There are many parallels between the hero of my last blog, George Orwell, and Mervyn Peake the least of them being that I had the privilege of working on their original papers and manuscripts Ref1. Both were born during the death-throes of the British Empire – both, whilst ancestrally British, were born in far-flung corners of foreign fields – India for Orwell, China for Peake.
Peake left China aged 11 years old, just weeks before the overthrow of the Qing-Manchu dynasty and the establishment of the short lived Republic of China led by the very charismatic Dr. Sun Yat-sen.
Like Orwell, Peake also lived through the almost daily world, social change, turmoil and conflict through out the 1920’s-30’s and 40’s. He was also a prolific poet and artist, lived for a time on Sark, a remote island, was lionized by some of his peers, knew loneliness and despair and died at a relatively early age.
Working on Peake’s manuscripts for Titus Groan, Titus Alone and Gormanghast: on poor quality paper, (symptomatic of the times), and frighteningly fugitive ink, was challenging. His handwriting also left much to be desired (this was long before electric typewriters or word processing) the observation that a spider taking a dip in an inkwell could have done better has some resonance here.
Nonetheless I was immediately drawn into the sepulchral world that is The Gormanghast Trilogy and I read them like a starving man eating dry bread, they have an almost hypnotic quality.
Peake’s novels are described as Gothic fantasy but not the blood curdling horror of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” or Mary Shelly’s “Frankenstein”, which bloodily grab you by the throat virtually from the off. Peake’s type of horror is an insidious creeping mist and before you know it you are submerged by grotesque, often unlikable, characters who whilst at times may give you a glimpse of the odd redeeming features to evoke your sympathy or admiration, this is rarely sustained. His characters emerge crab like from the page and it’s not obvious who you should trust or cheer on, even violet eyed Titus.
What drew me deeper in was Gormanghast Castle itself, which seemed to have a life of it’s own, not like calling a ship ‘She’, the castle is very much a character in its own right, possibly the main one in the book. When all other characters are gone Gormanghast would continue invisibly manipulating and moulding all who lived within it. There were times when one felt that at any moment, in those endless, spider haunted, arches, purposeless passages and poke-holes, some hidden cleft might open and swallow you whole your screams of terror muffled by its gargantuan walls and buttresses. Think of any adjective to describe doom and gloom: foreboding, sinister, dismal, tormented, haunted, morbid, frightful, with rooms called Spider Hall, Lifeless Halls and the Tower of Flints, all these can be applied to Gormanghast and much, much, more. One almost expected dragons to swoop around its towers and spires but don’t say dragons say owls.
Some have likened Gormanghast to the Forbidden City and probably conjure up images of Beijing but in China there are several other labyrinthine royal palaces also deemed “forbidden cities” because the Capital changed from dynasty to dynasty. It is possible to think that his time in China influenced Peak’s work and that may be true of the rituals and ceremonies which are the daily currency of Gormanghast; after all in turn of the century China every petty official, even the tax collector, had their entourage and painstaking methodology, “It was not certain what significance the ceremony held… but the formality was no less sacred for it being unintelligible”, but Kuling-Jiangxi province, where Peake was born, is many miles from Beijing and it isn’t called the forbidden city for nothing only the high and mighty were given entry there, very like Gormanghast.
For me the fascination of Peake’s original hand-written manuscripts, apart from the breadth of language, vocabulary and imagination, are the drawings, like glosses in a medieval manuscript, that Peak penned in the margins or that crawled out from every blot and smudge; I told you his hand-writing was not great calligraphy. Some of his sketches are the disparate characters who inhabit his works: The malignant ambitious kitchen boy Sterrspike with no grasp of the sanctity of human life, “If ever he had harboured a conscience in his tough narrow breast he had by now dug out and flung away the awkward thing – flung it so far away that were he ever to need it again he could never find it.” or Fuchsia, Titus’ sister, the object of Sterrspike’s lascivious fancy, almost ethereal but with little to trace her noble linage, “She tossed her long hair and it flapped down her back like a pirate’s flag. She stood in about as awkward a manner as could be conceived. Utterly un-feminine – no man could have invented it.”. Peake even drew features of the castle itself with beetles, dead flies and book rot in every corner. His drawings inhabit the page the words huddled close about them like the Bright Carvers hovels that clung to the walls of Gormanghast Castle, every squiggle or scrawl fascinates.
It is no coincidence that the works of quite a number of Peake’s contemporaries, disguised as surreal tales, also reflect the darkness, turmoil and decline of the values and morality of the times they were living in. Peake as an official war artist was amongst the first to enter the Bergen-Belsen German POW Camp in 1945 what he saw and recorded in drawings and poems could not fail to colour his world view.
In his poem “Leave Train” Peake declares;
“To live is miracle enough
To live at all is miracle enough
The doom of nations is another thing
Here in my hammering blood-pulse is my proof.”
Orwell’s flawed hero Winston in 1984 and Titus both give up fighting or flee the system it’s just too overwhelming, just to big and they are just too small.
We live in equally turbulent times, of course but we don’t have war on our door step on the same scale. With the 21st century means of sending and sharing information to or from the ends of the earth we are made abundantly aware of the horrors and cruelty in the world around us and if we are honest we are almost desensitized to the horrors and amorality that happen on almost a daily basis. So often today films, books, computer games invariably also reflect the darkness and grim horrors of our own time.
Promoting my work
I am now putting the final touches to my latest novel, I have also changed the title from Children of the Time Oak to ‘Red sky at Dawning’. I had hoped to have it available on Kindle last October. I’ve come to the conclusion that I am not motivated enough to promote my work. I just really enjoy the experience of writing. I’m sorry to disappoint.
Ref 1. University College Library London