This is the first in a series.
The Small Room
by ELLEN COPPERFIELD
Mervyn Peake’s first home was in a Western enclave in northeast China, in the port of Tientsin. If you walked out his front door for more than a few minutes, you would experience the foreignness of the place wholesale: therefore Mervyn’s parents (his father was a doctor) and his older brother Lonnie felt it was best if Mervyn, in his first years, kept to the premises of their Victorian home.
At first the house, built almost entirely of grey stone, would be enough for him. The year was 1913. In his notes for an autobiography of this period, Mervyn wrote, “Whatever happens, I return and I must return to the compound. Now that I shall see China no more… I am lost without the long dry compound.”
In this very English home, the family’s cook entertained Mervyn by allowing him to kill the chickens for their meals. Dogs, parrots and monkeys were all common sights in the compound. As a child Mervyn began writing rather early. In one note he listed his “Fears”: “the black jersey, the shapes of clothes hung over chair backs, the changeling.” It was not living things which scared him. In Tientsin Mervyn joined the local Boy Scout troop.
Summers were intensely hot in the city. As far north as Tientsin was situated, the winters could be monstrous, too. Mervyn rode a donkey to his first day of school. He found other children engaging, and became best friends with a one-eyed Russian boy who possessed a natural wild streak. “He is my God,” Mervyn noted in his journal. Confined to his Western education, Mervyn was naturally curious about the world outside his enclave. He learned Mandarin, and spoke the language until he died.
When he escaped the compound, he saw lepers and homeless who his father treated medically, and patiently moved from stall to stall where various meats and goods were sold. Chinese medicine was in a state of perpetual infancy, so Dr. Peake trained assistants in basic hygiene and physiology. He went door-to-door to find the pregnant women of Tiantsin so he might administer basic prenatal care.
Mervyn was fascinated by the procedures his father performed, but the sight of needles and blood made him queasy. Still, he sympathized with the deeply ill, finding empathy for amputees, lepers, and other victims of disease. In the summer of 1917, Dr. Peake had plenty of patients: the city had flooded and the heat was unbearable. Mervyn stuck his head into watermelons to cool off. When the heat became too much, the family went to an English mountain resort in the town of Kuling:
Mervyn’s mother Bessie was also a missionary, and she and her husband took Mervyn all over China once he was old enough. Shanghai was the most modern place Mervyn had been, and he found it “a frozen, icy, tinkling horro of mules and motor cars, western houses…. A stench of sweetmeats and dung.”
Mervyn, the man who would become England’s finest illustrator and a mercurially talented novelist, was already drawing what he could. His father Ernest possessed an artistic inclination, photographing all of the strange sights he saw, including radical surgery. He let his young son view these images at the boy’s leisure, and Mervyn would try to draw some of them, reimagining others.
When his wife developed heart problems, Dr. Peake moved the family back to England, purchasing a practice in Surrey, and taking over an estate called Woodcroft. Dr. Peake smoked a pipe and was generally regarded as somewhat strange; such traits are usually written off in a man of medicine. Mervyn was enrolled in Eltham College, where he sometimes ran afoul of the rules. Punishment involved a caning to his precious hands.
To get along, Mervyn further developed his own interests. His cryptic journals of that time in school enumerate what these may have been: “The invisible man. The watchers. Jewels inside hooting like an owl. The sleepwalkers. The fire in the small room.” He might have been expelled from the place as a twelve year old if he had not possessed such a stunning talent for art. Although he read constantly, his spelling was never remotely palatable and he probably suffered from a learning disability. By far his favorite book was Treasure Island.
Even though he liked Eltham, he never graduated or performed well in the place. His instructors frequently remarked upon his uncleanliness, but he rarely quarrelled with fellow students. His brother was working as an accountant in the Phillipines, and Mervyn’s career path was relatively obvious. He enrolled in the Croydon School of Art, two stops away by train from his home at Woodcroft. He did not even last the year there before transferring to a Royal Academy in Piccadilly in 1929.
On his left hand he wore a silver ring with a large, green stone. It was here that Mervyn Peake encountered the opposite sex for the first time in his life.
Ellen Copperfield is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in San Francisco. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.