Although unexpected, it was a privilege to attend yachting cartoonist mike peyton’s wake. There was one last surprise, explains Dick Durham
I went to Mike Peyton’s wake recently. Not surprisingly, because he’s still world- renowned for his wry humour, it was not a gloomy affair. There were about 60 of us mourners standing around a winter bonfire in the marshy acres of his Essex home; two ancient farmer’s cottages knocked into one, where for more than half a century he drew the cartoons for Yachting Monthly, depicting the
follies of man afloat.
Under the swaying poplar forest, which he’d planted himself, we watched clouds racing across the moon and shared our stories of Mike’s lugubrious take on the world of sailing, as well as describing our personal favourite cartoon.
The mood grew more sombre as a Scots piper breathed out Flowers of the Forest, a lament which, as ocean yachtsman Roy Hart explained, had been played after a World War II battle in the Western Desert when soldiers from both sides buried their dead. Mike had been there with the Northumberland Fusiliers and was taken as a prisoner of war, spending years close to starvation in prison camps, first in Italy and later in Poland.
As his eldest daughter Hilary, herself an ocean sailor, and her younger sister Veronica handed round drinks and invited us inside the kitchen for food, it was inevitable that someone would tell the story of Mike’s favourite meal: Alsatian – the dog, not a resident of north-eastern France.
It happened while Mike was incarcerated in a German POW camp in occupied Poland. All the prisoners were under-fed and German guards used Alsatian dogs to herd them back into their dormitories at night. One night, Mike was one of a crew who dog-napped two hounds, then slaughtered, skinned, boned and stewed them.
‘Half of boating is schadenfreude. Peyton captures the glazed anti-glamour of yachting’
When his German captors found the skins thrown casually over the barbed wire of the perimeter fence, it’s unlikely they took it with mild resignation, like so many of Mike’s cartoon figures. As he told me years later: ‘Had we known we was only a few miles from Auschwitz, we might not have been so cocky.’
His wartime experiences most certainly influenced the way he saw life and we are lucky that this baleful prophet took up sailing because his mix of calm with calamity is potent, apposite and unique.
As the comedian and yachtsman Griff Rhys Jones told me, while I was researching Mike’s biography: ‘There is a strong sense of the fatalistic about Peyton. The rain falls. The yachtsman’s shoulders slope. The vessel goes its own way. It’s a very funny vision. Half of boating is schadenfreude. Peyton captures the glazed anti-glamour of yachting. He gets it right time and time again. Fatalism and wishful thinking. How does he do it?’
As we munched our sandwiches a shower of sparks flew up from the bonfire. We all rushed back outside. A large black coffin had been tossed onto the pyre.
It was covered in bas-relief images and rumour spread that it had been donated by a neighbour who supplies props for theatrical and film productions. It had been discarded after use in a Monty Python film, so the story went.
This made one mourner a little uneasy and he edged nearer the blaze. ‘That’s worth money, isn’t it?’
‘Hands off, it’s keeping me warm,’ came the artless Northern accent of Mike, seated in front of the blaze, a plate of sandwiches on his lap.
The 95-year-old cartoonist had wanted to climb in the coffin to receive his guests for the premature wake, but had been forbidden to do so by his family.
‘Havin’ me own wake was bad enough,’ he smiled over a glass of wine, ‘though I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. But gettin’ in the coffin was too morbid, they said.’