Growing up with Gormenghast

Fabian Peake on a childhood coloured by the creative genius of his father Mervyn.

The Guardian, Wednesday 17 October 2001


"Go on, Dad, show me your muscles!" As a boy I had huge admiration for my father's physical presence. The flexing of his biceps in response to my request, was a sealing of my already formed opinion that my father was insuperable. Watch out, King Kong!

From an adult perspective, my father was of average build, six feet in his socks, and athletic. He would vault a five-bar gate rather than bother to open it. I spent much of my time studying the physical appearance of both my parents. I looked at their profiles, their ears, hands, ankles and other bodily qualities. My father had black hair, which had been very long when he was a young man. This was accompanied by a single ear-ring which had disappeared by the time I was born, but the hole in his lobe was always visible. So, too, was the bodged tattoo mark on one of his forearms. He'd scratched his arm with something at school and rubbed ink into it.

My father was a man of fads. Between working on illustrations or writing the Gormenghast novels, he would be manufacturing a recorder out of thick bamboo or importing redundant telegraph poles to our garden in Sark, with the idea of erecting a giant pergola for roses. The poles remained where they had been laid.

Once, while experimenting with archery, he displayed the impulsive side of his character. In the garden he showed my brother and me the beautiful yew bow. He placed the notched shaft of the arrow against the taut string, gripping with his index and middle fingers, and shot the arrow vertically into the air above our six- and eight-year-old heads. Up, up, went the arrow. Near us on the grass was an ex-army rubber dinghy that we'd been playing with, no doubt committing amazing acts of heroism in enemy waters. Down, down came the arrow, to bounce alarmingly on the inflated gunwale of the dinghy, only feet from us. Fortunately, its trajectory was in our favour.

We lived on Sark from 1946 to 1949. My brother Sebastian and I went to the school there and also to a school, Les Vauxbelets, on nearby Guernsey. My sister Clare was born on Sark in 1949, the year we returned to England. The winter of 1947 was a rare snowy one for the Channel Islands. My father was writing and illustrating Letters From a Lost Uncle, which was published the following year. He must have had the story in mind when he made us an igloo by stacking blocks of compacted snow in a circle, eventually forming a hemisphere. An Eskimo's face was painted on a pane of glass that had been fitted into the side of the igloo as it grew. This frightened the life out of me, as I believed the face was real.

In the house, my father was even-tempered and contemplative, though every now and then a dragon awoke. He would lose his temper over things that in hindsight appear innocuous. During another snowy winter, this time in Wallington, south London, where we lived from 1953-1960, he built a snowman in the large garden. For some reason I vandalised the snowman by digging a hole in its side, but wouldn't own up when my father discovered it.

His reaction was extreme anger, more about my lack of honesty than the damage visited on the snowman. And yet, earlier, when two friends and I, all aged five, burnt down a haystack on Sark in a prank that went badly wrong, his protective juices rallied to my defence. I'd hidden in a pigsty after the incident, fully believing that I'd be thrown into the tiny, one-cell jail. The island policeman came to our house that evening. As I peered through bannisters, I could hear the mumbling voices of my father and the policeman working out a diplomatic solution to the crime. My grandfather, who was staying with us at the time, offered compensation.

During these years, my father was working on commissioned illustrations for books, such as Alice in Wonderland, and Alice Through the Looking Glass, Treasure Island, and his own Letters From a Lost Uncle. And on Sundays, in his study, he did fantastic drawings for my brother and me, which we collected in special books. These drawings were clearly from the same hand that wrote and drew Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor. There were piratical scenes on board ship, clowns and strange, imaginary animals.

The door to my father's study was always open. As children, we could come and go without feeling excluded. He sat at his large table, leaning over the drawing or illustration in progress. There was a feeling of total immersion in his task, and an atmosphere of quiet and concentration. It was a comforting presence in the house. At times, during the working day, my father took breaks from the intensity of fine cross-hatching, and at these points my mother and anybody that was about, would join him for "elevenses". We could then look at the progress made on the illustration and offer comments. I particularly liked watching the build-up of the pen and ink lines and seeing a character taking shape.

My mother would read out passages of the book to be illustrated, which helped my father corral an idea for an illustration. Once the idea was lodged, he conducted rigorous research into the content of the illustration by trawling through libraries or reference books in his own collection, for idiosyncrasies of hairstyle or peculiarities of costume.

As with the Romantic poets, with whom he identified, he was unashamedly emotional, but his feelings tended to surface through his writing and poetry rather than in extended rhetoric. He had a prodigious memory for poetry and often quoted favourite pieces. One in particular was The Eagle by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, which my father delivered with a quaking voice - especially the last line: "And like a thunderbolt he falls." One of my father's own poems, Poem, probably written in the 1940s, starts with the line, "Thunder the Christ of it. The field is free". In another of his poems, Love, I Had Thought it Rocklike, he describes his initial idea of love as "Rooted and foursquare," before his realisation that "... it was thistledown/ Or the touch of a wand." My father's long poem The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb echoes Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, which he had illustrated in the early 1940s.

But my enduring memory of my father is of him constantly drawing. The whole family would be asked in turn to hold poses ("Stay like that, will you?") such as leaning on a table, or trying out a new pair of stilts. Drawings were used either as things in themselves or as fodder for paintings or illustrations that he was doing at the time. Sometimes I'd be asked to pose for a specific illustration, as in a drawing for Treasure Island where I held a knife in my open palm, poised for throwing. Later on, I recognised my hand in the illustration of the buccaneer with evil on his mind.

My father did not choose to be an artist. Art chose him. And even throughout his long battle with Parkinson's disease, his creative humour and imagination prevailed.


© Fabian Peake