Saturday, December 24, 2011


"Happy, happy Christmas, that can win us back to the delusions of our childish days; that can recall to the old man the pleasures of his youth; that can transport the sailor and the traveller, thousands of miles away, back to his own fire-side and his quiet home!"

- Charles Dickens, The Pickwick Papers (1836)

Tuesday, November 29, 2011


Today is the anniversary of the birth of Clive Staples Lewis in 1898.

C S Lewis was the author of many profoundly wise books as well as being the historian and
geographer of Narnia.

Some years ago, I compiled a book of Lewis quotations. If I were ever revising the volume, here are a few more quotes I'd want to include...

Can a mortal ask questions which God finds unanswerable? Quite easily, I should think. All nonsense questions are unanswerable.

Affection is responsible for nine-tenths of whatever solid and durable happiness there is in our lives.

If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end; if you look for comfort you will not get either comfort or truth only soft soap and wishful thinking to begin, and in the end, despair.

A man can no more diminish God's glory by refusing to worship Him than a lunatic can put out the sun by scribbling the word, 'darkness' on the walls of his cell.

The future is something which everyone reaches at the rate of 60 minutes an hour, whatever he does, whoever he is.

You are never too old to set another goal or to dream a new dream.

And from the very human being behind the man of wisdom:

You can't get a cup of tea big enough or a book long enough to suit me.

Monday, October 31, 2011


As a nine year old I regularly scared myself sleepless by reading the stories and poems of Edgar Allan Poe: along with Ray Bradbury, Algernon Blackwood, Dennis Wheatley and M R James, these were the men who fed my night fevers.

I remember, having read Poe's 'The Premature Burial', I lay awake for many hours listening to my heart and waiting for it to STOP! Indeed, I was no terrified that I penned a note for my parents to find. following my demise, instructing them to have my death verified by no less than three doctors!

Here, to celebrate Halloween, is the immortal Vincent Price reading Poe's 'The Raven'. It;s not the best quality recording ever, but it is a superb piece of Gothic playing...

Image: E A Poe by Grant Bond

Monday, August 22, 2011


One of my favourite favourite writers, RAY BRADBURY – author of Fahrenheit 451, The Martian Chronicles, Something Wicked This Way Comes, Dandelion Wine and a legion of other volumes of prose and poetry – is 91 today!

This is how this one-man-book-factory described his boyhood experience of entering the library...
I'd open the door of the library and I'd look in, and all those people were waiting for me in there.

You see, a library is people. It's not books. People are waiting in there, thousands of people, who wrote the books.

It's much more personal than just a book. So, when you open a book, the person pops out and becomes you. You look at Charles Dickens, and you are Charles Dickens, and he is you.

You go in the library and you pull a book off the shelf, and you open it, and what are you looking for? A mirror. All of a sudden, a mirror is there and you see yourself, but your name is Charles Dickens. Or the book is Shakespeare, and so you become William Shakespeare or you become Emily Dickinson or Robert Frost or all the great poets...

You find the author who can lead you through the dark.
I thank the gods of the library for that day when I pulled a book off the library shelf with Ray Bradbury's name on it!

and thanks for leading me through the dark!

Here are are a trio of earlier Ex Libris postings about Ray Bradbury's The Golden Apples of the Sun; Something Wicked This Way Comes; and The Halloween Tree.

And there's more about Ray on the Sibley Blog.

Image: Ray Bradbury by John Sherffius

Saturday, August 06, 2011


From one of Kenneth Williams' letters quoted in Christopher Stevens' biography:

Living with someone always means a denial of self in some way and I suppose I have always known it was something I couldn't accomplish. So I've always stayed on the sidelines. Getting the pleasure vicariously. It's not wholly satisfactory but then of course no lives are...

Only in the channelling of energy – in career or in private life – does there lay the seed of hopefulness. And we can't live without hope...

All problems have to be solved eventually by oneself and that's where all your lovely John Donne stuff turns out to be a load of crap because, in the last analysis, a man is an island...

From Born Brilliant - The Life of Kenneth Williams

Thursday, July 21, 2011


Charles Dickens in 'Night Walks'...

The wild moon and clouds were as restless as an evil conscience in a tumbled bed.

'Night Walks' was originally published in the weekly magazine edited by Dickens, All the Year Round, and was later reprinted in the collection of essays and sketches, The Uncommercial Traveller.

This evocative portrait of London after dark as viewed during Dickens' wanderings as an insomniac can now be found in volume 88 of Penguin Books' Great Ideas series,
Charles Dickens – Night Walks.

Image: 'Hawaiian Moon' by Elizabeth Hoskinson

Friday, July 08, 2011


Upon my golden backbone

I float like any cork,
That hasn't yet been washed ashore
Or swallowed by a shark.

I never seem to want to snarl
In jungles all day long–
I've been so much upon my back
My legs aren't very strong.

It's all because a Pelican
I didn't eat one day,
Decided to look after me
That I behave this way.

And so, while Other Tigers slink
From tree... to tree... to tree,
I lie upon my back and blink,
In Aqueous Ecstasy.

From Rhymes Without Reason, Verses and Drawings by Mervyn Peake, first published in 1944.

The poems from that volume are currently included in Mervyn Peake – Complete Nonsense

Poem and illustration: Estate of Mervyn Peake

Monday, July 04, 2011


On American Independence Day, I wanted to share just a handful of wonderfully wise words from one of my favourite American poets, Walt Whitman.

There was a day when, as a young man, I picked up and flicked through a copy of Leaves of Grass in my local library and then carried it home and, in the solitary silence of my bedroom late at night, read verses in which I met myself.

Ever since, I have been wandering to and fro, back and forth among those whispering leaves...

This is Whitman's 'Miracles' read by the self-styled Tom o' Bedlam...

Tuesday, June 21, 2011


Five years ago, on my Sibley Blog, I had a rant about the then recently announced Penguin’s list of 100 Greatest Books, following which one of my regular readers, Cafrine, commented:
I'd be interested to hear, Brian, what, say, your top ten greatest books of all time would be. We'll even let you pick books from every publisher and not limit you to simply Penguin Books!
As I remarked in reply, any attempt by me to list what I considered 'The Ten Greatest Books of All Time' would be totally meaningless, since I was (and still am) painfully aware that there are thousands of great books that I've still not read - and which, looking at the up-coming (ever shortening) schedule of life, I will probably never get around to reading...

Notwithstanding which, I decided, to submit my personal 'Top Ten Tomes': books that have seized and held my imagination and - in some cases - changed my life or, at least, the way I look at it…

So here they are again (in alphabetical order):

A Christmas Carol - Charles Dickens

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland - Lewis Carroll

Animal Farm - George Orwell

Moby-Dick - Herman Melville

Something Wicked This Way Comes - Ray Bradbury

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe - C S Lewis

The Lord of the Rings - J R R Tolkien

The Sword in the Stone - T H White

The Wind in the Willows - Kenneth Grahame

Titus Groan - Mervyn Peake

Guess what? They were all fantasies, fables or fairy-tales!

How revealing is that?!

Of course the moment, I'd posted the list, I had a pang of conscience about some of the books I'd left off the list and immediately had to add the following top-up post...

One of my readers has just posted her Top Ten Reads --- and has included Mary Poppins, which immediately made me ask why she isn't on MY list! She certainly SHOULD be!

True, I didn't read Miss Poppins' exploits until I was in my twenties (some time after seeing the Disney film), but it resulted in a long friendship with the author and took me to Hollywood to write a sequel - albeit never filmed - to that famous movie. Why, I even wrote the 'Afterword' to an edition of the book (above) that is now sitting on a pile of books near the desk, looking accusingly at me and saying - with a Mary Poppins-type sniff - "Ha, Moby-Dick, indeed!"

And now a copy of Winnie-the-Pooh wants to know how come someone who's written one book (and edited two others), a radio play and two documentaries about the Bear of Very Little Brain and his creator chose Animal Farm instead!

Eeyore observes that there is a donkey in Orwell's book, and Piglet adds that it has quite a few pigs, as well; but Pooh maintains that is "Not the point!" And he's probably right...

So, maybe, what I really need is a Top Twenty list...

Or, maybe it just goes to show the true value of all lists!

I've read a lot of books since those posts, but, you know, for me, those 12 titles are still at the top of the heap!

Tuesday, May 31, 2011


As my BBC radio serialisation, The History of Titus Groan continues to be brought to life in Studio 60a of Broadcasting House, I have been reflecting on the pathways of happenstance that led me to Gormenghast.

It was Lewis Carroll who introduced me to Mervyn Peake: my fascination with the Alice books prompted me to start collecting illustrated editions and one of the earliest ones I stumbled across was illustrated by Peake.

Unlike almost every other artist who had ventured into Wonderland and Looking-glass World, Peake succeeded in throwing off the shackles of John Tenniel and produced pictorial visions for Alice’s adventures that matched the bizarre, often disturbing, text which they accompanied… Who else but Peake would have thought of giving the Carpenter a wood-grained face and, literally, finely chisled features?

Peake’s Alice led me to his illustrated editions of Grimm’s Household Tales and those sea-faring sagas, The Hunting of the Snark, The Ancient Mariner and Treasure Island (below).

My delight in these drawings prompted me – with the impetuosity of youth – to write to the artist’s widow, Maeve Gilmore; and, to my great delight, I was immediately invited to tea at the then Peake home at 1 Drayton Gardens, Kensington.

After tea, Maeve took me into Peake’s workroom, pulled open a drawer and allowed me to browse through folder after folder of her husband's original illustrations.

It was while we were looking through the illustrations for Alice that I discovered that several the illustrations, as first published in Stockholm in 1946, differed from those in the 1956 British edition of the book with which I was familiar.

Being at the time, Secretary of the Lewis Carroll Society (and editor of its newsletter, Bandersnatch) this was a fascinating discovery that I was eager to write up. Maeve, sensing my enthusiasm suggested to Peake’s publishers that I be invited to edit what was the first definitive edition (right) of the Carroll-Peake Alice.

This assignment led to more afternoon teas and a deepening friendship with Maeve who – over the Earl Grey – coerced me into joining the Mervyn Peake Society (of which I would eventually become first Secretary and then Chairman) as well as encouraging me to discover Peake the writer as well as the artist.

I went away and read The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb, Shapes and Sounds and Mr Pye and, inevitably, turned my footsteps in the direction of that mournful mountain of masonry – Gormenghast.

Nothing I had ever read prepared me for that world of ruination and ritual; a realm of endless corridors burrowing through a sprawling edifice of broken, ivy-eaten stone; a cloistered universe inhabited by characters hopeless in their complacency, lost in their self-absorption or burning with the fire of ruthless ambition.

When I became Chairman of the Society of Authors’ Broadcasting Committee and had regularly to attend meetings at their offices at 94 Drayton Gardens, I saw Maeve more frequently: having lunch with her in the basement kitchen that she had entirely decorated (down to the Potterton boiler) with murals or enjoying generously measured gins-and-tonic in the back-parlour - or, as she called it, the 'petite salon'.

It was Maeve who encouraged me to offer the BBC a radio dramatisation of Titus Groan and Gormenghast and whilst she didn’t live to hear the Sony Award-winning production with Sting as Steerpike and a star-studded cast, she listened intently as I read her the scripts in the 'petite salon', and – after refreshing my G&T – offered insights and suggestions and generally guided me through the labyrinthine task.

We often talked about how to get more of Mervyn Peake’s work back into print and looked many times through those folders of drawings and paintings filled with so many dazzling examples of her late husband’s stunning draughtsmanship – such as his then unpublished illustrations to Charles Dickens’ Bleak House with such brilliant pieces as the portrait of the icy and imperious Lady Deadlock, illuminated like a player in a Toulouse Lautrec theatre…

…and the haunting picture of poor, downtrodden Jo the crossing-sweeper with his fear-filled eyes and poverty-pinched features…

Maeve would have been thrilled that so many of those drawings and illustrations were eventually collected in the book, Mervyn Peake: The Man and His Art, compiled by her eldest son, Sebastian Peake, with Alison Eldred and G Peter Winnington.

Published in 2006 by Peter Owen, this volume (more than any earlier collection) is stashed with examples of Peake’s multi-faceted talent: his daringly eclectic range of styles; his fearsome command of every media from the pencil-box and ink-bottle to the paint palette; and his seemingly inexhaustible capacity for perceptive characterisations that capture the comically absurd, the darkly macabre, and the sensually seductive…

I well remember attending the launch of this book at Chris Beetles Fine Art, London, where a selling exhibition of Peake’s work was also on show.

The price-list, naturally, was not reading matter for the faint-hearted or lily-livered, but, as with all such exhibitions, it costs nothing to look and to marvel at the skills of a unique craftsman whose reputation has now deservedly been rediscovered and is rightfully widely celebrated…

However - as is normal in the world of fine art – it is depressing to contemplate the vagaries of fame: remembering that Peake was an artist who, again and again throughout his life, was strapped for cash but who, if he were but alive today, might have expected a healthy cheque from Mr Beetles at the end of the show…

It also occurred to me at the time – looking around at the champagne-drinking chatterers attending the Private View – that, had he been there, Peake would have had his notebook out and been sketching madly…

Then I realised that he had already sketched a good few of the attendees and they were there for all to see --- framed and hung!

The room was papered with Peake’s people but it was also thronging with them too, milling around, unwittingly scrutinising their twins and wondering at their beauty, shuddering at their monstrousness, laughing at their ludicrousness…

The likenesses in line had their counterpoints everywhere: that man with the lantern jaw; this one with the parrot-beak nose; the tall woman with no chin and gimlet eyes; the dwarf with the beetling brows and tombstone teeth, the walking cadaver with the hooded eyes...

Was I fantasising?

, I thought, but then, suddenly I noticed – just beyond Jeffrey Archer – the portrait of Mr Chadband from Bleak House being intently scrutinised by none other than Mr Chadband himself!

For more information about Mervyn Peake: the man, his art and his writings visit the official Mervyn Peake website.

[All images: © The Mervyn Peake Estate]

Tuesday, May 24, 2011


John Lahr writing in his biography of Joe Orton, Prick Up Your Ears, quotes a letter written by Orton's lover, Kenneth Halliwell, that was somewhat facetious in tone, whilst being disingenuously signed, 'Yours humbly'.

Lahr says (and I think it's a great quote):

Humility in laughter is as unwelcome as modesty in a prostitute.

Saturday, May 14, 2011


Ceaselessly cheerful, tirelessly plucky and endlessly resourceful Rupert Bear is ninety years old and yet as youthful as ever.

Rupert first appeared in November 1920 in a comic strip created by Mary Tourtel for the Daily Express newspaper as part of its bid to win readers from their rivals the Daily Mail which featured a popular strip about Teddy Tail.

In 1935, when Mary Tourtel retired, the task of drawing Rupert - and writing his adventures - fell to illustrator and Punch artist, Alfred Bestall.

The following year Bestall produced the evocative art for The New Adventures of Rupert - the very first Rupert Annual…

Out of respect to the Rupert’s creator, Bestall - a modest, self-effacing man - didn’t sign his artwork until after Mary Tourtel’s death in 1948.

Alfred Bestall wrote and illustrated a staggering 273 Rupert stories (mostly for the daily newspaper publication but with others produced specially for the annuals) until his own retirement in 1965.

I only ever saw the newspaper strip when I visited my paternal grandparents, but I was given several Rupert annuals over the years, this being the first...

Heaven only knows where it is now!

What I really loved about Rupert was the format of the albums: the running headings that were a synopsis of each story with little figures in the top corner of each page; the four-frame picture-story, the rhyming couplets that told the story under each picture in not-very-sophisticated doggerel and then the prose telling of the tale that appeared at the bottom of the page just as it did under the panels in the newspaper.

Then there were the activities-pages with puzzles, origami models (which I never successfully made) and, in later numbers, magic painting pages.

And, for me, the highlight of ever annual: Bestall’s wonderful full-colour wrap-around cover plus those enchanting endpapers showing the coutryside around Nutwood and other wonderful landscapes - sometimes seascapes - that combined the real and fanciful into a dreamworld that still haunt the memory…

Then, of course there were the stories - packed with wild escapades, amazing expeditions curious inventions and extraordinary characters that secure these little narratives a place among the most inventive writing for children in the twentieth century.

There were mysteries, too, such as why it was that inside the books Rupert had a white face, hands and boots but on the cover was a brown bear in brown boots!

The one exception (right) was the 1973 annual where someone at the Daily Express impudently altered Alfred Bestall’s artwork for the cover in order to match the interior!

The dozen or so proof copies with a brown-faced Rupert (below) are greatly sought-after and hysterically valuable! In fact, it might just be worth checking your attics!

Another mystery, of course, was the way in which clothed animals and human beings - not to mention giants, wizards, dragons, unicorns, mermaids, goblins, pixies and living toys - cohabited in a fantastical universe.

Former Python (and Rupert-fan) Terry Jones once pointed out how Rupert encounters a talking cat, , in one story, and is utterly astonished by the fact as though he were not, himself a talking bear!

But then, in a way, Rupert isn’t really a bear he is a boy - a young child - you and I, the reader - wearing a bear-faced mask!

Equally curious was the fact that the human characters wear a wide range of costuming: medieval doublets and hose, Georgian knee-breeches and buckle shoes, Victorian skirts and bonnets, ‘twenties plus-fours and brogues and forties three-piece suits.

The last Rupert annual cover Alfred Bestall ever painted was that one on which Rupert turned white, but other artists carried on the work including Alex Cubie, John Harrold and Stuart Trotter who currently has care of the bear and who is, as can be seen from last year's 75th annual (below), a worthy inheritor of the Rupert legacy.

Thanks to everyone who keeps Rupert on the track of new adventures along with his chums - Bill Badger, Algy Pug, Podgy Pig, Willy Mouse, Pong Ping the Pekingese and Edward Trunk...
"Goodness," said Rupert, "it's been such fun,
Ninety years and I've just begun!"

To learn more about Rupert's world, his creators and the annuals, visit The Followers of Rupert

And if you're in the market for some old Rupert Annuals, visit The Official Classic Rupert Bear Mail Order Shop

A version of this post first appeared on Brian Sibley: his blog

Saturday, April 23, 2011


I am currently working on a series of radio plays for BBC Radio 4's 'Classic Serial' based on the Titus Groan novels of Mervyn Peake.

Re-reading Peake's fantastical prose, I came across a wonderful phrase which I had totally forgotten describing of the manner in which the gargantuan chef, Swelter (right), addresses the terrorised kitchen urchins who work for him.

The author, writes of Swelter leaning forward, "dropping each confidential word like a cannon ball smeared with syrup."


This post first appeared on Brian Sibley: his blog

Signed Books: 2 – JOURNEY'S END

Among my collection of signed books are volumes given to me by writers who were also friends along with others by writers, actors and celebr...