Tuesday, 6 November 2012


With the trailers over and the first episodes of winter upon us, my thoughts turn to appropriate reading matter, and in particular a perennial favourite.  Mervyn Peake's Letters from a Lost Uncle (from Polar Regions) has been delighting me since before blogs were born; in fact its title alone has given me more pleasure than many entire books.  Peake was a maverick figure in British arts, in that not only did his work span so many forms and genres (illustration, fine art, poetry, prose, plays and theatrical design) but it was generally informed by a uniquely intense and eccentric vision and style.  

Inevitably, not everything that gushed out of this creative ferment into so many moulds was successful; much of the poetry (for which Peake is comparatively little-known, but hats off to publishers such as Fyfield at Carcanet and Colin Smythe for keeping this work in print) is derivative and over-wrought, while even the (pun intentional: Peake loved the form)  towering genius of the Gormenghast books could have been refined with better editing.  Often, however, form, content and talent combined to produce pieces as brilliant as they were individual. I can't think of anything that matches Peake's novella-length rhyming poem of World War II - The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb, and many of the Nonsense Poems are unflawed gems.

Letters from a Lost Uncle is also an entirely successful and highly individual piece (owing something, however, to The Little Prince) that balances its verbal and visual content as well as it combines its appeal to children and adults.  The book comprises a series of letters and drawings from the titular figure which describe his exploits in a version of a polar environment that does not strictly accord with environmental accuracy.  The uncle is an absurd but gentle caricature of the intrepid, self-reliant explorer, having, for example, acquired a swordfish's proboscis for a leg after having lost his natural version in a near-fatal tussle with the same beast. He writes in a comically bluff and irritable style, affecting to disdain the business of writing because it makes him 

'feel like a woman...when there is so much danger and excitement in the arctic to be getting on with'

but gradually becoming both more absorbed and more lyrical as the business of enshrining his adventures for his nephew proceeds, and voicing some typically Peakeish prose as he does so:
'Many and various things happened to me at the coloured ports; in the black harbours, and up creeks of fever'
'Ahead, and every side, great glittering steeples of ice began to show above the horizon, just as though we were approaching a city of glass churches'.
In fact this transition from resentful scribe to rhapsodic journalist can be seen as a metaphor for the transforming powers of creative expression, although not perhaps by the average seven-year old.

In typical Peake fashion, some of the best results arrive when verisimilitude is cheekily poked in the ribs by imagination, such as the appearance of the knotted-tail moose.

The drawings are a superb combination of accuracy, imagination and detail, often with deft comic aspects, and they are beautifully reproduced in the Methuen reissue, which also restores the yellow tint of faded manuscript to the uncle's typewritten passages, on which he has scribbled various addenda in a tiny, cramped hand, and onto which various substances, including blood, are periodically dripped.

The narrative drive for the story, and an element that suffuses it with that spiritual, transcendent quality that characterises the best of this kind of story-telling, is the uncle's quest for The White Lion, a fabled, monarchical figure, to encounter which the uncle has undergone this whole comic quest of adventure, battle, endurance and triumph. The climax of his hsearch is satisfying and enigmatic, and certainly won't be revealed here.

In other words, buy the book, and several spare copies for Christmas presents.

P.S. Those splendid people at Peter Owen ought also to be mentioned in the context of keeping alive Peake's words and images.

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