Mervyn Peake (9th July 1911 – 17rh November 1968)
“The world is falling to pieces but some of the pieces taste good” wrote Adrian Mitchell in Peace Is Milk.
Amid the ceaseless quest for power and control as we seek to quench the thirst of the ego, it is all too easy to forget that we are flesh and blood and overlook the sentiments expressed in another memorable poem about the beauty and fragility of our brief lives:
TO LIVE IS MIRACLE ENOUGH by Mervyn Peake
To live at all is miracle enough.
The doom of nations is another thing.
Here in my hammering blood-pulse is my proof.
Let every painter paint and poet sing
And all the sons of music ply their trade;
Machines are weaker than a beetle’s wing.
Swung out of sunlight into cosmic shade,
Come what come may the imagination’s heart
Is constellation high and can’t be weighed.
Nor greed nor fear can tear our faith apart
When every heart-beat hammers out the proof
That life itself is miracle enough.
RABBIT, RUN by John Updike (Penguin Books, First published, 1971)
Powerful works of fiction are not dependent on the nobility or likability of the characters.
Two of my favorite fictional creationd are Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov from Crime And Punishment and Mervyn Peake’s Steerpike from the Gormenghast trilogy. Each are prime examples of men behaving badly motivated by a bitter and twisted ambition. Their ruthless and murderous actions are deplorable but they are both fascinatingly complex characters.
Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom is in a wholly different kettle of fish. There is nothing endearing about him and the very banality of his failings mean that he barely qualifies as an anti-hero. He is not a killer, nor does he crave power but his selfishness, random lustfulness and frustration are ugly traits that infect the lives around him.
A one time basketball star, he is unable to come to terms with a humdrum life with a dead-end job and a dismal marriage. He wants out but has nowhere to run.
Updike’s cynical depiction of the human condition is so absolute that we are pitched into the mire of Rabbit’s squallid affairs without a moral compass. We are not required to condone or condemn his actions nor to sympathize when he hits rock bottom to the point that : “He feels underwater, caught in chains of transparent slime, ghosts of the urgent ejaculations he has spat into the mild bodies of women”. Continue reading
One of my favourite writers and illustrators is Mervyn Peake.
I’d rank his Titus Groan trilogy alongside the best of Charles Dickens and the works of Lewis Carroll.
The gothic world within a world of Gormenghast is peopled by freaks, outsiders and eccentrics; in other words, the kind of folks that make life interesting.
Peake’s first published work from 1939 is also full of weird and wonderful characters. Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor was written and drawn for children or, as the back cover blurb says, for “all adults who have not yet lost the gift of dreaming”.
The protagonist is a big, bullying pirate who terrorises his crew and enjoys killing people. But this is before he meets a curious animal in human form “as bright as butter” known only as Yellow Creature.
Slaughterboard who “had never been pleasant to strangers before” is immediately smitten. He and the creature eat, dance, fish and laze in the sun together. He discovers an idyllic life on a pink desert island with his new soul mate.
The moral of the tale? If the circumstances are right, even pillaging pirates can change their wicked ways.
If only more real life tyrants would follow suit.