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Reading My Namesake: Guest Post by Titus Chalk

Titus Chalk finally reads the book after which he was named – Mervyn Peake’s gothic classic Titus Groan.

“Your name is TITUS,” said Sourdust very simply, “TITUS the seventy-seventh Earl of Groan and Lord of Gormenghast. I do adjure you hold each of the cold stones sacred that clings to these, your grey ancestral walls. I do adjure you hold the dark soil sacred that nourishes your high leaf-burdened trees.  I do adjure you hold the tenets sacred that ramify the creeds of Gormenghast. I dedicate you to your father’s castle. Titus, be true.”

I am reading those words in Mervyn Peake’s sprawling gothic fantasy tome Titus Groan, a book I have been meaning to read for the entire 36 years of my life. Rather than the Andronicus of Shakespeare or the Augustus of ancient Rome or even the bible’s missionary Saint Titus, Titus Groan is the Titus after whom I am named. This character, conjured up by cult British author Mervyn Peake, inspired my parents when they brought me into this world. Perhaps they imagined I might become him. They could have chosen to call me Merlin or Genghis – the other names on their shortlist – but mercifully, they went with the name of the 77th Earl of Groan. Titus. It’s who I am.

Titus Groan by Mervyn PeakeI can’t deny it is a special name and I am sure it has influenced my life. That sounds vain no doubt, but I was born in 1980 on a swelling tide of individualism. Self-absorption was in the water and I quickly learned in the playground how few other Tituses (Titi?) there were out there. I was rare. Perhaps even unique. And the two syllables that rolled off the tongue of those around me (I rarely had recourse to say them, which other Titus was I supposed to address?) inspired me on a half-conscious level, in a way the name John might not have. I’m sure I became a precocious little sod. Because I wanted to see my name in lights – or in print – to present it to the world, rather than it let it fade in anonymity. I became in some way performative.

My parents explained to me where the name came from – a book they had both loved, that I should read at some later date. For now, my dad would read me Letters from a Lost Uncle, Peake’s quirky children’s book – and we could laugh and pore over the illustrations together. I didn’t know, then, how serious an artist Peake was. That he had painted untold horrors – including the prisoners of Belsen concentration camp whose liberation he had attended for Picture Post at the end of the second world war. Still, he had a good name, too, and I felt some kinship to him. As if he were my lost uncle – somehow complicit in giving me my identity, suggesting it via a despatch to my expectant parents in the months before my birth.

There came a point later, when I was old enough to read Titus Groan. I may have first tried it around the age of 12 or 13. My Hardy Boys phase was reaching its natural conclusion and I scoured the bookshelves at home for something more serious. I managed a handful of pages and gave up, frustrated by Peake’s meandering sentences and the stately pace of his prose. I felt cheated, that the secrets of my identity were too opaque for me to probe. I shelved Groan and didn’t think about it for a long time.

I went on to read widely, discovering as I went an affinity for language and the written word. I read other fantasy novels – like Tolkien or Terry Pratchett as an adolescent. But I didn’t return to Peake and perhaps even forgot him for a while. It’s possible I lost the strong sense of connection I felt to my “uncle”, as my family moved around the world in unfortunate circumstances. My parents’ business went bust and we emigrated from the UK to New Zealand, before later settling in France. I was a teenager and desperately unhappy, unsure of myself in new surroundings and then even more so in a new language. I lost some sense of myself – so it’s no wonder that I forgot about the other Titus, leaving him to haunt the hallways of the crumbling castle Gormenghast in some other universe, one where there had been room for the frivolity of naming a child after a favourite fantasy novel. Something completely alien to the family life we were then leading.

After finishing secondary school in France, I returned to the UK for university almost a decade after we had fled it. Studying at Bristol, I found myself growing in all kinds of different ways – and reclaimed some self-confidence, some sense of identity that had been lost for a long time. At parties, I had to introduce myself to a new circle of friends and suddenly Mervyn Peake was on the tip of my tongue again, as I told the story of my namesake. I wondered how he was getting on, that Titus, and if I shouldn’t check up on him.

At the Oxfam bookshop on Bristol’s Gloucester Road, I picked up a copy of Titus Groan for 75p, the same one I’m reading now. That must have been in the early 2000s. And still it remained unread. At first, the reason was pragmatic – I was too busy reading for my course to read for pleasure, but later, as I moved to London and then to Berlin, I had to reach further into my bag of excuses to leave the book unread. “I’ll wait until I’ve found all three books in the same edition as the first,” I told myself at one point, letting my Virgoan perfectionism stifle me. But I’m wondering what the real reason was – and why I’ve now, finally, taken the plunge.

A part of me could remember that abortive effort two decades earlier. The book felt so freighted with meaning, that to give it another shot – and to fail once again – would have played into my worst sense of fatalism. Reaching out to the other Titus and not grasping him, again, would have made me wonder if I could ever live up to his name. If the dreams my parents had had for me – and which I had once so gladly aspired to – weren’t impossibly far off. Perhaps I had delusions of grandeur and I would pass through the universe into obscurity with the Petes, the Toms and the Chrises. Perhaps I might never inherit my father’s “castle” – the many things I envy about him in some no doubt oedipal way. The sense that he knew what he wanted to do with his life – to become an illustrator – and was able to do so in a manner which from my perspective can look easy or linear. Or that he was, like much of the boomer generation, able to buy a house – even if that was lost to us along with any sense of security. Or that he had settled down at a young age with a wife and had kids. Or that he seemed content to have done so. To have sired an heir to all this – the next Earl of Groan, for whom wished a similar contentment, but to whom the certainties of his generation looked as ruined as a castle on a mountain with chilly hallways, crumbling walls and rotting roofs.

That leads me to now. Why read Titus Groan now, at the age of 36? It’s funny. That number is the first I can remember my dad telling me when as a child I asked him his age. I’m older now than he was when he and my mum had me. When I get out of my bed, my back hurts, my knees, too, the fallen arch of my right foot. I look at people in their late twenties and am struck by how young they seem. I am single, living in rented accommodation. I am beginning to let go of the idea I will ever have children, that I will ever be able to name them, with the same love and affection my parents did me. I am at a tipping point in my life and it has come on suddenly, like the deck of a ship pitching in a storm. I’m clinging on, white-knuckled, but the ground beneath my feet has changed and my viewpoint has lurched to a dizzying new one. What was once vital and indestructible is now nothing more than a collection of chronic complaints to manage every day. My flesh is mortal. And perhaps more importantly, that of my parents is, too.

What do we really know about our parents? Do we even imagine they had lives before they gave birth to us? That they had a relationship to each other, as intimate and caring and fascinating to them as anything we’ve lived? I suspect it – but I don’t know it, because I don’t talk to my parents about the reality of their lives, only the functional aspect that comes with being in a family together. I don’t know my dad as person. Nor my mum. I know them as the roles they have played on the family stage, upon which I also play a certain role. So much of their being remains secret to me – and as much as I might wish it was otherwise, that we might talk more openly to each other, about our feelings, about our experiences, in the way adults might to one other, I am not sure that is about to happen. The way we communicate has settled into a certain groove – and while part of that is generational, another part is geographical. I’ve been living so far away from my parents for so long, I can’t imagine what it might be like to talk to them on a daily basis – if that might allow us to access some more truthful or emotional register. It’s a question that fills me with guilt – but short of moving to the French countryside where they live, I’m not sure what I can do to know them before they die.

Titus Groan (cover 2)So I have plucked Titus Groan from my bookshelf at last, knowing that this was at one time, their book – in a way I realise is not so distant from the books or films or songs I have shared with partners in previous relationships. It is something that I realise represents a commonality with my parents, a bridge between our private adult lives. I wonder if perhaps without knowing it, this was their gift to me as much as my name – this artefact, this statement about themselves when they were young and in love, a Chinese nurse not long arrived from Malaysia, a happy-go-lucky artist from Hertfordshire. My dad’s tastes – his love of science fiction and fantasy – must have been not only unorthodox at the time but startling to my mum. Certainly it is he who would have introduced her to Mervyn Peake. And yet to know she could see this quirkiness as a virtue, just as my dad did my mum’s own cultural heritage means they must have shared something quite special. A connection that feels very humbling to me, as their son, still unable to put together a functioning relationship after all these years. And yet that connection is also different to the parents I see when I do see them today – worn down by years of disappointment and difficulty, sometimes struggling with life. Perhaps sometimes struggling with each other after so long together. Titus Groan is as much as anything a document of their hope.

It is a difficult book. A couple of hundred pages in, and only now is it getting off the ground. I have no idea how my mum, learning English grappled with it – but then I think back and remember reading literature in my own second language, French; the thrill of it unfolding in front of me, like a code being cracked. I remember too, how my mum has always spoken of her love of Charles Dickens – and can see how his naturalistic attention to detail would have prepared her for Peake. The castle of Gormenghast is what interests him and given how he satirises monarchy, how he revels in the decay of his world, it’s tempting to wonder if the end of the British empire (Peake was writing during World War Two) didn’t also figure into his thinking as he wrote – if he didn’t foresee his newborn Earl of Groan one day ruling over a diminishing kingdom. I wonder if my mother, from the Commonwealth, also sensed this in her reading, if it wasn’t also part of the novel’s appeal to her.

Titus Groan (cover 3)I can imagine that might have appealed to my dad, too. That beyond the fantasy stylings, whose aesthetics would have fascinated him, there wasn’t also an anti-establishment element to the book which he enjoyed. That the old order of things in Britain – particularly the toxic class system, those within and without the castle walls – might be shifting. That the same upward mobility that he and many of his generation were experiencing (my dad’s father was a plumber) might lead to some irrevocable progress. Some seismic societal change, some sort of genuine meritocracy – so his kids might have to fight less to do whatever it might be they wanted to do with their lives, push less against expectation, than he had. In that sense, I find it fascinating he and my mum chose to not only name their first child after a fictional character, but after a fictional newborn – someone with their whole life ahead of them, embarking on a fresh start.

The challenge for me now reading the book, is two-fold. On one hand, it is make it the end of a text that is by modern standards glacially slow, so that I can appreciate fully the story’s archival function as the store of my parents’ hopes, see it as a time capsule of their relationship before I was born. Secondly, to see in it the same hope for myself and for society that my parents may have – rather than to sink into resignation. To believe that there might yet be a crumbling of the old order. That on a personal level, I might feel less oppressed by my own experience of social class. That on a wider level, power structures as reactionary as monarchy might yet be revealed to be as absurd as they are in Peake’s book.

There is also one other challenge. To find pleasure in a book steeped in a sense of mortality, at a time when I am beginning to feel old and when I am scared of losing my parents. Time of course is the hierarchy we can’t topple. But perhaps if I can read a book my parents did when they were at their most vital, I can still get close to them before it’s too late. I can reach out to them as they rattle around their groaning house, which their adult children have left empty and share something in common with them that goes beyond just the contents of a certain book and more into the realms of shared history, shared life experience. While I may never replicate the loving act of naming a child, I can at least tell them how grateful I am they bestowed upon me a name that said so much about them, that has proved so inspiring and which has given me so much food for thought through the three and half decades of my life as the unfulfilled Earl of Groan, violet eyes glowing in the dark.

“There he was. The infant Titus […]  old as the world, wise as the roots as trees.”

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Rating: 9.2/10 (5 votes cast)
Reading My Namesake: Guest Post by Titus Chalk, 9.2 out of 10 based on 5 ratings

3 Comments

  1. Davieboy says:

    Bravo – moving and honest self-exposure. Hope you like the books – I did.
    I’m 60 now, near to your parents’ age I’d guess. I hope they get to read your article; it would mean the world to them.

    • Titus says:

      Hi Davie,

      Thanks so much for reading, im really glad it struck a chord with you. Took a while to get into Groan but enjoying it now for all the reasons outlined above and then some. And yes, im sure my folks will read this and I’m sure in our way, we’ll find a way to be closer.

      All the best to you and your family.

      Titus.

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