Mr Peake & Mr Pye

Mr Peake & Mr Pye

 

Pye1

So begins one of the quaintest and unusual short novels of the 20th century, Mervyn Peake’s Mr Pye. Harold Pye boards the Guernsey to Sark ferry in St Peter Port and in mid August I found myself following in his footsteps. This was part of a brief hop to the Channel Islands and one I was looking forward to especially as the author of the said book had spent a not inconsiderable amount of time on Sark himself during which he planned out and wrote what I regard as one of the greatest sustained flights of imagination in literature – the Gormenghast trilogy (Titus Groan, Gormenghast and Titus Alone).

Sark (left) and Brecqhou

During the 50  minute crossing to Sark (itself just 3 miles long by 1.5 miles wide) I continued to remind myself of Pye’s pilgrimage as he brings a message of love, peace and mutual co-operation to the unsuspecting islanders such as his aggressive landlady Miss Dredger, the insecure artist Thorpe and the island’s resident sexpot Tintagieu. It’s not often that the chance to follow a novel in situ happens but this added an extra twist to my rereading as various other smaller islands such as Herm and Jethou slid by. Right next to Sark itself is Brecqhou which today is the home of the billionaire Barclay brothers and the source of much local controversy.

The local transport system

Soon we (along with Pye himself) were disembarking onto on island most probably renowned as a place where the car – or indeed any other motor vehicles with the exception of farming tractors, lawn mowers and mobility scooters – are prohibited. [For any US readers please think Mackinac Island in Michigan – ironically not all that far from Detroit the home of the American auto industry]. Harbour Hill is a steep climb and the easy way up is via the tractor bus, known locally as the “toast rack”. Once at the top it was time to have a quick wander and coffee before taking the round island tour provided by horse and cart. The shoreline views from Sark are highly picturesque and the tranquil pace at which one proceeds along the cart tracks (no paved roads here) is a reminder of how much simpler life can be without the constant roar and buzz of vehicles not to mention the consequent significant drop in pollution levels. The choice not to have street lighting apparently also makes it a perfect location from which to star gaze.

Highlight of the island scenery is the narrow (3 metres in width) causeway that joins Big Sark and Little Sark together and known as La Coupée. This high ridge 80 metres above the sea was reconstructed straight after World War 2 by German prisoners after the Channel Islands liberation and provides dizzying views. My main reason for wanting to see it was that the climax of Mr Pye takes place there; not that I had got that far yet in my rereading. I won’t spoil the ending by revealing what happens – please read the book and find out or if that’s too onerous take a look at the delightful Channel 4 serial from the mid 1980s which featured Derek Jacobi in the title role.

Self Portrait
Mervyn Peake self portrait

While our very friendly cart driver had given us lots of information about Sark, of Mervyn Peake there had been no mention. So I took the plunge and asked if she knew what house he had lived in while there. I was surprised that the information wasn’t readily available – obviously he wasn’t such a big noise on the island as I might have supposed. I mean I know he doesn’t have the international reputation of a J.K.Rowling or even a Jeffrey Archer but I had supposed that as a well known artistic figure in the area he might have come in for some “bigging up”. I’m assuming you, dear reader, are much more knowledgeable….but just in case you’re also going “Mervyn who?” you should know that he was a fiction writer, poet, playwright, war artist (he visited German death camps shortly after their liberation), painter and an exceptional illustrator – particularly of children’s books. His life was tragically cut short by Parkinson’s Disease but fortunately not before his crowning glory the Gormenghast trilogy was completed (actually he had it in his head to write a whole series of these novels before his rapid decline and demise).

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Me dealing with one of the judges on Masterchef

Gormenghast is quite simply unique in literature and if you’ve yet to discover it I urge you to read it. Fantasy fiction aficionados will love it (though it’s not really fantasy fiction); lovers of Dickens will relish the characterisation and use of language, fans of Gothic literature will recognise that genre’s influence. In 2013 I got to realise an ambition when I was cast in a stage adaptation of Gormenghast as the homicidally unhinged castle chef Abiatha Swelter.

 

 

Not the local conveniences but the Sark nick

Anyway, I digress*… really digress! Fortunately the very nice lady at the Sark Information Centre (next to the two person Sark prison!) could and did tell me more about Peake’s time there. Peake and his family actually came to Sark on more than one occasion and rented a large house quite near to the highest point of the island (the Old Windmill). It’s now a private residence so no going round it unfortunately; there wasn’t even any hint of a blue plaque….I can feel a campaign coming on! And so I had to make do with visiting what used to be the island gallery which had once displayed Peake’s work but was now one of several nick nack shops along The Avenue – the nearest thing Sark has to a High Street. Amongst the usual (slightly disappointing) tourist paraphernalia there, at last, were copies of some of Peake’s books. So maybe there is a small section of the local community that can and does recognise Peake’s achievements.

Following a very tasty try of the local Sark scallops cooked in someone’s kitchen and served on their front lawn (and, OK, the obligatory Channel Islands ice cream) it was time to head back down to the harbour – unlike Mr Pye I was due to return to Guernsey. I buried myself in my book on the way back and with this in one hand and a tourist map in the other I was able to pinpoint where all the action of the novel was occurring and have very fresh memories of several of the places featured in the story. Fortunately the novel is quite short so with a concentrated effort I was able to get all the way through it on that same day. As I sat in bed that evening Mr Pye was headed for La Coupée in a desperate bid…..ah but hang on, I’m not telling you that bit, am I?

To finish here’s some of Mr Peakes’s fabulous art work –

Clockwise: Illustration from Mr Pye, Hitler, The Ancient Mariner, The Avenue on Sark, Long John Silver
*The writer of this blog would be happy to take this author as one of his specialist subjects should he ever find himself on TV’s Mastermind.

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