'I can't believe it's 10 years...'
Pippa Blake doesn't believe much in anniversaries. "I don't think there's one specific day you might stop to reflect on more than any other," she explains. "There are moments that affect you, make you feel sadness and the loss of a person."
So on December 5 each year, she issues an open invite to her husband's friends to meet for a quiet drink at the Devonport yacht club, or at her local village pub on England's south coast.
But this year, a decade to the day that Sir Peter Blake was killed by pirates while sailing up the Amazon River in Brazil, his widow will mark the occasion with her own tribute: a personal account of her relationship with the late yachtsman.
"I can't believe it's 10 years since Peter died," she says. "Some days it seems as if it happened yesterday. On the other hand, 10 years is a long time ... and maybe it was an opportune moment. It was a very cathartic process and maybe it was time about moving on, in a very positive way."
Cathartic because Blake had to dig through the mounds of old photographs and press cuttings about Peter's life, all still stored in boxes under her bed, sorting some, dumping others, and saving the best handful for the resulting book, Journey.
When publishers Penguin first approached her, she rebuffed them. "I never wanted to write a book. I'm not a writer. And I felt quite a lot had been written in the past and maybe it wasn't necessary."
But she was persuaded by ghostwriter Trish Clark, the daughter of Peter's former backer and friend Tom Clark, who said if the story was told from her perspective, it would bring a fresh angle. "It feels quite right to do this. I am not a great one for anniversaries, but maybe 10 years is significant."
And it has been a good year for her, Blake says, mentioning the book, the marriage of her daughter, Sarah-Jane, to former Blake crewman Alistair Moore, her son James's adventures, and a year of industry in her art studio.
The book is illustrated with Pippa Blake's own abstract watercolours – she was a teenaged art student when she first met Peter in the bar of her local yacht club. They were married within six months. In the book, she says it probably saved her from an upper middle-class lifestyle married to some lawyer in England's Home Counties. "Meeting Peter took me right out of my probably quite safe and comfortable middle-class world, I would say," she expands. "I was already at art school and life was maybe going down a different path, but meeting Peter took me off on his great adventure."
She was not on board with Blake for his famous America's Cup and Round the World campaigns, but she did accompany him on many of his other voyages. She had left his boat 10 days before that Amazon raid, and so the book starts, brutally, at the end: with Blake's clear recollections of being woken at 6 one morning by a group of four friends to be told of Peter's murder; of travelling to tell her daughter, at university, and son, at boarding school, of what had happened.
"I don't feel anger," she says. "For me, the way of looking at it could only be philosophic: OK, the deed was appalling, but it has been done and nothing can bring Peter back so there is absolutely no point in being angry. I had enough emotions without being angry."
They were strange emotions: Blake says Peter's death hurt her most some two years later. "At first, we were almost put on a pedestal," she explains. "Everything was rather surreal. People were post-humously giving Peter awards and we were flown to Johannesburg and to Monaco and back and forth to New Zealand.
"We were looked after like cotton wool, protected and we were so busy that you don't stop and think... then everything came crashing down around me and you realise `Oh God, I've got to get on with life'. You can't always be looked after and protected by friends and family: only you can get on with it.
"There have been some really dark times and some really hard times. You get on with life and you realise the fragility of life, and how you have to make the most of everything. You quickly embrace life."
Blake says she was "vulnerable, frail, overwhelmed" in those first two years and felt harangued by people suggesting memorials for her husband – some motivated only by greed. She's happy with what emerged: the Peter Blake Trust, which organises environmental programmes and awards the Blake Medal for leadership, the Peter Blake Marine Centre in Auckland which runs schools' outdoor-education schemes, and the permanent exhibit on Auckland's waterfront, Blue Water Black Magic. She says she shut down Blake's nascent Blakexpeditions environmental project because without him it seemed pointless.
WHEN SHE was at the lowest ebb, Blake enrolled in a post-graduate art diploma and decided to paint again. She had stopped when she met Peter, "not a hard decision", because she wanted to pursue the adventures that he offered. Returning to study after 30 years reinvigorated her and she now paints fulltime, and has shown in England, and last year in Auckland at Louis Vuitton's Queen St store. She has another show here – her work is on its way in container ships now – in February at Auckland's Artis Gallery, an important step for her: "This is me in my own right at a good gallery, as Pippa Blake, painter [not Peter's widow]: a significant difference."
Blake's studio is behind her home in the West Sussex coastal village of Emsworth, a house remodelled on the New Zealand bach, using grey corrugated iron, and so distinctive it featured in a Guardian story two years ago. She lives a few doors away from the house she grew up in, with her own 60-year-old, 11-foot wooden dinghy moored at the end of her garden. Peter is buried a little further away in Warblington churchyard, beneath a headstone which quotes John Masefield's poem "Sea Fever". She paints, travels a lot around Europe and has a "rich and full" life.
Blake has clearly taken care to retain links to that strange life her husband drew her to. She stays involved in sailing ("too much of my life to say goodbye to it") and was in Alicante this month for the start of the Round the World yacht race.
She's also remained a regular visitor to New Zealand, drawn back in part because of her son James, who is completing a masters in natural history at Otago and engaged on one of Rob Hamill's madcap schemes, rowing from the Sydney Harbour Bridge to the Auckland Harbour Bridge while also working as a travel cameraman. She finds herself here about twice a year, despite "wondering what would happen to this connection: but it has always been strong and funnily enough, become stronger". She arrives here on November 20, for the launch of her book three days later and to ensure James lands safely on New Zealand soil.
Blake doesn't actually expect Journey to sell in England, and anyway "it's for New Zealanders".
The book, reveals that Peter fielded death threats during the fractious 2000 defence of the America's Cup, a time she recalls as "quite loaded, full of incident" and doesn't want to expand upon. And it also explodes one persistent myth: she hates knitting, and so denies authorship of those famous red socks.
Lady Pippa Blake
Born: April 6, 1954 in Portsmouth, England
Married: Peter Blake (1948-2001), children Sarah-Jane and James
Education: Studied at Camberwell School of Art (1972-76) and West Dean College (2005)
Upcoming: Exhibits at Artis Gallery, Auckland, February 2012.
Journey by Pippa Blake is published by Penguin Books on November 23, $50.
Sunday Star Times