Duckworth Overlook (2011), 138pp hardback, £18.99 cover price
Reviewed by R A Bardy [@mangozoid]
The blurb on the back cover: “In 1946, Mervyn Peake, celebrated author of the Gormenghast novels and illustrator of Treasure Island and Alice in Wonderland, moved with his family to the Isle of Sark. Every Sunday, to animate the long afternoon, he would tell his family fantastical stories about pirates, shipwrecks and the Wild West. Peake –hailed as the creator of modern classics “like rare dreams” (C. S. Lewis)– illustrated these spontaneous tales with delightfully vivid drawings but never set down words to go with them. Now, sixty years later, world-renowned author (and friend of the Peakes) Michael Moorcock has invented stories and songs to go with Peake’s drawings. This brilliantly unique project marks the centenary of Peake’s birth, commemorated around the world on July 9, 2011. Playful, surprising and haunting by turns, it is an extraordinary feat of artistic collaboration across time.”
As it says in the blurb, this is a unique project and a curious beast to boot. To all intents and purposes, Michael Moorcock has compiled a delightful love-letter to Mervyn Peake and fans of his work, building stories, poems and songs around this startling collection of the late great man’s sketches, drawings and paintings.
The book starts with Moorcock offering a lengthy introduction to the man himself, exploring his early childhood years and offering several revealing family photos of Peake with his family and friends as he charts the course of Peake’s life. As a talented and promising boarding school student, Mervyn’s artistic talents prompted his parents to send him to art school, and Moorcock talks us smoothly through his life as a bright, dashing and creative young talent, moving onto his teaching at the Westminster School of Art when it became increasingly obvious he wasn’t going to be able to make a living from his painting, and eventually to his untimely demise at the hands of Parkinson’s Disease. His life in the army –coinciding with the first publication of Titus Groan– is briefly touched upon, before covering his later years on the Isle of Sark with his growing family, and from whence the vast majority of these creative works were created.
Comprised of a selection of main parts, these wonderfully inventive tales are a showcase of Moorcock’s own creative talent, and I defy anyone not to be amused and enthused by the narrative strain throughout the book. In brief, we follow Captain Aoysius Crackers’ journey as he embarks on a pirate’s life initially as Assistant Sea Cook for The Old Porcupine. Gradually he works his way up to full Captain status, taking ownership of The Corsair Gazette and unsuccessfully re-branding it as The Black Leopard, before establishing himself as a modern ‘pirate management executive’ with all the associated hang-ups and headaches the job title entails. This is a hugely amusing and entertaining piece of work, and we get to meet an assortment of his fellow pirates along the way, including Lanky the Scouser, Gloomy Gus, Flap Ears, and Monty Funky (who has a monkey).
As an aside, we are also introduced to Chief Wampum Scrumpum, a member of the Wild West Show (a travelling circus act) who recounts his own tale of his first meeting with Captain Crackers, the infamous pirate extraordinaire. As well as discussing the legendary Native Americans Mickey Ho-Ho and Minnie Ha-Ha, and presenting us with some great circus treasures: Oona the unicorn (who isn’t really), Old Hairy Face the dwarf, Grumpy the disconsolate clown, and Petronella Gullybucket the beautiful giraffe; we’re also introduced to the delights of Island Scrabble, a simpler version of the original because: “We had only been able to rescue twelve letters from the shipwreck.”
Concluding with The Nightmare Races –held every year on All Hallows’ Eve in Badwood– and a couple of charming songs/poems (Dr Carrot’s Gourmet Parrot, and The Winged Terriers of Angoulême), this book was a pleasant and most enjoyable surprise, and a genuine delight to share with my children (aged 6 and 7).
All in all, I loved this: the images are remarkably bright, colourful and amusing, and reproduced here in gorgeously sumptuous detail – it’s obvious Mervyn Peake had something of a gift for creating these illustrations off-the-cuff, and although they will no doubt serve to bring back many delightful smiles and touching memories for his own children, they sit here arranged in such a manner as to evoke these emotions and childhood memories in anyone that ever dared to dream or imagine grand tales of pirates, ships and animals as a child.