June 2010

Arts & Letters

Something about Mary

By Alan Saunders
PL Travers and Mary Poppins

“I’ll stay till the wind changes,” says Mary Poppins to the Banks children after she swept in on the east wind and, overwhelming Mrs Banks, became their nanny. Well, clearly the wind has not yet changed, because Mary Poppins is everywhere these days. She’s a book, she’s a movie and, now, she’s a hugely successful musical.

There were a few nannies in middle-class English life when Mary – why is it so difficult to call her simply by her first name? – first saw the light of day in 1934, but they were more or less unknown in the US when Walt Disney brought her to the screen 30 years later. Now, though, young Puerto Rican and Caribbean women – to whom the name of Mary Poppins might mean little or nothing – lull to slumber the children of the American bourgeoisie, while their parents watch stern English nannies bringing children to order on cable TV.

The archetype of the stern and suited English nanny derives from several sources, all of which ultimately point to the single name of Mary Poppins. You could see the likes of her every weekend in Edwardian London, pushing perambulators in Kensington Gardens and being paid court by guardsmen on leave. These were the nannies who captured the imagination of Helen Lyndon Goff, a Queenslander, born in 1899, who went by the name of PL Travers. Goff’s England was the one chronicled by HG Wells and John Galsworthy – her father’s literary heroes – not the England in which she eventually arrived in 1924, where TS Eliot was the poet of the age and Noël Coward its playwright. Mary Poppins, as depicted in Mary Shephard’s illustrations in the book – whippet-thin, her face “like a wooden Dutch doll”, clad in a calf-length dress, and carrying a carpet bag and an umbrella with a parrot’s-head handle – certainly belongs to the London of young Helen’s dreams and not to the place Pamela made her home.

The same is true of the Mary Poppins we all know, even if we haven’t read the book: the figure from the Disney movie. Julie Andrews’ Poppins, who was prettier and sunnier than Travers’ version, belongs to Edwardian London every bit as much as Eliza Doolittle, the character who had brought Andrews fame on Broadway. The Mrs Banks of the movie became – much to Travers’ indignation – that most Edwardian of characters, a suffragette, whose campaign for the woman’s vote caused her to neglect her family. Mr Banks, who works for a bank, disapproves of his wife’s activities, but he too pays insufficient attention to the children. Mary Poppins’ triumph is to make of them a cosy, 1950s American family.

Travers, though, taps deeper roots than these. She found Peter Pan “extraordinarily naive and engaging”, but the great tradition of English children’s literature – the tradition of Lewis Carroll, Kenneth Grahame, AA Milne and, of course, JM Barrie – was clearly one to which she was a late, though genuine, entrant. What she brought to the party was a mind informed by a serious interest in myth: as a child, she had loved the stories of the Brothers Grimm, Alice in Wonderland and the tales of Beatrix Potter. She was a disciple of George William Russell, known as Æ, who virtually embodies what is called the Celtic Twilight: a poet and an occultist, he was in thrall to Irish folklore and believed he could see the little people. Then there was George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff, a Russian mystic who claimed to have brought wisdom and sacred dances from Central Asia – a man whom it is difficult to think of as anything more than a charlatan.

Mary Poppins She Wrote, Valerie Lawson’s life of Travers (republished this month by Hachette Australia, 414pp; $24.99), skilfully depicts the young woman as she finds a home in this shadowy world of the mind. Travers, probably like many imaginative Australians of her time, felt her sensibilities to be out of kilter with the place of her origins. The fact she was born in Australia was, she evidently came to believe, a mistake. From the scant details of her background – a wastrel English father with family connections in Ireland and a mother whose people originally came from Scotland – she constructed for herself a haunted, Celtic heritage of fairies and magic.

Her sensibility was, then, realms apart from that of the men in Burbank who wrote the movie. She had given them a book that was really a collection of Edwardian fairy stories; they wanted a strong, cohesive narrative culminating in conflicts resolved and happiness achieved.

There is nothing in the movie to match the extraordinary chapter of the book in which the children visit the zoo. Mary Poppins has put them to bed early and quickly. The moon is full and they are summoned by a low, gruff voice, which turns out to belong to a brown bear in a peaked cap and a coat with brass buttons. They find themselves in a zoo where the animals are roaming free, as they do “when the Birthday falls on a Full Moon”, and the cages are full of grumpy humans walking on all fours. These are the people who were still in the zoo at closing time: “Got to put ’em somewhere,” says the lion, who, rather wonderfully, has a mincing voice. The real king of the beasts, though, is not this big cat but the Hamadryad, the ancient, wise and dangerous snake who gives a present of his old skin to the birthday girl. She, of course, is Mary Poppins. Mary, we learn, is the first cousin once removed on the mother’s side of the Hamadryad, but is she really? Did any of it actually happen or was it a dream? The following morning, Mary Poppins insists that it was – “I’ll thank you to eat up your porridge and no more nonsense” – but around her waist the children see a belt of golden snakeskin, and on it, “in curving, snaky writing”, the inscription: “A Present From the Zoo.”

It is not a surprise to find Mary Poppins treated as a sort of goddess. What is a surprise is that her creator allows her an inner life or, rather, allows us access to her inner life. She arrives as a shape, “tossed and bent under the wind”, gradually resolving itself into the form of a woman. She leaves on the west wind, “sailing on and on, up into the cloudy, whistling air”, to the grief of the children. Surely, then, she is a force of nature? No: we learn that she is vain and we are told how she feels when she goes on a date with Bert, who sells matches and is a pavement artist.

In the movie, the date scene becomes the wonderful ‘It’s a Jolly Holiday with Mary’ sequence, notable for its animated dancing penguins and Dick Van Dyke’s peerless mockney accent. It’s Disney doing what Disney does well and, in watching it, we can measure the distance between the movie and the book.

The boundary world, between sleeping and dreaming, so gracefully evoked in the zoo scene of the book, is very much the realm of the Celtic Twilight, whose pale luminance so inspired Helen Lyndon Goff, and it’s just the sort of thing that movies in general, and Hollywood movies in particular, can’t handle. It is interesting to speculate on what the movie of Mary Poppins would look like if it were remade by Peter Jackson, one of the few directors with a poetic imagination worthy of the special-effects technology that can give it solid form. As it is, though, we’ve only got the Hollywood product, and this means a certain solidity. Consider, for example, The Wizard of Oz. It is certainly a magical film, but its magic comes not so much because a poetic whole has been created, but because of specific ingredients: the radiant performance of the young Judy Garland, the beauty of Harold Arlen’s music, the wit of Yip Harburg’s lyrics and the sheer comic invention of Ray Bolger as Scarecrow and Bert Lahr as Cowardly Lion.

This is far removed from the magic of Travers’ work, which derives from the way in which things are seen: glimpsed in the gloom of twilight and dusk or illuminated by the light of the stars and the moon. “Disney seized upon the fantasy world of the books but eliminated their mystery,” Lawson tell us. “He made a film of no ambivalence, no depth and very little sadness.” The film made Travers rich (she was on a percentage) but it also, she came to insist, made her unhappy. In fact, though, her attitude to it had always been ambivalent: she saw it many times and could never deny that children loved it.

She hated the cartoons with their hard lines and bright colours, there’s no doubt about that. In an essay on the making of the movie published five years ago in the New Yorker, Caitlin Flanagan tells the story of the premiere. Travers had not been invited, but she shamed a Disney executive into asking her. At the after-party, in a giant white tent erected next to Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, little Pamela, in her satin gown and evening gloves, strode up to Walt Disney. “Well,” she told him, “the first thing that has to go is the animation sequence.” She had picked the wrong enemy. “Pamela,” replied Disney, “the ship has sailed.” Neither was she very keen on the songs, which is a pity. The Sherman Brothers – Richard and Robert, the Anglophile songwriting team – produced a score filled with vaudevillian bounce (‘A Spoonful of Sugar’, ‘Chim Chim Cher-ee’, ‘Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious’) but ascending, with ‘Feed the Birds’, to genuine beauty and magic. It was not, however, PL Travers’ sort of magic. The Shermans wanted to depict the everyday transformed by fantasy, but Travers hated that word: to her, fantasy meant unreality.

In a way, reality is very important to the Mary Poppins books. They are set not in the fairytale London of the movie, but in an overtly ‘real’ place: Cherry Tree Lane, “where the houses run down one side and the Park runs down the other”, and which you can find by asking the policeman at the crossroads – “First to your right, second to your left, sharp right again, and you’re there.” This, perhaps, is why Goff’s will stipulated that only English-born writers were to be directly involved in the creative process of the stage musical. No Americans and no Sherman Brothers, so the new additional songs had to be written by an English team. Actually, the wonder is that she allowed the old songs to be used at all: the impresario Cameron Mackintosh, whose baby it is, must be a very persuasive man.

Travers was 93 when she granted him an audience. “I knew at once that she was interviewing me,” he has been quoted as saying. He must have passed, because she let him make the musical with the songs she claimed to hate and we can see and hear the results at Her Majesty’s Theatre in Melbourne next month. Inevitably, perhaps, the ads are promising us a “supercalifragilistic” musical but it seems that this is more than just an exploitative riff on the movie. If Mackintosh is to be believed, what we have here is a serious re-envisioning of the piece by a man who loves the books.

Pamela Travers always insisted that she had never actually created Mary Poppins: “Mary just arrived,” she would say. This was in keeping with her mystical view of the world, but perhaps she was right. Mary is always just arriving from somewhere over the horizon of our consciousness, born aloft on a breeze of mystery and magic. Expect the east wind to be gusting down Exhibition Street very soon.

Alan Saunders
Alan Saunders was a writer, philosopher and broadcaster who contributed to the Sydney Morning Herald, the Bulletin and other publications. He was a presenter on ABC Radio National for 25 years where his programs included The Philosopher’s Zone and By Design.

Cover: June 2010
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