Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Mervyn Peake Centenary at the British Library

After an infernal tube journey, in which I felt that I might have been working in the kitchens in Gormenghast long enough to become the revolutionary Steerpike, I emerged into the brick, brackish dullness of the British Library. It is a sterile place: but it holds the manuscripts of Mervyn Peake, some of which were on display in a private viewing. They are gorgeous, delicate objects, carefully cross-hatched, writing and drawings all spilling off the page as if Peake could never quite contain the forces within him. Organised chronologically, the exhibition went from Peake's birth in China (an enormous influence on the books) to his death. There were the originals of Gormenghast: Fuschia and Steerpike and Swelter and Flay, looming out of the pages as they had sprung out of the mind of Peake.

Here was a recording of The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb (which caused particular pleasure to one of Mervyn Peake's grandchildren, the singer Jack Penate); here were the original etchings of the Alice in Wonderland illustrations that so elegantly and weirdly complement Tenniel's. I overheard a very old lady say, 'well of course we never knew he was going in for grotesquerie, it was quite a shock'. I wonder who she was. There was lots of wine but no food.

All the children were there (Sebastian, Fabian and Clare), as well as a lineup of actors and writers who then gave readings and talks afterwards in the school auditorium-like and unromantic Conference Centre; however the romance of Peake was enough to overcome that. Miranda Richardson (currently playing the Countess in Brian Sibley's radio adaptation) read the death of Fuschia (which brought to my mind the death of Ophelia, and I wondered if anyone had explored the Shakespearean resonances in Gormenghast); Zoe Wanamaker read of the Countess, Titus and the Thing, in her smoky, elfin voice (she was Cora [or Clarice] in the TV adaptation); John Sessions read too (although I did not recognise him).

On the writerly side we had the shaven-headed and eloquent China Mieville. I must admit I have only read one of his books, King Rat, and I did not like it; but his speech was immensely interesting and well-argued. Gormenghast succeeds because it is almost familiar; Steerpike is a villain but we love him because he wants to bring change to the ossified rituals of the castle. Brian Sibley spoke too (tottering on stage with a stick) about the pleasures of adapting the books for radio, and we were treated to a section of it that brought shivers to my skin. The evening finished with a clip from the TV adaptation, in which the Ladies Cora and Clarice 'unbend' to Steerpike in the lake. It was very witty, and made me want to watch it all over again; alas I only have them on VHS, and no video player to watch them on. Back to the books for me, then.

Read my interview with the Peake children HERE

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