When I began writing Under A Canvas Sky a few years ago, forgotten memories came tumbling out with such force that I could almost feel them, touch them, smell them. My father had already been dead for over 40 years and my mother for 25—enough distance for me to be able to reflect with real clarity on my childhood.
Not having known my grandparents myself, over the years I realised I’d missed something I’d never had. And as my children never knew my parents either I didn’t want them to have the same experience. I wanted them to know about the two people I had loved so much.
I started writing, and perhaps I should have been daunted, but I wasn’t. How could I possibly compete in any way with a man so famous for his words? I’d never written before and I couldn’t draw. But only I could know what being the daughter of Mervyn Peake felt like. Of course, I’d always known how hard writing a book actually was, but slowly I began to understand the importance of paring down and throwing away, and looking at the work I’d thought rather good the night before, sometimes I realised what rubbish it was in the cold light of the following morning, and began again. I began to enjoy the process. No one was expecting anything of me, and I was expecting nothing of myself, so I was free. Yet that casual approach turned into me caring very much about how it read, and expecting something of myself. The centenary of my father’s birth was a long way away—and the furthest thing from my mind when I started—and it was oddly wonderful to re-live those days. The emotions that surfaced were a mixture of nostalgia, sadness, pain, joy and most of all, love.
My mother was central to everything. A woman with enormous inner resources and humour, she was the person who looked after us all when, at just 45, my father became ill—firstly suffering a complete breakdown, followed by early on-set Parkinson’s disease. It was a sad time, with my father in and out of mental institutions until his death when I was 19. But I hope my story isn’t too sad. It was such a very happy home to have grown up in. I am immensely proud of my father’s talents, talents that were never squandered or misused, but worked at every day with a vengeance—and I cannot remember a moment when he wasn’t writing, drawing, or painting. But he had something else he was passionate about, and that was his family. He loved family life: the hubbub, the games, the rows, the making up, the noise and the action, the sitting around a crackling fire in a pitch-black sitting room, thrilling us with terrifying ghost stories. He worked best when we were in the house and he could get on with his work just knowing we were there. I am thrilled that my father’s centenary is being celebrated in the way it is, and that he is finally having the success in his country that he deserves.
Clare Peake’s Under a Canvas Sky is published by Constable, priced at £14.99