Boat - Sebastian Peake on Mervyn Peake, Mr Pye - Slightly Foxed Issue 12

The Call of Sark

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In the summer of 1933, after leaving the Royal Academy Schools where one of his paintings had just been accepted for the Summer Exhibition, my father Mervyn Peake abandoned London for Sark in the Channel Islands. The move followed a recommendation from his former English teacher who suggested, with my father in mind, that ‘the possibilities were unusually rich for artists with a keen sense of things firmly rooted in primitive nature’. The two years he then spent on the island were so idyllic that shortly after the war he decided to return, this time with his family.

The very first voyage we made was wonderful. Off the island of Jethou, midway between Guernsey and Sark, a school of porpoises suddenly made their presence known, gliding beside our boat, the Ile de Sercq, slicing the translucent water just beneath the surface. The porpoises accompanied us most of the way between the islands, and we passengers were transfixed by their speed and elegance. Then in an instant the sleek mammals disappeared, veering off north towards the French coast.

The island of Sark remains the locus for many vivid memories I associate with having had such an unusual father. Decades on, some remain as wide-eyed provoking reminders of him not as mortal father so much as supernatural being, elevating the man way beyond the quotidian. Sometimes, unencumbered by conventional behaviour or any yardstick set by the ordinary, he emitted an almost disembodied energy and bravado, satisfying both the daredevil in him and wonder in the recipient of his ideas.

During the winter of 1947, the coldest on record, when the boat between Guernsey and Sark failed to make the crossing for over three months, and with electricity yet to be installed in our home, true Arctic conditions prevailed. It was during this terrible winter that I became vaguely aware of a gradual accumulation of biscuit tins in the freezing house.

One morning, when it was still quite dark outside, and ice on the frozen window panes adhered like tiny jagged lightning-strikes to the glass, my father knocked

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About the contributor

In 2006 Sebastian Peake celebrated thirty-five years in the wine trade and over twenty speaking about Mervyn Peake at literary festivals, bookshops and English departments both at home and abroad. His memoir A Child of Bliss describes what it was like to have had an eclectic genius for a father.

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