre of the narrative, along with a changing sense of how creativity operates in different contexts. In Freudian terms, the Boy stands on the threshold between the latency phase and the genital phase of a child’s development; his adventure begins on the evening of his fourteenth birthday. The traversing of that threshold is marked by the story’s transition from an unfocused fantasy of exploration in the opening paragraphs to the wielding of a phallic sword in the final showdown. At the beginning the Boy seeks refuge in an act of imaginative art while lying in bed: he studies a stain on the ceiling of his bedroom and transforms it in his mind’s eye into the map of an island fit for exploring, a pirate-infested zone of adventure reminiscent of Stevenson’s Treasure Island – Peake’s favourite reading as a boy, and a books he illustrated as an adult. But this purely imaginative process fails to satisfy him on this day of transition, and instead he chooses to enact adventure using his body as well as his mind, fleeing from the Castle into the rule-less wilderness beyond.

Here he finds many more stains, for the desert or wasteland beyond the wilderness is covered with toxic deposits:

Tinges of glaucous colour, now here, now there, appeared before his eyes. They lay thinly like snail-slime or glistened from the occasional stone or along a blade of grass or spread like a blush over the ground.

But a blush that was grey. A wet and slippery thing that moved hither and thither over the foreign ground.[30]

If the story is a dream, at this point it has become an erotic one, as signalled by the word ‘blush’: suffused with the shame Freud identified as a key sign of transition to the genital phase. Soon afterwards, the Boy encounters two male persons, half man half beast – Goat and Hyena – one of whom constantly employs the language of affection (‘my dear’, ‘my love’) and invites the Boy to stroke his mane (p. 40). This pair carries the Boy to a yet more disturbingly sexualized being in the form of the Lamb, who is both a human child – with a child’s plump hands – and an ancient predator of unfathomable malice, possessing a child’s shrill voice that articulates a murderous adult lust directed at the Boy. This being, too, lives in an environment rife with stains. The objects in the subterranean room he inhabits, lit by innumerable quasi-ecclesiastical candles and lamps, give off a ‘kind of vivid stain; almost as if the lit objects burnt – or gave out, rather than absorbed, the light’ (p. 57), like certain radioactive substances. Later the Lamb himself succumbs to spontaneous staining after touching the Boy’s face with an icy finger: ‘a kind of covetous and fiery rash spread out beneath the wool, so that the milk-white curls appeared to be curdled, in a blush from head to feet’ (p. 82). One reader of the novelette, Peake’s biographer Malcolm Yorke, found its transition from childhood fantasy to implied child sexual abuse by adults too disturbing to condone, especially if the story might have been intended for children.[31] But the anthology in which it first appeared makes it perfectly clear that it was aimed at adults, and that the story it tells is in effect the story of the end of ‘innocence’ in a far wider context than that of a single child’s slow growth to maturity, with all the dangers that entails.

Mervyn Peake, Boys in Masks

In any case, the Boy never sees himself as ‘innocent’. He begins the story in a rage brought on by the humiliations he has had to endure over the last two days, in the course of his birthday rituals. These include being presented with gifts which must at once be returned to the castle vaults; sitting for hours at the edge of a ‘gnat-haunted’ lake (p. 23); planting a tree without assistance, wearing a hat ‘like a dunce’s cap’ (p. 23); and sporting a necklace of rotting turkey feathers, which must again be returned in the morning to a pointless official called the ‘Hereditary Master of the Quills’ (p. 26). All these details resemble punishments rather than celebrations, and imply that the concepts of misdemeanour and punishment have little meaning in a castle that has lost all sense of proportionate cause and effect. The Boy’s mini-insurgency, meanwhile, though natural under the circumstances, represents for the denizens of Gormenghast a blasphemous revolt against the castle more or less equivalent to Satan’s revolt against his Maker. The link with Satan is strengthened by the fact that the Boy’s rebellion involves breaking promises: ‘Had he forgotten,’ the narrator wonders, ‘the pledges he had made as a child, and on a thousand subsequent occasions? The solemn oaths that bound him, with cords of allegiance, to his home[?]’ (p. 25). The parallel is undermined, a moment later, by its diminutive scale: the Earl proposes only to rebel for a single day (p. 25). But it’s immediately reinstated by a sudden outbreak of verbal blasphemy on the part of the young revolutionary: ‘Oh, damn the Castle! Damn the Laws! Damn everything!’ (p. 25). Uttered in his bed, between waking and sleep, the concept of sacrilege followed by damnation continues to resonate throughout the Boy’s nightmare, culminating in his encounter with a genuinely devilish being, the toxic Lamb. For instance, when the Boy flees from the castle he encounters a pack of strange dogs which help him to cross a river into the wasteland. The Boy sees their yellow eyes as ‘ineradicably wicked’, and the name of their species blasphemously inverts the word for God, yet the Boy identifies with them as a fellow living creature and sends up a ‘prayer of gladness’ for having met them (p. 36). Woven through the first half of the story, then, is the association of the Boy with transgression; while in the second half of the narrative he is increasingly aligned with the monstrous Lamb who is his purported enemy.

Indeed, the second part of the story mirrors the first, with an anticipated ceremony or ritual – to be accomplished when the two beast-men who serve the Lamb bring the Boy to their Master – followed by a second act of insurrection, whereby the Boy substitutes the Lamb for himself as victim in the sacrifice, then recrosses the river with the help of the dogs on his journey homewards. And there are further mirrorings in both parts. At one point in his castle bedroom the Boy catches sight of himself in a looking-glass, which prompts the first of his acts of rebellion, the tearing off and trampling of the turkey-feather necklace. And in the second part, the Boy seeks to gain power over the Lamb’s hybrid man-beast servants by mirroring the homoerotic language used by Goat. ‘What a mane!’ he tells Hyena admiringly: ‘How proud and arrogant are the hairs of it! With what a black, torrential surge do they break through your snow-white shirt’ (p. 51). A little later he mirrors the doctrine of the Lamb, promising the beast-men not only thrones but hordes of ‘slaves’ of the kind the Lamb created for himself when he fabricated man-beasts out of men (p. 88). In the process he transforms the man-beasts into potential mirrors both of the Lamb and of himself, awaking in them a thirst both for Lamb-like tyranny and for the ‘ulcer’ of Boy-like ‘insurrection’ (p. 88). Even the Boy’s failure fully to bring the man-beasts on side – they are too terrified of the Lamb to rise against him – means that, mirror-wise, the Lamb is unable to use the man-beasts for his own purposes, giving the Boy the chance to kill him with Hyena’s sword.

In the Hall of Mirrors which is ‘Boy in Darkness’, the Boy and the Lamb could be taken to represent rival aspects of the creative artist; aspects that overlap and converge at crucial moments. The Boy turns the stain on his ceiling into a piratical Treasure Island, complete with a wandering fly as the explorer he can identify with as he spins his stories – the explorer he embodies as he flees the castle (p. 25). Like Stevenson before him, he shows little awareness of the colonial heritage that forms the backdrop of all pirate adventures, all explorer stories; for him tropical islands are no more than exciting stage sets, only rendered more amusing by the presence of native peoples (branded ‘Indians’ or ‘cannibals’) or non-native but conveniently huntable wild goats. The Lamb, on the other hand, uses people and places rather than ceiling stains and flies as the raw material for his murderous art, like Peake’s artist-Hitler. He stains the once immaculate landscape over which he rules with his lust for dominion; and his two surviving works, Hyena and Goat, make explicit the colonial nature of his artistry. Goat, after all, serves as the staple diet of British castaways and naval frigates, while the hyena is the most despised of indigenous beasts in the colonised territories of Asia and Africa. The Lamb’s history contains hundreds of creatures such as these, metamorphosed into beast-men by his psychic powers; however, all but two have died before the Boy’s arrival, anticipating the long slow death of the British Empire to which Peake bore witness, as a son of missionaries and a product of the British boarding school system, designed as it is to churn out soldiers, entrepreneurs and administrators to control the colonies. The products of the Lamb’s artistry are mostly mockeries of creatures from British colonised territories: the debased ‘king of beasts’ or ‘golden cat’, the man-lion (pp. 69-70), the ‘delicate and nimble’ man-gazelle (p. 70), the ‘mantis-man’, the crocodile-man, and strangest of all the ‘inordinate fish that sang like a linnet’ – a denizen of the colonised field of human dreams. The Lamb himself is a travesty both of the Christian Lamb of God – seated on a throne worthy of a bishop or Pope, and finally sacrificed at the hands of the Boy – and of childhood ‘innocence’, rendered literally hollow by decades and centuries of merciless, self-serving artistry imposed on the bodies of others, whether children or enslaved adults. Even the Lamb’s fascination with making beast-men for his own amusement links him to boyhood adventure stories, such as H G Wells’s The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896) or Edgar Rice Boroughs’s The Monster Men (1913). The Boy of the story’s title – a lost soul like Wells’s Prendick or Burroughs’s Number Thirteen – meets the Lamb in darkness (that could be an alternative title for the novelette), and finds himself capable of both mimicking and destroying it. To destroy the Lamb he uses an instrument from the old imperialist romances – a sword – and so sets himself up as the artist-hero of his own narrative. But the interwovenness of the narratives of Lamb and Boy – for instance, in the way the Boy works on the minds of his beast-man captors, Hyena and Goat, as he seeks to gain some power to face up to the Lamb – renders them disturbingly reflective of each other. By the end of the story it’s easy enough to think of the Boy as some kind of hybrid child-beast, or Boy-Lamb, whose nature contains both the inventive freedom of childhood and the hunger for power of a fully-fledged dictator.

The narrative, as a result, embodies the dissolution of simplistic moral systems as discussed by Herbert Read in his introduction to Surrealism. It could be read as a commentary on Read’s account of the Surrealist’s contempt for such moral systems, which are only ever devised to uphold the interests of the powerful:

The Surrealist is opposed to current morality because he considers that it is rotten. He can have no respect for a code of ethics that tolerates extremes of poverty and riches; that wastes or deliberately destroys the products of the earth amidst a starving or undernourished people; that preaches a gospel of universal peace and wages aggressive war with all the appendages of horror and destruction which its evil genius can invent; that so distorts the sexual impulse that thousands of unsatisfied men and women go mad, millions waste their lives in unhappiness or poison their minds with hypocrisy. For such a morality […] the Surrealist has nothing but hatred and scorn (p. 86).

The Boy’s bid for power ends, in fact, with the refusal of any such system. When he kills the Lamb, the creature’s last remaining victims, Goat and Hyena, undergo a transformation into the humans they once were, losing the allegorical names which had pinned them into their beastly bodies and becoming ‘two ancient men’, one with a ‘sloping back’ no longer locked into the characteristics of the carrion eater he embodied throughout the story, the other with the ‘sideways shuffle’ that formerly marked the self-styled Capricorn or goat (p. 92). The ancient men do not become the Boy’s slaves or servants; they merely lead him out of the mine and part from him and each other ‘without a word’ (p. 92). In doing so, they dismantle what had threatened to become a horrible alternative Pilgrim’s Progress penned by the Lamb, whose characters can only ever signify the narrow range of qualities indicated by their names: Lamb, Goat, Hyena, Boy (or Monkey, as he nearly becomes). As a missionary’s son, one of Peake’s default adventure stories would have been Bunyan’s masterpiece, and a quotation from it provides the epigraph at the beginning of Titus Groan. Like ‘Boy in Darkness’ Bunyan’s book is ‘delivered under the similitude of a dream’, but its tightly controlled allegories have none of the waywardness of actual dreams, being governed by the ‘gospel-laws’ of a stern God.[32] At least, so Bunyan hopes, and expresses those hopes in his verse ‘Apology for his Book’; though the section of that ‘Apology’ selected by Peake to introduce Titus Groan suggests that the resultant allegory will have something Surreal about it (‘Dost thou love picking meat? Or wouldst thou see / A man i’th’clouds, and hear him speak to thee?’). The Boy’s return to the castle at the end of the story consigns the Lamb’s allegory to the realm of dream or nightmare, and makes of the Boy’s ancestral home, by contrast, an uneasy refuge.

Walter de la Mare thought of the European Crisis as a nightmare, in part, perhaps, because of the complicity with Nazism with which it stained British democracy. Peake’s nightmare, in ‘Boy in Darkness’, is a composite British artist who is complicit both with colonialism and with Nazism, both with the feudalism of the past and with the totalitarianism of the present and future. As a portrait of Peake’s moment in history, then, it’s as disturbing – and perhaps as enlightening – as anything else we have. Herbert Read might have called it a work of ‘super-realism’. It’s clearly, at least, a substantial work of art.

Mervyn Peake, illustration for Oscar Wilde’s poem The Sphinx

NOTES

[1] The term ‘long short story’ is applied to ‘Boy in Darkness’ by Maeve Gilmore in her foreword to the story, as reprinted in Boy in Darkness and Other Stories, ed. Sebastian Peake (London and Chicago: Peter Owen, 2007), p. 17. All quotations are from this edition.

[2] Sometime, Never: Three Tales of Imagination by William Golding, John Wyndham, Mervyn Peake (New York: Ballantine Books, 1962), front cover.

[3] In ‘Consider her Ways’ it’s taken by the first-person narrator – at least at first – as a literal dream: ‘I must still be in a suspended state,’ she tells herself, ‘very likely with concussion, and this was a dream, or hallucination’ (Sometime, Never, p. 68). The dream content of ‘Envoy Extraordinary’ is more complex, fabricated from its three central characters’ radically different perspectives on the world – one fanciful, one apparently practical but equally idealistic, one balanced between fancy and practicality – each held in suspension by the improbable encounter between the owners of those perspectives which the story relates.

[4] Studio Voltaire, Maeve Gilmore: https://studiovoltaire.org/whats-on/maeve-gilmore-2022/.

[5] Richard Warren’s account of Hurry sets him firmly in the context of the surrealists and neo-romantics: https://richardawarren.wordpress.com/tag/leslie-hurry/.

[6] Herbert Read (ed.), Surrealism (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, n.d.), pp. 46-56.

[7] For Peake’s ‘Nonsence’ see the introduction to R. W. Maslen and G. Peter Winnington (eds.), Complete Nonsense, Fyfield Books (Manchester: Carcanet, 2011), pp. 1-2.

[8] Read, Surrealism, p. 21. Peake describes himself as a ‘Romanticist in Painting’ in a letter to Gordon Smith; see Smith, Mervyn Peake: A Personal Memoir (London: Victor Gollancz, 1984), p. 46.  See also James Gifford on Peake’s loose affiliation with New Romanticism, in Gifford, A Modernist Fantasy: Modernism, Anarchism and the Radical Fantastic (Victoria, BC: ELS Editions, 2018), p. 122 ff.

[9] Read, Surrealism, p. 40.

[10] Read, Surrealism, p. 51.

[11] Walter de la Mare, Memoirs of a Midget (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), introduction by Angela Carter.

[12] De la Mare’s interest in reverie goes back to the beginning of his career; he introduces a character called ‘Reverie’ into his chapters on The Pilgrim’s Progress in his first novel, Henry Brocken (1904). See de la Mare, Henry Brocken (London: W. Collins, n.d.), chapters IX and X.

[13] Walter de la Mare, Behold, This Dreamer! (London: Faber and Faber, 1939), p. 68.

[14] De la Mare, Behold, This Dreamer!, p. 69.

[15] See Peake’s poem, ‘Au Moulin Joyeux: September Crisis, 1938’, in Peake, Collected Poems, ed. R. W. Maslen, Fyfield Books (Manchester: Carcanet, 2008), p. 43, for the writer-artist’s reaction to the same events.

[16] Peake, Boy in Darkness, p. 95.

[17] For ‘Noah’s Ark’ see Mervyn Peake, Peake’s Progress: Selected Writings and Drawings of Mervyn Peake, ed. Maeve Gilmore (London: Allen Lane, 1978), pp. 383-443.

[18] For Peake’s struggle with Catholicism see his poems ‘How Foreign to the Spirit’s Early Beauty’ and ‘No Creed Shall Bind Me to the Sapless Bole’, Collected Poems, ed. Maslen, pp. 39 and 61.

[19] Peake, Peake’s Progress, p. 71.

[20] The picture series has never been reproduced in its entirety; most of the pictures listed can be found in Mervyn Peake: The Man and his Art, ed. G. Peter Winnington (London and Chester Springs: Peter Owen, 2006), pp. 66-69. ‘Sea-scape’ can be found in Mervyn Peake, Writings and Drawings, ed. Maeve Gilmore and Shelagh Johnson (London: Academy Editions and New York: St Martin’s Press, 1974), p. 46.

[21] Mervyn Peake, The Gormenghast Trilogy (London: Mandarin, 1992), p. 116.

[22] A similar process of petrifaction takes place in the closing part of Herbert Read’s only novel, The Green Child (1935). See Read, The Green Child (London: Grey Walls Press, 1945), pp. 124 ff.

[23] Peake, Boy in Darkness, p. 32.

[24] Peake, ‘Boy in Darkness’, p. 30.

[25] My edition is this one: J. W. Dunne, An Experiment with Time (London: Faber and Faber, 1973).

[26] Peake, Boy in Darkness, p. 59: ‘the experiments were without precedent.’

[27] See James Gifford, A Modernist Fantasy, p. 122 ff.

[28] Peake, Boy in Darkness, p. 25: ‘Insurrection! It was indeed nothing less.’

[29] For the Lamb’s usurpation of innocence, see Peake, Boy in Darkness, p. 79: ‘they heard a sound of bleating, so faint, so far away; it was like innocence or a strain of love from the pastures of sweet April.’

[30] Peake, Boy in Darkness, p. 37.

[31] See Malcolm Yorke, Mervyn Peake: My Eyes Mint Gold. A Life (London: John Murray, 2000), pp. 257-8.

[32] John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress (London: Faber and Faber, 1947), pp. 3-11)

Mervyn Peake and the Queering of Sark

The Hogsback, Sark. British commandos landed here twice in the Second World War.

[I’d like to start with a shout-out to Dr Taylor Driggers, whose work in general, and in particular his brilliant first book, Queering Faith in Fantasy Literature, Perspectives on Fantasy (London etc. : Bloomsbury Academic, 2022), opened my eyes to new dimensions of the fantastic. His book should be the first port of call for anyone looking at fantasy, queerness and Christianity.]

In my last post I wrote about my recent visit to the island of Sark, in a quest to understand Mervyn Peake’s fascination with this inhabited rock in the English Channel. As I wrote, an idea began to dawn on me, largely in response to Jane Norwich’s book about the Sark Art Group to which Peake belonged, Inspired by Sark (2022).[1] I wondered if he thought of Sark as representing an escape from the rules that bound him on the British mainland, in particular the rules that governed sexuality and gender. Sark as an escape of any kind, of course, was really a Sark of the imagination – a fantastical Sark – and I think this became very clear to him as he spent time on the island, first in the inter-war years when the Art Group briefly flourished as a hothouse of idealistic optimism, and later when he returned after the war to find the community changed by suffering and the landscape transformed by the impact of the German occupation. At the same time, Peake’s dream of an alternative Sark in which the rules of sexuality and gender were relaxed or re-examined remained with him, I think, and helped to shape his novels, not least the only novel he set on Sark itself, the quirkily disturbing Mr Pye. I should stress that this is conjecture, but it’s built on what I think are solid foundations, and this post will expose those foundations as best it can.

Hovering in the background as I write is John Donne’s famous Meditation 17, from Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions (1623). The most familiar part of this contemplative passage is, perhaps, the opening sentence: ‘No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of a continent, a part of the main’. As a man of his time and of his own particular strand of education, Peake is likely to have known this piece well. He attended a school for the sons of missionaries, and was clearly fascinated by early modern literature, which finds echoes throughout his work, from the quasi-Jacobean blank verse spoken by Earl Sepulchrave in Titus Groan – and the quotation from Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress that opens it – to his experiments with the sonnet form (such as his early poem on the sixteenth-century painter El Greco) and the Elizabethan-style verse dramas he wrote in the 1950s.[2]

Sea Rocks near Creux Harbour, Sark

Meditation 17 runs like this:

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were. Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

I mentioned in my previous post that an early version of Mr Pye ends with the missionary’s death, and it seems to me that Donne’s meditation could fittingly be used to provide a commentary on that earlier ending. In that version of the novel, the missionary is driven from the island in the end, like James Whale’s creature in the movie Frankenstein (1931), as a monster and an outcast; but his death does not purge the islanders of their kinship with him, according to Donne’s text. Sark could easily be described as a clod washed out to sea from the continent of Europe, and Mr Pye could in turn be seen as an adopted ‘Son of Sark’, like Peake himself: a smaller clod, whose loss both diminishes the island, rendering it spiritually or at least emotionally bereft, and accentuates his involvement in it – the involvement it sought to undo by hounding him to the edge of a cliff and over it.[3] There is even a ‘manor’ on Sark, as in Donne’s Devotion: the Old Manoir which the Lords of Sark first made their home in the Sixteenth Century, though they no longer live there. If Meditation 17 helps to establish Mr Pye’s death in that early version as confirmation of his fellowship with the islanders, despite their hostility to him, then the disappearance of Mr Pye in the novel’s published state leaves the question of what to make of his kinship to the islanders completely open. Does it affirm his difference from them, or their unacknowledged need for him, since after his removal the island is left ‘suddenly empty, […] nothing but a long wasp-waisted rock’ off the coast of France?[4] Mr Pye’s loss diminishes Sark, and by extension all those who cannot contend with what Mr Pye represents. But what is that, exactly?

As my last blog post explained, Mr Pye arrives on Sark with the intention of converting the islanders to his personal religion: the religion of a pantheistic God he calls the Great Pal, who inheres in everything, from the storm at sea to the porridge at the breakfast table, from the ‘brook that sparkles in the Dixcart valley’ (a tree-filled combe that leads down to the beach close to the Peakes’ house on Mill Road) to the cigarette smoked by Mr Pye’s landlady and friend, the redoubtable Miss Dredger (p. 60). His mission, however, soon turns bizarre. His excessive virtue (or what he sees as his virtue) unexpectedly causes him to sprout a pair of wings, and in his efforts to rid himself of this embarrassment he turns to petty crime. This in turn has the effect of both shrinking the wings and making horns spring from his head; and it’s the horns that turn the islanders against him. The wings and the horns mark him out as different; but this physical difference can also be seen as a demonstration of his underlying links to the local community. He is not simply an angelic missionary, but also that benevolent being’s devilish equivalent, the colonial invader. He is, in fact, a human being, and the principal strangeness about him is his ability to demonstrate his human tendency to contradiction and paradox in a strikingly physical way.

Mr Pye on his way to Sark

From the moment he arrives on the island Mr Pye’s difference from the islanders is marked. Short, plump, urbane and urban, with glasses and a ‘sharp nose, not unlike the beak of a bird’ (p. 10), his appearance and comportment are identified at once by the ticket-sellers and ferry operators as having little resemblance to those of the locals, or indeed to most incomers or tourists. At the same time, he is very ordinary and unthreatening. His paunch accentuates his tendency to self-indulgence – overeating and perhaps inertia – while his smallness underscores his inability to do real harm, despite the fact that small, plump men have disrupted continents (think of Napoleon or Hitler, both of them posers of genuine historical threats to the Channel Islands; Sark is littered with Napoleonic cannons left over from the wars between Britain and France in the early nineteenth century, and Mr Pye sits on one of them late in the book to contemplate his relationship with the islanders). Mr Pye doesn’t look at all dangerous, and it’s only gradually that the Sarkese begin to convince themselves that he represents a danger to them, an invasive threat to their very existence, thanks both to his horns and his angelic-but-alien wings.

What is it, though, that marks out Mr Pye as different when he buys his ferry ticket at the start of the novel, well before anything supernatural attaches itself to him? His urbanity and urbaneness are surely not enough. Nor indeed are his comportment, speech or appearance, since we later learn that there are plenty of other English settlers on the island, as well as characters of equal eccentricity: from the young woman Tintagieu, who claims to have a dolly at home which must be put to bed whenever she doesn’t wish to accept an assignation, to Mrs Rice, who is ‘almost square’ and wears a bizarre straw hat (p. 99). The one thing that marks out Mr Pye as different at this point, it seems to me, is his unabashed campness. Mr Pye shows every sign of being gay, and would have been read as such, I think, by many of Peake’s readers when the book came out. His addiction to fruit-drops makes him ‘the Fruit Drop’ – that’s Tintagieu’s nickname for him – and ‘fruit’ in the 1950s, as now, was a term that could signify gayness. The missionary’s scrupulous care over his own appearance (he has ‘beautifully manicured’ hands, p. 8), his extravagant movements (‘Mr Pye […] joined his hands together beneath his chin, […] stood upon the tips of his toes, and breathed deeply’, p. 11), and his serene indifference to the sexual attractions of the most erotically charged woman on the island, Tintagieu – even when she walks past him naked at dead of night (p. 123ff.) – seem to confirm the assumption. He has a powerful effect on sailors, such as the ‘huge, sour-visaged, red-necked, sea-booted mariner’ of whom he makes a convert (pp. 76-77). He calls his God not father but ‘Pal’, the word a gay man of the 40s or 50s might have used for a lover (and a married woman on Sark, Dorothy La Trobe Bateman, is said to have called her own lover Trevor Blakemore her ‘Great Pal’ in a rather open euphemism).[5] Peake could scarcely have clustered together more signs of Mr Pye’s sexuality without endowing him with a partner of his own.[6]

Tintagieu (r) and the painter Thorpe (l)

One might speculate, in fact, that Tintagieu’s presence on Peake’s Sark is partly designed to draw attention to Mr Pye’s queer alterity. She is said to have slept with so many ‘visitors, residents and locals’ that she has become something of an ‘institution’, her diary so packed with assignations ‘that her inability to accept more than a fraction of the innumerable invitations that were tendered her […] had the paradoxical effect of giving her a reputation for a mad kind of chastity, a crazy, indecipherable coyness, among those who had but recently arrived’ (p. 109). After Mr Pye’s famous picnic, discussed in my previous post, she moves in with him and his landlady Miss Dredger, and eventually becomes his closest friend, the flamboyantly physical counterweight to his inordinate spirituality. There is never any question that he will sleep with her after she moves in; his love for her, as for Miss Dredger, is entirely ‘sexless’ (p. 52). But Tintagieu too, as we’ve seen, has a reputation for a strange kind of sexlessness or ‘chastity’. Like him she is plump, which suggests a shared overindulgence of their sensual appetites; like him she is repeatedly described as ‘innocent’, even childish (as I said earlier, she mentions her ‘dolly’ whenever she wishes to dodge a date she does not want, while Mr Pye’s figure resembles that of a toddler); and neither her innocence nor her chastity is presented as being in any way at odds with her sexual freedom. Both Mr Pye’s sexlessness and Tintagieu’s chastity might be taken to signify their freedom from the heteronormative rules that govern other islanders; a freedom they offer freely to the people of Sark, each in their own distinctive manner.

Mr Pye (l) and Miss George (r)

One of the ways of extending love practised by Mr Pye is to bring the people of Sark together in unexpected combinations. In the first part of the novel the missionary makes friends with two single women, Miss Dredger and Miss George, and invites them to share his home in the name of love (despite the fact that the home in question is in fact Miss Dredger’s). There are numerous indications that both women are queer, especially Miss Dredger, who presents as conventionally masculine, with her cigarettes, her angular appearance, and her quasi-military contempt for any sign of weakness or lack of backbone. Both women hate each other when Mr Pye first meets them, a situation which Miss Dredger describes to Miss George as a ‘long divorce’ (p. 66), but they are quickly reconciled under his paternalistic tutelage. Indeed they take part in a kind of vicarious courtship, which begins when Miss Dredger begins to dream, under Mr Pye’s influence (he has ‘laced her chicken soup with a strong sedative’), of ‘floating over Tunbridge Wells hand-in-hand with Miss George’ (p. 43). The courtship reaches a crescendo when the missionary kisses Miss George’s fingers and tells her the ‘romantic story’ of the stones on the rings she wears (p. 79), then comments on her loneliness and invites her to start ‘a new life of love and endeavour’ (p. 80) with Miss Dredger in her boarding house. After this the two women form a family of choice with Mr Pye, working together to prepare his legendary picnic at Derrible Bay and in the process becoming ‘integrate’, as he calls them – ‘magnificently integrate’ (p. 83) or involved.[7] Again there is nothing sexual about their integration, but the language of marriage used to describe it affirms its opposition to heteronormativity, its resistance to 1950s social and sexual conventions.

Not that sexual conventions are much cherished by the heterosexual inhabitants of the island. Tintagieu’s sexual profligacy necessarily reflects the profligacy of the Sarkese men, and Mr Pye notes less than half way through the novel that the islanders are perfectly capable of being as promiscuous as she is without admitting it. Having made a careful study of their collective habits, he informs them at the picnic, he has ‘watched, in microcosm, the “world and his wife” go by – and sometimes I have seen, unless I am mistaken, the world go by with someone else’s wife’ (pp. 103-4). Tintagieu’s behaviour is considered outrageous, but is as integral to island life as the distinctive rock from which she takes her name. Meanwhile, Mr Pye’s encouragement of universal love in place of competition or mutual hostility is merely a rigorous application of a principle supposedly central to the islanders’ religious convictions, but which is breached more often than it is observed by most of Sark’s inhabitants. Both Tintagieu and Mr Pye openly advocate things that are either hypocritically denied while being widely practised or hypocritically advocated without being practised at all. The behaviour of these two unconventional figures is in each case an open affirmation of Donne’s insistence that ‘no man is an island’, since everyone shares a more or less equal collection of follies and foibles, each of which requires the participation of their fellow human beings serving either as collaborators or as countervailing foils against which to measure it. Mr Pye’s mission, as he sees it, is to make the islanders understand the ties that bind them – their common humanity and the mutual affection this should encourage. He seeks, in fact, to bring them ‘true joy’ by binding them into the ‘cosmos of love’ (p. 43). But he ends by uniting them against himself as a threatening intruder, his difference from the islanders reinforced by a relapse on their part – partly inspired by Mr Pye’s own internalised theology, as represented by his unruly wings and horns – into the crudest kind of binarism, whereby the world is neatly divided into separate moral units, good and evil, with everyone naturally assuming that they themselves belong in the former category. He seeks to bring love to the island, and instead unites it in a collective outbreak of hate, the homophobic lynching of Mr Pye.

Jane Norwich, Inspired by Sark, showing linocut by Alfred Waldron, ‘Actress’

It’s tempting to see this situation as a response to Peake’s experiences with the Sark Art Group in the 1930s. Jane Norwich’s book about the Group, Inspired by Sark, makes it clear how distinctive the artist’s colony must have seemed when its first representatives arrived on the island in 1933. When the newly-built and innovative Gallery building was opened in August of that year, the Guernsey Press announced dramatically that ‘Modernity has come to Sark’, an occasion of note at a time when the island still operated the last feudal system in the British Isles (Inspired by Sark, p. 27). The island’s feudal lord, the Dame of Sark, encouraged the enterprise, but was careful to insist that the building’s design was intended ‘to interfere as little as possible with Sark’s atmosphere of antiquity’ (p. 25). The young artists who displayed their work in the Gallery were not all of them experimental modernists, but they drew suspicion nonetheless from the more traditional Sarkese painters. The elderly landscape artist William Toplis, for instance, ‘frankly admitted that he did not like the modern school’, lumping modernists and the Sark Art Group together in a homogeneous unit – though he was happy to display his paintings alongside theirs when invited to do so (p. 28). Reviewers affirmed that the Group’s exhibitions embodied ‘a world where modernity is the very keynote’ (p. 43), a fact that provoked some reviewers to sarcasm: one summed up the second Group exhibition of 1934 as composed entirely of ‘modern’ pieces, ‘some ultra-modern, even that which has been described as futuristic; like its parallel in music it has its applauders. Certainly, much of the work is decidedly clever and none could be described as commonplace’ (p. 45, my emphasis). The various manifestos for the Group provided by its founders the Drakes, however, emphasized inclusivity rather than cleverness. The prospectus described it as a ‘non-profit-making cooperative’ (p. 16), which suggests an egalitarian Leftist but non-denominational perspective, and the St Ives painter Borlase Smart wrote after the first exhibition at the gallery that ‘The directors do not subscribe to any set theory or school of thought’ (p. 30). Instead, Smart insisted, ‘They are looking for work that has a constructive and integrating significance in modern life’ (p. 30, my emphasis). From the start the Group was more concerned with giving practical support to artists than with telling them what to make or how to make it, and with drawing in the local community rather than with re-educating them; and this emphasis on egalitarian practice as against theory, on the capacity to ‘integrate’ rather than to attach themselves to a specific method, school or philosophy, also reveals itself in Mr Pye’s religious mission to the island.

Eric and Lisel Drake on Sark

As modern, perhaps, as their paintings was the Sark Group’s attitude to sexuality. This could be described, in Mr Pye’s words about Miss Dredger and Miss George, as ‘magnificently integrate’, with a number of queer people joining the cooperative in the course of its brief existence. These included Ala Story, the Viennese gallery director responsible for getting the Sark Group’s work exhibited in London, who was a Lesbian, and Frank Coombs, the gay artist and architect who helped ensure the Sark Art Gallery building remained standing when he spotted flaws in its construction before the exhibition was due to open in 1933.[8] Most flamboyantly queer of all were the artist Alfred ‘Pip’ Waldron and his partner, Alex Gannon, who joined the Group from Birmingham in 1934. Waldron and Gannon, Norwich tells us, never concealed their status as a couple while on the island, and went on to run the Sark Art Group’s activities, first along with the newly appointed manager, Coombs, then by themselves after Coombs left to work with Story in London in 1935. Eric Drake seems to have cultivated a deliberate obtuseness as to his fellow Group members’ sexuality; in a letter to Peter Winnington he insisted that he ‘never tried to probe the relationship’ between Waldron and Gannon, and asserted that Coombs ‘fell for’ the island girl who provided the model for Tintagieu (and of course this is quite possible, despite Coombs’s later relationship with the art critic Eardley Knollys).[9] Overall, though, the Group’s attitude to the body was liberal. They swam naked together from Sark’s beaches, and Eric and Lisel liked to sunbathe naked too, to the surprise of the island postman. Peake seems to have been particularly liberal with his body, sending the same love poems (Malcolm Yorke tells us) to several island women at once, and getting found out pretty quickly.[10] He gained a reputation for painting landscapes in the nude, wearing only a sombrero as protection from the sun, and drew widespread attention with his Bohemian clothes, long hair and piratical earring.[11] Sometimes he wore a cape, like the artist Augustus John or Bela Lugosi’s Dracula. The same habit was later adopted by Mr Pye to conceal the growth of his wings (p. 172), and Mr Pye also took on Peake’s buccaneering aesthetic, donning a bandana ‘in true pirate fashion’ to conceal his horns (p. 205). It’s intriguing to note how Peake’s youthful fashion choices get associated in Mr Pye with the need for camouflage, implying the missionary’s involvement in a running conflict with the islanders’ proneness to suspicion of strangeness and strangers, which necessitates the strategic use of camouflage to protect its ‘commandos’ (Mr Pye’s rather unexpected word for his closest followers and friends) (p. 81).

The Sark Art Gallery

At one point in his time with the Sark Art Group, Peake fell in love with one of his fellow artists, the Bostonian Janice Thompson, and took her home to meet his parents – possibly to gain their approval for his engagement to her. Thompson found the meeting ‘uncomfortable and disappointing’, and went back to Boston not long after.[12] Peake returned to Sark with his hair cut short and his earring missing. Later, Thompson recalled her time on Sark as possessing a distinctive ‘climate’ of its own, making it an island of experiment and exploration circled by seas of drab conformity. From her perspective, as described in her poem ‘The Artists’, the Sark experience involved an attempt to open a succession of ‘entrances and escapes’ from all kinds of restriction with the help of ‘many keys’, an Alice in Wonderland-style abandonment of conventional logic in favour of a multi-faceted vision capable of comprehending ‘An instant’s multiplicity’ and of defining ‘with line and curve / The pride of rock, / The baleful earthen face’, as embodied in the Sark landscape.[13] For Thompson, leaving the island meant a retreat into cramped and sexless domestic spaces full of ‘mole faces’ and ‘threadbare hair’:

Having breathed deeply of too keen an air
We journeyed back to family parlors
Of gas-blue flames in suffocating rows.
A hand bewildered, faltering with a cup
To brush away a crumb
As grey, mole-faces peered from threadbare hair,
Not knowing from what climates we have come.[14]

Peake, too, wrote of Sark and its people as following a different drum, making it a place where ‘Life beat another rhythm’ like a heart quickened by desire:

Life beat another rhythm on that island
As old as her own birth.
We were the island people, and the earth
Sea, sky, and love, were Sark, and Sark, the earth
While round us moved the swarming of the sea.[15]

Both poems associate the island with a closeness to the earth – soil, rocks and the body of the planet itself – and with freedom from the suffocating constraints of the ordinary. It’s tempting to see this as a comment as much on the sexual liberation it afforded as on the artistic experiment to which it gave rise – as much on ‘love’ as on the work the artists did there.

Captain Slaughterboard and the Yellow Creature

Peake’s familiarity with the queer culture of the 1930s can be taken for granted, given the fact that he moved in artistic circles in the metropolis. One of his first exhibitions took place at the Black Cat Café in Old Compton Street, London, a well-known meeting place for rent boys and their clients, as Quentin Crisp informs us in his autobiography, The Naked Civil Servant (1968).[16] Crisp himself was a friend of Peake’s, who got to know him at one of the many cafés, eateries and bars Crisp frequented in the Second World War, the Bar-B-Q in Chelsea. It was during the war that Crisp acquired a reputation both for brilliant wit (he has been called the Oscar Wilde of the twentieth century) and for considerable personal courage, since he went on parading the streets of the metropolis in defiance of air raid sirens, flying shrapnel and the disapproval of air wardens. Peake illustrated Crisp’s satirical poem, All This and Bevis Too, in 1943, and later made fine illustrations for the poems of Oscar Wilde, using a Chinese brush his father brought back from Hong Kong. It would hardly be surprising, then, if Peake felt comfortable introducing gay characters into his fiction, and one character in the Gormenghast books, Doctor Prunesquallor, has been regularly read as queer. A sheet of drawings from the war years has been found recently which seems to show a love affair between an older and a younger male centaur, riffing on Peake’s depiction of centaurs in his poetry and elsewhere as epitomes of the exuberant male body. Most strikingly of all, his children’s story Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor (1939) depicts the evolution of a queer relationship between the titular pirate and a Yellow Creature he finds on a tropical island, whose rock formations mimic the distinctive contours of the Sarkese coastline. After capturing the Yellow Creature with the help of his crew, Captain Slaughterboard gradually loses interest in a pirate’s lifestyle and ends by marooning himself voluntarily with the Creature on the island where he found it, luxuriating in idleness and the Yellow Creature’s cooking. Various commentators have pointed out that the Yellow Creature’s face recalls Peake’s many portraits of his wife, Maeve Gilmore; but its body presents as male, and the pronouns Peake uses for it are either gender neutral (it) or masculine (he/him).[17] In one of the last pictures in the book the Creature seems to be cross-dressing, wearing a skirt while making a meal and smoking a distinctly piratical pipe. Peake is said to have enjoyed dressing up in Maeve’s clothing. The body, male or female, was a thing of beauty, and just as he felt comfortable drawing both male and female figures, so too he seems to have had little difficulty in recognising and accepting the various forms of desire that draw male and female bodies together, in whatever combination happens to answer their present needs. In Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor, a tropical version of the Isle of Sark could be read as standing in for a paradise where queer relationships are acknowledged with the same reverence and affection as Peake’s marriage to Maeve.

Alfred Waldron, ‘Tropic’

Besides Crisp, another significant queer presence in Peake’s life was Alfred ‘Pip’ Waldron, his fellow artist in the Sark Art Group. It has been suggested at various times that Mr Pye may have been partly modelled on Waldron: Robjn Cantus speculates as much on his website, Inexpensive Progress (https://inexpensiveprogress.com/4728/alfred-waldron/), but the only evidence he gives is a quotation from Eric Drake, who writes of him that ‘he seemed to live in a world of fantasy that was private to him’.[18] Cantus probably took his speculation from Peter Winnington’s fine biography of Peake, Mervyn Peake’s Vast Alchemies, which observes that ‘There may be another autobiographical element in Mr Pye’s odd characteristic of sucking his thumb, which recalls Pip Waldron’ (p. 240).[19] Winnington explains this observation in a footnote, where he quotes an unpublished letter from another Sark Group artist, Tony Bridge: ‘[Waldron] used to climb on to Brenda [Streatfield]’s lap (he was very small) and suck his thumb’ (p. 279). Both Winnington and Eric Drake suggest that this habit may have been a result of childhood trauma.[20] Not much more is known about Waldron and his ‘fantasy world’, beyond the fact that he attended the Birmingham Art School, that he and Alex Gannon moved to London after leaving Sark, and that they went on to live in Cheltenham till their deaths. Pip’s linocuts, though, tell us something about his world, and are worth pausing over, given the possible link between Pip and the equally diminutive Mr Pye.

Alfred Waldron, ‘Thou Shalt Not’

For me as for others, the art produced and shown by Waldron while on Sark can be read as a series of striking comments on British sexual politics in the early twentieth century. I saw reproductions of several linocuts by Waldron at the Visitor Centre on the island, and more have been published by Norwich in her book, one of which looks like an open comment on homophobia, as Norwich points out.[21] ‘Thou Shalt Not’ shows a naked man in the foreground raising his arms and shouting furiously at two more naked men, who flee into the shadows. Is he berating them for homoerotic activity, as the biblical title seems to suggest? If so, his gesture of remonstration looks distinctly ironic, since he could be interpreted as displaying his body to them in his fury; indeed, another reading might suggest he is angrily berating the men for their hypocrisy in rejecting the naked male body as a site of same-sex desire. A second linocut, ‘Masque’, shows a woman in a richly patterned dress holding a mask in front of her face with her right hand while looking out of the frame directly at the viewer; her left hand holds a cigarette and rests on a ribbon at her waist. A man and a woman stand in conversation behind her, like an embodiment of heteronormativity. Norwich sees in the woman’s face a resemblance to the Sapphic art director Ala Story, and the picture might be read as a comment on the necessity for Lesbian women to lead a double life – though the woman has no visible partner of any gender. ‘Tropic’ shows a naked young man sprawling backwards under a blazing sun, as if interpreting the tropics of the imagination described by Peake in his short story ‘I Bought a Palm Tree’ – see my previous post – as a state of liberation from sexual judgments and inhibitions of all kinds.[22] ‘Ballet Moon and Cloud’ shows an apparently naked but extravagantly decorated young man holding the hand of a masked female dancer; they are dancing together, not so much as erotic partners as co-performers of femininity. ‘Festoon’ shows two women embracing in a heap of quasi-oriental clothing. Finally, one of Waldron’s most ambitious pictures, another linocut called ‘Husbands and Wives’, shows a group of women and a group of men (with one woman) by a pool, each group totally engrossed in their companions, nobody in either group showing any awareness of the adjacent party; indeed, the thick black trunk of what looks like a palm tree sets a natural barrier between the men and most of the women. Again, the foliage around them looks tropical; did Waldron’s fantasy life on Sark, like Peake’s in ‘I Bought a Palm Tree’, inhabit the tropics? In each case these linocuts may be read as depicting a world that is subject to the rules of heteronormativity, a world where the idea of husbands and wives takes precedence over alternative sexual relationships, even when those alternative relationships dominate the minds of the men and women in question; a world where homoerotic desire is accounted a sin, and where as a result men and women must of necessity be frequently alone if they are to luxuriate in those desires, even in their secret fantasies.

Alfred Waldron, ‘Husbands and Wives’

There is something visionary, it strikes me, about Waldron’s prints. They have a Blakean quality. The shouting man in ‘Thou Shalt Not’, for instance, recalls in his stance one of Blake’s most famous images, ‘Albion Rose’ (1794-1796), sometimes known as ‘The Dance of Albion’ or ‘Glad Day’, which shows a naked young man who stands facing the viewer, his arms and legs spread wide, his face joyful, beams of coloured light radiating from his head and torso. Blake’s print is a thing of glory, as its titles suggest, but the mood of Waldron’s is different. The man seems older, his body more gaunt, it turns away from the viewer as if in shame or anger, and instead of rays of coloured light it is framed in darkness. ‘Tropic’ is much more positive, with its blazing sun and luxuriating male body, taking advantage of solitude to enjoy itself freely; while ‘Husbands and Wives’ and ‘Masque’ seem to contemplate the needful hypocrisy to which the criminalization of queerness gives rise, the men and women in each picture conforming outwardly to heterosexual norms despite the fact that their interests and desires are so obviously at odds with them. Peake’s Mr Pye, like Waldron, is a Blakean visionary. The message he brings to Sark – as he tells the islanders again and again – concerns love for all, based on Donne’s understanding of the connectedness of all people, or on Blake’s of the connectedness of everything in the universe. Could he have taken up Waldron’s mission to make a statement about hypocrisy and small-mindedness to this isolated population? Could the novel, Mr Pye, chart a movement from potential island-wide unity – an embracing of human affection in all its manifestations – to the reinstatement of petty divisions, unfounded hostilities, and specifically homophobic violence? This would invest the hunting of Mr Pye at the end of the book with the disturbing connotations I’ve already touched on. But Quentin Crisp’s biography confirms that homophobic violence was widespread in London between the wars; and the death camps of Nazi Germany represented, among other things, the worst excesses to which such violence could extend.[23] What happens to Peake’s novel, then, if we read it using the queer lens provided by Pip Waldron’s linocuts and Crisp’s life writing?

William Blake, ‘The Dance of Albion’

Waldron’s most ambitious project was an illustrated edition of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, most famously translated by Edward Fitzgerald (the book was never published). The Rubaiyat was represented by Fitzgerald as a manifesto for religious scepticism, with the poet enjoining his lover to forgo bodily restraint in favour of a hedonistic embracing of food, drink and sex while the opportunity presents itself – the old carpe diem theme. In one of the images from Waldron’s sequence, Omar Khayyam 2 (see end of post), four women mourn over the dead body of a young man – who has a wound in his side reminiscent of the wound inflicted on Christ’s crucified body by a soldier’s spear – while in the background women embrace and chase one another while young men stroll by with arms draped across each other’s shoulders. In another, Omar Khayyam 1 (see below), a masked young man and a woman dance surrounded by older spectators. Two of the spectators are naked, the third is clothed. One male spectator reads from a book, his right hand raised in the attitude of a preacher; another turns away from the dancers with his hands joined as if in prayer. These two are grouped together in the left foreground, as if both belong to the same hypocritical religious sect (hypocritical because the preaching spectator is suggestively unclothed and has his attention fixed on the dancers, while the kneeling spectator has positioned himself right in front of the theatrical floodlights, like another performer). On the right side of the picture a person with a scythe (I think a man, though I’m not certain) gazes at the dancers’ performance with what looks like rapt appreciation. He is smiling and touching his chin as if in thought. Is this scythe-person Death, and is s/he pleased that the dancers are acknowledging his/her imminence by seizing the day? Death’s traditional hood is pushed back to expose not only a living human face but a healthy body, very different from the skeletal bodies favoured by Holbein in his series of woodcuts The Dance of Death. In conjunction with the biblical title of Thou Shalt Not – which echoes the opening phrase of the Ten Commandments – Waldron’s Khayyam project looks like a Blakean rejection of Christian sexual puritanism, because such puritanism invites imprecations and aggression against those who practise or advocate sex in its less acceptable forms (hence the young martyr in the foreground of Omar Khayyam 2). It could be read, indeed, as the work of a visionary atheist or agnostic, disgusted by the hypocrisy of latter-day Pharisees, who happily practise sexual infidelity (Mr Pye claims to have seen ‘the world go by with someone else’s wife’) while repudiating any form of illegal sex they claim not to practise.

Alfred Waldron, ‘Omar Khayyam 1’

Crisp’s biography, meanwhile, includes a number of intriguing references to religion. There is the fact that Crisp presents himself in his naïve youth as a self-styled ‘missionary’ for homosexuality, whose flamboyant self-display is designed to make a place in the world – and more particularly in London – for camp gay men. ‘My outlook was so limited’, he explains in his third chapter, ‘that I assumed all deviates were openly despised and rejected’ (p. 33). In response to this perception, he resolved to embark on a career of dramatic protest on behalf of ‘all deviates’, wearing makeup at a time when it was frowned upon even for women to wear it, growing his hair and fingernails long, and cultivating an exaggeratedly ‘feminine’ walk which drew the attention of passers-by more effectively than any words of protest he could utter (pp. 49-50). Such were his means of pursuing his mission, and he concentrated these activities not on the West End or Soho, where they would barely be noticed, but on the world beyond: ‘the rest of England was straightforward missionary country. It was densely populated by aborigines who had never heard of homosexuality and who, when they did, became frightened and angry. I went to work on them’ (p. 33). Later, Crisp tells us he took on a job as commercial artist not so much to earn money as from an ‘evangelical zeal’ to win from the heterosexual world ‘acceptance as a homosexual’ (p. 74). His religion was not Christian – he had ‘withdrawn [his] ambassadors’ from God’s ‘territory’ at the age of fifteen – but involved a generous extension of the key Christian concept of ‘love’, a word, he tells us, ‘about whose meaning there seemed to be some ambiguity’ (p. 119). ‘Often during this period of my life’, he writes,

to the embarrassment of my hearers, I claimed that my whole existence was love. I meant that I was trying never to close my hand against anyone – even the unlovable (in dealing with whom I was having a great deal of practice). I would have placed at anyone’s disposal my meagre resources of money or advice or concern. Sometimes I fancied that all the elements of a golden age of universal well-wishing were already known and would become instantly effective when […] some genius combined them in the right order. I was always delighted with the slightest break-through in this field. (p. 119)

Crisp’s objective, in other words, was to work towards the ushering-in of a new ‘golden age’ in human relationships, when human beings embraced one another regardless of sexuality, gender, appearance, class, and so on. He adds, a little later on, that owing to his extravagant sexual fantasies and enjoyment of auto-eroticism he had always found sexual acts with other people unsatisfactory, and as a consequence ‘had severed the connection between sex and love’ (p. 121). His love resembles Mr Pye’s in its sexlessness, although unlike Mr Pye he was perfectly happy to engage in sex when the opportunity arose.

Quentin Crisp photographed by Angus McBean (1941)

It was around this ‘period’ of Crisp’s life that he collaborated with Mervyn Peake on his pamphlet, All This and Bevin Too (1943), a satirical poem for which Peake drew the pictures.[24] The poem itself offers something of an insight into both men’s state of mind in the middle of the Second World War. It describes the frustrated efforts of a melancholy kangaroo to offer his services to the Zoo, where he finds himself repeatedly rejected as a conscript despite the many notices posted everywhere by the Zoo’s management insisting that kangaroos are urgently wanted. Crisp was rejected by the army on account of his open homosexuality, while for years Peake’s efforts to be taken on by the state-sponsored War Artist’s Commission were frustrated, while his own time as a conscript served only to demonstrate his utter unsuitability for the army, ending in a seemingly inevitable breakdown and discharge. The kangaroo, too, finds his place in the Zoo usurped by a horse, while he himself is trained in the equine art of pulling a cart – only to fail once again to be accepted by the Zoo after completing his training. The story would be a bleak one if it were not for the utopian community of friends who help the kangaroo in his efforts to get suitable employment. A monkey lends him a hat to improve his appearance, a cat helps him fill out an impenetrable employment form, and so many other people and animals support him that he throws them a slap-up feast in gratitude, using all available ration tokens. The feast goes magnificently, despite the fact that again one animal is masquerading as another (the lamb chop is made of horse meat; the war effort, in Crisp’s eyes, is predicated on the need for ersatz substitutes). The kangaroo ends as he started, unemployed and miserable (Crisp tells us he was suicidal after being rejected by the army, since he could see no prospect of employment for the rest of the war). But the sense that he’s still part of a supportive community is reinforced by his final exchange with the poet, presumably Crisp himself, which is recorded with obvious sympathy and enlists both Crisp and the reader in the utopian chosen family that sought to alleviate the kangaroo’s problems throughout the narrative. The golden age may not be imminent in Crisp’s poem, but there are signs of a definite ‘break-through in the field’. Peake’s situation, meanwhile, as an artist who had suffered a breakdown, was not much better than Crisp’s in 1943, though he had in fact found employment as a War Artist thanks to his friendship with the head of the War Artist’s Commission, Kenneth Clark. In his readiness to work alongside Crisp, Peake was part of Crisp’s support group, just as Crisp (who gave Peake wartime employment as an illustrator) was part of Peake’s.

It’s quite possible that Peake knew about Crisp’s ‘mission’ of spreading sexual tolerance and love; after all, Crisp himself acknowledges his delight in talking about himself in cafés and bars like the one in which he met the writer-artist. Not only does Mr Pye’s aim as a missionary who wishes to convert an island to a religion of love resemble Crisp’s, while his theatrical flamboyance echoes that of the controversial London character, but the role of Mr Pye’s own chosen family in supporting him against a hostile environment – Miss Dredger, Miss George (before he alienates her), the painter Thorpe and the girl Tintagieu – recalls that of the kangaroo in All This and Bevin Too. Mr Pye’s religious mission catches resonance, too, from Alfred Waldron’s pictorial campaign against Christian hypocrisy, while his smallness, his difference from the other islanders, and his habit of sucking his thumb align him with Waldron himself. Even Mr Pye’s supposed sexlessness finds a philosophical prop in Crisp’s statement that he had succeeded, by the time Peake met him, in separating sex from love. And Mr Pye’s arrogance – his lust for conquest, as expressed in his desire to convert a self-contained territory into the utopia or golden age of his heart’s desire, or in his insistence that he knows what’s best for Miss George – recalls Crisp’s confession at the end of his autobiography that ‘Power was what I craved most ravenously’, and that he ‘wanted dominion over others in order to redress the balance’; as partial recompense, that is, for the powerlessness to which he had been so often consigned by his ‘deviate’ status (p. 222).

Crisp’s autobiography, for all its occasional recourse to a religious vocabulary, resists the temptation to sum itself up with some sort of moral. ‘I know,’ he writes, ‘that on no account must I point a moral or trace a pattern through my past’; this is a sign of his subscription to the ‘modern manner’ (p. 220); and he adds, ‘I clearly see that my life was only an imprudent dash between the cradle and the tomb across open country and under fire’ (p. 220). Apart from anything else, the person who writes is ‘still changing – still in doubt’ (p. 222), which means that any retrospectively imposed moral or pattern will be necessarily incomplete. Mr Pye, too, invokes religious vocabulary, but ends by rejecting any attempt at a moral conclusion. The protagonist grows wings and horns in response to his good and evil actions – or what he perceives as his good and evil actions; his good actions are not always good, his evil actions in many cases barely worthy of the name. And as the book goes on, the moral associations with each bodily eruption grow steadily less certain. The appearance of Mr Pye’s wings coincides with a new sense of alienation from his God, as he ceases to be able to talk with Him – something he claims to have been able to do throughout his life. As a result, it also brings with it a sense of all-encompassing loneliness, of being cut off not only from the mortal friends to whom he is closest but from the spiritual conversation he formerly cherished, and hence from the evangelical narrative of which he felt himself to be part. In the days before the wings’ appearance, Miss George refused point blank to be made a symbol of Mr Pye’s faith; and her lowering down the chimney could be said to mark the failure of religious symbolism itself, a failure reinforced by the uncertain status of those ‘crisp, forceful little feathers’ on her tormentor’s back. Later Mr Pye himself refuses to become a symbol of his own religion, reluctant to display his wings to the world as a mark of God’s favour for fear of being treated like a circus freak (p. 137). In the process Mr Pye divorces himself from his lifelong mission or narrative or purpose for the very first time. The appearance of his wings, which might have been taken to confirm his saintly identity, instead makes him question that identity, and with it the narrative to which he has always sought to conform. But what is there to replace it, apart from the drab narrative of failure, exile and a lonely death?

Mr Pye in Camouflage

Mr Pye conceals his wings under a voluminous cape (p. 148), and when his horns begin to grow he hides them under a bandana (p. 205), a Basque beret (p. 209), and a Panama hat (p. 220). For a time, at least, he exists in a state of camouflage, his abnormal body hidden away from view, only his increasingly bizarre behaviour offering clues to the mental and physical anguish he is suffering. He closets himself repeatedly, locking himself in his room at Miss Dredger’s house to examine his growing wings, concealing himself in the island prison when the people of Sark turn against him. His closest friend, by the end of the novel, is Tintagieu, who is famous throughout the island as a rebel against the laws of sexual constraint. His closeness to Tintagieu at the end suggests that she somehow understands him, and Tintagieu’s chosen area of expertise suggests that she understands him because she sees his torment as in some way linked to sexual desire. Tintagieu’s body strains at the seams of her tight-fitting dress, just as Mr Pye’s wings and horns strain at the items he uses to bind them: cape, bandana, beret or hat. Tintagieu’s willingness to walk naked along the roads of Sark may even have given Mr Pye the courage, in the end, to bare himself, to display his horns to the islanders at the annual cattle show, come what may; he certainly approves of her nakedness when he sees her walking past his gate in the early morning (‘It is right,’ he tells her, ‘Absolutely right’, p. 123). And it is Tintagieu who seeks to reconcile him, after he bares himself, to her fellow islanders, insisting that his horns are no more threatening than the horns of the nearby cattle (p. 240). They belong to his body, and have no necessary symbolic significance. The Sarkese woman and Mr Pye, in other words, seek at the end against all hope to advance the golden world of tolerance and mutual affection advocated by Crisp, only to be met with the kind of violence Crisp encountered all too often on the streets of London.

There’s a curious moment at the culmination of the novel, as Mr Pye finds himself pursued by a mob of islanders baying for his blood, when the missionary draws a final, sharp distinction between his mysteriously sprouting body and the discourse of Christianity that might be used to explain it. Just as he is about to make his final leap from the precipitous Coupée, the missionary enters a state of unearthly calm. He sits ‘perfectly upright, yet perfectly relaxed’ on the seat of the carriage that carries him, then symbolically detaches himself from his God: ‘As the ground began to dip,’ Peake tells us, ‘he drew forth his soul and tossed it skywards to his maker. “Oh, catch it if you care to,”, he cried, and he beat his wings in an earthless exultation’ (p. 253). The result is that it’s Mr Pye’s body only – his body and mind – that makes the great leap into space from the narrow isthmus that links Great Sark to Little Sark. This implies, perhaps, that the Christian narrative he has cleaved to so far has no place, as yet, for a body or mind like his. He does not, in response, reject the narrative altogether – he tosses his soul, after all, to the being he sees as his maker – but he recognises all the same that Christian theology cannot embrace his kind of difference at this point in its history. It’s noteworthy that he asks if the Great Pal might care to catch his soul, not if he can do so, as one might expect (‘catch me if you can’ being the phrase his last words seem to echo), and caring is, of course, another term for the ‘love’ Mr Pye has preached throughout his time on Sark (it shares the same root as ‘charity’, from Latin caritas, love). Like Quentin Crisp, in other words, Mr Pye seems to understand that the word ‘love’ as used by Christians is not yet capacious enough to include queer folk like himself. The recent controversy over same-sex marriage in the Anglican Church suggests that it still hasn’t found a way to achieve that capaciousness. Until it does, the queer community must find its own way to the ‘earthless exultation’ experienced by the little missionary.

Colin Moss, ‘Camouflaged Cooling-Towers’ (1943)

I’ve mentioned camouflage several times in the course of this post, and I want to end with some thoughts on camouflage in relation to art, and in particular the Sark Art Group. The Group didn’t last long; founded in 1933, all its main members had left the island by 1938, so that when Maeve Gilmore and her husband Peake arrived on Sark for a holiday in the summer of that year, ‘the gallery was closed and Eric Drake and his artists were nowhere to be seen’ (p. 66). During the war, as Norwich tells us, a remarkable number of the Group’s artists went to work with the Camouflage Directorate at Leamington Spa; these included Eric Drake, Pip Waldron, Guy Malet, Leon Underwood and about eight others. It’s satisfying to think of Waldron, with his passion for human masks, providing masks for inanimate objects in support of the Allied cause. The artists’ responsibilities included disguising airfields, storage sites, military vehicles, ships, factories and other industrial locations, as well as playing a major role in preparations for Operation Overlord (the D-Day landings) – making model tanks, among other things, to mislead the German forces. When, a few years after the war, Ralph Thomas filmed a war movie called Appointment with Venus (1951) on Sark – about a daring raid to snatch a prize cow called Venus from the island, under the nose of the occupying Nazis – the artist figure Lionel Fallaize, played by Kenneth More, is recruited to camouflage a cow to serve as stand-in for the bovine protagonist. It’s hard not to see this as a witty reference to the work of the Sark Art Group artists in the Second World War.

Kenneth More camouflaged as an artist in Appointment with Venus (1951), Sark in background

Quentin Crisp, too, contemplated offering his services to the Camouflage Directorate, but concluded that his gifts lay elsewhere: ‘My function was rather to render what was already clear blindingly obvious’ (p. 117). Crisp’s art is his body, which he decorates and parades about the streets in a bid to force the city population to recognise and acknowledge what they have always known: that there are queer people in the world and that they have a place in it, or rather many places, since the highly mobile Crisp became in effect one of the sights of London, like the Tower, the Theatre, the Galleries or Westminster Abbey – though unlike these, capable of being seen almost anywhere. His aesthetic armoury – long nails and hair, fabulous clothes, makeup – is the direct opposite of camouflage. The artist Thorpe in Mr Pye, by contrast, cannot make visible the inward vision he is occasionally vouchsafed; it remains concealed within, and his diatribes against the artistic establishment (it is dominated, he claims, by ‘the amateurs, the Philistines, the racketeers, the Jews, the snarling women and the raging queers to whom Soutine is “ever so pretty” and Rembrandt “ever s-so sweet”’, p. 184) only expose his own prejudices, his acute self-consciousness and inward shame at his own inadequacy, all of which make him stammer. He inveighs against ‘the Jews’ without showing any awareness that Chaïm Soutine – an artist he reverences – was Jewish, and died while hiding from the Nazis in occupied France. He inveighs against ‘snarling women’ in the presence of a woman, Tintagieu. And his comment about ‘raging queers’ overlooks the conspicuous queerness of Mr Pye, to whom he is speaking at the time. On the first occasion Thorpe mentioned Mr Pye to Tintagieu, the young woman had said she could tell him ‘some very queer things’ about the little stranger (p. 73); and the marks of queerness accumulate round him as the narrative goes on.

Derek Jacobi as Mr Pye and Robin McCaffrey as ‘Tanty’ (Tintagieu) in the BBC series ‘Mr Pye’ (1986)

Some of Mr Pye’s ‘queer things’ are apparent from the very beginning, in his talk (‘the gayest quips and sallies’, p. 75) and his extravagant gestures. But when his body begins to manifest its queerness through wings and horns he at once has recourse, as we’ve seen, to the camouflage of clothing. In the end, though, Mr Pye decides to dispense with concealment. He dons garments of Crisp-like conspicuousness at Miss George’s funeral – a cape, a tropical suit (the tropics again!), a ‘lavender scarf of sensuous silk’, and a Panama hat he refuses to doff in respect for the dead (p. 172). He later tells the deputation of islanders who come to complain of his queer behaviour that he and they must be ‘visible’ to one another, adding that ‘If there is anyone here who is afraid to look me in the eyes – let him be gone’ (p. 194). And he finally exposes his horns for all to see in the aptest of places: the island cattle show. The horns themselves have an obvious sexual connotation, which is helpfully pointed up by one of the island boys, who tells a policeman that Mr Pye is nothing less than ‘old Horny Satan’ (p. 241). Ironically, the policemen sent from Guernsey to arrest him for his self-exposure are themselves entrapped by Tintagieu in her cottage, where ‘she had heated their blood and then locked them in’ (p. 242); in other words they are no less ‘Horny’ than the man they came to arrest. Mr Pye’s self-exposure exposes the islanders in all their hypocrisy, outing them, as Thorpe outs himself, as prey to a thousand prejudices, and thus rendering what was already clear, as Crisp puts it, ‘blindingly obvious’. Mr Pye, in other words, moves from confident self-display in his capacity as a missionary, to a desperate use of camouflage to conceal his otherness, to a courageous emergence from his carefully constructed closet.

In the process Mr Pye creates a work of art. His intention when he came to Sark, as he tells the islanders, was ‘upon a small canvas […] to complete a picture to its last brush-stroke’ (p. 198), and he went about his work with ‘meticulous artistry’ (p. 45). But by the end of the book he has become a work of art himself. His wings make him look like a cherub from a Raphael painting; his horns invoke a ‘superb piece of drawing’ accomplished with ‘two sweeps of a Chinese brush – spontaneous, fierce and inevitable’ (p. 225); while his last scene, as he dashes by night to his doom at the Coupée, conjures up images from the most lurid pictures of Gustave Doré or John Martin, or the movies of Fritz Lang and the great James Whale. He has moved, in fact, from the position of the optimistic artists of the Sark Art Group, who brought modernity to the Channel islands in the 1930s, to the position those artists adopted in support of the war effort – experimenting with different kinds of camouflage – and at last to the conspicuous bodily display of that artist-cum-missionary for the golden age of queer liberation, Quentin Crisp. In the process, Mr Pye comes to embody some of the most potent dreams and influences of imaginative artists in the mid-twentieth century. And his embodiment of those dreams and influences arises from the rich, strange web of associations flung out by the little book in which Peake caught him.

I hope that by tracing some of the strands of that strange web I have begun to make a case for its richness.

Alfred Waldron, ‘Omar Khayyam 2’

POSTCRIPT

It’s important to point out, I think, that Thorpe’s anti-Semitic remark about art being ‘in the hands of the Jews’ didn’t go unchallenged when Mr Pye came out in 1953. When Peake wrote to the screenwriter Norman Hudis asking for help in having the book made into a film, Hudis replied that he would do what he could, and that he liked the book, but that there was one thing in it that jarred:

I couldn’t understand why you found it necessary to put into Thorpe’s mouth the conviction that art is “in the hands of the Jews”. Apart from the fact that per se, this is not true, the context in which it is placed leads to an assumption that this would be an evil state of affairs. I am always disturbed to find this kind of statement in a book or story – especially as, in this case, it seems to have been introduced gratuitously. The remark is so casual that, especially in a book like “Mr Pye” – essentially unworldly for me – it stands out as the kind of thing which strengthens any existing prejudice in the reader and plants the horrid seed in minds which may be free of such prejudice.

(Letter of October 8 1953, Peake Archive, British Library)

Hudis makes  his point with admirable tact and firmness, and it’s clearly right; Thorpe’s comments run horribly against the grain of the book’s overall tone, and although I have suggested that they are meant to be taken as evidence of the artist’s rudeness and stupidity, to include them at all was a bad mistake under any circumstances; all the more so given Peake’s own deep admiration of Jewish artists such as Jacob Epstein, Mané Katz and Chaïm Soutine (for which, see my discussion here).

NOTES

[1] Jane Norwich, Inspired by Sark: The Story of the Sark Art Group (Market Harborough: Matador, 2022).

[2] I’ve written about the various echoes in Peake’s poetry, many of them Elizabethan, in my introduction to his Collected Poems (Manchester: Carcanet, 2008), pp. 10-11.

[3] For Peake as an honorary islander, see Stephen Foote’s little book Mervyn Peake: Son of Sark (Guernsey: Blue Ormer Publishing, 2019).

[4] Mervyn Peake, Mr Pye (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978), p. 254. All quotations are taken from this edition.

[5] See Norwich, Inspired by Sark, pp. 21, 124, 164-5.

[6] The character from whom he derives his name – ‘Mr Pye’ in Agatha Christie’s novel The Moving Finger (1942) – is similarly coded as gay, being described as ‘an extremely ladylike plump little man’ who delights in his collection of Dresden shepherdesses. The Moving Finger, http://detective.gumer.info/anto/christie_25_2.pdf, p. 28.

[7] For a discussion of the ‘family of choice’ or chosen family, see Brian Heaphy, Jeffrey Weeks and Catherine Donovan, ‘Narratives of Care, Love and Commitment: AIDS/HIV and Non-Heterosexual Family Formations’, in Peter Aggleton, Peter Davies and Graham Hart (eds.), Families and Communities Responding to AIDS (London: UCL Press, 1999), pp. 67-82

[8] Ala Story was married to Neville V. O. Story in 1930, but her lifetime partner was Margaret Mallory; for her biography, see Norwich […], and Burcu Dogramaci, ‘Transmetropolitan Refernces in the Metromod Archive: Ala Story in London and New York’, Metromod 19.09.2021, which can be found here: https://metromod.net/2021/09/19/transmetropolitan-references-in-the-metromod-archive-ala-story-in-london-and-new-york/.  Frank Coombs, meanwhile, became the partner of the painter Eardley Knollys (see Norwich, p. 135) on his return to London from Sark.

[9] G. Peter Winnington, Mervyn Peake’s Vast Alchemies: The Illustrated Biography (Londond and Chester Springs, PA: Peter Owen, 2009), p. 85.

[10] Malcolm Yorke, Mervyn Peake: My Eyes Mint Gold: A Life (London: John Murray, 2000), p. 65.

[11] For the sombrero rumour see Yorke, Mervyn Peake, p. 65.

[12] Norwich, Inspired by Sark, p. 39.

[13] Norwich, Inspired by Sark, p. 40.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Peake, Collected Poems, p. 70.

[16] Strictly speaking the café was called ‘Au Chat Noir’, but Crisp tells us the boys on the game ‘were not putting up with any such nonsense’. The Naked Civil Servant (London etc.: Harper Perennial, 2007), pp. 27-8. For Peake’s exhibition, with two other artists, see G. Peter Winnington, Mervyn Peake’s Vast Alchemies, pp. 71-2.

[17] See Winnington, Mervyn Peake’s Vast Alchemies, p. 130.

[18] Cantus here seems to be quoting Winnington, Mervyn Peake’s Vast Alchemies, p. 85.

[19] See Mr Pye, p. 129: ‘She opened the door quietly, and there he was, curled up like a child, his thumb in his mouth and his sharp nose lying along the pillow’.

[20] Winnington, Mervyn Peake’s Vast Alchemies, p. 85.

[21] Norwich, Inspired by Sark, p. 38.

[22] ‘I Bought a Palm-Tree’ can be found in Peake, Boy in Darkness and Other Stories (London and Chicago: Peter Owen, 2011), pp. 103-109.

[23] See Crisp, The Naked Civil Servant, p. 67ff.

[24] My copy was reprinted by the Mervyn Peake Society in 1978.

Mervyn Peake on Sark

Mervyn Peake, Path through the Trees [Sark]
  1. ‘To Justify the Place’

In August this year I went to the Isle of Sark. The reason for the visit was simple: the writer-artist Mervyn Peake stayed on the island several times, and lived there twice, first from 1933 to 1935 as a member of an artist’s community now known as the Sark Art Group, then from 1946 to 1949 as the father of a family. Other visits included his honeymoon in 1938, a trip with his young sons to sort out the selling of his home in 1950, a holiday in 1953 and a period in 1957 when he was trying to finish the last of the Titus books, Titus Alone (1959), as he gradually succumbed to the ravages of Parkinson’s Disease.[1] I’m writing a book about Mervyn Peake, and it seemed important to spend some time on the island that became his island: the country of his heart’s desire, whose presence reverberates through nearly all his written work and a great deal of his work as a visual artist.

Mervyn Peake, Self-portrait (1931)

Why was it important to go there, you ask? What can we learn from spending time in a place that figures so prominently in an artist’s imagination? Here’s the beginnings of an answer. Peake’s favourite book as a boy concerned an island – Treasure Island (1881-2) – and the book’s author, Robert Louis Stevenson, wrote a fine essay on romance which sets a sense of place at the heart of the genre.[2] ‘One thing in life calls for another,’ Stevenson tells us:

there is a fitness in events and places. The sight of a pleasant arbour puts it in our minds to sit there. One place suggests work, another idleness, a third early rising and long rambles through the dew. The effect of night, of any flowing water, of lighted cities, of the peep of day, of ships, of the open ocean, calls up in the mind an army of anonymous desires and pleasures. Something, we feel, should happen; we know not what, yet we proceed in quest of it. And many of the happiest hours of life fleet by us in this vain attendance on the genius of the place and moment. It is thus that tracts of young fir, and low rocks that reach into deep soundings, particularly torture and delight me. Something must have happened in such places, and perhaps ages back, to members of my race; when I was a child I tried in vain to invent appropriate games for them, as I still try, just as vainly, to fit them with the proper story.

In his own novels, Peake gave us a place like no other: the colossal castle of Gormenghast, whose full dimensions can never be established, with walls like cliffs and rooftops like the tracts of a desert, honeycombed with forgotten corridors and dusty staircases, its main mass punctuated by abandoned courtyards and deserted chambers, lost attics, secluded towers and unlighted windows. His castle aches for occurrence, despite the law that governs its inhabitants, which states that nothing there must ever change. And in the course of the first two Titus novels something happens indeed ‘to justify the place’, as Stevenson puts it; most obviously, perhaps, the two great fights that break the stillness of the castle’s decaying vistas: first the combat between Flay and Swelter at the end of Titus Groan (1946), then the manhunt through the building for the upstart Steerpike at the end of Gormenghast (1950), which culminates in a duel between Steerpike and Titus, reluctant heir to the ancient pile and its incoherent rituals.

P J Lynch’s representation of Gormenghast

In Stevenson’s terms, then, Peake was a writer of romance, and the place of his imagination, Gormenghast Castle, is perhaps the ultimate example of the ‘fitness in events and places’ discussed in Stevenson’s essay. And it’s intimately bound up with the Isle of Sark. The stony bulk of the building recalls the stony bulk of the tiny landmass, rising from the ocean like the carcass of a whale. In the second Titus book, parts of the castle even acquire names associated with the island: the Countess of Groan lists the Coupée (‘the high knife-edge’), Little Sark, Gory and the Silver-Mines, as sections of the building to be searched in the hunt for Steerpike, while Peake’s description of these parts could serve as a description of Sark’s shoreline: ‘Great islands of sheer rock weather-pock’d with countless windows, like caves or the eyries of sea-eagles. Archipelagos of towers, gaunt-fisted things, with knuckled summits – and other towers so broken at their heads as to resemble pulpits, high and sinister; black rostrums for the tutelage of evil’ (p. 699).[3] To visit the island is to return to the source. If certain places seem to cry out for a tale that will do them justice, travelling to the places which spawned great fiction is a necessity for anyone seeking to unlock the riddles of that fiction; a kind of pilgrimage, if you will, to discover the pains and pleasures, the tortures and delights that prompted that spawning. Titus Groan begins, indeed, with a quotation from the ultimate novel of pilgrimage, Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (1678), which would have been familiar to any child of nonconformist parents in the first half of the twentieth century:

Dost thou love picking meat? Or woulds’t thou see
A man in the clouds, and have him speak to thee?[4]

I would indeed like to see the visionary ‘man in the clouds’, Mervyn Peake, more clearly than I do, and attending to Sark may give new resonance to the voices he speaks with.

I only had a week for my visit, so my opportunity for deciphering the island’s riddles – and with them the riddles of Peake’s work – was severely restricted. This blogpost records a few of its results.

Map of Sark from https://www.sark.co.uk/map/
  1. Cliffs of Sark

What, then, of Sark’s ‘shape, its solidity, or outline, or texture’, as the object of our scrutiny? It lies just off the coast of Normandy, along with the rest of the Channel Islands. Its shape seen from above, as in a map, is well described by Stephen Foote in his invaluable little book Mervyn Peake: Son of Sark (2019), which I took with me on my trip as a guidebook: ‘The island is made up of two parts – Big Sark and Little Sark – which are connected by a narrow isthmus, La Coupée, with steep rocky cliffs either side’.[5] From the sea it resembles a kind of mesa or plateau, like the one in Conan Doyle’s novel The Lost World (1912) where dinosaurs have survived into modern times alongside cave-dwelling humans. The Sark plateau is surrounded by cliffs two or three hundred feet high, which guard isolated beaches of stone or sand accessible only by precipitous paths winding down the cliff faces. Hidden among their skirts are innumerable caves, as well as two tidal rock pools named after Venus and Adonis, conjuring up images of pagan worship and erotic dalliance. The two harbours are reached through narrow tunnels drilled through the stone. Peake knew these cliffs very well; on a reconnaissance trip with Gordon Smith in 1932 he got stranded on one of them. Here’s Smith’s account of the incident:

I remember scrambling with Mervyn across a steep cliff-face, with the waves smashing hungrily below. Somehow we got out to a knife-edge of rock that stuck out at right-angles from the face, like the branch-gable of a house. This we both straddled, and found ourselves gazing a bit anxiously up at the main cliff, which went up vertically, a few inches away, for another thirty or forty feet. The only hold seemed to be a shallow depression about half-way up. Perched on the top of the cliff, overhanging the edge, was a boulder the size of a small cottage. I still do not know how we got up the face, though I remember getting first a knee and then a toe into the depression mentioned and reaching some sort of safety near the side of the boulder.

Mervyn also reached the top, but found himself on a tiny ledge just under the worst underhang of the boulder, with his arms clasping as much of its mass as he could compass. I edged towards him to help.

‘If you come near me I’ll bloody well kill you!’ he muttered desperately.

Finally, by some contortion, he managed to turn himself right round, which was no comfort at all: for he was now facing outwards, looking down over the sea far below, with his arms spreadeagled behind him. All I could do was stay still, and watch. After long, agonizing minutes he inched his way to safety.[6]

Cliffs of Sark

This passage recalls Steerpike’s vertiginous epic climb up the walls of Gormenghast towards a window in Titus Groan – though the climb in the novel is through thick ivy, the sort of ivy one sees clinging in many places to the cliffs of Sark. The distances involved are different; at one point Steerpike stops to rest in his climb and notes that ‘He was about midway between the ground two hundred feet below him and the window’, which makes the height of the castle wall over four hundred feet, one hundred feet higher than the highest of the island’s cliffs.[7] But the sensations aroused by wall and cliffs may well have been identical:

He could not know that he was nearing the window. Distance, even more than time, had ceased to have any meaning for him, but all at once he found that the leaves were thinning and that blotches of light lay pranked about him. He remembered having observed from below that the ivy had appeared to be less profuse and to lie closer to the wall as it neared the window. The hirsute branches were less dependable now and several had snapped at his weight, so that he was forced to keep to one of the main stems that clung dustily to the wall. Only a foot or two in depth, the ivy lay at his back partially shading him from the sun. A moment later and he was alone in the sunshine. It was difficult for his fingers to find purchase. Fighting to wedge them between the clinging branches and the wall he moved, inch by inch, upwards. It seemed to him that all his life he had been climbing. All his life he had been ill and tortured. All his life he had been terrified, and red shapes rolled. Hammers were beating and sweat poured into his eyes.[8]

The torment of the teenage climber, here, invokes exactly the sort of fierce desperation expressed by Peake in his threat to kill Gordon Smith. But Steerpike later grew adept in the art of negotiating the castle’s precipitous heights, swinging himself up and down on lengths of rope as he pursued his self-appointed trade as spy and assassin, and Peake, too, clearly acquired real confidence on the cliffs. Smith tells us that he accomplished another climb ‘with a young cormorant in each coat pocket pecking angrily at his armpits as he hung’.[9] Afterwards he kept one of the cormorants in his studio, where it ‘defecated all over his canvases’, in the words of Malcolm Yorke.[10] Just as the cormorant became acclimatised to human company, so Peake became what Stephen Foote calls a ‘Son of Sark’, naturalised to its strange and isolated landscape, as all his readers become naturalised to the strange and isolated landscapes of his imaginary castle.

Let’s take another few steps towards our own, more limited kind of naturalisation.

Creux Harbour, Sark. Picture of the harbour wall from Mervyn Peake’s Mr Pye
  1. Geographies of Sark

Cliffs are the first feature of Sark you notice as you approach by boat from Saint Peter Port in Guernsey. We saw a dolphin on the crossing; the Peake family saw a school of porpoises.[11] We disembarked at one of the two harbours on the island, the Maseline Harbour, completed after the war and not yet in use when the Peakes lived there. The smaller of the two, Creux Harbour, was the one Mervyn knew best, and features prominently in his illustrations for his third novel, Mr Pye. A cove enclosed by a massive sea wall, it features a pebble beach surrounded by cliffs, a shallow cave, and not one but two tunnels cut through the rock from the road beyond, one leading to the harbour wall, the other, smaller tunnel leading down to the beach. Secret and secluded, it must have been the perfect introduction to the island when the ferry moored there. In Peake’s time visitors to the island could catch a horse and carriage up the steep slope that begins on the other side of the tunnels; in those days, as now, there were no cars on the island. Today the horse and carriage have been replaced by a tractor pulling a long trailer divided into seated sections, known as the Toast Rack because of its shape (the passengers are the toast). We chose instead to walk up the narrow path that winds alongside the road to the top of the hill through the thick vegetation that grows almost everywhere on Sark. Here it’s an exotic subtropical jungle, full of rhododendrons and other alien plants, but elsewhere it’s more of a maquis made up of blackthorn, hawthorn and bramble, the sort of scrubland through which partisans moved in Corsica. You get the best sense of this scrubland from L’Eperquerie Common at the North end of the island, where a maze of narrow paths has been hacked through the thick dwarf-forest, giving sudden access to viewpoints high above the gun-grey waters of the English Channel.

Mervyn Peake, ‘The Avenue, Sark’

At the top of the road from the harbour, after passing a pub on your left – the Bel Air Inn – you reach the crossroads called the Collinette (i.e. small hill or hillock). There, now as in Peake’s time, horses and carriages wait in a row to collect visitors for leisurely tours around the island. Straight ahead lies the main street of Sark, known as the Avenue. A fine painting of it by Peake called ‘The Avenue, Sark’ (1934) hangs in the Guernsey Museum and Art Gallery, fully bearing out the words of a reporter at a Sark Art Group exhibition who said of Peake’s work that ‘the effect of light which he brings into his pictures makes them vivid, alive and interesting’.[12] That same Sark Art Group exhibition also included a lost picture of his, illustrating Blake’s poem ‘The Tyger’ (1794): ‘a thing of dark trees, slumbrous shadows and wicked green light, with, as centrepiece, a vivid yellow tiger’.[13] There is something distinctly tigerish about the streaks of light and shade in ‘The Avenue, Sark’, though the centrepiece here is a woman in the sunlit distance, rendered spectral by the obscurity of her face.

Wind-sculpted tree, near L’Eperquerie

As the painting shows, the roads of Sark are left untarmacked, presumably to make them easy on the horses’ feet. They are now as Peake first saw them, shaded by sinuous pines and spreading oaks; but by the time he came to live here a second time, just after the war, all the trees along the sides of the road had been chopped down, leaving only the ‘great stub ends of the massacred trees’, as he puts it in Mr Pye.[14] Sark suffered badly under German occupation, occupiers and occupied alike, and the wood was needed as winter fuel, for heating as well as for cooking the islanders’ desperately short rations; I read about these tough conditions in an excellent exhibition at the Old Island Hall on the Rue de la Seigneurie.[15] The adjective ‘massacred’ reflects Peake’s deep affection for trees, and one wonders if he had this massacre in mind when he wrote this short poem in the 1940s:

If trees gushed blood
When they were felled
By meddling man,
And crimson welled

From every gash
His axe can give,
Would he forbear
And let them live?[16]

The absence, during his second long stay on Sark, of the pines and oaks he had carefully painted before the war, must have served as a constant reminder of the time of violence and privation that came between.

The Gallery, Sark (1933)

The Avenue and its westward extension, Mill Lane, features large in Peake’s Sark life. Just before the right hand turn to the Rue de la Seigneurie stands the Post Office, with its blue plaque commemorating Peake’s association with the island. The building was originally constructed in 1933 as the Sark Art Gallery; Peake helped in its construction when he became a founder-member of the Sark Art Group, and the arched room above the entrance was where Peake had his studio (a photo survives of him painting in it).[17] As originally built, following the designs of the Sark Art Group’s co-directors, Eric and Lisel Drake, the place brought a sense of Modernist flair to the tiny island, with its clean lines, all-round verandas, Art Deco spiral stairway, and ingenious use of natural lighting. These days it remains a very attractive shop, though all the features I’ve listed have long gone, apart from the studio above the entrance. Further along the Avenue you pass the old schoolhouse, now a visitor’s centre, with the little gaol next door. Peake describes the gaol in Mr Pye as ‘a pocket-size prison like a stone sea-chest’, and Mr Pye spends several hours hiding in it from a mob of islanders baying for his blood.[18] Further on, past the sixteenth-century Old Manoir where the first Lords of Sark had their home, you pass the Peake family’s house on your right, half way down Mill Lane. Originally called Le Chalet, after Peake’s time it was renamed Le Clos de Vin, and when I first saw it there was no name on the gate at all, which meant I took several days to identify the place with any certainty. Fortunately the exhibition in the Old Village Hall happened to mention the name change, and I found the sign for Le Clos de Vin lying on a bench in the driveway. The house was very large and shabby, painted white on the outside; it had two glass conservatories attached to the sides that faced the road, and the sagging front gate looks very much like the gate of Miss Dredger’s house as pictured in Mr Pye.[19] It also had an extensive lawn. More than this I couldn’t see, since I was too shy to go up to the front door, ring the doorbell and ask permission to look around. I’d have loved to find out if a palm tree can still be found in the grounds. Peake describes the process of acquiring this exotic specimen in his short story ‘I Bought a Palm Tree’, claiming that he brought it to Sark in a bid to make the island tropical. He had no illusions that the island would actually become tropical when the tree was planted; he wanted only to invoke ‘The tropics that one finds between the thick cardboard covers of dog-eared and thumb-marked story books. The tropics as one wants them, not as they are’.[20] It was his little contribution to the myth of Sark’s connection to piracy, a connection we’ll revisit very shortly.

Sark Prison

I was interested in the location of the house because it was so central, so very much (I thought) at the heart of island life. The Gallery – now the post office – was only a few hundred metres away, as were the two-roomed schoolhouse and the Anglican Church on La Seigneurie Road, which Peake also painted.[21] The shops of the Avenue were nearby, and the Island Hall, while the Methodist Church stands on a parallel road called the Rue du Sermon, not far from the island’s tiny parliament, the Chief Pleas, and the home of the island’s feudal lords, La Seigneurie. Connecting all these places is a network of tree-lined roads, along which bicycles bowl between carriages, pedestrians and tractors. If I’d pictured the place as a reclusive artist’s retreat I was quickly disabused of this notion; the Sark I saw was all a-bustle, often of course because of the hordes of summer tourists who came up on day-trips from the ferry, but also because of the vibrant local community. On the day we arrived, there was a cricket match on the pitch by the new Island Hall. I watched lazily, sipping a drink, as Sark got thrashed by Guernsey, and thought about how Peake had joined the island football team in the 1930s as keeper, despite the fact that he’d never played football before (his rugby skills, on the other hand, must have come in useful).[22] I saw posters for a performance by a local amateur theatre company, and remembered the theatrical performance given by the Sark Art Group as the monks who brought Christianity to Sark (Peake didn’t take part in the performance, since he’d left the Group by that time).[23] I drank in the garden of the Bel Air Inn amongst a swarm of chatty Sarkese, and remembered Peake’s paintings of Sark pub life, which included a drawing of a game of darts and several paintings of fishermen drinking.[24] He worked in the fields in the 1930s to make a living, and in the 1940s his two small sons took visitors round the island in a cart drawn by their elderly donkey, Judy. Peake and his family were gregarious, not reclusive, and Peake practised his art in the middle of the island community, just as he wrote, drew and painted in the middle of his family, not set apart from them in some private attic or outhouse. This may seem surprising, given that Gormenghast Castle is full of recluses; but it’s in the first of the Titus books that the loneliest castle dwellers can be found, a book that was largely written during Peake’s troubled period in the army from 1940-1942 – a period that ended in breakdown and hospitalization. The second novel, written on Sark, is full of communities, with Titus drifting among them in perpetual quest of a community of his own – a quest that continues in the picaresque journey of Titus Alone. If Peake and his family felt like outsiders on the island, they were outsiders in a busy society, not hermits like the exiled servant Flay in his cave, or the wild girl called The Thing swinging free and alone through the forests of Gormenghast Mountain.

The Window in the Rock

Peake’s novel set on the island, however – Mr Pye – contains acute loneliness as well as crowds, and it is perfectly possible to be lonely on Sark. During our visit we stayed at a relatively quiet location: a room in a new house off the Rue de la Seigneurie, close to several lonely sites that loomed large in Peake’s imagination. The first is the Window in the Rock – a square hole bored in the rockface two hundred feet above a stony shore, probably designed for hauling up goods from the beach below to the island plateau (we found a rusting winch nearby). Here the plump visitor to Sark, Mr Pye, stood beside his friend Miss Dredger as they contemplated the problem of his burgeoning wings, which seem to have sprouted in response to Mr Pye’s angelic nature, isolating him from the other inhabitants of the island. For once, at this point in the novel Mr Pye is prepared to see the wings not as a moral or social problem – to be combated by behaving badly in secret, which of course leads to an outgrowth of horns instead – but as a practical asset: ‘What a place to take off from,’ Mr Pye comments as they gaze down a ‘sheer wall of sickening rock’.[25] Peake’s illustration for this chapter shows the Window as the uneven border of an animated picture, with two contrasting figures framed by it – one plump, one thin – looking outwards, away from the viewer, outlined against what we know from the text is a dizzying drop, a leap into space, an opening onto the sky, the ocean, fierce life and sudden death. The notion of a picture as an opening onto vast unseen spaces is characteristic of Peake’s art, from the densely crosshatched illustrations to the Ancient Mariner to the gravity-defying supernatural beings of The Quest for Sita.[26] Mr Pye’s response to the view is not to consider its moral implications – a Hamletesque ‘to be or not to be’ prompted by the ethical dilemmas embodied in his wings and horns – but to think of the actions it might inspire, above all the action of taking flight, which implies a final acceptance of and faith in the feathered limbs he has been striving so hard to get rid of. Cliffs, of course, have that effect on some people – including me: an urge to get closer, to jump, to soar from one medium to the next, from earth to air, though for most of us the action of soaring can only ever be achieved in dreams. For Peake, the visionary shift from one medium to another could be achieved by a simple change of art form, from drawing to painting, from book illustration to writing in verse or prose for page or stage. Place prompted thoughts of action, just as it did for Stevenson in his essay on romance. Mr Pye’s response to the Window might almost be a response to the passage in which Stevenson considers the relationship between a person’s concern with conduct – with whether they have behaved, or will behave, rightly or wrongly – and their more practical concern with problems arising from their physical or social environment:

Now we are pleased by our conduct, anon merely pleased by our surroundings. It would be hard to say which of these modes of satisfaction is the more effective, but the latter is surely the more constant. Conduct is three parts of life, they say; but I think they put it high. There is a vast deal in life and letters both which is not immoral, but simply a-moral; which either does not regard the human will at all, or deals with it in obvious and healthy relations; where the interest turns, not upon what a man shall choose to do, but on how he manages to do it; not on the passionate slips and hesitations of the conscience, but on the problems of the body and of the practical intelligence, in clean, open-air adventure, the shock of arms or the diplomacy of life.

In the turbulent mid-twentieth century, one gets the sense that the urgent practical demands of dealing with one’s surroundings – of day-to-day survival, say on an island, under occupation or in the storms of winter in peacetime – vastly outweighed the ‘passionate slips and hesitations of conscience’ as a priority in most people’s lives; as no doubt it did in Stevenson’s, who was a consumptive under sentence of imminent death for most of his life. And ‘problems of the body’ feature largely in Mr Pye, not just in the matter of its unwanted excrescences – wings and horns – but in other ways I shall come to later. They are the source, in fact, of Mr Pye’s isolation, despite his ability to make friends with other outcasts.

Les Autelets

The other Peakean landmark close to our lodgings was a group of distinctive stone formations that rise from the sea in the next bay along from the Port du Moulin, above which the Window is sited. These are Les Autelets – the ‘little altars’: four crooked stacks of rock like giant wayward relatives of the standing stones at Stonehenge or Avebury, all of which can be accessed from the shore at low tide. Mr Pye and Miss Dredger looked down on them from the headland that contains the Window in the Rock. I couldn’t reach the top of that headland, which has been fenced off in obedience to the damaging laws of trespass that obtain throughout so much British territory (though not in Scotland); so I had to look at Les Autelets from the other side, standing on a path that led westwards through the bushes of L’Eperquerie Common, at the north end of the island. Mr Pye’s thoughts on these natural monuments combine the artist’s eye with the ‘practical intelligence’ mentioned by Stevenson. The largest stack in the group, the Grand Autelet, ‘isolated from the main cliffs and knee-deep in water’, is described by the narrator of Peake’s novel as a ‘natural effort at cubism’; but for Mr Pye it is ‘very abstract’, a resistance to representation of the world in mimetic or narrative terms.[27] Seeing it brings flying to his mind, as did the sickening drop on the other side of the Window. He thinks of

sailing away through the sweet, translucent air. Of stepping out over the edge of this precipitous headland and, like that gull, of being borne across the bay and the sea, and up into the sun, and down and up again, and away and away and then, perhaps, to return and to perch at last, who knows, on the back of the old Abstract.[28]

Scenery here prompts thoughts of action of a very specific kind: the sort of mythical action that can only be accomplished by a person who has wings, an Icarus flying to the sun, a Satan launching himself across Chaos towards the vulnerable earth – though without the moral implications of these legendary flights (Icarus teaches us not to aspire beyond our reach, Satan’s journey exemplifies the workings of diabolical Pride, but both figures remain fascinating and attractive despite their sins, as Breughel and Doré confirmed in their pictures of them). Mr Pye thinks he has lost his chance for such action, since he is working to shrink his wings through the wicked behaviour he has been practising in recent weeks. But the sight of Les Autelets brings back the possibilities of flight, not as part of a grandiose narrative, appropriated by priests for allegorical religious purposes like the flights of Icarus and Satan, but as an expression of his own inward ‘army of anonymous desires and pleasures’, a summation of Mr Pye himself. After landing on the Grand Autelet he imagines himself reaching into his pocket for a fruit drop – a characteristic gesture wholly specific to Mr Pye, who is known as the ‘Fruit Drop’ to the islanders. His imagined flight goes nowhere – neither to the sun nor to the heavens nor to some distant destination. Instead it doubles back on itself and deposits him at the very place he started out from, without an agenda beyond the satisfaction of his immediate cravings. It confirms his identity, independent of his self-proclaimed mission of converting the people of Sark to his religious way of thinking. It’s an act of self-liberation which must wait to be accomplished till the end of the book. And it’s also an act of insurrection against balance; a concept we’ll be coming back to, along with piracy.

The Seigneurie of Sark
  1. The Seigneurie of Sark

At the centre of the island, ideologically if not geographically speaking, is the Seigneurie, one of whose many roofs we could see from our bedroom window. It’s a strange fusion of buildings which include a sixteenth-century farmhouse, rebuilt and enlarged in more-or-less classical style in the seventeenth century, with a second and third house added on behind in the eighteenth century and further eccentric changes made in the nineteenth, including an ornate five-storey tower and an extravagant dovecote.[29] Each of the past four centuries, then, has seen the house expand, until it looks from most angles more like a village than a family home – or a miniature model for Gormenghast Castle, which organically grew over many centuries into the titanic fortress it is when we first see it in Titus Groan. The Seigneur who added the tower, the Reverend W. T. Collings, also made additions to the nearby parish church and built the tiny prison, extending his architectural reach well beyond the limits of the house’s grounds.

The Seigneurie Gardens

The glory of the Seigneurie, however, is its celebrated gardens, which are crammed with exotic flowers and bushes that bloom in all seasons, alive with bees, birds and butterflies. There is a maze of low-growing hedges with a tiny fortress in the middle, a circular lawn surrounded by trellises, further formal lawns in front of the old original facade, and down the hill a swampy pond with its own dishevelled island, a Sark for ducks. One can imagine the Head Gardener of Gormenghast, the monklike Pentecost, moving along the paths of the Seigneurie Garden in his leather cowl. Could his monkishness have drawn on stories of the performance by the Sark Art Group in May 1935, when the painter Tony Bridges impersonated the island’s patron saint, Saint Magloire, and the rest of the Group dressed up in religious robes? As I mentioned earlier, Peake wasn’t involved in that performance, having taken up a post earlier that year at Westminster School of Art, but there were plenty of photos, and the performance won the artists a prize for their costumes; he very likely knew all about it.[30] One of the buildings at La Seigneurie stood in for Saint Magloire’s chapel; today it houses an exhibition on the lords and ladies of Sark.

The Old Windmill, Sark

These days the Seigneurie looks serene; but it wasn’t always so. Just down the road from Le Chalet, where the Peakes lived, stands an abandoned windmill, whose sails were burned for firewood in the war and never replaced. This was at the centre of a small rebellion in that revolutionary epoch, the late eighteenth century. At the time the Seigneur had a monopoly on the use of the mill, as he also did on the breeding of dogs (Peake tells us in Mr Pye that no bitches were allowed on the island, and paints a verbal picture of the frustrated male dogs of Sark reduced to wrestling and moping in the sun by the absence of females).[31] The Sarkese at last became so fed up with the mill monopoly that they built a second mill on Little Sark; they were encouraged in their resistance to the Seigneur’s authority by the spread of Methodism, and built a Methodist church to rival the Anglican church, Saint Peter’s, as well as a second mill. The second church is still there, though the same minister now serves both. The second mill lies in ruins. Mr Pye has quite a bit to say about the fragmented state of Sark society – divided as it is between indigenous islanders, English incomers, and transient visitors, as well as by the usual feuds between close neighbours.[32] The divisions persist today along economic lines: one local shopkeeper told us the island is strangely split between millionaires and workers, with the Seigneurie placed presumably closer to the former than the latter. But it’s the millionaires who have made the biggest changes to Sark’s feudal system; the Barclay brothers, who built a hideous castle on nearby Brecquou Island, helped to instigate changes which have led to the vote being extended to all Sark’s population, not just the descendants of the sixteenth-century settlers from Jersey.

The plaque at the Coupée

In the Second World War the Seigneurie became the focus of negotiations between the occupying German forces and the islanders. At first relations were fairly cordial, and the lady of the island, Dame Sibyl Hathaway – who spoke German well – was able to secure certain concessions for the islanders, such as permission to take out fishing boats when the tide was favourable, instead of in strict compliance with a timetable set by the occupiers.[33] But the splits between the islanders were also exacerbated by the occupation. The Nazis made a sharp distinction between natives of the island and settlers from elsewhere, shipping out the non-natives to internment camps on the mainland, and eventually including the Dame’s American husband, Robert Hathaway, among the deportees. The war also brought tragedy to the Seigneurial family: the Dame’s eldest son was killed by a bomb in Liverpool. Relations with the occupiers deteriorated in 1942 when a group of British commandos landed on a headland called the Hogsback, killing three German soldiers and capturing a third; this led to restricted access to beaches, the laying of extensive minefields and an increase in deportations. The German commander and a four-year-old child were killed by mines in 1943, a second British commando raid was foiled by a minefield in the same year – two commandos killed and the rest wounded – and when the war ended, two German soldiers deployed as prisoners to clear the mines were also killed (Dame Sibyl ensured they were buried with full military honours). The most positive outcome of the war, perhaps, was the widening, paving and railing of the narrow isthmus known as the Coupée, which separates Big Sark from Little Sark. The German prisoners of war who did this work commemorated their feat of engineering with a plaque, which can still be seen at the crossing. Afterwards they made toys for all the children on the island – but their best gift was the upgraded Coupée, since before the upgrade, schoolchildren traversing the viaduct in high winds sometimes had to crawl to prevent themselves from being blown over the three-hundred-foot drops on either side.

Crossing the Coupée

I seem to remember reading somewhere that Peake once cycled across the Coupée, before it had railings, without touching the handlebars. The only hint of this I found when I looked just now came in his son Sebastian’s book, A Child of Bliss (1989), where he speaks of his father’s astounding feats of balance with undiminished admiration: ‘Riding on his bicycle, standing on the saddle or the handle bars, one foot on each, was another of his tricks, a hazardous one, as I found to my cost on trying to emulate it’.[34] No mention of the Coupée in that passage; perhaps I was thinking metaphorically. Wartime could be seen a hazardous isthmus bridging the gap between one era on the island and another, and Peake’s two long stays on Sark may have given him an unusual insight into the nature of the path that lay between.

Mervyn Peake, Self Portrait (1933)
  1. Piracy on Sark

If modern visitors find the tale of the German occupation endlessly fascinating, Peake’s own obsession with the island was partly triggered by its association with a very different kind of aggressor from the sea. Sark’s past is bound up with piracy – a fact commemorated by the T-shirts you can buy in one of the shops on the Avenue with the skull and crossbones on the front. The pirate Eustache the Monk, a trickster figure treated by one medieval French poet as a combination of Robin Hood and Reynard the Fox, used the island as a base in the thirteenth century, and by the early modern period it was again occupied by pirates; one of the obligations laid on the first Seigneur of Sark in the reign of Elizabeth I was to keep the place free from salt water thieves.[35] Peake may have known about Sark’s pirate connections before his first visit; on hearing that his former schoolmaster, Eric Drake, planned to set up an artist’s colony on the island, he wrote at once to Gordon Smith: ‘Isn’t it marvellous? Gosh! I’d give my soul to come. Pirates and octopi! O.K., Chief’.[36] The reference, of course, is thoroughly generic, and may only indicate a generalised association of islands with piracy based on Peake’s childhood love of Stevenson’s Treasure Island, which he is said to have known by heart. But once he had joined the colony he could have learned very quickly that in Sark’s case the association is a historical one. And when he painted himself on Sark – a self-portrait in oil survives from 1933 – he is palpably piratical, with windswept hair, a collarless shirt, deep tan and insolent eyes.[37] Piracy was in Peake’s blood, and forged his first and strongest link with the easternmost Channel Island.

Illustration from Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor, with Les Autelets in background

A number of Peake’s visual and verbal works connected to Sark have a pirate theme. His picture book Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor (1939) sees the pirate captain of the title capture an androgynous Yellow Creature on an island whose rock formations closely resemble Les Autelets – although the rest of the island is tropical (‘The tropics as one wants them, not as they are’, Peake might have added). At the end of the book the captain retires with the Yellow Creature to another tropical island full of Sarkese rock formations. Much later, Peake’s fourth novel, Mr Pye (1953), transforms Sark itself into a pirate ship, a ‘strange, wasp-waisted ship of stone’ (p. 48) populated by a ‘crew’ that includes Miss Dredger, whom Mr Pye insists on calling ‘sailor’ throughout the novel, and who calls him ‘chief’ in return, as if he were a pirate chief in a Boy’s Own story (and his name, of course, contains the first syllable of both ‘piety’ and ‘pirate’). He even looks like a buccaneer later in the book, when he seeks to do evil in a desperate bid to rid himself of his wings. As horns begin to sprout on his forehead in response to his newfound wickedness, he seeks to hide them under a bandana, giving the effect of an ‘illustration of a pirate out of a story-book for infants’ – a story-book, in fact, just like Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor.[38] His campaign to convert the island to his faith resembles a piratical recruitment drive in a seaport, with the plump English visitor at one point reducing a ‘huge, sour-visaged, red-necked, sea-booted mariner’ into a human wreck – as well as a convert – with a few well-chosen words (p. 77). Another of his converts – the young woman Tintagieu – has hair that ‘flapped like a pirate’s flag’ (p. 111). By the end of the book Mr Pye has taken on the moral ambiguity associated with that greatest of pirates, Long John Silver, who is as attractive as he is terrifying. He is hounded across the island as an embodiment of the Devil, with a mob of islanders and policemen after him led by a man called George with the ‘huge voice’ and aggressive manners of a pirate (p. 238). George refers to his fellow manhunters as ‘lumps of stinking conger’ and tells them to ‘Get out your jack-knives’ (p. 246) for what promises to be a summary execution. Mr Pye hides for a while in that piratical ‘sea-chest’, the island prison. Pirate captains in stories are always on the verge of being usurped by their fellow buccaneers – a sailor called George Merry leads a mutiny against Long John Silver in Treasure Island; so Mr Pye’s position at the end of the novel only confirms his credentials as the self-styled ‘chief’ of the good ship Sark, at the epicentre of a confusion generated by his own abortive attempt to take control of the little island.

Jim takes aim

Pirates live their lives in a state of precarious balance on the constantly moving sea: think of Israel Hands swarming up the swaying mizzen mast towards young Jim in Treasure Island, a scene which Peake illustrated while living on Sark with two of his most memorable images. One shows Jim sprawling in the crow’s nest, pointing his flintlock pistols at the approaching pirate, who grips his dirk between his teeth as he climbs painfully towards him; Peake draws the mast at a slant as if to emphasize its radical instability. The other shows Israel Hands tumbling limply into the sea after Jim has shot him, all balance lost. Another sea-story told by Peake – an early poem called The Touch o’ the Ash (1929), about a murderous ship’s captain who kills one of his men, only to be hounded to death by the dead man’s ashes – culminates again in the mizzen mast of the vessel, where the captain waits in the crow’s nest, armed with a marlinspike, for the vengeful approaching spirit to claim his soul.[39] The captain is no pirate, but he behaves like one, flogging his men to the bone with a cat-o-nine-tails, stringing them to the bowsprit by their thumbs, or (in one case) flinging them into the ship’s furnace as punishment for insubordination. Like Israel Hands and Long John Silver, and like the plump little missionary-captain Mr Pye, he takes the risk of affiliating himself with the Devil, and it seems inevitable to Peake’s readers that the Devil will take him in the end. The Captain in The Touch o’the Ash has lost his sense of moral balance before the poem began, so that it also seems inevitable that his final confrontation with the vengeful spirit will take place fifty feet above deck, where nothing is stable.

The end of Israel Hands

Balance and imbalance play a prominent role in Peake’s thoughts on Sark, which should hardly surprise us, given the presence of ‘sheer wall[s] of sickening rock’ on every side. But what sort of balance did he have in mind? The question may not be answerable, in the end, but what follows is an attempt at a preliminary answer. Or rather answers, since just one solution to any riddle, it seems, won’t do.[40]

Jim boards the Hispaniola. Illustration from Treasure Island
  1. A Question of Balance

There are two major incidents in Mr Pye where the question of balance comes to the fore, both of them reliant on the peculiar geography of Sark with its cliffs and precipices.

The first occurs when the little missionary arranges for a disabled woman to be lowered by rope to the beach at Derrible Bay – the hard-to-access shoreline he has chosen as the location for a picnic to which he has invited all non-indigenous or ‘English’ islanders, for purposes of his own. The act of lowering the woman, Miss George, is intended to cement Mr Pye’s status as a worker of miracles, guided by God, and so consolidate his moral hold on the people of Sark. Miss George is heavy, but the lowering makes her seem light; she is thought of as mostly stationary, but the event gives her unexpected vertical mobility; she is treated on most occasions as the legitimate butt of a joke, but her role in Mr Pye’s performance is to serve as a kind of messenger or angel, the embodiment of his vision of universal kindness.

Derrible Bay at Low Tide

But the lowering is also an act of appalling cruelty, since Miss George is given no warning that it will happen, and would have objected furiously if she had been told in advance exactly how she would be granted access to the beach. Just how cruel an act it is can be best appreciated by visiting Derrible Bay, as we did ourselves the day after coming to the island. There’s a steep path down to the sea, dropping from level to level in zigzags, and at the bottom a formidable barrier of jumbled stones interposes itself between the final flight of steps and the soft white sands. There’s a fine large cave beside the beach – one of the possible models for Peake’s picture of Ben Gunn’s cave in his illustrations for Treasure Island – and beyond this, the place where Miss George undergoes her ordeal. These features – the stones and the place of the ordeal – explain why Peake chose Derrible Bay as the setting for his picnic. The stones both render the beach unusually difficult to reach and supply convenient hiding places for the indigenous islanders in Mr Pye who attend the picnic uninvited. And the location of the lowering – a geological feature of real distinction – gains additional resonance from the name of the Bay in which it is located: Derrible Bay, which is indeed most terrible for Miss George. The lowering-place is frightening in itself, but it is rendered still more frightening both by the name and by the gravity-defying action Mr Pye imposes on it. The missionary, in fact, forces Miss George to act out the event that fits the place, that justifies it, in Stevenson’s words, and there is something deeply unjust and therefore disturbing about how he makes this happen.

The Chimney at Derrible Bay

The formation is described as a ‘chimney’ in the novel, and Stephen Foote assumes that Peake is referring to a manmade industrial chimney of the kind that can still be seen at the ruins of the Silver Mine on Little Sark. As Foote points out, the Countess of Groan mentions the Silver Mine as a district in Gormenghast Castle (see above), and he suggests that Peake has ‘employed poetic licence to transpose the mine shaft from Little Sark for dramatic effect’.[41] In fact, however, Peake is referring to a geological chimney, and there’s a particularly fine example at Derrible Bay: a giant funnel of rock, rising two hundred feet or so from beach level to the level of the island plateau. Peake describes it with some care: ‘At the foot of the cliff in the northern elbow of the bay a natural archway led, not to a finite cave, but to a shaft that rose in gloomy darkness tinged with red, to where it drew breath, an irregular circle of breath, which from the base of the chimney, looking up, seemed no larger than a plate’ (p. 111). In advance of the picnic, Mr Pye leads Miss George through the ‘thorn bushes’ and ‘waist-high ferns’ of the Sarkese maquis to the ‘lip’ of the ‘murderous hole’ (p. 112) at the top of the shaft, where she is strapped into her favourite armchair before beginning her descent. A fine picture of the ‘murderous hole’ in question opens the novel’s Chapter 14 (p. 96). No one in the book, or reading it, is under any illusion that Miss George wishes to accomplish this feat of false flight – to be Mr Pye’s ‘exemplar’, as he calls her, or his human angel, since he has clad her in a white nightdress to symbolize chastity (p. 90). Mr Pye confirms his own awareness of Miss George’s terror when he describes her as his first ‘martyr’, and later insists to the islanders gathered on the beach below that her descent represents the overcoming of fear through ‘courage’ – despite the fact that it happens ‘not of her own will’ but because he himself has pronounced it ‘right’ that she should suffer (p. 117).

The opening of the chimney from below

It seems appropriate, then, that Miss George’s reluctant descent of the chimney should turn out to be a turning point in Mr Pye’s fortunes. As the descent begins, the islanders on the beach become aware of another phenomenon taking place nearby: the arrival of a whale’s rotting carcass at Derrible Bay, drifting in on the tide. The appalling stench of the corpse quickly drives the revellers away, leaving only Mr Pye and a few friends to witness the ersatz miracle of Miss George’s touchdown. The ruination of Mr Pye’s attempt to impose his vision on the gathered inhabitants of Sark signals the moment when the balance of the book begins to tip away from him, so to speak; when the equilibrium between good and evil in his body starts to favour evil. Up to this moment he has seemed something of a miracle-worker, capable of disarming powerful men and women by the sheer confidence with which he spreads the word of his own eccentric God. But Miss George’s reluctant feat of balance, as her weight counterposes the weight of the team of powerful men who grip the ropes that lower her chair, while her body maintains its precarious poise in the chair while dropping through the red-tinged darkness towards the sand – occurs at the point when Mr Pye loses control of his own bodily and spiritual equilibrium. The arrival of the whale upsets his plans, and suggests the presence of a force that runs counter to his neat narrative of sin and salvation. From this point on, Mr Pye’s confidence in his collusion with his private God – whom he dubs the ‘Great Pal’ – takes a serious hit, and he loses all certainty that he is engaged in a divinely-ordained mission to convert the islanders to his faith. In the process, he himself undergoes the ordeal he imposed on Miss George, and reveals himself for what he is: not a saint or godling, but a complex being who cannot be reduced to crude moral binaries.

The opening of the chimney from above. Illustration for Mr Pye

The chief mark of his loss of moral balance is the wings that grow from his back, which start to manifest themselves after the picnic at Derrible Bay. As an apparent sign from God of Mr Pye’s goodness, they also imply that his goodness has gone too far – that it has exceeded the reasonable limits set by the human body and mind, and has begun to be excessive, hypertrophied, oppressive, monstrous. Interestingly, their appearance causes a loss of balance in others as well as himself. When Miss George first glimpses his wings – through the keyhole of Mr Pye’s bedroom, the day after her ordeal (pp. 162-3) – she retreats in disarray, then loses her footing on the stairs and tumbles headlong to her death, confirming the murderous effects of fear and imbalance invoked by the chimney incident (and note how her ersatz flight down the chimney here becomes a fatal fall down a flight of stairs). Much later, when Mr Pye has aroused the hostility of the rest of the island and is galloping towards the Coupée in a horse and carriage, perfectly aware that he cannot escape but flapping his wings in a bid for freedom as he gallops, there are clear echoes of what happened to Miss George. In the first place – as we noted earlier – the ringleader of the posse that seeks to catch him is called George, or sometimes ‘Pawgy’ (as in Georgy Porgy). In the second, one of the lookouts stationed at the old windmill to watch for Mr Pye misses his footing on the building’s stone steps, falls, and ‘was dead before he reached the bottom’, like Miss George before him (p. 251). Mr Pye and his wings, meanwhile, recall Miss George the ersatz angel and her flapping nightgown. Everything points towards a climactic showdown at the cliff’s edge of the Coupée – another great geological feature of Sark, balancing the chimney – and to a showdown that must in some way atone for the Derrible debacle. So to the Coupée is where the last stage of our tour must take us.

La Coupée, Sark
  1. At the Coupée

In deference to Peake’s possibly mythical feat of crossing the Coupée by bike, we set out for that famous tourist attraction – images of which have brought visitors to Sark for a hundred years – on two hired bikes; mine even had the name of Peake inscribed on the frame. The best view of the Coupée, we found, could be obtained by turning aside at the highest point of the approach at the Big Sark end, where a footpath takes you up to a grassy prominence overlooking the isthmus, from which pictures may be taken almost as good as the tourist photos you’ll have seen throughout your trip. From the Coupée itself, meanwhile, you can look down three hundred feet on one side to the beach called La Grande Grève. This beach was partitioned during the war into separate areas for German officers, German soldiers and ordinary islanders, and later became a regular bathing-spot for Peake and his sons; Mr Pye kicks over children’s sandcastles here in his bid to shrink his wings by committing petty crimes. On the other side of the Coupée you have a view straight down the cliffs to the rocks below. It’s from here that Peake is supposed to have clambered down the precipice to rescue one or more baby cormorants (history is a little vague as to the numbers involved). Cycling across the narrow stone bridge is not permitted any longer, but even pushing your bike across gives a pretty good sense of how daring it would have been to ride across without using the handlebars in the days before railings were installed.

‘Peake Trail’

The Coupée provides a world-class setting for the climactic moment of a film or novel; and Stephen Foote has rightly introduced it, in his guide, with a passage Peake wrote about it near the end of Mr Pye, as the missionary determines to make it the destination of his final journey on Sark:[42]

‘The Coupée,’ whispered Mr Pye, and his mind flew back to that first night on Sark, when, in the storm he had stood on the narrow ridge and heard the waves thrashing the rocks three hundred feet below, and the wind beating on the face of the cliff.

He shut his eyes again and he could see in his imagination how the land narrowed: how Big Sark dwindled to the perilous isthmus: how it seemed as though two great forces were joined together by the Coupée as though it were the cord that joins the unborn child to its mother, or like that moment called life that links the dark domains of the womb and of the tomb. He knew that Tintagieu was right. He must make for that place – the wasp-like waist of the island he had come to save from itself. (p. 249)

In this passage, the narrow viaduct of stone surrounded by precipices becomes a metaphor for human life, rendered yet more perilous in Peake’s lifetime by the outbreak of World War Two and the Cold War that followed. One of his most powerful poems, ‘Grottoed Beneath Your Ribs Our Babe Lay Thriving’ (1940) – written in response to the birth of his son Sebastian and his wife Maeve’s act of childbirth – imagines Maeve’s body as a quasi-organic structure within which the child lay ‘Grottoed’ for nine months ‘Among the breathing rafters of sweet bone’, as if in a Sarkese cave or a Gormenghast attic.[43] Emerging from the womb, especially in wartime, involves a traumatic separation from this place of shelter, as if Little Sark had become divided from the ‘continent’ of the larger island by the severing of its umbilical cord (the Coupée, after all, is subject to erosion and will presumably one day be worn away altogether). At the point of severance, the poem suggests, the child-island must feel a little like the Island of Madagascar, as ‘the tides divide an [A]frica / Of love from his clay island, that the sighs / Of the seas encircle with chill ancientry’. At the same time, in the final stanza of his poem Peake insists that the bond between mother and child, continent and island, will remain as strong as ever after the separation. And the link forged in the poem between island and infant, continent and mother, explains why Mr Pye seeks out the Coupée for his final showdown.

Mr Pye seeks to establish a bond between the islanders reminiscent of the bond between mother and child, fusing them one to another despite the stretches of turbulent water (ideological, personal, social, political, cultural) that divide them. At the Derrible picnic he represents that mission as a preliminary stage in the erasure of the Cold War itself, a re-balancing, so to speak, of an unstable planet. ‘The whole world is unbalanced,’ he tells the picknickers, adding – with characteristic hubris – that ‘There are a few of us, a very few, who fight to keep it upright’ (p. 100). A military man at the picnic, Major Havershot – whose name affirms his predilection for solving problems by the bullet – would prefer to start the project of restoring balance by engaging with Russia rather than Sark, presumably by violence, given his name. But for the missionary ‘it is Sark that we are healing now, isn’t it? Not Russia. Russia can follow’ (p. 101). The West needs to examine itself before turning its gaze on others; only then can the process of healing be effective.

Derek Jacobi as Mr Pye in the BBC TV series of 1986. Image from a tapestry in St Peter’s Church, Sark.

But the logic of this position demands that Mr Pye gaze at himself, too – which is more difficult than it sounds, given that the growth of his unwanted wings starts at his shoulder blades. If Sark must be rebalanced before the rest of the world can be addressed, the would-be balancer, Mr Pye, must be rebalanced first, his excessive piety – and his piratical zeal for taking over islands – supplanted by recognition of his humanity, the bond he has with the ordinary men and women he seeks to evangelize. His desperate dash for the Coupée at the end of the book – the waspish waist of the island where the womb is located, the umbilical cord that connects it with its offspring, Little Sark – symbolizes a return to the ties that bind him to the human race, from which his wings have threatened to banish him. Such, at least, would be the narrative trajectory of a conventional novel: it would close with Mr Pye’s recognition of his own humanity, obtained at the umbilicus or navel of the island, the part of the anatomy that graphically links us to our common ancestry. But Peake’s chosen ending is both wilder and more ambiguous. The novel closes with Mr Pye relinquishing all balance, divesting himself of links to pre-set narratives, and launching his body at last into the flight he contemplated earlier, when gazing at Les Autelets; committing himself, in fact, to his wings. It’s a celebration of vision, strangeness and difference rather than likeness, though the missionary’s very ordinary body, short and plump, seems to invite Peake’s readers to share his commitment to these same qualities – vision, strangeness and difference – however ordinary those readers may think themselves to be.

The loss of all balance on Mr Pye’s approach to the Coupée is made quite explicit, from the unbalancing of the watchman who falls down the old mill’s steps to the unbalancing of the carriage in which the missionary rides. As soon as Mr Pye sets off from his refuge in the island prison he finds himself off kilter: ‘turning dangerously upon two wheels [his carriage] headed up the hill past Rosebud cottage while Mr Pye, his wings beating at his sides, cried out encouragement to the black charger’ (p. 250). His disconnection from the human race is noted by the artist, Thorpe, who sees him in this final dash as a ‘seraph in striped trousers’ rather than a man (pp. 250-251). Dogs chasing the carriage lose their balance, ‘bowling one another over in the madness of the race’ (p. 251). Note how mental imbalance comes into play here too, a condition later reinforced by references to the ‘dementia’ of Mr Pye’s pursuers and Mr Pye’s own position ‘at the plunging spearhead of madness’ (p. 253).[44]

Turning into the ‘long Coupée road’ the carriage almost crashes again – it seems ‘impossible’ that it should not – but Mr Pye’s impossible wings ensure that balance is briefly restored (‘Mr Pye aloft in the driver’s seat threw out one of his wings to steady himself’). Miracles take place as more and more islanders join the chase: ‘Every carriage was miraculously filled with the pursuers’ (p. 252), and Mr Pye begins to resemble an ‘apparition’, something as yet unexplained which seems to defy rational analysis. Soon afterwards the chase becomes something equally irrational, a ‘dream’, while Mr Pye becomes a visionary or vision: when he looks backwards at his pursuers they are ‘dazzled as though a burning glass were trained upon them’ (pp. 252-3). The word ‘seraph’ implies an association with the divine, but Mr Pye discards conventional religious narratives or hierarchies when he divests himself of his soul: ‘As the ground began to dip he drew forth his soul and tossed it skywards to his God’ (we never learn if this act of dismissal is metaphorical or actual) (p. 253). Divested in this way of his attachment to God, Mr Pye ends his headlong journey as a being without affiliations, without links to any story but his own, his unattached condition exemplified in his final grandiose gesture: being flung from the Coupée and taking to the air.

Crowds gather at the Coupée. Illustration from Mr Pye

Here’s how it happens:

There, all in a flash, was the Coupée curving like a white snake – but only for that one instant, for at the next the black horse, rearing in the shafts, veered to the right of the track and, catching the carriage wheel in the railing, tore it off the body and the next moment the carriage, losing balance, was toppled bodily over the rust-red rails. It tore them apart as it swayed monstrously and fell, dragging with it the black horse, so that together they plunged, a hideous conglomeration, down, down, down, vaulting horribly as they descended in giant arcs to the shingle far below. (p. 253).

The echo of Satan’s fall in Milton’s Paradise Lost is pretty clear – think of the famous lines from Book One, ‘With hideous ruin and combustion, down / To bottomless perdition’ – and there are distinctly Gothic overtones too, with the snake-like isthmus, the black horse and the ‘rust-red rails’, like a scene from Bela Lugosi’s Dracula (1931), in which a coach and horses approach the vampire’s castle by way of an isthmus. But Mr Pye is spared the plunge. Hurled at the point of impact high into the air above the Grande Grève, he finds himself ‘about to fall like a stone’ – then abruptly remembers his extra limbs, watched by gulls and staring islanders. ‘They saw him begin to fall,’ Peake tells us, ‘but then they saw, as he fell, a movement of the wings and, all at once, they were stretched in a great span on either side so that the speed of his descent was checked, and he hung suspended’ (p. 254). No longer awkwardly stuck out to one side to counteract the veering of the carriage, here for the first time Mr Pye’s wings are extended in all their glory, equally and together, unconstrained by the folds of the Lugosi-esque cloak beneath which he has concealed them for much of the novel. Briefly the missionary looks both comic and fragile as he struggles to control them, combining in his person incongruous elements which have never been brought together like this before:

There was beauty in it, with those wings of dazzling whiteness that bore him to and fro as he tried to learn how best to manage them: and there was pathos – for he looked so solitary – adrift in the hollow air. And there was bathos also, for it seemed incongruous to see his city trousers and his small, black, gleaming shoes. (p. 254)

The moment of solitude is also, here, the moment when Mr Pye severs the umbilical cord that ties him to his mother earth, just as earlier he severed the ties that bound him to his heavenly father, God. His smallness at this moment makes him seem childish; but he soon acquires maturity and even grandeur, in spite of his city trousers: ‘the Islanders saw how he had already mastered his wings and was beginning to soar in slow arcs, and how he was now far out to sea and dwindling until he was only visible to those of keenest vision’. A vision is what he came to the island to impart, but by the end of the novel it has been supplanted with vision itself, the limited capacity for sight shared by all humanity. He has become a messenger for a new kind of religion, which involves flight which is free from the limits of creed or nation, and free from the excessive seriousness which accompanies fanaticism. I wonder if Mr Pye’s flight is among other things a comment on the lightness with which he went through life, the capacity to celebrate earth, sea and sky without being weighed down by the burden of their beauty. ‘I long to spring,’ Peake wrote in his early poem ‘Coloured Money’ (1937), ‘Through the charged air, a wastrel, with not one / Farthing to weigh me down’, and this is how Mr Pye ends his career.[45] I mentioned the epigram to Titus Groan at the beginning of this essay, and at the end of it Mr Pye has become what the epigram refers to, a ‘man in the clouds’. The question is, is there anyone left behind who can replicate his flight to freedom?

The approach to Dracula’s castle, showing the isthmus, from Dracula (1931)

In a literal sense, of course, they can’t. The book ends with Mr Pye disappearing from even the keenest islander’s sight, leaving the island ‘suddenly empty […] nothing but a long wasp-waisted rock’: bereft of visions, and even of an artist capable of doing Stevensonian justice to its beauties (the painter named Thorpe who lives on the island is always losing his artistic vision at climactic moments). An early draft of Peake’s novel left the missionary dead, washed ashore not long after his flight like a storm-battered gull; an ending that suggested visions like his have no resting place in this world, like the Son of Man in the Bible (remember his dream of returning from his maiden flight to rest for a while on the Grand Autelet, sucking a fruit-drop).[46] But the ending as it stands leaves things open, rather like the ending of a book by H G Wells, who always leaves open questions in his wake to plant seeds in the minds of his readers: will the Martians return one day? Did the Time Traveller die in his last voyage? What would happen if the Food of the Gods were to keep on working on the living creatures of the earth without opposition? And so on. The last vision of Mr Pye – the sight of him disappearing into the distance on his impossible wings, wearing his shiny black shoes and city trousers – opens up the question of what he stood for. The exaltation of ordinariness, perhaps? His particular ‘ordinariness’ is distinctly middle class – he orders people about with the confidence of one born to it, and pays for things such as the Derrible picnic, or the expensive wine he favours, without blinking. But in the end he enfranchises himself from class as well as religion, launching himself from the cliff with a bathos which deflates all his previous pretensions as missionary, ‘chief’ or prophet.

His launching, too, atones for his one properly harmful act, the attempt to transform Miss George into an unwilling symbol of his beliefs (and the element of atonement would have been made yet clearer if Peake had retained the scene of Mr Pye’s death in the final version of the novel). It balances that act of cruel excess, so to speak, by making Mr Pye repeat it; and in the process confirms the Isle of Sark as a testing ground for balance of all kinds, where a foot put wrong, a lurch or veer too far in one direction or another, will fling one from a precipitous height onto the shingle, like the unfortunate black horse. It’s a site of precarity, which offers constant visual reminders, in the form of cliffs and the open ocean, of the fine line we tread between life and death, between kindness, cruelty and self-obsession, throughout our existence as an individual or species. In an age of extremes – the phrase Eric Hobsbaum uses to describe the Twentieth Century – this acknowledgement of precarity, and the need for some special sense of balance to help us cope with it, may have struck Peake as particularly urgent.[47]

Peake’s poetry shows the same concern with balance as his prose and his pictures, and the same sense that the world itself was unbalanced in his lifetime. Two short poems he wrote in about 1939 summarise this concern. ‘O Heart-Beats’ is the first:

O heart-beats – you are rattling dice –
My rattling dice
Proclaim the edge of precipice
At whose hid boulders stands a soundless sea –
These dice
Endanger me,
And spice
My days with hazards of futurity.[48]

The second is called simply ‘Balance’, and reads very much like another attempt at the same idea:

In crazy balance at the edge of Time
Our spent days turn to cloud behind today –
And all tomorrow is a prophet’s dream –
This moment only rages endlessly
And prime
Is always the long moment of decay.[49]

Peake probably wrote these poems while he was waiting to be called up to join the army in the fight against Hitler, while at the same time hoping against hope he would first be selected to put his real talents to use as an official war artist (a hope that failed, at least until 1942). His life, his talents, his capacity for visionary work in both word and image, must have seemed infinitely precarious at that moment, crazily balanced on a fulcrum between hazardous play and imminent death and disintegration. After the war was over, this sense of imbalance did not dissipate. The fate of the world must have seemed yet more uncertain while the Russians and Americans were facing off on either side of the Atlantic, ‘filling the sky with their bombers’ like malignant birds – a ‘murmuration of Stalins’, as Mr Pye puts it (p. 101). Cut off in his mind from both past and future – the dispersing cloud of history, the insubstantial dream of what might or might not be to come – Peake came to see Sark as an emblem of the present, the long moment at which a person’s ‘prime’, or physical and artistic zenith, draws towards the ‘decay’ that awaits all mortal bodies. Its cliffs were his ‘edge of precipice’, and he spent his whole artistic life trying to work out how best to negotiate them.

Take the ferry to Sark, scramble down the path to Derrible Bay, stroll across the Coupée, dare to look out to sea through the Window in the Rock, look down on those little altars the Autelets, and you too may begin to see the island as a kind of emblem – though of what, precisely, I wouldn’t presume to suggest.

Mr Pye and Miss Dredger at the Window in the Rock

NOTES

[1] You can find mentions of all these trips but one, I think, in the two key biographies of Peake: Malcolm Yorke’s Mervyn Peake: My Eyes Mint Gold (London: John Murray, 2000), and G. Peter Winnington’s Mervyn Peake’s Vast Alchemies: The Illustrated Biography (London and Chester Springs, P.A.: Peter Owen, 2009), which supersedes Winnington’s Vast Alchemies: The Life and Work of Mervyn Peake (2000). For the Sark Art Group see Jane Norwich, Inspired by Sark: The Story of the Sark Art Group, Who, What, When (Market Harborough: Matador, 2022).

[2] Robert Louis Stevenson, ‘A Gossip on Romance’, Longman’s Magazine, 1:1 (November 1882), pp. 69-79. Reprinted in Memories and Portraits (1887), pp. 247-74. For the full text visit the following link: http://rogers99.users.sonic.net/rls_gossip_on_romance.html

[3] Mervyn Peake, The Gormenghast Trilogy (London: Mandarin, 1992), p. 699. All references are to this edition.

[4] Peake, Gormenghast Trilogy, p. 5.

[5] Stephen Foote, Mervyn Peake: Son of Sark (Guernsey: Blue Ormer Publishing, 2019), p. 5.

[6] Gordon Smith, Mervyn Peake: A Personal Memoir (London: Victor Gollancz, 1984), pp. 41-2.

[7] Peake, Gormenghast Trilogy, p. 83.

[8] Peake, Gormenghast Trilogy, pp. 84-85.

[9] Smith, Mervyn Peake: A Personal Memoir, p. 42.

[10] Yorke, Mervyn Peake: My Eyes Mint Gold, p. 64.

[11] Maeve Gilmore, A World Away: A Memoir of Mervyn Peake, in Mervyn Peake: Two Lives, introduced by Sebastian Peake (London: Vintage, 1999), p. 66.

[12] Yorke, Mervyn Peake: My Eyes Mint Gold, p. 68.

[13] Yorke, Mervyn Peake: My Eyes Mint Gold, p. 68.

[14] Mervyn Peake, Mr Pye (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1978), p. 14.

[15] A detailed account of Sark in wartime can be found in Sark – An Island Occupied (Sark: Sark Visitor Centre, 2020), which draws on research by Penny Prevel and ‘various members of staff at Sark Visitor Centre’ (p. 31).

[16] Mervyn Peake, Collected Poems, ed. R. W. Maslen (Manchester: Carcanet, 2008), p. 144.

[17] For the photo see Foote, Mervyn Peake: Son of Sark, p. 10.

[18] Peake, Mr Pye, p. 14.

[19] Stephen Foote points out that Le Chalet seems to have been the model for Miss Dredger’s house in Mr Pye; see Mervyn Peake: Son of Sark, p. 22, and for the gate, p. 56.

[20] Mervyn Peake, Boy in Darkness and Other Stories, ed. Sebastian Peake (London and Chicago: Peter Owen, 2007), p. 95.

[21] For Peake’s painting of St Peter’s Church see Norwich, Inspired by Sark, p. 49.

[22] See Winnington, Mervyn Peake’s Vast Alchemies, p. 58.

[23] See Norwich, Inspired by Sark, pp. 56-58.

[24] For the pictures of Sarkese fishermen see Mervyn Peake: The Man and his Art, ed. G. Peter Winnington (London and Chester Springs: Peter Owen, 2006), p. 44.

[25] Peake, Mr Pye, p. 188.

[26] For a discussion of the illustrations for Maurice Collis’s The Quest for Sita see my blogpost here: https://thecityoflostbooks.glasgow.ac.uk/maurice-collis-and-mervyn-peake-quest-for-sita-1946-part-1-text/

[27] Peake, Mr Pye, p. 187.

[28] Peake, Mr Pye, pp. 187-8.

[29] These details of La Seigneurie’s construction are taken from the house’s website: https://www.laseigneuriedesercq.uk/.

[30] For some of the surviving photos see Norwich, Inspired by Sark, pp. 56, 57 and 58.

[31] Peake, Mr Pye, p. 14.

[32] See e.g. Peake, Mr Pye, p. 12, which refers to the ‘triple sandwich of island life’.

[33] See Sark – An Island Occupied (Sark: Sark Visitor Centre, 2020), p. 8.

[34] Mervyn Peake: Two Lives, p. 221.

[35] For Eustache or Eustace the Monk see https://www.historyextra.com/period/medieval/eustace-monk-holy-man-king-john-french-invasion-england/. The phrase ‘salt water thief’ comes from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Act 5 scene 1.

[36] Smith, Mervyn Peake: A Personal Memoir, p. 44.

[37] The self-portraits can be found in Winnington (ed.), Mervyn Peake: The Man and his Art, p. 160. Another self-portrait from 1931, when Peake was 20, can be found on p. 30, and makes him look even more piratical.

[38] Peake, Mr Pye, p. 205.

[39] The Touch o’the Ash can be found in Peake’s Progress: Selected Writings and Drawings of Mervyn Peake, ed. Maeve Gilmore (London: Allen Lane, 1978), pp. 45-61.

[40] For the tendency (need?) for good riddles to have multiple answers see Adam Roberts, The Riddles of The Hobbit (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013). The whole book makes the case, but Adams states it plainly on p. 51: ‘One notion I am setting myself against, here – I may as well be plain – is that any given riddle has one right or correct answer’.

[41] Foote, Mervyn Peake: Son of Sark, p. 59.

[42] Foote, Mervyn Peake: Son of Sark, p. 58.

[43] Peake, Collected Poems, p. 78.

[44] Perhaps the spear makes reference to one of Peake’s favourite poems, the anonymous ‘Tom o’Bedlam’, about a visionary madman, which contains the lines:

With a host of furious fancies,
Whereof I am commander,
With a burning spear and a horse of air
To the wilderness I wander.

[45] Peake, Collected Poems, p. 23.

[46] I think Peter Winnington mentioned this to me, and even sent me the alternative ending; I’m looking for the reference but haven’t yet found it!

[47] Eric Hobsbaum, Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century 1914-1991 (London: Abacus, 1995).

[48] Peake, Collected Poems, p. 52.

[49] Peake, Collected Poems, p. 65.

Mervyn Peake and Whiteness

I’ve been reading Moby-Dick recently. My reason for reading it is quite specific: I believe that Mervyn Peake read it, and I’m in the process of writing a book about Mervyn Peake. My way of reading is perhaps unusual: each morning I do two hundred press ups, in sets of twenty, and read a paragraph or two of Moby-Dick between each set. Strangely, I find that the book gets imprinted on my mind by the exercise, just as the exercise is made easier by being interspersed with sections of the book. I mention this in case other Melville readers might want to try the same experiment. Readers of Dickens and Lord Dunsany might try it too; I read Bleak House and David Copperfield in the same way, and before that a collection of Dunsany’s brilliant but sometimes hard-to-differentiate short stories. I can differentiate his stories now, thanks perhaps to the rush of blood to the brain occasioned by those interspersed press-ups…

This is a blog post that records one of the key findings of my slow perusal of Melville’s text: that he and Peake were both obsessed with the colour white, and for similar reasons. This shared obsession says something, I think, about the uprooting of the world from faith and other familiar grand narratives in the wake of the industrial revolution and the vastly increased mobility of populations it brought about. The whaling ship Pequod embodies that mobility in obvious terms; but Gormenghast, too, embodies it, as a castle-shaped vessel cut adrift from the meanings and contexts of the rituals that serve as its wayward motor, marooning or islanding it (to use two of Peake’s favourite words) in an ocean-like landscape bereft of identifying names and historical or geographical contexts.[1] Whiteness is to the Pequod and Gormenghast Castle as the blank page of the present is to the migrants of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: a symbol of possibility and terror, laden with past associations which have turned strange and sometimes dreadful as the world enters a period of accelerated and often catastrophic change.

There are certain obvious parallels between Melville’s world and Peake’s – most importantly their common fascination with the architecture of the body, whether human or cetacean, and the fact that Peake was as obsessed with sea stories as Melville was, from the favourite book of his childhood, Treasure Island, to the pirates, explorers and Ancient Mariners who are always showing up in his writing and his artwork. And there are more specific links to be found between Peake and Melville. There’s a chapter in Moby-Dick written from Ahab’s point of view, ‘Sunset’, which transforms him into a seagoing Earl of Gormenghast, iron crown and all: ‘Is, then, the crown too heavy that I wear? this Iron Crown of Lombardy’ (p. 182) (note that the first of these two sentences is an iambic pentameter; Peake’s Lord Sepulchrave, like Ahab, often speaks in Shakespearean pentameters).[2] This is the second in a startling series of chapters in Moby-Dick delivered in the form of first-person monologues or dramatic dialogue, strikingly reminiscent of the chapter in Titus Groan devoted to the internal reveries of its cast of characters as they sit in silence round a ritual breakfast table, communing only with themselves.[3] In another, more conventional chapter that follows the series, called simply ‘Moby Dick’, Ishmael considers Ahab’s madness in terms that align the captain with the passionate knife-wielders of Titus Groan and Gormenghast: Steerpike, Titus Groan, the duellists Rantel and Braigon. Each of these young men pits himself against his destiny armed only with a short blade; and Ahab, too, famously attacked the great white whale armed only with a knife on the day he lost his leg to its jaws. We’ll come across further parallels as we go along.

There’s one chapter in particular that stood out from the rest of the American epic as I read it with Peake in mind. This is Chapter 42, ‘The Whiteness of the Whale’: a prolonged and eclectic meditation on the colour white. As soon as I read it I felt as though an unbreakable link had just been forged between Moby-Dick and the workings of Mervyn Peake’s imagination. Peake too, as I’ve often noticed, had an intense relationship with the colour white. He seems to have found it both dazzlingly, even oppressively beautiful, and somehow disturbing; and it was so central to his imagination that something intensely white provides him with the climax of at least three of his major works. In addition, he wrote many poems about it, some of which strike me as among the oddest and most idiosyncratic he composed. A glance at Melville’s Chapter 42 gives, I think, many clues as to the nature of Peake’s obsession – though Melville himself confessed, in the person of his narrator Ishmael, that no one knows exactly ‘where lie the nameless things of which the mystic sign gives forth such hints’, despite the fact that ‘somewhere those things must exist’ (p. 211). But before taking that glance we should look at the evidence that Peake could in fact have read the chapter in question.

Maeve Gilmore, Moby Dick, c. 1972

That Peake did read Melville is suggested by a number of things, not least the fact that he and his wife Maeve Gilmore had a cat called Moby Dick in the 1930s.[4] There is a portrait by Mervyn of Maeve from this period with a white cat standing on her shoulders;[5] this is presumably the animal in question, while Maeve herself painted Moby, or one of his descendants, in the 1970s, long after the original cat was dead. Mervyn’s poem of 1942-3, ‘I Am the Slung Stone that No Target Has’, refers to mysterious angelic saints with wings ‘like sheets / And as white/ As Ahab’s whale’ (Collected Poems, p. 123), and Ahab appears again in the opening paragraph of the short story ‘I Bought a Palm-tree’.[6] Peake’s picture book Letters from a Lost Uncle in Polar Regions (1948) includes many echoes of Moby-Dick, from the one-legged adventurer of the title, whose missing leg has been replaced with a prosthesis made from the ‘spike’ of a sword-fish or narwhal (Ahab’s, of course, was made of whalebone), to the object of his quest: to take a photograph of the mythical ‘WHITE LION; The LION on the stamp – the Emperor of the Snows’. At the point when the Uncle finally finds the Lion it is accompanied by a whale ‘as long as a street’, which swims underneath the floor of ice where the Lion is standing. Another whale occurs in Peake’s novel Mr Pye (1953) – a small, dead whale, whose appearance seems to symbolise the loss of epic or tragic aspirations in the wake of the Second World War. Its appearance marks a downturn in the fortunes of the book’s hero, a missionary who seeks to convert the inhabitants of the Island of Sark to his own peculiar brand of Christianity; and the whale is a white one.[7] The white whale of Melville’s novel haunts Peake’s work, much as Stevenson’s Treasure Island did; though of course this need not mean that Peake had actually read the novel. Moby Dick, after all, is a myth of the twentieth century, like Barrie’s Peter Pan, the creature from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or L. Frank Baum’s Marvellous Land of Oz; everyone knows about these things without having encountered the books or plays that brought them into being.

Peake’s intimate knowledge of the novel is best confirmed, perhaps, by a comment he made about it in a radio interview of May 1947, quoted in the biography by Malcolm Yorke.[8] The interview addresses Peake’s trade of book illustration – something he says he was drawn into by the limited opportunities and materials available to artists in the Second World War; and in it Peake describes various works of prose in olfactory terms, as an array of distinctive scents, perfumes and odours:

One might say that books have different smells. Wuthering Heights smells different from Moby Dick, Green Mansions smells different from Tristram Shandy. The Book of Job, smells different – very different – from The Fall of the House of Usher. It is for the illustrator to make his drawings have the same smell as the book he is illustrating.

Inhaling involves absorption, and in some cases addiction, a kind of possession readers experience when in the grip of a congenial narrative. Peake speaks, then, of being addicted to or possessed by the books he reads; and some of the characters in his work are clearly so addicted or possessed: Earl Sepulchrave among them, who goes mad when he loses his library, or Mr Slaughterboard, the pirate captain in an unfinished early novel who takes his library with him to sea, and who seeks to write himself into the list of literary greats by staging elaborate and fatal artistic events with his unfortunate crew as the pages he writes on. Yorke tells us, all the same, that Peake was ‘not a great reader’ (p. 195), and goes on to assert that he ‘lacked the stamina or time necessary to get through a long novel apart, perhaps, from Dickens and those swashbuckling books he had loved in his youth’ (p. 196). Elsewhere Yorke actually includes Moby-Dick among these ‘swashbuckling books’ (‘Stevenson, Ballantyne, Defoe, Melville and other writers of adventure yarns’, p. 182), which rather suggests he hadn’t read it himself. But we know that Maeve – herself a voracious reader who loved Proust – read aloud to him a great deal while he was painting or drawing; a ‘catholic selection’ of books, she tells us, which included Voltaire’s Candide and Waugh’s The Loved One.[9] We know, too, that some of the books Peake most enjoyed were decidedly long ones: Bleak House, David Copperfield, Tristram Shandy, Don Quixote (which he wanted to illustrate). In any case, delighting in the ‘smell’ of a book rather than its plot means that one can immerse oneself in giant tomes without feeling the need to read them in their entirety. Dipping into Bleak House, Tristram Shandy or Don Quixote is entirely delightful, evoking the precise mood, taste and texture of the world they bring to life while visiting only chapters or short passages. The same, of course, can be said of Titus Groan or Gormenghast, and of Moby-Dick too, whose brief chapters can be read as individual essays penned by a perverse and playful intellect, each with its own atmosphere and philosophical vision. Tzvetan Todorov has wise words on what he calls the ‘fetishism of the book’, whereby ‘the literary work is transformed both into a precious and motionless object and into a symbol of plenitude, [so that] the act of cutting it becomes an equivalent of castration’.[10] Peake knew the smell of Moby-Dick, even if he knew only a fraction of the novel; and the evidence suggests he knew at least this.

Mervyn Peake, Muzzlehatch with Mouse and Chameleon, sketch for Titus Alone

In the radio interview Peake assigns colours to books as well as smells. He speaks of the importance of capturing the ‘colour’ of the writing, and of how the illustrator must be willing ‘to identify himself with another personality’, as well as having ‘the chameleon’s power to take on the colour of the leaf he dwells on’ (pp. 194-5). There’s a delightful sketch in many editions of Titus Alone showing the misanthrope Muzzlehatch holding aloft both a cheerful chameleon and a tiny mouse, which seems designed to make the point all over again: in it, Peake as illustrator absorbs himself in his character Muzzlehatch, just as Muzzlehatch absorbs himself wholly in the creatures he keeps in his private zoo, who ‘smell one another’ as a reader smells a book (does the chameleon mimic Muzzlehatch’s colouring or Muzzlehatch the chameleon’s, we wonder? There’s no way of telling from a black-and-white illustration).[11] Sniffing and staring at Moby-Dick as he read it, or listened to Maeve reading it aloud as he painted or drew, Peake the visual artist may well have been struck by the only chapter in it dedicated to his medium, colour. After all, he always maintained that ‘we do not see with our eyes, but with our trades’,[12] and Peake seems to have seen his primary trade as painting, even if, as Gordon Smith suggests, ‘he never fully realized his ambitions as a painter in oils’.[13] Moby-Dick is a kind of verbal painting in oils – whale oils – and has many paintings in it, from the picture almost obscured by dirt which hangs in the entrance to the Spouter-Inn in Chapter 3, to the discussion of cetacean art in Chapters 55, 56 and 58 (‘Of the Monstrous Pictures of Whales’, ‘Of the […] True Pictures of Whaling Scenes’, ‘Of Whales in Paint; in Teeth; in Wood [etc.]’). No wonder Peake was drawn to Melville’s epic, as an expression of his ambitions as a painter as well as a novelist.

Peake himself painted whales at least three times: as an illustration for Johann Wyss’s The Swiss Family Robinson (1950) and as embellishments for two of his own books, Letters from a Lost Uncle (1948) and the volume of nonsense poems Rhymes Without Reason (1944). The colour illustration in Rhymes without Reason shows a Greenland whale sitting on a mantelpiece over a blazing fire, watched by a cat.[14] The cat is clearly surprised to see its usual place usurped by a sea mammal; but the situation would be stranger still if the cat’s name were Moby Dick. The cat is not white, however, but ginger. The whale is not exactly white, either; more greyish green. Peake may have modelled it on a stranded whale he found on the island of Sark, which also inspired the rotting whale in Mr Pye; but it’s nice to think he may also have consulted Melville’s authoritative chapters on the subject, and the paintings they recommend, in his quest for an accurate image.

Mervyn Peake, illustration for ‘It Makes a Change’, Rhymes Without Reason (1944)

But to return to Moby-Dick Chapter 42; this is one of the most extraordinary moments in Melville’s novel. In it, Melville points out that whiteness has acquired a range of symbolic meanings at different times and in different cultures; but as with so much of the book, the illusion of control at first imparted by the orderly listing of these associations quickly breaks down as the list gets out of hand. The chapter begins by pointing out that many communities have ‘recognised a certain royal pre-eminence in this hue’, so that the monarchs of Pegu in Myanmar, for instance, had exclusive right to possession of a white elephant, while the Austro-Hungarian Empire chose white as the imperial colour, and (inevitably) the ‘white man’ sees himself as having ‘ideal mastership over every dusky tribe’ thanks to the pallid complexion of his skin. The introduction of racism into the chapter, in a book that sees a South Sea Islander forge a bond of brotherhood with a white American, anticipates the unsettling change of tone that occurs in Ishmael’s chapter on whiteness. At the end of the same paragraph, where the narrator also points out the religious significance of the colour white for the ancient Greeks, the Iroquois nations, and the Catholic Church, Ishmael observes that ‘for all these accumulated associations, with whatever is sweet, and honorable, and sublime, there yet lurks an elusive something in the innermost idea of this hue, which strikes more of panic to the soul than that redness which affrights in blood’ (p. 205, my emphasis). Whiteness has been incorporated into rituals and ceremonies and systems; but it retains an ‘elusive quality’ which ‘causes the thought of whiteness, when divorced from more kindly associations, and coupled with any object terrible in itself, to heighten that terror to the furthest bounds’ (p. 205). The colour, that is, somehow escapes the confines of human organisation, eluding all limits and circumventing taxonomies. The terrible appearance of the polar bear and the great white shark is intensified by it; the glory of the albatross and the legendary White Steed of the Prairies is given them by their pigmentation. And a host of creatures and apparitions is rendered dreadful by their association with this colour; partly, Melville observes, because it is the colour of death, transforming the complexion of corpses until they seem to be frightened by their own condition – ‘as if indeed that pallor were as much the badge of consternation in the other world, as of mortal trepidation here’ (p. 208). The notion that whiteness should be fearful precisely because it is the colour faces take on when a person is frightened has a wonderful, weird logic about it, and extends its appalling reach to embrace our terror of ghosts and of the horse on which Death rides in the biblical Book of the Apocalypse.

In the end, though, Melville’s Ishmael confesses that there is no logical argument to account for the powerful grip maintained by whiteness on the human body and mind, which renders it both supremely worthy of worship and supremely frightening. ‘How is mortal man to account for it?’ he asks himself midway through the chapter, adding that ‘To analyse it, would seem impossible’ (p. 208). He goes on to list many more examples of the fear aroused by whiteness without offering any explanation of that fear, from the apparitions called the White Friar or the White Nun to the ‘tall pale man’ of the Hartz forests (p. 209), from the White Mountains of New Hampshire to the sailor looking out over Antarctic seas:

where at times, by some infernal trick of legerdemain in the powers of frost and air, he, shivering and half shipwrecked, instead of rainbows speaking hope and solace to his misery, views what seems a boundless church-yard grinning upon him with its lean ice monuments and splintered crosses. (p. 211).

The notion of the Antarctic as a ‘boundless churchyard’ decorated with ‘splintered crosses’ conjures up religion again, which adopted white as its colour at the beginning of the chapter. Here, however, it is a forgotten, faithless religion whose insignia have been smashed to pieces by the operation of the polar cold and whose promise of eternal life has been reduced to the posthumous ‘grinning’ of a skull. White is the colour of death again in this passage, though a death that has a hideous life of its own, like the ghosts, the Pale Horse and the White Nun mentioned previously.

But the chapter ends with another explanation for the fearfulness of whiteness. This is the idea advanced by certain philosophers that the colour white represents the ‘great principle of light’ itself (p. 212), which underlies all material things as the blank page underlies the printed word, or as the white-painted canvas underlies the pigments applied by the impressionist’s brushstrokes. Other colours are mere illusions: ‘subtile deceits, not actually inherent in substances, but only laid on from without’. The inherent whiteness of light is only imbued with colour by its interaction with physical media (crystals, fluids, shadows and so forth) or the complex operations of the human mind. Without the influence of these interposed phenomena ‘the great principle of light, [which] for ever remains white or colorless in itself, would touch all objects, even tulips and roses, with its own blank tinge’, so that the universe would resemble a ‘leper’ (whose condition turns their skin white) or a ‘charnel-house’ (a repository of bones) (p. 212). The chapter closes with the illustrative analogy of ‘wilful travellers in Lapland’ who ‘refuse to wear colored and coloring glasses upon their eyes’ and thus gaze themselves ‘blind at the monumental white shroud that wraps all the prospect’. For the philosopher who adopts this perspective on colour as a cosmetic application screening us from the horror of universal blankness, whiteness embodies not the life promised by religious orators but again death: the shroud, the bones in a charnel house, leprous diseases, an Arctic wilderness utterly inimical to human existence.

Whiteness for Melville, then, symbolizes both the hope and joy of religious faith and the terror of the world as viewed by an unbeliever: a universal blankness on which the semblance of order and beauty has been superimposed by chance, or by the strenuous efforts of those pedlars in distracting illusion, artists and writers. The first aspect of whiteness – as a symbol of faith in a benevolent deity – is constantly slipping into the second – whiteness as utter indifference or even hostility to human life with its symbols and meanings – just as Ahab the Quaker ends up seeking the whale, not for religious purposes, but to impose total destruction on it as it imposed partial destruction on him. Whiteness, then, may be said to represent symbolism itself, which is continually being imposed by communities and individuals on things that resist being constrained by their symbolic functions. ‘Of all these things’, Ishmael tells us, ‘the Albino whale was the symbol’ (p. 212) – but the statement occurs at the end of a chapter in which so many ‘things’ have been connected with whiteness that it has lost its shape; just as a whale is rendered by Melville’s book a thing of such complexity and variousness that it cannot be said to symbolise anything but itself.

Jan van Eyck, Adoration of the Lamb, Ghent Altarpiece, detail

For Peake, too, whiteness was associated with religion, but a religion that was constantly becoming strange to him in different phases of his life. Coming from a nonconformist background – his parents were missionaries in China, where Peake lived for the first eleven years of his childhood – Peake married a Catholic artist, Maeve Gilmore, in 1936, and soon found himself at odds with certain aspects of Maeve’s religion. His poem ‘No Creed Shall Bind Me to a Sapless Bole’ (Collected Poems, pp. 61-2) sees him ‘fighting the Cathedral / And the voluptuous clouds of Catholic / Narcotic ritual / And all the sick / And opalescent glory of the pearl’, the last line associating whiteness with the elaborate ceremony of the Mass and its ‘sapless’ emblem, ‘the jewelled Crucifix, the golden Tree’. A vestment called the alb forms part of this ‘Narcotic ritual’, a garment (Melville tells us) whose name is derived ‘directly from the Latin word for white’, and invokes the white robes of the twenty-four elders in the Apocalypse, who stand ‘before the great white throne, and the Holy One that sitteth there white like wool’ (Moby-Dick, p. 205). As we shall see, this ceremonial whiteness seems for Peake as well as for Melville to ‘strike more of panic to the soul than that redness that affrights in blood’. At the same time, whiteness also attached itself, for Peake, to his parents’ nonconformist faith. When his Welsh mother died in October 1939, just after the outbreak of World War Two, he wrote a number of verses about her in the tetrameters favoured by the Protestant hymns he knew so well (Mr Pye sings several hymns in Peake’s late novel set on Sark). These verses associate the afterlife both with the chalky whiteness of the Sussex downs where Peake’s mother was buried (‘She who was so loved rests now / Gently in the chalk below’) and of the angels who carry her soul to heaven:

Now are gathering in the skies
Round the gates of Paradise
Those white angels who shall come
And gently bear her spirit home.

(Collected Poems, p. 49)

Other, less conventional verses of around the same time – set to the so-called ‘common metre’ of alternating four-stress and three-stress lines, rhymed ABCB – describe a widely-travelled woman (his mother again?) whose interest in the quality of whiteness has persisted throughout her life:

O she has walked all lands that are
In search of all things white –
For they are to her eyes a fair
And lonely sight.
But O, to her, beyond compare,
In all things of delight
Is the whiteness in the darkness
Of wanderers at night.

(Collected Poems, p. 76)

Whiteness in this poem has become detached from its association with conventional faith, a detachment stressed both by the loneliness the unnamed woman intuits in the ‘things’ of that colour and by her particular predilection for the pale shapes of nocturnal ‘wanderers’, rootless and solitary. These wanderers may be the moon and stars as well as people; Peake calls the moon a ‘white coin’ in his poem ‘Burgled Beauty’ (Collected Poems, p. 46).

This eccentric, post-religious whiteness features again in a longer poem which begins in comic mode but ends in a kind of Blakean rapture, making it Peake’s most explicit statement in verse of the combined attraction and weirdness of the colour white as articulated by Melville:

To all things solid as to all things flat
He raised his little peacock-coloured hat

To all things lucent as to all things dense
He bowed his little head in deference

To all things coloured as to things of grey
He turned and smiled in a most gentle way

But ah, at all things white… at all things white
He could but stand and stare in grief’s delight.

White wonderment upon him and within
That filled him to his cold and wrinkled skin.

That was his hour, his phoenix hour, his world
When all his flags of beauty were unfurled

Inhuman ecstasy of chill delight
Unworldly, lonely agony of white;

The white flower of the field, the white mane blowing
The white cloud over the white waters flowing

All things of white transported him to where
Long wings of crystal beat on stainless air

(Collected Poems, p. 75)

Derek Jacobi as Mr Pye

In a number of ways this poem reads like a first draft of Peake’s third novel, Mr Pye (1953), with its diminutive, beaming protagonist, who bows and wears a hat (though Mr Pye’s is not ‘peacock-coloured’ but an ordinary Panama or bowler) and shows ‘deference’ to all things, not just ecclesiastical symbols.[15] Mr Pye is a kind of missionary to the Channel Island of Sark, which could be described as Peake’s spiritual home – he stayed there several times, most notably as a member of an artist’s commune in the 1930s and as the father of a family in the 1940s. The little man in the novel aims to convert the islanders to a pantheistic ‘Faith of Love and Laughter’, presided over by a God who inhabits all things from the sea and sky to a smoking cigarette. The little man in the poem, like Mr Pye, makes gestures of recognition and acknowledgment (bowing, smiling, staring), but to inanimate objects rather than people, as if to suggest a sense of kinship with the many ‘things’ of different visual and physical properties he encounters; and he seeks no converts to his way of seeing. Mr Pye finds that his preoccupation with religion has an impact on his body: as his good deeds proliferate he starts to grow wings like an angel, and has to resort to evil deeds to keep them in check – only to find that doing evil makes devilish horns sprout from his head. The little man of the poem, seemingly by contrast, is drawn to whiteness itself, not just the whiteness of religion. He is as entranced by white animals, plants and weather as by angelic wings or priestly albs: ‘The white flower of the field, the white mane blowing / The white cloud over the white waters flowing’ (Melville mentions the flower japonica in his Chapter on Whiteness [Moby-Dick, p. 204], while weather and horses feature in it prominently). But as with Mr Pye, the little man’s unique philosophy marks him out as different from his fellow humans and therefore isolated and suffering (‘Unworldly, lonely agony of white’). And as with Mr Pye, what he worships ends by carrying him away to a place that can’t be visualised by others. Mr Pye flies away from Sark at the end of the book on his newly-fledged angelic wings, heading out across the sea towards some unknown destination; while the little man of the poem finds himself inwardly transported ‘to where / Long wings of crystal beat on stainless air’. The Catholic Church represents heaven as a place of spiritual hierarchies occupied by beings rendered wholly and permanently collective by the shared and freely given love of God. Mr Pye’s and the little man’s heaven (if heaven it is) seems utterly strange, and no other human beings or human-shaped entities seem to live there. Certain kinds of vision detach the visionary from the rest of humankind, leaving them as lonely in this life as in the world to come, solitary occupants of a church whose symbolism neither they nor anyone else can decipher, and of whose congregation they are in the end the only members.

As with Mr Pye, there’s a transition in this poem from whimsy – the little man in peculiar clothes who makes gestures at inanimate objects as if they were people – to sublimity, a glimpse of something radically other whose identity cannot be fully established, though it echoes Judaeo-Christian iconography. Unaffiliated to any institution, when confronted by whiteness the little man finds himself suspended in a state of ‘White wonderment’ – wonder being definable as the reluctance to assign some specific phenomenon to any given symbolic order, the sort of hesitation that characterizes Todorov’s famous genre of the fantastic. The little man’s reaction isn’t that of an artist, seeking to recreate and enhance the effect that amazes him, or of the conventional missionary, who sees everything in terms of the religious doctrine he serves. He simply experiences, as Peake so often does in his early poems.

In some of those poems this raw experience – unmediated by institutions, trades (such as that of the artist or the missionary) or set forms of knowledge – proves problematic in its purposelessness, the difficulty it presents of finding a suitable outlet for all that the senses have taken in. In ‘Coloured Money’, for instance (Collected Poems, pp. 22-3), the beauty encountered by the poet every day sometimes proves painfully burdensome, like an accumulating heap of gold coins pressing down on or against his heart, and he longs to rid himself of it altogether:

O then I long to spring
Through the charged air, a wastrel, with not one
Farthing to weigh me down,
But hollow! foot to crown[.]

Here the pain of the glut of coinage dispensed to him by the beauty of what he sees each day stems from his inability to ‘spend’ it with sufficient liberality – that is to express or press it all out, so to speak, in charcoal, paint, words, music, or the actions of his own body.[16] Another poem, ‘Heaven Hires Me’ (Collected Poems, p. 30), gives a religious twist to Peake’s sense of being salaried, and identifies the location of the paymaster (or paymasters – the occupants of his ‘Heaven’ are always ambiguous), as ‘Coloured Money’ does not. In this poem, the speaker is paid not in coins but in whiteness, which represents both moments of supreme calm and self-confidence and sudden, startling visionary experiences [my emphasis]:

Heaven hires me; and my payment is in those
White moments of repose
Between the seething of my brain’s all-coloured
Flora of woes,
Fauna from hills unhallowed.
While guilt grows
Stronger as I grow older
And lose love –
How break the terrible girders of the grove?

This is one of those poems whose full meaning may only ever be known to the poet. What grove is Peake talking about, with its ‘terrible girders’? My own feeling is that he’s referring to the heart, the girders being the ribs which serve either to preserve or bar out love; Peter Winnington has shown in detail how crucial the heart is to Peake’s imagination, and the containment of the heart by ribs is an anatomical fact he returns to time and again in his poems.[17] But the broad significance of the poem is plain enough. A sense of depression (‘woes’), shame (‘guilt’) and above all waste pervades the text (‘I do squander a largesse of un- / Uprooted glory’, he tells us in the final section – my emphasis), which is compensated for by moments of unearned ‘payment’. As I said, this payment comes in the form of whiteness, whether it be quiescent ‘white moments of repose’ or dynamic ‘alchemies’ of whiteness; alchemies being Peake’s favourite word for the transformation of the world, often by changing weather or shifting mood, into something fit to be celebrated in art – some substance that reacts with the substances of the artist’s body and brain. These ‘alchemies’ here involve wings or other means of moving through the air, unanchored to the ground, like the springing wastrel of ‘Coloured Money’. In one instance, the appearance of certain birds – migrating swans or geese, perhaps? – somehow empties Peake’s mental landscape of its ‘Flora of woes’ and re-hallows its formerly ‘unhallowed’ uplands:

Great Fowl along the combers of the sky
Undulate on such wings as suck
Breath from the pockets of far cliffs, and prise
The rocks apart with draughts that clear the muck
Out of a sickened sky.

Elsewhere in the poem, clouds are metamorphosed by the evening sunshine into pale deities:

Along the west
White gods move slowly, and the golden scales
Upon their breastplates twinkle momently
Now here, now there along the rim of Wales.

Their transformation balances out Peake’s transgressions against whiteness, whereby he chooses to ‘spit upon the marble face / And carve [his] name upon a seraph’s breast / To testify to my unclean disgrace / The guttersnipe of dreams’. The poet, in other words, still has access to genuine ‘moments’ of vision, despite his propensity for besmirching or vandalising marmoreal and angelic whiteness, a tendency that makes him in his own eyes a dirt-encrusted guttersnipe or mudlark in the vicinity of the house of dreams, rather than the kind of fully-fledged dreamer he most admired: a William Blake (who likewise, he tells us in his poem on the writer-artist, acknowledged plural ‘gods’ rather than a singular God), a van Gogh, a Goya or an El Greco.[18] The phrase ‘unclean disgrace’ in conjunction with ‘marble’ and ‘seraph’ suggests that part at least of his tendency to besmirch whiteness may involve sexual acts, perhaps infidelities (his poems about Maeve often imagine her in terms of whiteness and pallor[19]). But the range of meanings Peake (like Melville) bestows on the colour suggests that to limit it to sexual ‘purity’ would be too simplistic. The poem as a whole, then, gratefully acknowledges the uncomplicated wonder at whiteness he is still capable of feeling, however often he may trespass against that colour and its meanings, both aesthetic and moral.

‘Heaven Hires Me’ concludes that the poet is a split personality, permanently divided between opposing impulses to take pleasure in whiteness and to damage or destroy it: ‘Though I do darken hourly the sweet sun / Of love and ruth – yet, hell / And heaven, so conjoined do make me’. The theme is a repeated one in Peake’s work. Several poems identify ‘conjoined’ but contrasting elements in Peake’s composition – Doppelgängers of the mind and body, so to speak. An example is the poem I mentioned earlier, ‘I Am the Slung Stone that No Target Has’, which sets the whiteness of the writer’s internal saints (whose wings are ‘as white / As Ahab’s whale’) against the ‘hideous ghouls’ that also flow through him, personifications of ‘Death, lust and fever’. ‘Heaven Hires Me’ suggests that Peake’s two conjoined personae embody good and evil, ‘hell / And heaven’; and the opposition of ‘saints’ to ‘ghouls’ in ‘I Am the Slung Stone’ would seem to confirm this reading. But it’s notable that the ‘saints’ in this pairing are associated with the story of the Pequod, with its obsessive, self-destructive captain and his pursuit of the furiously vengeful Moby Dick. The implication is that Peake internally quests after the winged holy ones with the same energy that drove Ahab, but that his quest is constantly side-tracked by his demons; hence his aimlessness, Peake being the stone without a target mentioned in the poem’s title. But Peake’s quest for the whiteness of angels may also be an unhealthily obsessive one, as Ahab’s was. Will they destroy him when he catches up with them, as the whale destroyed the captain? In other Peakean depictions of split personalities the identity of the ‘good’ and ‘evil’ Doppelgängers is even trickier to determine. The ‘good’ side often seems ambiguous, its purity unsettling, its whiteness inhuman; so that even when Peake gives the impression of returning to religious cliché – good versus evil, light versus darkness, angel versus devil – the oppositions being set up do not feel in any way settled or familiar.

Two poems in his first poetry collection, Shapes and Sounds, summarize the ambiguities of Peake’s double being. The first of these, ‘They Move With Me, My War-Ghosts’, identifies the two conjoined aspects of the poet as ‘my rebeller / And my conceder’, one of whom concedes to the ‘lies of hoarding’ – war propaganda – while the other revolts against them. Between them they generate an internal ‘civil war’ in Peake, reflecting the ‘war-filled weather’ of Britain in the early 1940s. The angel is associated with ‘love’, the centaur with brashness and cruelty – ‘thoughtless hooves and violent laughter’ – and Peake’s rational mind is unable to control or reconcile them. So far so straightforward, it would seem. But it’s by no means clear in the poem which of the two figures is the ‘conceder’ to the ‘lies of hoarding’ and which the ‘rebeller’ against them. The wildness of the centaur makes it seem invulnerable to nationalist slogans, except in a spirit of savage irony; while the angel’s affinity for love would hardly permit it to embrace militaristic rhetoric, and ‘rebelling’ angels have an unfortunate reputation in Christian theology. In any case, whichever of the pair adopts which of these two responses to the war, the fierceness with which they ‘greet / Each other’ on the ‘narrow stair’ of Peake’s inward life – represented here as a house too cramped and small to contain them both – makes both figures part of the climate of hostility in which Peake finds himself. They are both ‘conceders’ in that sense, transforming Peake into a helpless reflection of the war he loathes – and hence ‘rebellers’ against his yearning for untrammelled access to uninhibited creativity.

Mervyn Peake, sketches of centaurs

The angel’s whiteness is not mentioned in this first poem; but in the second, ‘I Am For Ever with Me’, it certainly is, and the whiteness makes the angel ambiguous, even threatening, like the polar bears and ghosts of Melville’s chapter. In this poem it’s not at first clear that there are two figures inhabiting the poet. ‘I am always / Companion to the ghost-man whom I nurture’, it begins, and the first stanza summarizes the situation as follows: ‘There I am with me, haunting me for ever, / My ghost-man, and my lover’. That last word hints that Peake desires his ‘ghost-man’; that the figure might, in fact, represent an alternative, queer sexuality, competing for his attention with his acknowledged lover, his wife Maeve Gilmore. As the poem goes on, however, the two personas in Peake begin to be distinguished more clearly. The first is ‘the ghost-man’, the second ‘the man of startling armour’, while later the first becomes ‘The Gabriel-headed scorner / White like light!’ – an arrogant angel who considers himself superior to others – and the second ‘the plunger’, a rash seeker after adventure, boy-like and aggressive. The plunger-adventurer gets aligned soon after this with the figure of the pirate, which dominates Peake’s imagination throughout his work, as I’ve shown elsewhere:

Arises now in me the pilferer
Of hollow goods, the sprig and the swashbuckler.
I find in me the boy of shoddy glamour
And violent laughter.
The penny pirate and his cheap adventure…
Stars! And the cocky feather!

Here the pirate is not a real one but a theatrical pose to be adopted, a play pirate embodying fakery and cheapness, as against the solid earthly riches described in ‘Coloured Money’. The cheapness is there in his pilfering of ‘hollow’ or worthless goods, in the ‘shoddiness’ of his glamour, in his link to the low-cost, mass-produced publications which furnished imaginative adventures for children in Peake’s youth (‘The penny pirate and his cheap adventure’) but not material for the attention of serious artists. Like the centaur’s, his laughter is ‘violent’. Can one detect here a certain shame for Peake’s continuing pirate obsession, which stretched back to his boyhood love of Treasure Island and the swashbuckling books derided by Peake’s biographer, Malcolm Yorke? All the same, there is something attractive about this ‘plunger’, as there was about the centaur in ‘They Move with Me’. The poet’s sudden attack on the childish pirate figure in the following stanza seems disturbingly destructive, as he tears off its ‘cloak of crimson paper’, smashes its wooden sword and plucks out the ‘gaudy […] marbles’ of its eyes. And what is left after the pirate has been demolished is no more attractive than what it replaces: ‘white Gabriel the Scorner’, symbol of pride (thanks to his scorn for others), art, and perhaps ambition.

Students drawing from plaster casts, c.1892, New York

In this poem the angel’s connection with art is explicit. Gabriel the Scorner is, we are told, ‘No plaster cast, no imitation figure […] nor replica / Of some snow-muscled marble’, a description that invokes the plaster casts of old works of sculpture used for teaching and copying purposes in art schools. Instead this white being is the ‘eternal / And terrible original’, an authentically new and living vision despite being founded in ancient ideas (such as the angelic hierarchies listed by Milton), and hence a ‘miracle’ that ‘flares’ for a ‘lit moment […] In the clay prison’ of Peake’s body. The miracle is that something new has been given life, and that the figure perfectly embodies the current time as well as the long tradition it sprang from: ‘In me the modern angel has arisen’. But it remains ‘terrible’ and ‘scornful’, somehow inimical to the person who conceives it, just as the violent laughter and fakery of the pirate have something endearing about them. The two figures of Peake’s being are not moral opposites but alternative aspects of him – different moods, perhaps, or inducers of moods. Both trouble him with their violence or scorn, and both represent equally appropriate reflections of the troubled times he lived in.

In his introduction to The Drawings of Mervyn Peake the writer-artist considers in detail the importance of tradition in art as well as innovation, arguing that originality is born from long study of what came before – all the way back to wall paintings in ‘a cave in Spain’ – combined with an acute sensitivity to what needs to be expressed in the here and now.[20] ‘That the body of a work is common heritage,’ he writes, ‘in no way drowns the individual note […] it is the individual twist that haunts us’. The final section of ‘I Am For Ever with Me’, however, identifies the tradition from which the angel sprang as a profoundly collective one; not unique to the solitary genius but shared by all humanity like a communal meal held in commemoration of the dead, a eucharist reimagined in intensely material and social terms. Having celebrated the presence of the angel in himself (‘In me the modern angel has arisen’) the poet goes on to recognise its presence – alongside that of its twin, the pirate-plunger – in all the living and the dead, not just the gifted poet or artist:

Alive, the million million, and the dead
Breathe from the furrow and the wooden table:
Gulped with the wine, broken with bread,
Arising through the green sheets of the stubble.
In fruit, in flower, springing invisible
The phantom dead who knew the double owner,
The ghost-man, and the fellow
Of obvious colour.

The tracing of the transition from the dead to the living, from the furrow to wooden table, from the ‘green sheets of the stubble’ to the bread that is broken while the wine is drunk, identifies the doubles in Peake as seasonal or cyclical visitants, like the moods I mentioned earlier – a reading that’s confirmed in the stanza that follows when Peake mentions ‘the autumn grief and the spring bubble’, the different moods that visit him at different times of year, as also expressed in his season-poems such as ‘Two Seasons’, ‘Autumn: the lit mosaic of the wood’, ‘Autumn: There is a surge of stillness bred’, or ‘An April Radiance of White Light Dances’ (Collected Poems, pp. 35, 36, 38 and 119). More importantly, though, the ghostly angel and the ‘fellow of obvious colour’ inhabit all humankind, dead and alive, as well as Peake: ‘One of a million million, I’, extending in an unbroken line from the people of the deep past to the populations of the future: ‘The sons / Of our sons’ sons and all the unborn people’. The segregation of one person from another, in other words, on the basis of race, class or inborn abilities, is for Peake dishonest and artificial. A person’s characteristics are equally complex, rich, fascinating, and painfully in conflict with one another no matter who that person may be:

For everyone, the double man: the torture.
The struggle and the grim perpetual laughter.
For everyone his Gabriel and the Mocker,
The stillness, and the fountain, and the Master.

That last line identifies Peake’s Christ figure as being both bound up with the painful struggle between competing personae described in the poem and as a potential resolution to it; but it’s a resolution for everyone, not just the elect, the orthodox, the person of genius. Christ emerges from the physical and mental torment to which he was subjected as the grain that furnishes bread emerges from the furrow, or as the masterful drawing emerges (after long gestation in the form of apprenticeship and practice) from the application of charcoal to the ‘white page’. It’s no coincidence that this final section of the poem invokes Christian art as much as Christian religion: Leonardo’s Last Supper, Raphael’s Annunciation, Bosch’s Christ Mocked, all paintings by artists Peake alludes to by name in his written work. Peake’s Christ is the ‘Master’ in two senses, both as a religious teacher and as an Old Master invoked by the painters known as the Old Masters. His mastery does not set him apart from ‘everyone’ but makes him part of the ‘common heritage’, along with the antagonistic double beings that accompany each individual.

Giampetrino’s copy of Leonardo’s The Last Supper, c. 1520. Royal Academy of Arts, London.

The communion table of the Last Supper occurs a number of times in Peake’s poetry: in ‘Au Moulin Joyeux: September Crisis, 1938’, for instance (p. 43); ‘Absent from You Where Is There Corn and Wine?’ (p. 122); ‘That Phoenix Hour’ (p. 168); and most surprisingly, perhaps, in Peake’s most extended meditation on whiteness, the long poem ‘A Reverie of Bone’ which he wrote (according to Peter Winnington’s calculations) in 1942, part way through the composition of his first novel, Titus Groan. Originally titled ‘Valley of Bones’, the poem identifies bones, as against ghosts or souls, as the sole remaining trace of the human dead, their delicate whiteness transcending the dry intricacies of theology, their beauty surpassing that of any clay-encumbered living person whose ‘bright blood […] swarms their plinths of bone’ (stanza 18). This erasure of colour from the human afterlife, replacing it with what Melville calls the ‘great principle of light’ – the internal whiteness that unites all human beings, of all classes and all races – means that death removes one of the two beings that inhabit the Peakean human body from the picture. The pirate/plunger disappears, leaving only the cold purity of the ghost-man/Gabriel to dominate the landscape. That is the drive behind the poem: the abandonment of struggle and the replacement of it with a beautiful, eerie, and endlessly mutating stillness and silence.

Accordingly, there is something angel-like about bones in Peake’s poem. The skeletal structure of the hands and feet, for instance (‘The gelid / Twigs of the brittle fingers […] And all the arctic filigree of feet’), along with the ulna – the largest bone in the human forearm – are transformed by Peake’s imagination into the instruments of an angelic flight that is lovelier far than any achieved by avian wings. ‘I see,’ he writes in stanzas 3 and 4,

the pallid
Ulna as downless as the lyric quill
Of some sky-wandering pinion that the sleet

And gusts have stripped of all its clinging hairs;
So that a sliver-shred of whiteness wanders
Across the stars until the night-winds fail.

Here angelic flight has been removed from its celestial context and bestowed on the unaffiliated ‘wanderers at night’ we encountered in the short poem Peake wrote around the time of his mother’s death, ‘O She Has Walked All Lands There Are’. The bones’ wanderings are verbal as well as spatial, so that the ulna’s ‘sky-wandering pinion’ is also the ‘lyric quill’ that writes (perhaps) the wandering verses we are reading. The ribs of the dead, too, undergo dreamlike mutations, into household structures and musical instruments: ‘O ribs of light! bright flight, yours are such stairs / As wail at midnight when the sand meanders / Through your cold rungs that sieve the desert gale’ (stanza 4). The imagined flight of the ulna transitions as we read into the ‘bright flight’ of stairs provided by the ribs, which change again in the next two stanzas into a ‘Bright lyre of ribs’ that play ‘a music of fled forms’ when plucked by a gust of wind (stanza 5), like the Aeolian harp in Shelley’s ‘Ode to the West Wind’. The poem, then, is a virtuoso exercise in imaginatively mutating the last remains of the human body after death. But the key thing, I think, is that each mutation takes it further away from the brightly-coloured emotions and physical urges, the violence, flamboyant self-display and cruel laughter that drove the pirate aspect of the double human body. And each mutation serves to sever angelic whiteness from its religious framework – with the exception of the reference to the Last Supper, which we shall come to shortly.

The poem’s wanderings are given shape and point by the analogy Peake draws between the location of his imagined bones and the open sea. The bones he celebrates in ‘A Reverie of Bone’ inhabit a vast sandy desert of wave-like dunes, which change shape as the wind blows, alternately revealing and concealing the stripped-down corpses they contain – much as the ever-changing ocean alternately reveals and conceals its treasures, denizens and victims. True to Peake’s sense of being a flung stone without a target, his desert ocean harbours no reefs or shores; it is, then, a destination in itself, the objective as well as the pathway for the non-existent ship he imagines crossing it, steered by an ‘impossible helmsman’ and slicing the dunes with its ‘free keel’ (stanzas 13 and 14). The whiteness of the bones thrown up by the desert is visible everywhere – not, as in Moby-Dick, exclusively in Ahab’s whale, or in the whalebones that decorate the ship and furnish Ahab with his prosthetic leg. One ‘ghosted mountain’ in the wasteland, ‘lit by the full torch / Of a sailing moon’, is ‘littered with the white / Residue of the dead, as though its bright / Steep sides were dusted with dry leprosy’ (stanzas 30 and 31) – leprosy being one of the more unsettling forms of whiteness touched on by Melville. In Peake’s desert ocean, all creatures harbour a pallor of some sort, so that a white whale is no more remarkable (or no less astonishing) than the other denizens of the desert or the deep, or the human wanderers who watch them from the backs of horses or the decks of ships.

A white whale does come to mind as the poet crosses his sea of dunes, but it is not the special objective of a quest or hunt. At one point the poet summons up a ‘blanched whale’, as white as Moby Dick, swimming between ‘floating islands of translucent ice’ (stanza 37). For Peake, this whale is a miracle of bones rather than of flesh, carrying its living skeleton in ‘undulations / Through sunless waters’, while overhead the gulls with their own internal skeletons execute a similar bony dance in the Arctic gale. The emphasis on bones in this passage may remind us of Melville’s series of meditations on the skeleton of the whale in his chapters ‘A Bower in the Arsacides’, ‘Measurement of the Whale’s Skeleton’, and ‘The Fossil Whale’; while the Arctic location recalls Melville’s conviction that the whale can never be hunted to extinction because of its ability to hide itself in certain ‘Polar citadels’, ‘diving under the ultimate glassy barriers and walls’ to reach the ‘icy fields and floes’ where, ‘in a charmed circle of everlasting December’, it can ‘bid defiance to all pursuit from man’ (Moby-Dick, p. 503). There is no hunting Peake’s white whale because it’s already effectively dead, its undulating skeleton anticipating the moment when another Ishmael will stand in awe of its bare bones, fingering his ‘green measuring-rod’ as he considers how best to calculate their dimensions (Moby-Dick, p. 490). And Peake’s whale is imaginary, as is the ocean in which it swims, as is the desert to which that ocean is being compared. The ‘reverie’ or waking dream of the poem is a flight into the imagination from the realities of war – a flight by pen rather than by pinion.

But it is also a flight from death into death, as one might expect from a poet who is also a soldier in wartime. In war there is no escape from the ‘ruthless regions of what’s true’, as the poet puts it in stanza 32; a soldier is always thinking of his end. The material facts of the body’s composition assert themselves, no matter how brilliantly one seeks to play with them. Unlike the Christian heaven, bones are an undeniable fact or truth of existence; an observation that gets wittily confirmed by stanza 33, in which the poet conjures up ‘a prophet’s skull’ being bowled by the wind across the ‘burning scarp,’ its shadow ‘Cruising before it as it rolls through sunlight’. Prophecies form part of a religious grand narrative that may or may not have any validity. The principal bone of a prophet’s head, on the other hand – the skull – undeniably exists, and is pictured here in perpetual motion across the ‘vast and valid landscapes’ conjured up by Peake’s brain (stanza 32), as recorded by the blue ink of his moving pen-nib.

Leonardo’s The Last Supper, detail

Peake’s evocation in this poem of Leonardo da Vinci’s great mural of the Last Supper has something similar to say about religion. It occurs in stanzas 38 and 39, immediately after the mention of the whale, and like the whale serves as an illustration of Peake’s core statement on whiteness. In stanza 34, Peake observes that ‘this hand that props my forehead / Is not more real than those hands of frost / That lie in myriads like an astral choir / Of endless gesture, eloquent though dead’. Through the study of anatomy, Peake’s training as an artist has made him infinitely familiar with the ‘astral choir’ of the human skeleton, which sings in gestures rather than sound. And it is a choir that celebrates not some theologically elaborated hierarchy but the common whiteness underlying all life – and perhaps all visible objects in the universe, if Melville’s philosopher is correct. Stanzas 35 and 36 sum up this materialist religion in terms that seem to echo the chapter on Whiteness:

O passionless, amoral, unearthly whiteness
Emptied of ardour like a thought of crystal
Scoring a circle in the air of Time:
Closer to darkness is this lovely lightness
Than to the wannest breath of colour. All
That is most ultimate and clear: the prime

And essence of a dream, that flowering, loses
Its colour-tinctured parts on finding climax
And consummation in a spectral land,
Vaster than arctic, rarer than where cruises
The frigate moon, is your demesne that works
Its magic in the thighbone on the sand.

Again these stanzas stress the purging of colour from whiteness, and with it the personality of the plunger-pirate from the composition of the universe at its key moments. At this point of consummation or flowering the desert becomes a ‘spectral land’ as haunting as the land of the Sami in Melville’s chapter, where visitors are urged to don tinted spectacles to avoid being blinded by the unrelieved whiteness of the frozen vistas. And it inhabits an ‘amoral’ space where the distinctions between black and white, light and darkness, good and evil have been replaced with passionless, amoral perfection, free from emotion, doctrine, faith or ‘ardour’.

This is the space occupied by Leonardo’s Last Supper in Peake’s painstakingly non-narrative poem. For Peake, the key feature of the famous mural is neither the people who appear in it – the dramatis personae of the Passion (Christ declaring that one of his followers will betray him, the twelve disciples reacting with various degrees of dismay or anguish) – nor the symbolic substances displayed on the table, the wine that Christ declares to be his blood, the rolls of bread of which only one has been broken: Christ’s roll, in token of the breaking of his body on the cross. Instead it is the white tablecloth on which the Last Supper is served that Peake considers the crucial component of the celebrated image. This is for him a manifestation of the ‘passionless, amoral, unearthly whiteness’ he identified in stanza 35; a whiteness, he writes,

As bleached and scrupulous as that stern linen
Da Vinci laid forever underneath
The isolation of the unfingered loaves,
The desolation of the untasted wine,
The thirteen double islands from the Earth,
Stiff, icebound and estranged from vines and sheaves[.]

In Peake’s reading, the painting shows a moment when all the figures and symbolic objects in the picture have been isolated or ‘islanded’ from one another: Christ because of his consciousness that he alone knows what will happen next and why, the disciples because of the sudden access of distrust (or in Judas’s case guilt and shame) to which they have been subjected, the bread and wine because they have been forgotten in the turmoil of Christ’s revelation. All thirteen people in the picture are referred to as ‘double islands’, not single ones – a phrase that makes little sense except as an assertion that they all contain the twin figures we considered earlier, the ghost-man and the plunger, Christ included. This extraordinary moment renders both figures and objects frozen in time – ‘forever’ – and temperature – they are all ‘icebound and estranged’. But the white tablecloth stands apart from all this turmoil in its passionlessness, its bonelike ‘asceticism’, its sternness – a word Peake invokes twice in successive stanzas. The bread and wine lying on it, Peake suggests,

Show with their pool and crust how pure is flax,
How cold it is and how immaculate
And close it is at the Supper, charged and lorn[,]
To the asceticism of the stern stalk
Of hollow bone that the same master sought –
Blanched, holy whiteness that continues on. [My emphasis.]

The syntax of this stanza is hard to follow, but the drift is clear. For Peake, the bread and wine at Leonardo’s supper are no more than aesthetic supplements to the linen tablecloth, which points the way to what Christ really seeks: the bone-whiteness of a death that will rid him of the turbulence of living, with its betrayals, moral dilemmas, revelations, physical agonies, emotional traumas. Or is it Leonardo rather than Christ who seeks this whiteness; Leonardo who is the ‘master’ or Old Master of this ascetic vision? Or is the power of each master, Christ and Leonardo, somehow shared, like the twin powers that co-occupy the human frame, the angel and the plunger?

The latter reading seems to be invoked in a neologism Peake introduces in stanzas 41-42, as he describes the shifting narratives generated by the desert sands. ‘All is changed’, he notes as knolls of sand collapse into sandy vales or valleys:

the hills as hot as blood
Have given place to corrugated, pale
And ash-grey tracts that have thrown up fresh plunder

From sterile torpor of the desert’s womb;
So that across the desolate plains are littered
Fresh relics of incongruous dynarchies[.]

The word ‘dynarchies’ does not exist, but it fuses three words at least: ‘dynasties’, which implies successions of well-documented generations; ‘anarchy’, which suggests no organisation, documentation, authority, or formal narrative at all; and ‘diarchy’, which means co-rule or shared authority, of the kind Peake repeatedly identifies as present in the human body and mind, dominated as they are by incongruous twins. Such co-rulership could also be implied by the double meaning of ‘master’ in the account of Leonardo’s painting, which may refer either to the ascetic master of the disciples, Christ, or to the grand Old Master, Leonardo, who freezes the key moment of the Last Supper in paint and plaster, capturing its uneasy fusion of evanescent human passion and ‘blanched, holy whiteness that continues on’. Just as the ‘dynarchies’ of the desert circumvent the human dynasties and power systems they repeatedly invoke, so does Leonardo’s painting distance itself from its religious subject; it only represents eucharist, it can never be the eucharistic act as, say, an Orthodox icon can, so that by it eucharist is rendered cold, strange and always elsewhere, always distant. Peake’s meditation on the painting is a meditation on death, not religion, a wresting of the religious subject from the deadening clutch of the ecclesiastical authorities and a returning of it to the material facts in all their strangeness, the beauty of bones in all their insolence, their refusal to be cabined, cribbed, confined within traditional paradigms. As such it empowers the meditator – who is also the artist, the soldier, and the ordinary human being – as well as the human act of creation through painting, dreaming and making verse.

Peake, Letters from a Lost Uncle, First Edition

A similar estrangement of whiteness from its religious context takes place in Letters from a Lost Uncle (1948).[21] The Uncle’s quest for the White Lion is not inspired by missionary zeal, nor by a thirst for imperial conquest, nor yet by an Ahab-like quest for vengeance – despite the fact that the Uncle seems permanently angry (he is always swearing like a whaleman, using phrases like ‘blubber it!’ ‘blubberation!’ and ‘blubber take this thumb mark!’). This said, the fragments of empire lie around him throughout his life. As a youth the Uncle spends his time in the imperialist Museum of Natural History in London, or drawing the imperial lions in Trafalgar Square, which he sketches one by one, unaware that (like the colonial project) they replicate each other precisely in the different spaces they have been allotted. He sets out on his adventures in a ship called the S. S. Em, whose name may stand (he thinks) for Empire or Emu, in either case recognising the curtailment of the British imperial project in the era immediately following the Second World War.[22] The Uncle’s relationship with his only companion, Jackson, is decidedly colonial. On first meeting the mournful ‘turtle-dog’ on a beach of red sand, with his shell, his perpetual cold, and his permanently downturned beak, the Uncle decides at once that the creature would serve as the ideal ‘beast of burden – and possibly as a friend’, while at the same time confessing that ‘I was irritated [by him] right from the start’. The ghosts of missionary zeal and colonialism, then, accompany the adventurer on his wanderings, just as the ghosts of his various adventures haunt the formerly pristine pages of every letter he sends to his nephew, in the form of thumb-prints, drops of blood, gravy stains and splashes of coffee. The Lion itself is a symbol of empire; he appears on stamps, like the head of the British monarch; he features alongside the unicorn on the royal coat of arms; and he represents the grandest prize available to the colonial big game hunter, symbolic of the subjugation of the territories he occupies. But the Uncle’s Lion has been partly purged of colonial associations by his dazzling whiteness – which distinguishes him from all other lions and their significations – as well as by his transplantation from the plains of Africa to the frozen (and in Peake’s book uninhabited) wastes of the North. The Uncle, meanwhile, does not plan to subjugate him or his territories with a phallic gun. Instead he hopes to take pictures of him with his box camera, to supplement the stains and pencil sketches which swarm around the margins of his letters. And even this modest aim is dashed when a whirlwind whips away his camera, leaving him only his pencil and his sword-fish leg with which to face the King of the Snows.

The Uncle’s pursuit of the Lion, in fact, reduces him to rags, detaching him from family, friends, home, institutions, even one of his limbs. Symbolically severed from the oppressions of the past, bereft of the grand narratives that would have given some semblance of coherence or control to his wayward wanderings, the Uncle’s sole attachment is to his nameless nephew, whose mind he seeks to fill with brilliant visions of his own vagrancy, unencumbered by moral lessons or useful facts. His polar pictures are full of non-existent animals – snow serpents, Arctic vultures, polar beetles – and promiscuously mix Antarctic penguins with Arctic bears. Even the conventions of fiction do not govern his adventures; the Uncle’s relationship with Jackson does not improve, despite the fact that they save each other’s lives on several occasions, and he never meets his nephew, despite growing fonder of him as he writes his letters. The Uncle’s story is as haphazard as his method of telling it, given structure only by his obsession with the pristine whiteness of the Lion and the landscape it lives in.

Like the Antarctic landscape of broken crosses described by Melville, Peake’s polar regions resonate with religious imagery. As they approach the frigid zone where the Lion lives, Jackson and the Uncle notice that ‘great glittering steeples of ice began to show above the horizon just as though we were approaching a city of glass churches’. The Lion inhabits the largest church of all, a ‘cathedral of glass’ with ‘twenty thousand spires’, which encloses a see-through floor and a ‘rough and dusky throne of ice’. Blue light, green light, then lights of many colours shine up from beneath the structure’s frozen floor, as if through stained glass, painting the creatures gathered there to pay homage to the king of beasts, just as shadows and reflections paint the essential whiteness of the universe in Melville’s chapter. ‘But although everything else reflected the colours that smouldered through the ice,’ the Uncle tells us, ‘the Lion didn’t. Nothing could change his whiteness. He was apart from everything else’. His apartness, like that of the tablecloth under Leonardo’s Last Supper, cuts him adrift from any acknowledged narrative, religious or otherwise. And the Lion’s own blindness cuts him off from those around him: his ‘vast and silent congregation’ of animal subjects, the Uncle and Jackson, the whale, the swarms of fishes under the ice, the glass cathedral. No longer a symbol of religious or secular power, the Lion has become the embodiment of beauty itself, uncorrupted by the stains of history or story. In token of this, the story culminates in the Lion’s death: he roars, rears up, and freezes into a statue, in which form he remains unvisited forever except in the memory of the Uncle, in the imagination of the nephew, and in the sketches that fill the Uncle’s penultimate letter: ‘alone and beautiful in the wild polar waste,’ as the Uncle puts it, ‘my Lion of white ice’. In this book, then, the Lion’s whiteness may be said to liberate its image from religious and imperial colonialism – though these things echo around it like the traces of its dying roar. Pure sculpture, he is uncontaminated by any kind of purpose beyond the artwork’s singular function of being beautiful, strange and unsettling, as well as averse to entanglement in the convoluted coils of cause and effect as recognised by the conventions of verbal logic.

In a similar way, Mr Pye’s white wings – which grow like leprosy as he indulges his delight in good deeds on the Island of Sark – gradually detach themselves from religious significance in the course of Mr Pye, becoming instead a skill to be mastered, a delight to be enjoyed, an embodiment of liberation from the narrative conventions that governed the lifetime of their wearer. In the final paragraphs of the novel, pursued by the island’s inhabitants as a freak or demon, the little missionary first flings his spirit up to Heaven (‘he drew forth his soul and tossed it skywards to his God’, p. 253) before ending the chase as himself alone, unpossessed, ungoverned, unbeholden; not a representative of a faith or congregation but a being complete and confident in his own uniqueness:

It was a never-to-be-forgotten sight. There was beauty in it, with those ample wings of dazzling whiteness that bore him to and fro as he tried to learn how best to manage them: and there was pathos – for he looked so solitary – adrift in the hollow air. And there was bathos also, for it seemed incongruous to see his city trousers and his small, black, gleaming shoes. (Mr Pye, p. 254)

The last paragraph of the novel confirms that Mr Pye has ‘already mastered his wings’, becoming in the process an accomplished craftsman in the art of flying – and freeing himself from the control of his smug and sometimes tormenting former master, the Christ-figure whom he labelled the ‘Great Pal’.

Again in a similar way, Peake’s novella Boy in Darkness culminates in an act of liberation from religious and imperial mastery. The story begins with the nameless Boy under the tutelage of various masters – the Master of the Ritual, the Master of the Quills – as he suffers day by day through the onerous duties of a child in his position, hereditary ‘Lord of a tower’d tract’ (Boy in Darkness, p. 23). The Boy is of course Titus Groan, and the ‘tower’d tract’ is his ancient home of Gormenghast Castle, but the Boy is as much a subject to tyrannical authority as any other schoolboy under the sway of cruel masters. The Lost Uncle, we learn, evaded the school authorities by making himself ill with doses of ink. The Boy escapes instead by fleeing into the castle, making use of his intimate knowledge of its obscurer tracts to worm his way through its corridors, attics, lost staircases and ruined fortifications into a wasteland twice as bleak as the ocean-desert in ‘A Reverie of Bone’. The Boy’s mastery of the castle displays itself even as he flees the titanic structure; and his flight takes him into the hands of a new kind of mastery. Each escape he accomplishes as the narrative unfolds, in fact, takes him deeper into the convoluted structures of power and servitude to which his heredity has consigned him. As a Boy he cannot escape, though the will to escape and the cunning to effect an escape manifests itself, in potential at least, at every stage of his brief adventure.

The post-apocalyptic landscape to which he flees – a colourless vista strewn with ‘soft white dust’ (p. 38) and littered with industrial wreckage – is ruled over by a malignant relative of the Lion of the Snows: a Lamb of unsettling whiteness. Melville’s chapter on whiteness mentions the regal Lamb of the Apocalypse only in passing (‘the great white throne, and the Holy One that sitteth there white like wool’, Moby-Dick, p. 205), but Peake’s novella makes him the nightmarish focus of the Boy’s journey, entirely defined, like Ahab’s whale, by his distinctive colouring:

White. White as foam when the moon is full on the sea; white as the white of a child’s eye; or the brow of a dead man; white as a sheeted ghost; oh, white as wool. Bright wool… white wool… in half a million curls… seraphic in its purity and softness… the raiment of the Lamb. (Boy in Darkness, p. 56)

The passage invokes the full range of associations given to whiteness in Moby-Dick, from childhood innocence to an unpeopled ocean, from living angels to livid corpses, from priestly albs to ‘sheeted ghosts’. As with the Lion, however, the crowning strangeness of the Lamb is his blindness, which in Peake’s imagination seals him away from sympathy with the human prisoners brought before him, islanding him, so to speak, in his own internal narrative, his lust for power. The Lamb uses his subjects as material for his art, tracing their facial contours with his coldly sensuous little finger before drawing out of them by some diabolical magic the features of the particular beast – bird, mammal, fish or insect – whose likeness he detects in their composition. Peake depicts him as both an artist and an artwork: the ‘creator as it were of a new kingdom, a new species’ (p. 72), comparable in his reworking of limbs and organs to a concert pianist, a sculptor or a gourmet, while himself recalling a ‘marble carving’ (p. 74) and a ‘dancer’ (p. 90), as well as an ‘Emperor’ (pp. 53, 74, 77 etc.), the last surviving emblem of British imperialism. But his art has something wrong with it. Its chilly perfection is deathly. Most of the beast-men he has created in his lifetime are now dead, their bones littering the floors of the mines he makes his home. And the two survivors are grotesques: a muscular, foppish Hyena and a dusty Goat, each of them aspects of the pirate-figure who shares the human body with his white twin, the angel Gabriel, in Peake’s poems. The Lamb, meanwhile, represents the final example in Peake’s work of that ‘modern angel’: master of an art that seeks absolute mastery over its subjects, tormenting, humiliating, reshaping and finally killing them with its intimate attentions. As an embodiment of the soulless present – the pale shadow of Cold War in a post-industrial wasteland, fused with a violent sensuality utterly destructive to its objects – he sums up the topics available to art and artists in the 1950s, which involve making twisted copies of the personal, political and religious power-games on offer, haunted (like the adventures of the Lost Uncle) by spectral memories of the grand narratives of the past.

Under these circumstances, the simple stories that fill the Boy’s imagination – stories of flight, adventure, cunning, unexpected encounters in dangerous places, narrow escapes – take on the status of acts of insurrection, powerful precisely because they are disdained and half forgotten by the authorities. In the narrow confines of his castle bedroom, hemmed in by various forms of adult coercion and control, the Boy finds foreign shores in a patch of mould above his bed: undiscovered countries beyond the reach of his appointed masters, imaginary lands to which he can swear semi-blasphemous loyalty in defiance of his expected total commitment to his role as Earl. Thanks to these inward mental games of piratical abandon, he is able to dream his way out of the castle, although he cannot conjure up any clear images of what lies beyond its broken walls. But once confronted in the wasteland by the Goat and the Hyena, the Boy’s imagination sets to work at once on this new material, discovering ways to imagine them afresh not as the grovelling slaves the Lamb has made them, but instead as powerful rivals to the Lamb, capable of occupying golden thrones exactly like his and of commanding armies of slaves as the Lamb commands the two sad relicts of the army of mighty beast-men he once assembled. Physically weak – the Boy spends much of the novella either asleep or in a faint while being conveyed from place to place, first by a pack of silent dogs, then by the beast-men – Peake’s youthful hero nonetheless has an uncanny ability to conjoin himself to other people’s minds, to inhabit their desires and dreams. When escaping from his bedroom he briefly mingles with an anarchic group of children revelling in the castle grounds, becoming indistinguishable from them by reason of their common youth. Later he becomes an honorary member of the dog-pack thanks to their shared vitality (p. 36); and later still he shows himself able to second-guess the dreams of the Goat and the Hyena, whose own imaginations are limited to the pleasures they already enjoy, rolling in the dust and crunching bones between their teeth – or the pleasures of the Lamb, tyranny and torture. He even imagines himself into the imagination of the inhuman Lamb, describing himself at one point as an escaped ‘figment of [the Lamb’s] thought’ who has somehow ‘wandered – wandered away from his great brain’ (p. 54), and urging the beast-men to let him wander away altogether, out of the wasteland and back again to his abandoned castle bedroom. Each new mind he shares offers a way out of itself, a way to breach its boundaries, and the Boy’s own restless brain is constantly working to uncover these means of egress, these secret passages to an unguessed freedom. He works his way inward to work his way outward, just as he did when effecting his flight from his ancestral home.

The Boy’s mind is coloured, in fact, both by the brilliant lights that shine into it from outside and by the inward light that illuminates his dreams and narratives. This fusion of inward and outward lights is most brilliantly invoked in Peake’s work by the unpublished poem he wrote in Southport hospital in 1942, just before being invalided out of the army, ‘Blue as the Indigo and Fabulous Storm’. In the poem, the blue-uniformed patients at the hospital have a means of inward egress from its thick brick walls by means of the brilliantly-coloured dreams that fill them:

For we are bluer than the fabulous waters
That lap the inner skull-walls of a boy
So that his head is filled with brimming summer’s
Dazzling rollers which make dull the day
Surrounding him, like an un-focused twilight,
Such waters as uplift a rippling acre
Of naked jelly through the sunfire drifting
With at its centre a vermilion ember
Across whose fire the transparent eyelids rove
O fiercer than the azure lights that flare
At the lit core of fantasy.

(Collected Poems, p. 120)

In Boy in Darkness, too, the Boy’s ‘lit core of fantasy’ offers a means of escape from the darkness of the Lamb’s mine, and a means of combating the power expressed by that beast’s tyrannical whiteness. It’s the Boy’s inclination towards the piratical ‘fabulous’ that transforms the Hyena’s murderous knife – at first no more than a ‘long, slim blade’ (p. 49) – into a sword: a ‘long, thin, deadly yard of steel’ (p. 90) perfectly adapted to the needs of a young adventurer in peril of his life. A sword can be ‘brandished’ as a knife cannot, and can destroy a godlike being in an act of quasi-ritual sacrifice:

In fact the air seemed to open up for him as he sprang, his sword brandished. He brought it down across the skull of the Lamb so that it split the head into two pieces which fell down to earth on either side. There was no blood, nor anything to be seen in the nature of a brain. […] The wool lay everywhere in dazzling curls.

(Boy in Darkness, p. 92)

This execution signals the termination of the angel figure in Peake’s work; there are no more beings of immaculate whiteness in his final novel, Titus Alone (1959). The pirate figure, the ‘plunger’ of the poem ‘I Am For Ever with Me’, has finally rid himself of his pale, perfect heavenly twin. Ahab has purged himself of the white whale, Moby Dick, and in the process exorcised his self-destructive obsession. The oppressive pearlescence of Catholic ritual has been dispersed, along with the various hierarchies – symbolized by thrones and distinctive vestments – it sustained. This exorcism is not absolute; Titus in Titus Alone, for instance, remains haunted by post-traumatic echoes of his ancestral castle, and is briefly reinstated on a fake throne before he dashes it to pieces in a fit of fury. The Boy, too, is finally carried back to the ‘immemorial home’ he briefly escaped from (Boy in Darkness, p. 93). But both young people have been given licence to rove, a licence Peake clearly intended to make use of in the later Titus books he never wrote.

Illustration for Boy in Darkness, Santiago Caruso

Something else happens at the climax of Boy in Darkness. Peake’s boyishness, as an artist, is justified; his immaturity confirmed as a strength, his instinctive insurrection necessary, his lust for adventure no longer an aesthetic liability. And Moby-Dick may have helped. Malcolm Yorke, as we’ve seen, wrote with some acerbity of Peake’s continuing affection for the ‘swashbuckling books’ of his youth. G. Peter Winnington suspects he didn’t read anything too ‘literary’ after his schooldays ended. And Peake himself writes in some embarrassment of his lifelong passion for wild romance at the beginning of his short story ‘I Bought a Palm-Tree’:

Perhaps it’s because there is something wrong with my upper storey, for I am incurably romantic. King Solomon’s Mines still haunt me. Coral Island and The Blue Water Ballads are all mixed up in my memory. […] Ben Gunn and Amos Leigh, Ahab and Crusoe – they are with me still in a tangle of fern and palm-trees.

(Boy in Darkness and Other Stories, p. 103)

It’s the ‘rainbow-tinted world’ of the tropics that calls out to him, he tells us, though he knows full well that this is a thing of ‘dog-eared and thumb-marked story books’ of the kind the Lost Uncle penned, which invoke the ‘tropics as one wants them, not as they are’ (p. 103). Embedded in this confession is the name of Ahab, whose journey and life both ended in the tropics, in a succession of ‘clear steel-blue day[s]’ when he chose to chase the whale instead of taking the advice of Starbuck and turning his helm towards his home on far-off Nantucket Island (Moby-Dick, p. 589). The novel he appeared in, Moby-Dick, was derided by one London reviewer as an ‘absurd book’, an ‘ill-compounded mixture of romance and matter-of-fact’ (https://lithub.com/check-out-the-original-1851-reviews-of-moby-dick/). Peake and his writings were just such an ill-compounded mixture of cold, white reason and rainbow colours. But his poetry and prose suggest that all human beings are made up of such a mixture. And Melville’s acknowledged masterpiece showed a way to transmute this ungainly compound into art, without bleaching it of the rainbow tints that illuminated Peake’s ‘upper storey’, the magic of the Boy’s Own adventures that continued to haunt him. For this, as for so much else, we owe Moby-Dick a world of thanks.

NOTES

[1] A good example of Peake’s use of the term ‘islanded’ is the poem ‘Tides’, which begins ‘Always you are remote and islanded’ and ends ‘You will be always far and islanded’. Mervyn Peake, Collected Poems, ed. R. W. Maslen, Fyfield Books (Manchester: Carcanet, 2008), pp. 129-30. All quotations from Peake’s poems are taken from this edition.

[2] All references to Moby-Dick or, The Whale are taken from the Penguin edition, with an introduction by Andrew Delbanco and Notes and Commentary by Tom Quirk (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1992).

[3] Mervyn Peake, The Gormenghast Trilogy (London: Mandarin, 1992), ‘THE REVERIES’, pp. 285-292.

[4] Maeve mentions the cat in her book A World Away, in Mervyn Peake: Two Lives (London: Vintage, 1999), p. 22.

[5] For the portrait see G. Peter Winnington, Mervyn Peake’s Vast Alchemies: The Illustrated Biography (London and Chester Springs: Peter Owen, 2009), p. 132; Winnington suggests its name on p. 131.

[6] Mervyn Peake, Boy in Darkness and Other Stories, ed. Sebastian Peake (London and Chicago: Peter Owen, 2007), p. 103).

[7] We learn the whale’s colour after its corpse has drifted away from the beach on Sark where it first appeared: ‘The wind blew into Guernsey from the sea, and as that angry island which had so lately been convulsed at the plight of the Sarkese, closed its doors and windows against the little white whale, the Sarkese opened theirs and breathed again; and grinned’ (Mr Pye [Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978] p. 130. All quotations are from this edition). After its appearance Mr Pye tries unsuccessfully to get to sleep by counting ‘little white whales jumping over a hedge’ (p. 125). For the actual dead whales on which this one was based see Stephen Foote, Mervyn Peake: Son of Sark (Guernsey: Blue Ormer, 2019), p. 42.

[8] Malcolm Yorke, Mervyn Peake: My Eyes Mint Gold. A Life (London: John Murray, 2000), p. 195.

[9] Maeve Gilmore, A World Away, p. 72.

[10] Tzvetan Todorov, The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, trans. Richard Howard (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1975), pp. 42-3.

[11] The illustration of Muzzlehatch is reproduced in Mervyn Peake: The Man and his Art, ed. G. Peter Winnington (London and Chester Springs: Peter Owen, 2006), p. 16. The quotation from Titus Alone comes from The Gormenghast Trilogy, p. 770.

[12] Malcolm Yorke, Mervyn Peake: My Eyes Mint Gold, p. 193.

[13] Gordon Smith, Mervyn Peake: A Personal Memoir (London: Victor Gollancz, 1984), p. 118.

[14] See Mervyn Peake, Complete Nonsense, ed. R. W. Maslen and G. Peter Winnington, Fyfield Books (Manchester: Carcanet, 2011), p. 89. The illustration for The Swiss Family Robinson is reproduced in Yorke, Mervyn Peake: My Eyes Mint Gold, p. 187.

[15] On first sighting his landlady on Sark, Miss Dredger, Mr Pye ‘lifted his hat a few inches from his head and bowed very slightly from the hips’ (Mr Pye, p. 18). Later he gives her, with ‘an old-world charm that was quite inimitable, a little bow’ (p. 134).

[16] The double meaning of the verb ‘express’ is explained by Rosemary Jackson in her book Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion (London and New York: Routledge, 1981), pp. 3-4.

[17] A striking example is the poem ‘Maeve’, which describes her as ‘the cause / Of my heart crying from its midnight grove / Of ribs’.

[18] For Peake’s poems on three of these four visionary artists see Collected Poems, pp. 41 (‘El Greco’), 44 (‘Van Gogh’) and 63 (‘Blake’). He also refers to Rembrandt in his poem of that title (p. 165) and in ‘She Does Not Know’ (p. 69), which mentions Raphael too; and he wrote poems on Jacob Epstein (p. 45) and Mané Katz (p. 34). For Leonardo, see below.

[19] See e.g. ‘To Maeve’, Collected Poems, p. 38, which refers to ‘your white streams / Of clear clay that I love’ and ‘your ivory grove’, ‘Poem’, p. 39 (‘the white shell of you’); ‘Tides’, p. 129 (‘always a remoteness lingers / About you like a vestment of the moon, / O whitely’).

[20] The introduction is reproduced in Peake’s Progress: Selected Writings and Drawings of Mervyn Peake, ed. Maeve Gilmore (London: Allen Lane, 1978), pp. 235-41.

[21] All quotations from Letters from a Lost Uncle (from Polar Regions) are taken from the Picador edition (London: Pan Books, 1977). This edition is unpaginated, and so are my references.

[22] Peter Winnington tells us that the ship’s name contains a reference to ‘the pre-1912 name of Eltham College, “School for the Sons of Missionaries”. At school matches, the boys would support their team with the chant ‘Ess-ess-emm!”.’ Winnington, Mervyn Peake’s Vast Alchemies, p. 228.

Play Houses: Alasdair Gray, Poor Things (1992) and A History Maker (1994). Part 1

[This is my belated contribution to Gray Day 2022, which took place last Friday, 25 February. Today is World Book Day, which also seems appropriate, since Poor Things is an embodiment of the delight in books. What follows is the first of two posts; the second will appear later in March.]


The 1990s: a rich decade for fantasy, and a suitable subject for mixed metaphors. The new millennium, that phantom barrier between the twentieth century and an unforeseeable future, was flinging out a backwash of apocalyptic premonitions, from the Millennium Bug to the End of the Civilised World. The Cold War had abruptly come to an end, and the hunt for a new enemy of late capitalism was in full cry. Not surprisingly, fantasy literature stood on the brink of reinvigoration. His Dark Materials and Harry Potter were bubbling away in the soup of their creators’ brains. The New Weird was stirring its tentacles, and a league of brilliant women from Pamela Dean and Robin Hobb to Ursula Le Guin, Nalo Hopkinson, Terry Windling and Jane Yolen were rapidly remaking the fantastic along new-old lines, while male fantasy authors too (Gregory Maguire, Geoff Ryman, Michael Swanwick as well as Pullman) found themselves reimagining the power dynamic between women, men and others in response. An end and a beginning: the 1990s.

As brilliant as any of these male authors was the Scottish writer-artist Alasdair Gray, who had made his name with the publication of Lanark in 1981. The 1990s saw the publication of his finest novel, Poor Things (1992), and a novella called A History Maker (1994), both of which could be described as science fiction. In the same decade he wrote the novels Something Leather (1990), McGrotty and Ludmilla (1990) and Mavis Belfrage (1996), and the short story collection Ten Tales Tall and True (1993). All these texts gave a prominent place to women, and to the sense that the experience of women at the end of the twentieth century was undergoing a transformation. Poor Things did this by examining the last two decades of the nineteenth century as a parallel moment in the history of women’s experiences, as well as of socialism and industrial capitalism. A History Maker did it by examining a moment of near-revolution against a worldwide matriarchy, two centuries or so in the future. Between them, the two books suggest a pair of parentheses bracketing the calamitous twentieth century – the Century of War, as Doris Lessing calls it in her SF novel Shikasta (1979). For Gray, women were stationed at the points of arrival and departure of the century, and throughout the century had always offered the best hope for a turn towards a better tomorrow.

A History Maker came out two years after Poor Things, and can be read as a witty appendix to that book. The novella feeds parasitically on the novel, replicating its form and some of its content while also performing ingenious acts of reversal and inversion on both. As if to reinforce the association with appendices, exactly a third of A History Maker is made up of notes and a postscript, parasitically feeding on the lifeblood of the ‘central’ narrative. Poor Things, too, has a hypertrophied paratext, its introduction, notes and postscript hollowing out the central narrative’s intestines from within, so to speak, like the segments of a hungry tapeworm. To understand A History Maker, then, we need to start with a consideration of Poor Things; while understanding Poor Things benefits from setting it alongside what might be loosely termed its sequel. Taken together, these books represent Gray’s meditation on the end of an era: the close of the twentieth century, the termination of the twentieth-century version of the socialist dream as embodied in the Soviet Union, the seeming lull after a period of global warfare which had extended from 1914 to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Both books, too, are about parasitism of various kinds, above all in the form of complicity, and in particular the complicity to which all citizens of the First World are inevitably doomed by virtue of their location within an increasingly unbalanced global economy. So Poor Things is where I’ll begin in this post, before moving on in a second post to its neglected younger sibling. And afterwards I’ll move on again, to their status as representations of beginnings.

Poor Things consists of a series of backward glances, each provided by one of its myriad narrators and commentators. The central narrative, as written by the Public Health Officer Archibald McCandless, looks back on the events of the last decade of the nineteenth century from 1911, when he bequeaths his memoirs to his wife just before his death. McCandless’s memoirs are then ‘edited’ in 1990 or so, under the title Poor Things, by an irascible version of Alasdair Gray himself. Gray looks back in his introduction to the 1970s, when the manuscript was first ‘discovered’ by Michael Donnelly, co-curator with Elspeth King of the People’s Palace Museum in Glasgow. Along with the memoirs themselves, Gray reproduces a letter from Victoria McCandless, Archibald’s wife, written in 1914 when she first read them after the death of her husband in 1911. Gray also adds notes incorporating various documents such as a letter from 1945, in which Victoria celebrates the election of a Labour Government as the beginning of a new epoch of social justice in the United Kingdom. The novel, in other words, is an elaborate exercise in reminiscence, so that even the hopes and political ambitions articulated by the forward-thinking Victoria McCandless are strongly tinged with nostalgia for the more committed, less irony-tainted epoch in which her life began.

Irony, however, pervades the narrative, because these successive backward glances expose the past century of human existence as a complex tissue of fabrications. Victoria insists, for instance, that Archibald’s account of their first meeting and her subsequent adventures is not just fictional but fantastic, implying as it does that Victoria herself was assembled from parts of different human beings according to the ‘Frankenstein method’ by an eccentric surgeon called Godwin Baxter (p. 274). Archibald confected this alternative origin story for his busy wife, she suspects, both to grab her attention and to coerce her into co-authoring his book by issuing some sort of denial or correction, either in her thoughts or in a covering letter of the kind we are given by the editor before the notes. But the reader knows that Victoria’s vision of a socialist future – as expressed in her later letter of 1945 – is also a fantasy. Poor Things was first published in 1992, after twelve years of Tory rule during which social justice was for the most part conspicuous by its absence. And Victoria’s letter of 1914 shows that her socialist dreams were fantastic then, too, since she predicts that the Great War will be averted by the workers of Great Britain by means of a General Strike. Victoria’s first name, meanwhile, identifies her brand of socialism as a product of the nineteenth century, and the endurance of her and her name into the mid-century (she died, we’re told, soon after writing that letter about the election of the Labour government) symbolises the continuing legacy of Victorian cultural attitudes into the middle of the twentieth century – and beyond, thanks to the publication of the manuscript by its ‘editor’, Gray.

The batters of Poor Things, adorned with a thistle motif and a Gray proverb

Victorianism itself, meanwhile, is described by Victoria as an ornate fantasy, best understood through its embodiment in such ‘sham-gothic’ buildings as ‘the Scott Monument [in Edinburgh], Glasgow University, St. Pancras Station and the Houses of Parliament’ (p. 275). The ‘useless over-ornamentation’ of these buildings, she claims, ‘was paid for out of needlessly high profits: profits squeezed from the stunted lives of children, women and men working more than twelve hours a day, six days a week in NEEDLESSLY filthy factories; for by the nineteenth century we had the knowledge to make things cleanly’. And for Victoria, her husband’s memoir is as sham-gothic and hence as needless as any of these extravagant works of architecture. Archibald paid a high price for it to be printed in a single copy, illustrated with etchings by the well-known artist William Strang, so it is over-ornate and expensive. The first edition of Poor Things, too, with its dustjacket sporting mock reviews by made-up magazines and newspapers, its hardback covers or ‘batters’ stamped with a silver thistle motif and Gray’s personal motto, its typeface and page design both created by Gray himself, and its many illustrations, some of which have been purloined from Victorian publications while others are misattributed to Strang (in fact Gray did them), must have been hugely expensive for the publishers Bloomsbury to produce. Poor Things, then, looks backward in its ornate aesthetics and the economics that drive them, as well as in its narrative and commentary. The fictionalised memoir it contains is parasitic on the working classes, because Archibald’s late-life prosperity depended on their labour, which made possible the investments on which he drew to support his ‘idle, dreamy[,] fantastical’ middle-class existence, as Victoria tells us (pp. 251-2). And it is doubly parasitic on Victoria McCandless, whose life story Archibald falsified to produce his memoir, and whose notes Alasdair Gray purloined to create his book.

18 Park Circus, Glasgow

The Gothicism of Poor Things is of the domestic variety. It uses the household as a synecdoche for society, instead of the monumental public buildings listed by Victoria. In this it recalls the great Gothic novels of the period in which it’s set, from Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde (largely set in a doctor’s house) to Oscar Wilde’s A Picture of Dorian Gray (set in a fashionable London townhouse with a large attic) and Dracula (which is all about real estate). It focuses on the house of the surgeon Godwin Baxter, 18 Park Circus, where he either builds a woman in his father’s private laboratory (p. 33) or nurses her back to health, depending on whose version of the story you choose to accept – Archibald’s or Victoria’s. Victoria tells us she grew up in needless poverty in a cramped apartment before marrying an abusive husband, fleeing from his London house and being offered shelter and support in the Glasgow mansion of the surgeon Godwin Baxter. Archibald tells us she committed suicide in the Clyde, when pregnant, and was afterwards restored to life through the grotesque process of implanting her unborn baby’s brain in her skull – the resulting adult/infant hybrid being christened Bella Baxter. In both versions of her life story, Godwin’s house provides Victoria/Bella with intellectual stimulus as well as shelter: through the personal example set by its various inhabitants, through the political and medical instruction it provides, and through its architectural and economic organisation. The medical instruction comes from Godwin’s knowledge, books, instruments and conversation, while the political and economic instruction is provided by a ‘big doll’s house’ modelled on the house itself, which is present in both Archibald’s (p. 28) and Victoria’s versions.

‘See me open the hinged front of this big doll’s house and fold it back,’ Godwin tells Victoria in her own version of her life story:

‘This is a type of house you will find by thousands in British cities, by hundreds in the towns, and tens in the villages. […] The servants live mostly in the basement and attics: the coldest and most crowded floors with the smallest rooms. Their body heat, while they sleep, keeps their employers in the central floors more snug. This little female doll in the kitchen is a scullery-maid who will also do rough laundry work, scrubbing and mangling the clothes. She will have plenty of hot water to use if her master or mistress is generous, and may not be overworked if the servants set over her are kind, but we live in an age when thrift and hard competition are proclaimed as the foundations of the state, so if she is meanly and cruelly used nobody will remark upon it. Now look into the parlour on the first floor. Here is a piano with another little female doll sitting at it. If her dress and hair-style were changed for the scullery-maid’s she might be the same girl, but that will not happen. She is probably trying to play Beethoven’s Für Elise without a wrong note – her parents want her one day to attract a rich husband who will use her as a social ornament and breeder of his children. Tell me, Bella, what the scullery-maid and the master’s daughter have in common, apart from their similar ages and bodies and this house.’

‘Both are used by other people,’ I said. ‘They are allowed to decide nothing for themselves.’ [pp. 262-3]

For Godwin, the house is a machine designed to replicate the Victorian class system. Its human inhabitants, represented by the models of the two young girls, have been slotted into their domestic places – each attached to an instrument they must master, the mangle and the piano – like components of the machine, their bodily energy contributing to the smooth functioning of the house and of the hegemony of which it is part. The scullery-maid is an integral part of the house’s heating and cleaning system, the piano-playing girl the inert guarantor of her class’s continued ascendancy. The girls represented by the dolls are as much ‘things’ as the dolls that portray them.

Bella/Victoria as the embodiment of Bella Caledonia, Bonnie Scotland

Victoria herself is often treated as a doll-like ‘thing’ in Poor Things. Her life is manipulated by her husband Archibald McCandless as grist for his fantastical mill. Even the words she utters are reported by him as half-understood fragments, representative of the gradual assembly of her mind over time after the swifter assembly of her body by the surgeon Baxter. Archibald accuses Baxter of constructing Victoria/Bella for his own sexual gratification (pp. 36-7), so she is twice a ‘thing’ from his point of view: as a woman driven to suicide by one man (her first husband), and as a patient intended as a plaything by another (Godwin). Archibald also hints that Baxter himself is a ‘thing’ constructed by his surgeon father, and that Bella/Victoria’s abusive first husband – when he shows up to claim her – is a ‘thing’ reassembled by surgeons after the multiple injuries sustained by his body in the course of his military career. Even Archibald is a ‘thing’, a self-made man who has been awkwardly put together from ill-fitting parts: a neglectful farm servant mother, an absent landowner father, clothes paid for by an unknown benefactor, a regional accent that sounds out of place in the gentlemen’s club of the medical faculty at the Victorian University of Glasgow. All the people in the book are ‘things’, their status as mostly damaged or defective mechanisms reinforced by the images from Gray’s Anatomy scattered through the text, each carefully placed at a point in the narrative when the portion of the body shown in the picture (nose, tongue, brain, genitals, pelvis) comes briefly to the fore in the narrative.

Illustration from Gray’s Anatomy in Poor Things

The thing-ness of Poor Thing’s characters – their resemblance to dolls – is compounded by their affinity with the people who for the most part play with dolls – young children. Nearly all retain childish traits, and nearly all have had damaging childhoods. This is most obvious in Archibald’s version of Bella/Victoria, a grown woman with the transplanted brain of her own baby, who greets everything and everybody with surprise, delight and curiosity. But her supposed maker Godwin Baxter, too, though vast and powerful in stature, resembles a baby in his physical proportions. When Archibald first meets him he notes this resemblance at once: ‘Despite the ogreish body he had the wide hopeful eyes, snub nose and mournful mouth of an anxious infant’ (p. 12); and when he later spots him at a distance on the hills he tells us: ‘I saw what seemed a two-year-old child with a tiny puppy approaching from the Cambuslang side’, which on closer approach turns out to be Baxter ‘accompanied by a huge Newfoundland dog’ (p. 16). His powerful voice has the shrillness of a baby’s, and the hand he holds out to Archibald in friendship is so unusual that Archibald cannot bear to shake it:

The hand I intended to grasp was not to so much square as cubical, nearly as thick as broad, with huge thick first knuckles from which the fingers tapered so steeply to babyish tips with rosy wee nails that they seemed conical. A cold grue went through me – I was unable to touch such a hand. [p. 25]

Baxter’s neglected childhood and lonely adulthood, as the illegitimate and ugly son of an eminent scientist, makes his mind childishly needy too, in its longing for an unprejudiced companion who will not be disconcerted by his strange appearance; this longing, perhaps, is what suggests to Archibald that he may be another Frankenstein’s creature, constructed in his father’s laboratory, then abandoned to the whims of the world. But Archibald, too, is childish in his quest for a father figure he never had (which he finds in Godwin) and a loving, powerful woman to replace his less than loving mother (whom he finds in Bella/Victoria). He is constantly harking back to his boyhood in rural Galloway. He ascribes his lack of sexual hang-ups, for instance, to growing up on a farm, and informs Victoria/Bella of his fighting prowess on the strength of having proved his courage ‘in the playground of Whauphill School’ (p. 63) (Whauphill being a tiny hamlet close to Wigtown). The dustjacket of the book’s first edition shows Archibald cuddling Bella, who is cuddling Godwin, who sits facing out of the picture, huge and implacable, with his baby’s hand planted on his knee: three children clinging together in the face of a hostile world.

Victoria/Bella’s abusive first husband, General Sir Aubrey de la Pole Blessington, is a child too. The offspring of abusive parents and an abusive education system, who continues to seek out abuse in the brothels of Europe as an anonymous masked client by the name of Monsieur Spankybot, who likes to pose ‘first […] as a baby, then as a little lad on his first night in a new boarding-school’ (p. 181). Even Victoria/Bella’s lover, Duncan Wedderburn – the man with whom she elopes to seek adventure and travel the world – is still devoted to his mother and the female servants who raised him, returning to them after the tour to resume his role as the spoiled child of the household. These men’s damaged childhoods are lodged inside them, unnurtured and underdeveloped, rendering them as fixed and helpless and eternally infantile as the dolls in the instructive doll’s house in Baxter’s living room. The doll theme continues in Victoria’s notes at the end of the book, where she describes the soldiers about to leave for the Great War as ‘young men marching in regular rows, each imitating the stiff movements of a clockwork doll’ (p. 253). Victoria herself claims to have been educated by nuns in a Swiss convent school ‘to be a rich man’s domestic toy’ (pp. 258-9) – though her subsequent education at Baxter’s hands has since liberated her from doll-like rigidity and silence. Stocked from end to end with dolls, Victorian Britain would seem to be populated by several generations of male and female citizens in various states of arrested development.

The continuing childishness of all these characters has the effect of stressing the importance of the home environment in fashioning a healthy adult mind and body. For Godwin Baxter, the need for good housing in wholesome surroundings is paramount. To Archibald he expresses the opinion that all social ills could be healed by three key elements: ‘Sunlight, cleanliness and exercise, McCandless! Fresh air, pure water, a good diet and clean roomy houses for everyone’ (p. 24). A little later he diagnoses the mental illness running rife in Shakespeare’s Hamlet as the effect of ‘an epidemic brain fever which, like typhoid, was perhaps caused by seepings from the palace graveyard into the Elsinore water supply’, and goes on to explain how he would have treated it as the family’s physician:

I imagined myself entering the palace quite early in the drama with all the executive powers of an efficient public health officer. The main carriers of the disease (Claudius, Polonius and the obviously incurable Hamlet) would be quarantined in separate wards. A fresh water supply and efficient modern plumbing would soon set the Danish state right and Ophelia, seeing this gruff Scottish doctor pointing her people toward a clean and healthy future, would be powerless to withhold her love. (p. 40)

In Godwin’s version of Hamlet the diseases of the state, which originate in the Danish royal palace, could be eradicated at once by putting in place the infrastructure that makes pure water and clean houses available to everyone – an infrastructure of the kind installed in Glasgow in the 1850s, and commemorated by the erection of the Stewart Memorial Fountain in Kelvingrove Park immediately below Godwin’s dwelling in Park Circus, the place where Archibald first kisses Bella/Victoria. What Godwin omits, however, from his list of essentials for a nurturing home environment, is affection; the sort of affection he dreams of obtaining from Ophelia in this passage, and which he lavishes on and receives back from that other unfortunate drowned woman, Bella/Victoria. In both versions of her life story, affection in the domestic context is more crucial than cleanliness and shelter to her wellbeing, and it’s affection (or what she calls ‘cuddling’) that she positions at the centre of her medical philosophy when she trains as a doctor and puts her skills at the service of the city that (re)made her.

Thanks, in fact, to the domestic affection with which she is surrounded – the affection of Godwin’s many dogs as well as the people in his household – Bella/Victoria is the only person in the book whose inner childishness is allowed to grow to a healthy maturity, not stunted by neglect or arbitrary boundaries. In Archibald’s version of the narrative, the baby’s mind which has been surgically transplanted into her adult body develops rapidly under the tuition of the free-thinking Godwin (whose name, of course, recalls the great anarchist thinker, Mary Shelley’s father William Godwin). With his support, she encounters the world with fresh pleasure and bright new ideas at every stage of her preternaturally rapid mental maturation. In Victoria’s version, her complex childhood is what gives her an unusually clear understanding of how the world works, before Godwin’s affection (along with his schooling in medicine and politics) completes the process. This version of her life story tells how she was raised by a hard-working mother in a Manchester slum, then transplanted to a sumptuous house by her newly-wealthy father before being transplanted again to a Swiss convent school and afterwards to the London house of an ice-cold military husband. From London she escaped to the Glasgow house of the friendly surgeon who had treated her for sexual hysteria on her husband’s orders. By this time she had witnessed both extreme poverty and excessive wealth, both the community-based discipline of religious women and the martial discipline of aristocratic men, both the Manchester slums and the mountains of Switzerland, the elegant streets of central London and the splendid suburbs of industrial Glasgow. Five households made her – if you include the convent school – each with its economic and emotional peculiarities, most strikingly the profound interdependencies each entails between the house’s owners and their employees.

Each of Bella/Victoria’s households, in fact, fosters close sexual and cultural relations between social classes which are supposed to live in strict segregation from each other. Her father grows wealthy while leaving his wife to live in poverty, like a servant, before transferring her to a grand house in which she feels useless. There is a strong suggestion that the father has been having an affair with the housekeeper of that house, since she wears ‘a brighter dress than worn by housekeepers I met in later years’, as Victoria notes (p. 257), while her father observes that the woman has taught him ‘a few new tricks’ (p. 258). Later, Victoria’s soldier husband gets a young servant pregnant through the sexual attentions he denies his wife; while Godwin Baxter’s household includes another servant who had her master’s child: Godwin’s mother, Mrs Dinwiddie. As we’ve seen, Archibald is the child of a servant who slept with her master, while Duncan Wedderburn got his early erotic education at the hands of a servant in his household named Auld Jessy. If the female dolls of different classes in Godwin’s doll’s house can be readily exchanged for one another, they closely match the experiences of the women in Victoria/Bella’s households, the bulk of whom are treated by men like servants – providing labour for inadequate wages, no matter what their class. Victoria’s understanding of the class system stems from her position as a woman who has first-hand experience of its operation through the set-ups of the houses she has lived in, which served as real-life equivalents of the doll’s house.

When Godwin opens up the front of that doll’s house, then, he could be said to open up her world, much as an expert anatomist (like the author of Gray’s Anatomy, from which so many of the book’s illustrations have been purloined) opens up a corpse to show its inner workings. The beginning and end of Archibald’s narrative take place in Godwin’s ‘tall, gloomy terrace house’ in Park Circus (p. 22), in the West End of Glasgow. But the house also anchors the middle section of the narrative, which moves away from Glasgow but never leaves it behind.

More illustrations from Gray’s Anatomy in Poor Things

Bella/Victoria’s travels are described in two letters delivered to the Park Circus address, the first from her lover Duncan Wedderburn, the second from herself. The letters are opened and read aloud by Godwin to Archibald in Godwin’s living room, to which the narrative returns us often as the two readers exchange observations before moving on. The formal properties of these letters – some in verse, the rest in prose, distinguished visually from the rest of the novel by being printed in italics – mark them out as created objects or ‘things’ which will eventually find a place for themselves among Godwin’s domestic possessions. The middle part of Bella/Victoria’s letter is even reproduced in her handwriting, ‘printed by a photogravure process which exactly reproduces the blurring caused by tear stains, but does not show the pressure of pen strokes which often ripped right through the paper’ (p. 144). We are never allowed to forget the materiality of these epistolary travelogues, and their Glasgow roots, no matter how far from Glasgow their contents take us.

In fact, despite the global wanderings they chronicle, the contents of both letters are as Glaswegian as the location in which they are read. Wedderburn’s letter obsessively ascribes Bella/Victoria’s behaviour (she enjoys sex with him but has no interest in marrying him) to the devilish influence of her Glasgow mentor, Godwin Baxter (or ‘GOD-SWINE BOSH BACK-STAIR, BEAST OF THE BOTTOMLESS PIT’ as he inventively dubs him [p. 95]). This culminates in an elaborate list of parallels between Godwin, Bella, the Park Circus building they live in and the biblical Book of Revelation. Twice Wedderburn mentions theatrical performances he has seen in Glasgow, and throughout their travels he funds himself with money drawn from his Glasgow-based accounts, with the Scottish Widows and Orphans Company and the Clydesdale and North Scotland Bank. In Bella/Victoria’s letter, meanwhile, a betting shop in Germany reminds her of the Glasgow Stock Exchange, with its ‘fluted columns, cream and gold’ (p. 110). Later a ‘huge’ flight of steps in Odessa (made famous by The Battleship Potemkin) seems ‘very like the steps down to the West End Park near our house’ (p. 115), while Wedderburn splashing about in a ‘puddle’ of his winnings recalls ‘little Robbie Murdoch with a mud puddle’ (p. 121) – Robbie being the grandson of Godwin’s housekeeper. The journey as a whole reiterates the earlier stage of Bella/Victoria’s education when she toured the world with Godwin, visiting a selected set of tourist destinations with the aim of giving substance to his teachings in the front room at Park Circus. Every stage of her journey with Wedderburn, in other words, has close links to Godwin’s home.

The ‘huge’ flight of steps down to the West End Park (now Kelvingrove Park), Glasgow

At one point in the journey, the doll’s house model is briefly replaced by another, and for a while Godwin’s vision is threatened with less democratic ideas, presenting Bella/Victoria with a range of socio-political perspectives from which she must choose before she decides on her future course of action. On her cruise round the Mediterranean Bella/Victoria meets two ‘gentlemen’ who seek to supplement or correct the home-schooling Godwin gave her. The first is an American missionary-cum-government-spy called Dr Hooker, the second an English businessman-cum-government spy named Astley. Each seeks to convert her to his own way of thinking – Astley as a cynical Malthusian, who thinks that keeping large groups of people in poverty is the only way to keep the world in balance, Hooker as a Christian eugenicist who thinks the world should be run by what he terms the ‘Anglo-Saxon race’ (p. 139). In the interests of demonstrating the inferiority of non-Anglo-Saxon peoples, Hooker invites the young woman to disembark with him at the port of Alexandria, where she will see for herself the decline of the once great Egyptian people and thereby learn the necessity for Anglo-Saxons to take charge of the global economy. Before disembarking, Bella/Victoria remembers her previous visit to Egypt under Godwin’s watchful eye: ‘When God took me to see the pyramids,’ she tells Hooker, ‘we left the hotel in the middle of a crowd’, but she did not see the people at the fringes of the crowd who were calling out for money (p. 142). This makes it clear that Godwin had been keen to shelter her from the most brutal facts of politics and economics; his teachings were suitable for the child in Bella’s brain, not the mature young woman she has rapidly become. At Alexandria the dolls in her mind are replaced with actual girls: she sits with Astley and Hooker on a hotel veranda ‘among well-dressed people like ourselves’ while a crowd of ‘nearly naked folk mostly children’ scramble for coins tossed by the wealthy on the dusty ground below the veranda, kept in order by men with whips (p. 173). Among the children is a pair who strike an instant chord in Bella/Victoria (and her tendency to resonate in sympathy with others is indicated by the name Godwin gave her, Bella, the bell – though the name has other resonances too, such as the bell of revolution, the Beauty to Godwin’s Beast, church bells, etc. etc.). The two children are ‘a thin little girl blind in one eye carrying a baby with a big head who was blind in both’ (pp. 173-4). Bella/Victoria takes them at once for her lost daughter and a young sibling, lost to their parents just as Bella/Victoria’s unborn child was lost to her. These Egyptian youngsters, in other words, are immediately identified by Bella/Victoria as citizens of Glasgow – miniature versions of herself and her lost baby – and she at once attempts to take them back to Glasgow with her, only to be prevented by Astley and Hooker on the grounds that they will not be allowed out of the port and onto the ship. The section of her letter reproduced by photogravure, with the ‘blurring caused by tear stains’ and the rips in the paper caused by the pressure of her pen strokes (p. 144), carries material evidence of her immediate reaction back to Glasgow, as a substitute for the children and her yearning to be of use to them.

Bella/Victoria’s letter reproduced by photogravure

Later, Astley points out that the scene in which Bella/Victoria saw the girl and baby might be substituted for the Glasgow doll’s house as a miniature model of capitalist society. In seeing it, he tells her, Bella/Victoria has

seen a working model of nearly every civilized nation. The people on the veranda were the owners and rulers – their inherited intelligence and wealth set them above everyone else. The crowd of beggars represented the jealous and incompetent majority, who were kept in their place by the whips of those on the ground between: the latter represented policemen and functionaries who keep society as it is. (pp. 175-6).

For Astley, this model is like the doll’s house in its inertia; there is no better practical structure to replace it with, though he scrupulously lists the alternative political movements Bella could join in her futile quest to change it, each with its own shortcomings, or so he claims. Then after finishing his list he offers her another doll’s house to play with – a real one. After listing the political choices available to her, he proposes marriage: ‘Marry me,’ he prompts, since

My country estate has a farm on it and a [whole] village – think of the power you will have. Besides caring for my children (who we will not send to public schools) you can bully me into improving the drains and lowering the rents of a whole community. I am offering you the chance to be as happy and good as an intelligent woman can be on this filthy planet. (p. 163).

Bella/Victoria refuses, on the grounds that he has merely offered her ‘the most cunning inducement to lead a wholly selfish life you could offer a woman’ (p. 164). Instead she commits herself to one of the political options he listed – Socialism, whose adherents aim ‘to tax the surplus of the rich and make laws to give everyone productive work in good conditions, along with good food, housing, education and health care’ (p. 161) – a vision pretty much consonant with Godwin’s. And having made this choice, she returns to Glasgow to take her place once again in the ‘tall, gloomy terrace house’ in Park Circus (p. 22), and transform it into a model for the Socialist state.

After all, the house is part way there already. In his medical career Godwin has treated factory workers and animals there for free, while he always uses the back door intended for servants as his preferred entrance (p. 26), and presents the former housekeeper Mrs Dinwiddie to strangers as his mother, despite the fact that she conceived him out of wedlock (he can afford to do this, Bella/Victoria points out, because of his private income). The social hierarchy, in other words, has been partly excluded from this building, though Godwin remains master there in legal terms. Godwin’s affection for and education of Bella/Victoria brought an end to his philanthropic activities, but on her return from Alexandria Bella kick-starts them again, first by demanding to return to Egypt to find and adopt the girl and infant. Godwin informs her that this is impractical, but that there are hundreds of equally destitute children in Glasgow’s East End. He brings home this fact, so to speak, by pointing out that the worst slums can be found on the spot where the nearby University once stood in the East End of the city – its move to the West End, on the next hill along from Park Circus, having been precisely designed to remove it from the dispiriting sight of crowded slums in the University’s back yard.

The ‘sham Gothic’ University of Glasgow, facing the Park

But Godwin also suggests that it is no good adopting children you cannot train to look after themselves in adulthood, and that before this can be done you must learn to look after yourself; the often tritely-used Victorian proverb ‘charity begins at home’ is recalled throughout this section of the novel. Bella/Victoria determines to train as a doctor, and it’s from 18 Park Circus that Godwin plots her difficult path to a medical degree at the University. It’s at 18 Park Circus, too, that he suggests the best role for her husband-to-be, Dr McCandless: he is to be a public health officer because there are ‘no better public benefactors than those who [strive] to make Glasgow better watered, drained and lit – better housed, in fact’ (p. 198). In fact, Victoria’s postscript tells us, Archibald held this role for only a year, after which he effectively became a househusband (Victoria even describes him as ‘a very good wife’ at one point [p. 303]), focusing his energies on improving his home, above all for the benefit of his children. Under his eye the house became what it was before – a place of practical learning – and the couple’s three sons were trained there in socialist principles, and treated to affectionate cuddles (by their father at least) till the age of ten. After this they were sent to Glasgow High School, where they came disastrously into contact with military training and imperialist propaganda.

The editor’s notes at the end of the book trace the future history of the house in Park Circus, in the process developing its significance as a representative part of society in the first half of the twentieth century. Its connection with Socialism continued, so the notes suggest, from the 1890s to the 1920s and 30s, when literary figures like H G Wells (with whom Bella/Victoria had a brief affair) and later Hugh MacDiarmid (with whom she didn’t) and political figures like the revolutionary socialist John Maclean were frequent visitors. The fortunes of the house were depleted by the amount of money Bella/Victoria poured into her clinic in the Cowcaddens, where working-class women and children could go for medical treatment and training, safe and sanitary childbirth, or abortions, paying only what they could afford. By the 1920s Bella/Victoria’s residential space in the Park Circus building was reduced to the basement, to which she moved her clinic after the Scottish medical establishment conspired to have the Cowcaddens clinic shut down. The rest of the house – no longer needed as a family home since the death of her three boys during and after the Great War – was let out, first to university students, then to artists and dancers, turning it from a medical and political hub into ‘one of several unofficial little arts centres flourishing in or near Sauchiehall Street’ during the Second World War (p. 315). In this way it embodies the successive processes of expansion and shrinkage to which the ambitions of British Socialism were subjected in the first half of the twentieth century, from the confines of a single building to the world, from the circuit of a city to the bounds of the United Kingdom, ending on the seeming fulfilment of those ambitions with the election of a Labour Government in 1945. Bella/Victoria hails this moment in a letter to MacDiarmid, while also describing the diminution of her own household to a single Newfoundland dog, and of her client list to a few children’s pets and a couple of hypochondriacs (p. 317). On this sweet-sour note the novel ends, as Bella/Victoria confidently predicts the emergence of a ‘worker’s co-operative nation’ that never came to pass. It’s a vision that will have seemed as improbable in the Tory-governed Britain of 1992, when the novel was published, as the suggestion put forward in the final paragraph that when she died Bella/Victoria’s brain was 66 and her body 92.

Drawing and plan of Park Circus, Glasgow, from Poor Things

Meanwhile the editor’s notes have also identified the house in Park Circus as a site of historical contention. The archivist Michael Donnelly who discovered Archibald’s manuscript uses it as evidence that Archibald’s story is a fabrication. While the manuscript describes the house as having a ‘narrow garden between high walls’, Donnelly’s visit to the building confirms ‘that the space between back entrance and coach-house is too small and sunken to have ever been more than a drying-yard’ (p. 280). The editor Gray, equally determined to prove the manuscript truthful, retorts that this only proves that the coach-house was erected at a later date. The historical-architectural bickering continues in a subsequent note, where the editor tells us Donnelly has shown him the architect’s plans for 18 Park Circus, which include the coach-house, and responds that the fact ‘an architect designed such a feature would not prevent it being built much later’ (p. 285). These different readings of the ‘gloomy terrace house’ transform it into a Frankenstein’s creature of a building, cobbled together in various shapes according to the desires and interests of those who ‘read’ it, a museum curator and a writer-artist, both involved in an imaginative engagement with the intersection of past and future, the known and the unknown, the hoped-for and the actual, the remembered and the forgotten.

Overlapping, too, in the space of the house is the playful utopian space conjured up by Archibald in his memoirs – where he, Godwin and Bella/Victoria cohabit ‘in perfect equality’, having undergone what Victoria calls an ‘equality of deprivation in their childhood (p. 274) – and the unequal space it becomes in Bella/Victoria’s postscript and the editor’s notes. The postscript is devastatingly honest about Bella/Victoria’s contempt for Archibald, for his series of useless self-published books (including a play about Burke and Hare, an epic poem about the Borders cannibal Sawney Bean, and a volume of childhood reminiscences), and for the state of dreamy idleness into which his medical career descended, leaving him a homebody unconcerned with anyone’s happiness but his own and his little family’s. The notes, meanwhile, expose Bella/Victoria’s own decline into obscurity, from being the first female graduate of the medical school at the University of Glasgow, with elevated Socialist convictions, to a solitary idealist whose entire family has predeceased her, dreaming of an impossible future in the narrow confines of a West End basement. Like Archibald’s career, Bella/Victoria’s could be said to go nowhere, side-tracked by idle dreams; and like Archibald she compensates for its increasing irrelevance by self-publishing a series of texts which have as little practical effect as any fantastic narrative.

The subject of Bella/Victoria’s self-published pamphlets is domesticity. After the Great War she is riddled with guilt for what she considers to be her part in the deaths of her sons, blaming herself for the relentless busy-ness that meant she gave little time to their emotional needs, and driving them by neglect into the service of the British Empire. She is convinced their deaths had their roots in her own behaviour, believing that she somehow managed to instil in the boys a sense of the profound contempt in which she held the male body and mind, and which she had imagined herself to be directing only at her husband. For her, their attraction to the military offered perfect proof of their self-disgust. To placate her sense of guilt, she publishes the last of her pamphlets under the title A Loving Economy – A Mother’s Recipe for the End of All National and Class Warfare. The word ‘economy’, as A History Maker reminds us, derives from the ‘Old Greek word for the art of keeping a home weatherproof and supplied with what the householders need’ (p. v). Bella/Victoria’s pamphlet extols the virtue of ‘cuddling’, which refers to the practice of a child sharing a bed with its parents, where ‘it will learn all about love-making and birth control by practical example’, and grow up ‘free of the Oedipus complex, penis envy and other diseases discovered or invented by Doctor Freud’ (p. 308). Contemporary reviews of the pamphlet – accusing Bella/Victoria of erotomania – force her to close her Cowcaddens clinic and retreat to the confines of the West End house. Most of the pamphlets remain undistributed and unread, like Archibald’s literary efforts. Victoria’s recommendation of a new household economy diminishes her influence largely to the circuits of her own household – where her childrearing had already proved ineffectual against the influence of imperialist propaganda. In the process she is effectively erased from a public history which is not yet ready to recognise how ‘private’ domestic practices may lie at the roots of all that is rotten in twentieth-century public life.

Equestrian statue of Lord Roberts near Park Circus, Glasgow. An inspiration for General Blessington?

At this point it’s worth returning to the concept of complicity. How we live, Gray’s novel suggests, on the smallest social scale – as single people, couples and families – makes us complicit in innumerable ways with the large-scale political failures and successes of the community we inhabit. We are made by our environment, yes, but we also make the environment that makes us and our children; our household economy interacts with the larger economy of our neighbourhood, nation and world. The novel traces the way Godwin’s household both reflects on the global economy as it is and offers hope for a new economy as it might be; several new economies, in fact, depending on which version of his household we choose to accept. Alongside his household there are others which reflect a desire to live quite differently, and whose influence can be clearly seen in the archives of history. The most interesting of these alternative households is that of Bella/Victoria’s first husband, General Sir Aubrey de la Pole Blessington, a great man of history – like the brilliant scientist Godwin Baxter – who has been removed from history, thanks to the disgrace of his suicide. Sir Aubrey is famous at the time of his death for acts of brutal destruction, having waged war on the enemies of British imperialism all over the Empire. As we learn more about him, however, it emerges that Sir Aubrey has been bred to wage war on himself; he is consumed with self-loathing, disgusted by his own body and its ill-managed desires, and correspondingly disgusted by the women to whom he feels attracted. His damaged limbs are a consequence of repeated efforts at self-destruction on the battlefield; his penchant for sado-masochism in brothels stems from the same impulse; while his ruined marriage is the result of an inbred contempt for the affections that bind one human being to another, and for the anatomies that propagate those affections. At the end of Archibald’s narrative occurs a scene in which Sir Aubrey seeks to snatch Bella/Victoria back from Godwin; the scene begins in Lansdowne Parish Church but quickly transfers to 18 Park Circus. It culminates in a chapter, titled ‘Blessington’s Last Stand’ (p. 234), in which Sir Aubrey barks out orders and wields a weapon as if on the battlefield, all in the living room of Godwin’s ‘tall, gloomy terrace house’, before being defeated by the powerful woman he seeks to control. At the moment of his defeat, Bella/Victoria snatches his pistol from him and aims it at his chest and Sir Aubrey bellows at her in a kind of ecstasy, ‘SHOOT! I ORDER YOU TO SHOOT!’ At this moment, Archibald tells us, ‘to my ears the order rang backward in history through Balaclava, Waterloo, Culloden and Blenheim to Agincourt and Crécy’ (p. 236). ‘This historical command and passionate plea,’ he goes on, ‘were so powerful that I imagined all the men killed in his battles rising from their graves to shoot him where he stood’ (p. 237). Sir Aubrey’s cry knits the field of battle to the living room carpet, just as Bella/Victoria’s pamphlet knits it to the bedroom by prescribing a capacious double bed as an antidote to war. History has its roots in the household, the space that for so many generations history did not acknowledge, the little space that makes us.

Page design for Poor Things, Chapter 22, with section of lost Who’s Who entry for General Blessington

As it happens, that historical figure General Blessington does not feature in British history. He was erased from Who’s Who after his suicide, either because he disgraced himself by this final act of unauthorised self-destruction (as against authorised self-destruction in military action) or because he had the temerity to die for personal reasons, for causes rooted in the household rather than the state. His disappearance from the history books renders his presence in Gray’s novel an irrelevance, and the book itself a luxury item, filled as it is with fantastically imagined things and people who do not feature in the factual narratives that bestow cultural capital on their readers. Godwin Baxter, Bella/Victoria, Archibald McCandless, all exist (imaginatively speaking) in the forgotten corners of the archives, as shadows at the edges of the old etchings with which the editor fills the last pages of the novel. Spending time and money on them would seem to be an act of reckless self-indulgence, on the part of both the reader and the writer-artist. The care and artistry that have been lavished on the hardback edition of the book – all that strictly unnecessary labour – render it more self-indulgent still, an item to be rejected by pragmatists: financiers, scientists, evangelists, politicians. Except that the book exposes the dreams and desires that suffuse economics, science, politics and evangelism, binding them together with our ungainly bodies and the material conditions of our lives, identifying them as the energies that drive us. It invites us to reconsider what history is, and how it relates to the fantastic. And that’s a story that gets continued in its fine appendix, A History Maker – the subject of a follow-up blog post in a few weeks’ time.

 

Peake and Dickens

Mervyn Peake was passionate about Dickens. You only need to read a few pages of his first completed novel, Titus Groan, to see this at once, even before it has been pointed out – as Peter Winnington points out in his fine biography of Peake – that the scholar-pirate Mr Slaughterboard in Peake’s unfinished early novel of that name owns a complete set of Dickens bound in red leather; or that the hero-villain Steerpike in the Gormenghast books takes his name from the hero-villain of David Copperfield, Steerforth; or that Peake drew a magnificent set of charcoal illustrations for Bleak House in the 1940s, which wasn’t published till after his death.[1] There are Dickensian touches all over his work, and I’d like to point out a few of them in this post.

Peake looked at people with a Dickensian eye. In 1941, after being drafted into the army, he found himself studying his fellow conscripts with a sense of frustration that they should have been doomed to live in time of war – when lives and talents were being wasted at a frightening rate – rather than at a time when they could have served as imaginative material to be worked into a masterpiece of Victorian fiction. He wrote a poem about his frustration, ‘To a Scarecrow Gunner’. It’s not one of his best poems, and he knew it, leaving it in manuscript along with the unfinished Mr Slaughterboard; but it’s worth considering all the same. Here it is, a fourteen-line sonnet:

To a Scarecrow Gunner

The Fates have willed it that you’re living now
And not when Dickens might have watched your face
Your pigeon body and the tousled crow
That on your scalp finds perilous nesting space
And they have willed that Dickens cannot hear
Your sad inconsequent ejaculations
In such a curlew voice, as none may share
The portent of, save in hallucinations.

But so much less do I respect the Fates.

The Fates have willed the always insecure
And muddy forage cap on your dark head
Should not be part of Dickens’ stock and store –
But now sits cocky while the man is dead

Who might have seen what’s lost upon your mates.[2]

Mervyn Peake, 1945

Written as it is in wartime, this lament for what the scarecrow gunner fails to become – a character in one of Dickens’s novels – is rendered more painful by his likely other fate, to serve as fodder for the enemy’s guns. The birds in the poem – crow, pigeon, curlew – all have unfortunate connotations; the crow is a bird of ill omen, as is the curlew (its mournful cry is often thought to presage death), while the pigeon is a game bird whose use to carry messages in wartime makes it doubly vulnerable, as a source of food and a possible enemy instrument. The gunner’s scalp serves as a ‘perilous nesting place’ for his crow-like hair both because he is permanently dishevelled and because he is himself in peril as a soldier. The sound of the gunner’s voice is ‘sad’ because of the danger he is in, his voice unheard in the general din of a global conflict, the ‘portent’ it carries thanks to its resemblance to a curlew’s cry unnoticed by anyone except in the fever dreams or ‘hallucinations’ of the sick or wounded. The reference towards the end of the poem to Dickens being dead could have a double meaning; the scarecrow gunner’s cap ‘sits cocky while the man is dead’, both in the sense that the man who wears it is effectively dead already before being transported to the battlefields of the continent, and in the sense that the author is dead who might have seen his potential as a model for a character in his latest novel. The abrupt ending of the sonnet, then, while on the one hand it can be read as a poetic failing, can also be said to augur the premature ending of this potential. The scarecrow gunner is one of those lost souls in Peake’s work whose condemnation to obscurity robs the world of something extraordinary; and Dickens’s books are full of similar laments for lost potential.

Mervyn Peake, Harold Skimpole, from Bleak House

David Copperfield was obviously one of Peake’s favourite works by Dickens, and it’s a work that’s full of the fear of wasted talent: from the talent of Mr Micawber, who finds it so hard to find an outlet for his natural skills, to that of Rosa Dartle, whose disfigurement by the spoiled boy Steerforth has condemned her to a state of perpetual bitterness and a permanent quest for revenge against all the world apart from the man who actually injured her; from Little Emily, who is engaged to be married to a kindly and devoted fisherman named Ham, but is seduced by Steerforth into running off with him to Europe, ‘ruining’ her good name in the process, to Mrs Micawber, who is thought by her family to have made a disastrous marriage to the always-indebted Mr Micawber, and Agnes Wickfield, who is let down both by her widower father and her young admirer, David, and finds herself facing financial and personal ‘ruin’ as a result. There are several writers in the novel whose writing never comes to anything: Dr Strong, who is compiling a dictionary that never gets beyond the letter D; Mr Dick, who is writing an obscure Memorial which keeps being invaded by the figure of Charles I, decapitating the writer’s ambitions with every appearance. Mr Micawber, too, is a writer, who turns every event in his life, no matter how trivial, into a letter, very few of which succeed in their primary purpose, which is to bring him financial gain. David Copperfield is a writer, but for much of the novel all the writing he has time for is to jot down Parliamentary proceedings in shorthand, while his ill-considered marriage to the childlike Dora Spenlow quickly makes his nascent career as a novelist into a formidable barrier between them that augments their intellectual and imaginative differences instead of cementing their happiness. Relationships in this book are always on the point of collapsing or being destroyed by hostile forces; writing is always in the process of proving empty and pointless; and growing up, which is supposed to bring the potential of a child to maturation, is always being arrested or cut short.

Miss Mowcher, for instance, has stopped growing upwards at an early age and finds her life defined by her diminutive height. Dora has stopped developing intellectually at an equally early age, and finds herself being cheated by every tradesman or servant she asks to help her. Mr Dick, too, is widely perceived as having a childish mind, although his formidable guardian Betsey Trotwood remains convinced of his untapped genius. Mr Micawber is childish in his inability to find gainful employment, his permanent reliance on the kindness of a few good friends; Agnes too is trapped in childish dependence on others by the machinations of the upwardly-mobile clerk, Uriah Heep; Uriah has been forever tainted by the philosophy of the charitable foundation school where he was educated, which taught him to keep proclaiming his own humbleness no matter how fiercely he might resent it (p. 464).[3] For a Bildungsroman, a novel of growth from youth to maturity, David Copperfield is packed with people for whom growth has proved impossible in the teeth of the various social, economic, emotional and educational barriers they have been faced with.

Phiz, Steerforth at school

Perhaps the most striking figure of lost potential in the book is James Steerforth, the seemingly heroic young man who effortlessly wins the affection of people from every social class with his charm and charisma. Steerforth delights the inhabitants of the fishing community of Great Yarmouth, where he chooses to spend much of his time; the sailors and shipbuilders there, whose trades he learns at a whim; the schoolboys at the school where he gains his education – including David, who adores him with a passion; the women who fall for him and whom he betrays. Handsome, clever, rich (like Jane Austen’s Emma), he misuses his abundant gifts to damage the people who love him most as if in a destructive game – a game that proves self-destructive in the end. Rosa Dartle, the woman whose face he scarred and whose life he blighted, considers him to have been in potential worth ‘millions’ of any other person in the novel (p. 644). In practice he does nothing at all except flirt with David, damage Rosa Dartle and his mother, abscond with Little Emily, abandon her, and finally die pointlessly in a shipwreck.

As one might expect from the poet who lamented the lost possibilities of the scarecrow gunner, Gormenghast Castle in Titus Groan positively teems with similar cases of arrested development – to such an extent that Alice Mills has written an entire monograph about ‘stuckness’ in the fiction of Mervyn Peake.[4] In the first of the novel series that bears his name, Titus Groan himself gets stuck in childhood, growing with difficulty until he is ‘not two years old’ in the final chapter of the book that bears his name.[5] He is surrounded by people who are variously imprisoned by habit and custom, from the eremitic castle poet, who walls himself up in his tower with a barricade of books, to the community of the Bright Carvers, obsessively dedicated to the pursuit of carving wood into fantastic shapes while also being doomed to grow suddenly old at the age of twenty. There is the manservant Flay, so devoted to the castle that he has begun to ossify into a moving sculpture himself, and his arch-enemy Swelter the chef, permanently swathed in self-indulgence in the form of the imprisoning folds of fat that engulf him. There is the Countess Gertrude, Titus’s mother, an intelligent and formidable woman who is so wholly absorbed by her birds and cats she has no time for her children. There is his father Sepulchrave, so committed to his library that when Steerpike burns it he goes mad, repeatedly recreating the books he has lost by arranging pinecones on the ground as if on shelves, speaking in blank verse like his favourite dramatists and poets, and transforming himself as if by an act of unhinged imaginative will-power into a Death Owl from one of his tragedies or lost novels. Titus’s sister the Lady Fuchsia is stuck in her position as an impotent family member, ignored by everyone except her doting nurse and the castle doctor; and his aunts, the Ladies Cora and Clarice, are identical twins who are stuck in a permanent loop of mindlessly echoing each other’s thoughts and dreaming of a political coup that will never happen. All these characters embody the capacity of human beings to cut themselves off from one another – and from the past and the future, as the scarecrow gunner is cut off both from Dickens and from the life he might have lived in the time to come, if the deadly rituals of military life had not taken possession of his ‘pigeon body’. Gormenghast Castle is itself the mournful dream of an infinitely fertile imagination left to decay, like the forgotten halls and roofscapes of the seat of the Groans.

If Gormenghast perfectly embodies the lost potential that haunts the characters in David Copperfield, the young antagonist Steerpike embodies the character in Dickens’s book who has the most potential, Steerforth. Peter Winnington has pointed out that Steerforth had already made an appearance around ten years before the publication of Titus Groan in Peake’s unfinished novel, Mr Slaughterboard:

the moment when the dwarf, Shrivel, stands on the table and brushes Smear’s hair to a gloss inevitably brings David Copperfield to mind: the dwarf Miss Moucher [sic] is described by Dickens and memorably illustrated by Phiz, standing on a table, brushing and combing Steerforth’s hair which she has treated with oil.[6]

Phiz, ‘I make the acquaintance of Miss Mowcher’, from David Copperfield

This, Winnington says, is ‘about the closest Mervyn came to borrowing from Dickens’; but the echoes of Steerforth in the kitchen-boy Steerpike have been recognised for years. Steerpike is both charismatic and strangely attractive to others, despite his strange appearance and unsettling personality. Dr Prunesquallor is as arrested by his energy and naked ambition as Fuchsia is entranced by his mimicry of an adventure hero and a circus clown. Skilled, like Steerforth, in every craft he turns his hand to, he is galvanised into action by the birth of Titus, just as Steerforth is galvanised into action when he is invited to share in his young friend David’s personal life: to visit David’s working-class friends in their boat at Yarmouth, to meet David’s childhood sweetheart, Little Emily, and to entrance her adoptive family, slipping easily into their confidence thanks to his friendship with David, and laying his plans to break up their seaside idyll as if challenging himself to provide the most tragic of endings to David’s life story. Steerpike similarly worms his way into the lives of Titus’s family and associates: his sister, mother, father and aunts, the doctor who presided over his birth, the official who oversees the rituals they are obliged to attend, his elderly, diminutive nurse. Steerpike shares Steerforth’s playful brand of wicked humour, his willingness to do harm on a whim, and is at his most strenuously active when laying the groundwork for seemingly pointless acts of villainy: burning Sepulchrave’s library; designing imperial thrones for the aunts which will never be occupied; scrambling up and down a ladder to rescue members of the Groan family from a fire he himself has started; mixing poisons in the Doctor’s laboratory which he never uses, unless for the singularly pointless purpose of killing Nannie Slagg; lurking in a hammock under the Earl’s dining table to listen in on conversations that tell him nothing. His penetration of Titus’s environment is as complete, and as ruthless, as Steerforth’s invasion of David’s.

Mervyn Peake, Steerpike

In the second Titus book, Gormenghast, the former kitchen boy is more maliciously playful than ever, accompanied always by a monkey as if to point up his tricksterish nature. In this book his role as a double for Titus Groan – a kind of malignant substitute for him – is finally confirmed by his purloining of Titus’s boat, a light canoe the boy has imaginatively invested with the personality of the feral girl who was his first crush. And death is Steerpike’s constant companion or shadow, just as it is Steerforth’s. After being seduced and abandoned by Steerforth, Little Emily is urged to commit suicide by the envious Rosa Dartle, while her friend Martha (also ‘ruined’ by illicit sex) almost succumbs to the same temptation as she lingers on the banks of the Thames, before being saved by David and Mr Peggotty. In Gormenghast the young woman seduced by the upstart Steerpike ends by really committing suicide, since there is no one nearby to save her – one more in the trail of victims he leaves in his wake. She dies by drowning, as Martha nearly did. Steerpike, meanwhile, ends his days in water, like Dickens’s Steerforth, as if to atone for driving Fuchsia to despair. As we might expect, Steerpike is at his most strenuously active in the moments that lead to his death, nimbly evading hordes of pursuers, picking them off one by one with his catapult, skimming about the surface of the rising flood waters in his stolen canoe, until he is symbolically trapped in the ivy of the castle walls – and even then he wields his knife in delighted defiance and crows in triumph like a second Peter Pan. His ingenuity and energy are at their peak when there is nowhere left to go, and as a result he is as charismatic in the termination of his story as ever he was in its slow unfolding.

Steerforth’s death, too, contains unnerving echoes of an adventure story for boys. His charisma shines through as David observes him from a distance, labouring away with his less industrious shipmates in a hopeless attempt to fashion an escape from a deadly storm. Watching helplessly as Steerforth’s ship comes to grief among the breakers, David tells us: ‘I plainly descried her people at work with axes, especially one active figure with long curling hair, conspicuous among the rest’ (p. 637); and a few minutes later, ‘four men arose with the wreck out of the deep, clinging to the rigging of the remaining mast; uppermost, the active figure with the curling hair’ (p. 638). Even from far away David notices the beauty as well as the energy of the ‘active figure’, from the curling of his hair – so carefully tended by Miss Mowcher – to the very attractive head-covering that does so little to confine it: ‘He had a singular red cap on, – not like a sailor’s cap, but of a finer colour; and as the few yielding planks between him and destruction rolled and bulged, and his anticipative death-knell rung, he was seen by all of us to wave it’ (p. 639). Steerforth remains distinctive, handsome, stylish and theatrical in his final seconds, just as Peake’s Steerpike when he knows he is about to die promises to savour every second of it in a performance of melodramatic self-indulgence: ‘He would indulge himself – would taste the peculiar quality of near-death on his tongue – would loll above the waters of Lethe’ (p. 741). Steerpike is childish in his death, letting out the ‘high-pitched, overweening cry of a fighting cock’ as Titus strikes at him. Steerforth’s childishness comes out only after his death, when David sees him lying on shore among the ruins of Mr Peggotty’s boat-house, ‘with his head upon his arm, as I had often seen him lie at school’ (p. 640). He does not die alone; in another echo of a boy’s adventure story, the boatbuilder Ham – whose fiancée, Little Emily, Steerforth stole from him – makes a final heroic attempt to rescue his enemy, and drowns in the attempt, adding one more name to the list of lives destroyed by the young man’s influence. In both books – David Copperfield and Gormenghast ­– water comes to represent the threat of obliteration and obscurity, against which the books’ protagonists and villains struggle with every ounce of strength they have. The protagonists keep their heads above the water, while the villains and their victims succumb to it – on the villains’ part, at least, with seeming enjoyment, as they flash their knives and wave their caps in a last farewell.

Frank Reynolds, Uriah Heep

The other David Copperfield connection in the Titus books can be found in Steerpike’s resemblance to the book’s other villain, Uriah Heep. The ambitious clerk who rises to a position of power over the family that previously gave him employment has much in common with Peake’s unscrupulous kitchen-boy, who shares his humble beginnings and vaulting ambition. The pair resemble each other physically in obvious ways: Uriah when we first meet him is a ‘cadaverous’ youth of about fifteen, ‘who had hardly any eyebrows, and no eyelashes, with eyes of a red-brown, so unsheltered and unshaded that I remember wondering how he went to sleep’ (p. 181). Steerpike is seventeen when we first meet him in Swelter’s kitchen. He does not lose his eyebrows and eyelashes until he is almost burnt to death in the process of murdering Barquentine in the second Titus book, Gormenghast, but his eyes are of a distinctive shade of red from the beginning: he has ‘dark-red concentrated eyes’ (p. 111) when he first opens them to look at Fuchsia in her attic, and by the day of his death they have intensified to ‘two red points of light’ or ‘beads of blood’ (p. 743). Uriah is ‘high-shouldered and bony’ (p. 181), and Steerpike when he strips to wash is ‘very thin, very bunched at the shoulders, and with an extraordinary perkiness in the poise of the body’ (p. 115). Uriah is given to spasms of self-deprecating ‘writhing’ – at one point early on he ‘writhe[s] himself quite off [his] stool in the excitement of his feelings’ (p. 194) – and Steerpike undergoes a similar spasm when he begins to realise he has Fuchsia under his spell: ‘A snake writhed suddenly under the ribs of Steerpike. He had succeeded’ (p. 116). Uriah has the daughter of his employer firmly in his sights from the beginning of his rise to power, in much the same way as Steerforth has Little Emily in his sights from their first meeting; and Steerpike’s desire to fascinate Fuchsia stems from a similar conviction, when he first meets her, that she will be useful to him later – and afterwards perhaps from a sheer delight in imposing his power on people weaker than himself.

Phiz, ‘Somebody Turns Up’, from David Copperfield

Uriah’s designs on Agnes Wickfield form part of a long-term plan whose slow working out involves putting the unfortunate girl through what is effectively slow torture, as she watches her father gradually lose his identity under the combined influence of alcohol and Uriah’s remorseless exposure of his calamitous financial dealings. ‘My Agnes is very young still,’ Uriah tells David at one point (p. 310), ‘so I shall have time gradually to make her familiar with my hopes, as opportunities offer’; his hopes being that he can marry her after taking control of her father’s affairs. Peake’s Fuchsia undergoes a similar torture at Steerpike’s hands, as she watches her father slowly lose his reason after Steerpike has burned his beloved library. Both men, as well as Steerforth, worm their way like parasites into other people’s lives, taking possession of their most intimate private spaces – their rooms, their papers, their families, their bodies, their thoughts. And both men, it seems to me, embody this process of parasitical possession and consumption in a metaphor that represents another clear echo of Dickens’s wording in the work of Peake.

Many months after informing David of his ambition to make Agnes his wife, Uriah comes up with a novel way of describing the lengthy process of bringing his plans for her to fruition. ‘I say! I suppose,’ he says to David at one point, as the young man waits for a coach to leave, ‘you have sometimes plucked a pear before it was ripe, Master Copperfield?’ (p. 469). David answers, ‘I suppose I have’; and Uriah tells him: ‘I did that last night’. He is referring to his first abortive attempt to ask Mr Wickfield for his daughter’s hand in marriage, an attempt that resulted in wild rejection. Uriah remains convinced, however, as he tells David, that his plan will succeed. ‘It’ll ripen yet!’ he gloats; ‘It only wants attending to. I can wait!’ Shortly afterwards, David notices him through the coach window, moving his mouth as if in the process of eating the pear. ‘For anything I know,’ David observes, ‘he was eating something to keep the raw morning air out; but he made motions with his mouth as if the pear was ripe already, and he were smacking his lips over it’. Uriah’s gesture is as cannibalistic as it is proprietorial.

Frederick Barnard, Uriah Heep

In this passage, Uriah’s unpleasant anticipation of Agnes’s ripening contrasts to his habit of referring to David by the honorific reserved for young boys. Uriah is always calling him Master Copperfield instead of Mister Copperfield – something he rarely fails to point out whenever he does it. David, in other words, has always been unripe as far as Uriah is concerned, and always will be. This habit of making people seem younger than they are is shared by Steerforth, who feminises and belittles David by calling him Daisy, and by Steerforth’s scheming manservant Littimer, whose every word and gesture makes David think himself terribly young. In the passage I’ve just quoted, Agnes too is infantilised, as Uriah assumes that the only reason for her to reject him is because she has not yet reached maturity – and conversely, that maturation will render their marriage inevitable. At the same time, her prospective maturation is described in terms that wholly subject her to his body as well as his will; ‘smacking his lips’ anticipates the moment when he will effectively ingest her, making her part of himself. For Uriah, Agnes’ qualities and talents are reserved for his use alone, since he has effectively bought her when he took control of her father’s money. David listens to him with all the horror of a man who recognises how far this assumption implies the wastage of Agnes’s qualities and talents.

Mervyn Peake, ‘Sensitive, Seldom and Sad’, from Rhymes Without Reason (1944)

Steerpike has a similar moment of acute acquisitiveness in relation to the woman he desires. Having escaped from a prison cell in which the servant Mr Flay has locked him and climbed across a vast expanse of the castle walls and roofscape, the kitchen boy tumbles in through an attic window and loses consciousness. When he wakes he finds himself in a hidden room that belongs to a young girl: fifteen-year-old Lady Fuchsia, who retreats to this attic to withdraw into her imagination and forget the humdrum life of ritual that enfolds her in the formal spaces of the castle. Little by little Steerpike pieces together the evidence he sees around him of the proclivities and age of the attic’s owner – above all the picture book he finds open on a table, in which he finds a poem about three eccentric old men in a ‘grey and purple world’ (p. 106) and notices on the page the signatory marks of the book’s last reader: ‘Steerpike noticed small thumb-marks on the margin of the page. They were as important to him as the poem or the picture’ (pp. 106-7). Beside the picture-book lie two wrinkled pears, and Steerpike is hungry; he picks one up and notices that a bite has already been taken from its side. Nevertheless he proceeds to bite into the pear himself, as if intentionally to continue his violation of Fuchsia’s personal space as embodied by the attic:

Making use of the miniature and fluted precipice of hard, white discoloured flesh, where Fuchsia’s teeth had left their parallel grooves, he bit greedily, his top teeth severing the wrinkled skin of the pear, and the teeth of his lower jaw entering the pale cliff about halfway up its face; they met in the secret and dark centre of the fruit – in that abactinal region where, since the petals of the pear flower had been scattered in some far June breeze, a stealthy and profound maturing had progressed by day and night. (p. 107)

At this point in the novel Steerpike has only once seen Fuchsia at a distance, through a ‘circular spyhole in the wall of Octagonal Room’ where the Groans were gathering after the birth of the castle’s heir (p. 108). He does not know that she is the proprietor of the attic, the reader of the book who left her thumbprints on the pages, the biter of the pear.  Steerpike’s ascent is as yet only physical – the ascent he has just made up the wall of the castle, which finally severed his connection with the castle kitchens where his own development was cabined, cribbed, confined, hemmed in, by his monstrous master, Swelter the Chef. Steerpike himself is young – only seventeen. But his deliberate biting into the pear that has already been bitten – and the implications of this violation of the ‘secret and dark centre of the fruit’ – prefigures his invasion of the secret and dark centre of the castle, as well as his exploitation of the fruit’s first consumer, Fuchsia, whose personal space he is occupying at the moment he bites – and the trajectory of whose life will be interrupted by his meeting of her within a few pages of the bite. Like Uriah, he will assume that he possesses her from that moment, and that her maturation will provide him with another sumptuous meal like the pear he ate in her attic. But unlike Uriah, Steerpike will succeed in the end in wasting her talents completely – her talent for love as well as for all the various arts her attic contains.

Mervyn Peake, Fuchsia

As he wrote Titus Groan, Peake was intensely aware that the time he lived in was inimical to the process of bringing the rich potential of youth to maturation, especially for young artists such as Fuchsia or himself. Dickens gave him the language and some of the other novelistic techniques he needed to articulate this threat of artistic waste and loss. His version of David Copperfield, however, goes further in fulfilling this threat than Dickens dared to, at least at this stage in his career (Bleak House goes much further). Gormenghast castle and its occupants have been cut off from the historical, familial and economic resources that gave Dickens’s protagonist, David, the outlets he needed to fulfil his potential as a novelist. Cut adrift from the past and the future, as England was cut adrift from the rest of the world by war, Peake’s castle finds itself tossing on a sea of oblivion as deadly as the ocean that drowned Steerforth and threatened to overwhelm his victims, as well as the victims of his red-eyed double, Uriah Heep. At the same time, writing in response to Dickens perhaps gave Peake a sense of control in the chaos of wartime; control, and a promise that the arrested development of his cast of lonely characters might find a way to maturation after all.

Mervyn Peake, Miss Flyte from Bleak House

Notes

[1] See G. Peter Winnington, Mervyn Peake’s Vast Alchemies: The Illustrated Biography (London: Peter Own, 2009), pp. 95, 100, 283. For the full set of Bleak House illustrations see Mervyn Peake, Sketches from Bleak House, selected and introduced by Leon Garfield and Edward Blishen (London: Methuen, 1983).

[2] Mervyn Peake, Collected Poems, ed. R. W. Maslen, Fyfield Books (Manchester: Carcanet, 2008), p. 85.

[3] The Personal History of David Copperfield (London:Hazell, Watson and Viney, n.d.).

[4] Alice Mills, Stuckness in the Fiction of Mervyn Peake (London: Rodopi, 2005).

[5] The Gormenghast Trilogy (London: Mandarin, 1989), p. 365.

[6] Winnington, Vast Alchemies, p. 95.

Alasdair Gray on Alfred Kubin

A few months back I wrote a post on Alasdair Gray. Among other things I mentioned a note he wrote me about the writer-artist Alfred Kubin, which at the time I didn’t have access to because it was locked away in my office at the University of Glasgow, being protected from Covid like the rest of us.

In recent weeks I’ve been able to get back into my office and have been ferrying things back and forward between there and my Glasgow flat. Among other things I ferried my copy of Alfred Kubin’s fantastic novel The Other Side (1908), and when I opened it I found the note I mentioned in the earlier blog post.

My edition of the novel is from 1967, and was published by those friends of the fantastic Victor Gollancz Limited. Here it is with its handsome dust jacket:

As I said in that earlier blog post, this book was first recommended to me by my tutor Christopher Butler, as a superior alternative to the work of Mervyn Peake. Needless to say I couldn’t agree with him on the matter of its superiority, though I found it fascinating, as Kafka did apparently.

And here’s the note, written in Alasdair’s inimitable hand. A transcript follows.

31 July 2002
Office
Glasgow Uni

Dear Rob,

I should have returned this long ago as I finished reading it the morning after the day you gave it to me. I found it fascinating yet repulsive. One of the richest men in the world creates, circa 1900, a small principality in central Asia that is modelled on just such a small German autocratic city state circa 1850. He peoples it with the kind of folk he knew from his schooldays, living in the same kind of buildings. Having completed this static, stagnant world, he dies. It rots away and disintegrates with him. This cannot be called a prophetic story since the 3rd Reich rotted away more violently, through attacking the outer world into overwhelming it back. The style of illustration completely fits the narrative. Both strike me as foosty – modelled from the stuff that collects in vacuum cleaner bags.

BUT thanks for lending it. My response is highly emotional, so despite the foost it did not strike me as dull!

Yours – with thanks – Alasdair

I loved that sentence about the stuff that collects in vacuum cleaner bags. Here’s an example of what he’s talking about:

As a contrast, here’s the Handbook Alasdair designed for the then MPhil in Creative Writing when he was Professor at the University of Glasgow. Look at those clean lines, and the arrogant power of that writer-artist-lion, with his back foot grasping a mouse, his tongue reaching out to lick the quill. No wonder Gray felt sick at the sight of foostiness:

Front
Back

GOODBYE