He was an illustrator, painter, poet and novelist; he died over 30 years ago but last Saturday I was at his birthday party. Yes, I was at the 100th birthday party of a bona fide famous person – albeit a deceased one.
Technically speaking, it was actually an opening of a sale-orientated exhibition of Mervyn Peake works to mark his centenary, which doubled up as the launch party for Mr Peake’s widow’s newly published book, Titus Lives, based on manuscripts recently uncovered and fumigated from the Peakes’ attic.
The exhibition itself saw a real rag-bag of work hung from the four walls Hackney’s modestly-sized Last Tuesday Society gallery: watercolours of women, a couple of illustrations, a painting of a couple of pallid lemons set against a black background, figurative pencil drawings. A pile of price lists had been kindly printed off on A4 and were piled on top of Mrs Peake (real name Maeve Gilmore)’s book – which, I learned, shares a kind of dialogue with Peake’s magnum opus, Gormenghast, but should not be considered the next instalment, per se.
As we sipped our (very palatable) G&Ts, the cadence of background chatter lulled. The gallery’s proprietor Viktor Wynd feyly gesticulated for us to rest our bums on the carpet, as Mr Peake Jnr – a real Toad of Toad Hall-looking man – coughed politely before speaking very eloquently and personably of his father and mother. And then, from the corner of the room, three birthday cakes were passed over from the other side of the gin trolley as a mini-procession unfurled. It was slightly surreal seeing Mr Peake Jr step aside to allow his sister to do the candle-blowing honours – and even more so seeing him belatedly blow out the candles on the other two cakes, after being gratefully reminded by some punctilious attendees.
Having enjoyed a slice of Mervyn’s posthumous birthday celebrations (chocolate cake rarely goes amiss), Fred Yeast soon found himself flicking through a copy of Titus Lives while standing next to Peake the younger, who was surreptitiously looking for some catalyst to stimulate small talk. And so he pinned his coat tails to his mother’s book – specifically, the copy in Mr Yeast’s hands.
“You wish to buy one?” he enquired. Fred was enjoying the trappings of the launch party but with no real interest in the book. He was there through a friend and had only a relatively nascent interest in art. And now there was the deceased author’s son, who offered an impeccable eulogy to her only minutes earlier, asking Fred if he would like to purchase a copy of the book.
Mr Yeast felt the tides lapping; he was marooned in unenviable, uncompromising social waters. He felt the descendant’s stare burn a hole in the side of his cheek. Well, cause an itch at least - an itch he duly scratched. Fred often found himself putting his slender fingers towards his head in muted agony. Turning his head, Fred could see the sky darkening outside. Squinting, he could see tiny dashes of rain delicately punctuating the shop’s glass window. The day was passing and rain was falling as forecast. It never rains in London, Fred thought.
“I’m afraid I don’t have any cash on me,” Fred muttered like a chastised Dickensian schoolboy. A paltry excuse. He lifted his fingers from the book and placed it back on the Babel-like tower of hardbacks. Under the harsh fluorescent lights, the imprints of Fred’s moist fingers could be seen on the hardback’s sleeve. Peake noticed and said nothing. He threw back his gin and stood in reticence, unprepared to make another vain attempt at mustering some dialogue.
Mr Yeast, however, managed to salvage the situation. He placed his empty tumbler on the trolley and made for the stairs. The basement was full of relics and full of narratives. None attempted small talk, and for this Fred was glad.
Mervyn Peake’s son is called Sebastian.
More info on Mervyn Peake’s centenary year: http://mervynpeake.blogspot.com/2007/09/forthcoming-talks.html