Mr Pye’s Dilemma

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Our boat journey from Jersey to Sark passes through a dangerous past. The rocks between the two islands are called in Jersey slang the Pater Nosters, for it is said that if a ship were to get too close to them, then prayer was all the mariners had left to save themselves. We notice how Jersey is well defended from the sea: an Elizabethan castle, another fort and then the grinning mouths of German fire-control towers, cadavers of wartime occupation. Jersey has always judged itself worth the effort to defend.

Sark is different. It always has been. The island affects memory as well as scale and time. It is tiny and the clocks seem to run slow. It is always sunny here, even when it isn’t. Sark has no cars. Tractors pull the wider sort of tourist up the hill from the harbour to the houses that might be called Sark’s town. They are the only noise. The rest is seabirds and waves and the hum of people glad to be here. It feels as if nothing can change or ever has. All of which makes Mr Harold Pye seem very strange. He is one of the few who have stepped ashore wanting to change Sark. The eponymous hero of Mervyn Peake’s comic and baffling novel is a short, fat man with a briefcase and a hat. ‘It is just the right size,’ Mr Pye declares as he looks out from the boat. ‘It will do very nicely.’

I first read Mr Pye through child’s eyes, and took a child’s pleasure in the characters Peake draws. ‘Draws’ is the right word, for Peake was a painter and illustrator as well as a poet and novelist, and his characters have vivid images glistening behind the words. I loved Mr Pye and the island characters, drawn huge across Sark’s tiny canvas. I loved the author’s own drawings printed alongside the text, the portly, neat and eager Mr Pye looking towards Sark, the thin and smoking Miss Dredger waiting at the harbour for her lodger to arrive.

The contrast between Mr Pye and Miss Dredger is sharp, and meant to be. An all-important distincti

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About the contributor

Michael Marett-Crosby has just completed his first novel, based on his experiences of working in a UK prison. With that behind him, he spends a lot of time looking out towards the sea.

The illustrations in this article by Mervyn Peake are reproduced with the kind permission of the artist’s estate.

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