Is There a Love Connection between Mary Poppins and Bert the Match-Man?

Mary Poppins and Bert Movie Poster

Movie Poster, Walt Disney’s Mary Poppins

The 1964 Disney movie Mary Poppins certainly suggests such an interpretation. However, Mary Poppins’s author P.L. Travers had a different opinion and denied any romantic relationship between these two fictional characters. Who was right? Disney’s screenwriters or the author herself? The answer is not as straightforward as you may think. With the help of Irish historian Brian McKernan, I will attempt to offer a possible answer to this question.

The first Mary Poppins book was published in 1934, but a character in the name of Mary Poppins first appeared in 1926,  under the pen of twenty-seven years old P. L. Travers, in the short story  Mary Poppins And the Match-Man, published on November 13, 1926 in Christchurch’s newspaper The Sun. The story is about a seventeen years old girl, Mary Poppins, the underneath nurse of Jane and Michael and John and Barbara Banks, who on her Day Out, embarks on a magical adventure in a picture drawn by her friend, Bert the Match-Man.

A few years later P.L. Travers redrafted the story and included it in the first Mary Poppins book under the title “The Day Out”.  (If you want to read the two versions of the story side by side, click here.) “The Day Out” is also the basis of the song-and-dance sequence “It’s a Jolly Holiday with Mary” in Walt Disney’s Mary Poppins movie.

Mary Poppins and the Match Man

Valerie Lawson, P.L. Travers’s biographer, wrote that the fact that Disney chose this particular story as an important scene in the movie always irritated P.L. Travers.

She later called “The Day Out” chapter “false” and the weakest of all her Mary Poppins adventures, but never explained why.    

Mary Poppins, She Wrote, by Valerie Lawson

Both versions of the story are rather similar. Bert has not made enough money from his paintings to take Mary Poppins out for tea and raspberry-jam-cakes. Mary Poppins tries to hide her disappointment behind a smile “with both ends turned up” and then Bert has an idea. Why don’t they go into one of his pictures? “Puff!” They go into a picture where it is “all trees and grass and a little bit of blue sea in the distance”. There they have tea, eat raspberry-jam-cakes and go for a Merry-go-Round ride. In the first story they also eat two plates of mussels which in the second version of the story are transformed into two plates of whelks. In one story the tea is served from a brass urn, and in the other from a silver one. In one story they each ride a black and white horse and in the other black and grey. In one story the Merrie-go-Round takes them to Margate and in the other to Yarmouth. But these are minor changes.

Mary Poppins and the Match Man modern

Illustration by Julia Sardà

However, there is one significant change, and that is the way P.L. Travers portrays the relationship between Mary Poppins and Bert. In the first story the romantic aspect is clear:

“Mary!” he cried, and you could see by the way he cried it that he loved her.

Mary Poppins smoothed out her dress and looked hard at her shoes and smiled at the Match-Man all at once, and you knew by that that she loved him too.                                                                                                      

In comparison, the 1934 version is not as explicit.

“Mary!” he cried, and you could tell by the way he cried it that Mary Poppins was a very important person in his life.

Mary Poppins looked down at her feet and rubbed the toe of one shoe along the pavement two or three times. Then she smiled at the shoe in such a way that the shoe knew quite well that the smile wasn’t meant for it.

Why did P.L. Travers change the story? Why was she so adamant about the absence of romance between Mary Poppins and the Match-Man? The answer, at least in part, can be found in McKernan’s reading of the 1926 version of the story.

Mary Poppins board (1)

According to McKernan, the character of Mary Poppins is a personification of young P.L. Travers and Bert the Match-Man the embodiment of her literary mentor George W. Russell (AE). The romance between Mary Poppins and the Match-Man reflecting Travers’s heart felt love for AE at that period in her life. (insert a link to previous post about AE)

McKernan combines other elements from AE’s life to support his interpretation of the story.  It appears from his research that young P.L. Travers nicknamed AE the “Match-Man” gently mocking his habit of leaving behind a trail of spent matches from the constant relighting of his pipe.

AE himself discussed his matches problem in a letter to his friend Lucy Kingsley Porter:   

I think I’ll get my own matches in Letterkenny. I would exhaust any stock you would lay in. I know myself. It’s nearly a box of matches to one pipeful. Mrs. Law used to know where I had been painting when she found a box-full of burnt out matches around a center where I had been sitting. I will let you provide the floor space.

Bert’s painting of pictures on the pavement also supports McKernan’s interpretation of this fictional character. AE had many talents and painting was one of them.  He loved to paint landscapes as well as magical figures inspired by his spiritual visions, and he used to carry chalks in his pockets and draw on pavements, walls and rocks.

AE loved to spend his summer holidays in the northwest county of Donegal in the village of Breaghy, where he rented a room in a hillside cottage, Janie’s-on-the-Hill.  At twilight he would gather his crayons and sketch pad, and head for the hills. 

8MB Women on Hillside.jpgWomen on Hillside, by George William  (AE) Russell

Young P.L. Travers accompanied AE on a few holidays during the 1920’s and went on painting excursions with him. She wrote about how he would paint “no sooner finishing one picture than starting on another. But one felt that this was less a series of emotional excursions than his way of finding out about the world he lived in.

Once, AE offered P.L. Travers a paint-box, chalks and sketchbook affirming that if one has one gift then one has them all.

So, having arrived at his chosen position, a long yellow tongue of sand, laced with a thread of moving water that changed its colour as the sky changed, I sat beside him, making an occasional sweep of a crayon but more intent on watching his way of working than on what was in my sketch book.

The Death of AE: Irish Hero and Mystic, P.L. Travers

P.L. Travers not really interested in drawing herself, climbed on the branch of a nearby tree to observe AE’s crowding the canvas “with creatures from some other world”.  Somehow, busy as he was painting his visions, AE managed, without her noticing it, to sketch a picture of her resting on the tree branch.

…and there was I upon my branch, not at all a part of the scene but in a way a witness to it. As if one stood, unseen, at the portal of Paradise.

The Death of AE: Irish Hero and Mystic, P.L. Travers

Pam sketch by AE

Maybe on that particular day she was not able to see what he saw but she did become part of the magical scene in the story Mary Poppins And the Match-Man. 

Why then did P.L. Travers deny the love connection between Mary Poppins and the Match-Man? Well, by the time she wrote the stories for the first Mary Poppins book, her relationship with AE had evolved and deepened without ever becoming a romantic relationship. And, I also believe she had an additional reason. Mary Poppins had changed too and so had P.L. Travers.

In the first story Mary Poppins is not magical, the magic adventure clearly initiated by the Match-Man, and she dreams a very human dream of a life shared with a partner in a small house with a garden:

 They passed a little red house with sun flowers in its front garden.

“Just the sort of little house I always wanted! said Mary Poppins kissing her white-gloved hand to it.

Mary Poppins And the Match-Man, P.L. Travers, 1926

In the books Mary Poppins is no longer the shy young girl in need of a mentor. In the books Mary Poppins is herself the initiator of the magical adventures and the one dispensing the lessons. She is a self-sufficient, magical creature beyond the laws of our world. She is the “Great Exception”, the Starling in the story “John and Barbara’s Story tells us. She is the only human who has transcended its human nature and accessed to a higher state of being.

P.L. Travers imagined Mary Poppins as a self-sufficient, independent and mysterious creature who feels at home wherever she goes. There is simply no place for the Match-Man next to such a powerful Mary Poppins. At least not in the mind of P.L. Travers.

Hope you enjoyed this post and that you will come back to read more about P. L. Travers and her magical Mary Poppins.   

Re-examining the Relationship between Irish Poet and Mystic AE and Young Pamela L. Travers

2019 Lurgan Book cover

By some serendipitous coincidence Irish historian Brian McKernan found my blog and read one of my very first blogposts: The Lover Archetype and Friend Monkey (I).

I wrote back then that George W. Russell’s (AE) did not reciprocate the romantic feelings of young Pamela and that he failed to make her feel special as a woman, a statement I based on the fact that he wrote to her about his other interests and flings. From that assertion I extrapolated that his attitude reaffirmed Pamela’s childhood experience of not being lovable enough, and then, I concluded that the relationship remained platonic because AE was emotionally unavailable.

My assumption about AE’s emotional unavailability as the primary reason for the platonic nature of the relationship between him and young Pamela prompted McKernan, who has spent the last couple of years researching AE’s life, to reach out and offer a different perspective. The ensuing correspondence gave nuance to my understanding of their relationship. But, before I offer you some snippets from our correspondence, a word about McKernan’s work. 

McKernan’s initial goal was to read about AE “to build up a basic story about him so that his birthplace-Lurgan, could hear his story.”  It appears that AE despite his numerous contributions to the Irish society has been largely forgotten by the public.

AE Exhibition 1

 

AE EXIBITION, Rushmere Shopping Centre, Septembre 2019, Curated by Brian and Michael McKernan

McKernan hopes that the memory of AE’s life and achievements will inspire the younger generations and maybe even reverse the sad reality of Lurgan. Today, says McKernan, Lurgan is “socially divided (Catholic/Protestant, Nationalist/Unionist) and the suicide rate locally among young people is so high, the place needs a role model, a hero they can all celebrate together, and which tells them their town has some greatness in its DNA.” An honorable mission.

AE Exhibition 2

After spending considerable amount of time immersed in the world of AE, McKernan developed a true appreciation of his genius. His admiration grew as he realised that AE “acted differently from most men” because of his spiritual beliefs and visions which made him experience life on a different level than most men.

McKernan explains that AE considered ordinary human love to be of an ephemeral nature. He aspired to a higher, more lasting spiritual connection:

AE understood, as we all generally do, about romance, lust and temptation, but he believed so much in a higher love, where two people’s spirits meet, that he forced himself to hold back from the lower base human lust. He wrote a poem ‘The Spell’ in which he directly addresses the opportunities coming his way (sex, lust, romance) and how feeling that he is too old for this is pretty annoying. He regretted letting Pam (P.L. Travers) down. He regretted letting others down. Sometimes he wished he could just let himself succumb to temptation.

THE SPELL   

Now as I lean to whisper

To earth the last farewells,

The sly witch lays upon me

The subtlest of her spells:

Beauty that was not for me,

The love that was denied,

Their high disdainful sweetness

Now melted from their pride:

They run to me in vision,

All promise in their gaze,

All earth’s heart-choking magic,

Madness of nights and days.

These gifts are in my treasure,

Though fleeting be the breath;

Here only to wild giving

Is love made fire by death.

This spell I put upon thee

Must, in thy being burn,

Till from the Heavenly City

To me thou shalt return.

About AE writing to Pamela about his other crushes, McKernarn writes:

As for his ‘other flings’ and writing about them, that was not something he did a lot, but with Leah Bernstein, Simone Tery and Pamela he enjoyed their attention, like forbidden fruit, and they enjoyed this little bit of nonsense and fun too.

There was nothing false about the relationship says McKernan. “AE was simply reluctant to romance the outer Pamela and preferred the more lasting spiritual bond to Pamela’s inner self. And Pamela was reluctant to “jump all over him for a brief breaking down of a slightly awkward and hindering barrier”. The bond between Pamela and AE was strengthen by their shared similarities. “Pamela shared so many similarities with AE – like her sharp wit, innate intelligence, deep and sincere spiritual outlook.”

Anyhow, one thing is certain, AE’s influence was transformative and tributary for setting the course of Pamela L. Travers’s life as a writer and for the creation of Mary Poppins. McKernan writes:

He (AE) completely welcomed her into his world and circle of friends – something she needed. Before this transformative friendship began, she was floating quite aimlessly, with no sense of place. He gave her full acceptance and status.

In her essay The Death of AE: Irish Hero and Mystic, Pamela writes about her relationship with AE. “I do not know in which role he saw me, as a daughter, acolyte, apprentice, or as all three…” “Was he intentionally educating me, I wondered! No matter: it was being done, with or without intent.

Despite the initial infatuation, the relationship evolved into one between a teacher and his student and lasted until AE’s death ten years later. Their bond extended to AE’s son Diarmuid Russell who became Pamela’s literary agent and then to Diarmuid Russell’s daughter Pamela, who was named after her.

All this indicates that AE appreciated young Pamela enough to resist the initial temptation. He was wise enough and aware enough of his personal situation, age, his marriage to his ailing wife and, of course the fact that Pamela wanted a life he couldn’t give her. It is possible then that he wrote to her about his ‘other flings’ precisely because he wanted to maintain a certain distance in order to preserve a lasting relationship. He played the role he knew he could fulfill, that of the guiding mentor.

Pamela wanted to be a poet and it was through poetry that she met AE. However, McKernan notes, it was AE who finally moved her from poetry to prose, “just like he moved his friend William Butler Yeats from Art (painting) to poetry”. If it was not for AE, McKernan believes, there would be no Mary Poppins for us.

He helped her to develop the characters, plots and stories which became the Mary Poppins’ books. Although he had never accepted any financial gain for helping his protégés, he did accept a share of her first Mary Poppins’ royalties in 1934 as he had been so involved in the process.  

In my next blogpost I will tell you more about the connections between AE and Mary Poppins as revealed by McKernan.

Hope you’ll come back to read more about Pamela L. Travers and her Mary Poppins.

 

Intertextuality and Psychology in P.L. Travers’s Mary Poppins Books by Julia Kunz

Intertextuality Mary Poppins

Julia Kunz’s book Intertextuality and Psychology in P.L. Travers’s Mary Poppins Books is a short, scholarly work written in a very straightforward manner. It is a must read for anyone who is interested in the Mary Poppins books, and like me, in P.L. Travers’s creative process. The pages of this book are filled with accurate observations and I believe that P.L. Travers would have been pleased with Kunz’s analysis of the Mary Poppins’s stories, except maybe for Kunz’s comments about Gurdjieff  (P.L.Travers’s spiritual teacher) in chapter seven.

There are two threads in Kunz’s book as the title itself suggests. One leads towards an explanation of the conceptual interconnections between the Mary Poppins stories and the childhood readings of P.L. Travers, and the second leads the reader towards a short demonstration, in the light of Freud’s concept of the ‘uncanny’, of some psychological aspects in the Mary Poppins stories.

Apparently, the method of connecting psychology and literature in order to extract meaning originates with Freud, and thus Kunz’s psychological analysis points to repressed childhood wishes expressed in the Mary Poppins stories. However, she does not connect the psychological features of the stories with P.L. Travers’s psychological struggles.  But then, there is so much to tell about P.L. Travers and her Mary Poppins, that clearly one book can’t cover it all.

What is intertextuality? It is a concept used in the literary field. Literary scholars view any given text as a network of texts, which implies that authors don’t create independently in a vacuum, but rather link, consciously or not, previously read literary and non-literary texts.  Kunz’s thesis is that some of the Mary Poppins stories (from the first four books of the series) can clearly be linked to Peter Pan, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and the works of E. Nesbit, and of course, to fairy tales.

Psychology Mary Poppins

For example, and without any spoilers, Kunz links the story of Halloween* with the shadow of Peter Pan, Alice’s chaotic experiences down the rabbit hole with the strange adventures of Jane and Michael, and the story of the Marble Boy ** with Nesbit’s book The Enchanted Castle.

Kunz also makes extremely interesting, in my opinion,  parallels between Nesbit and P.L. Travers’s life experiences. Apparently, both these authors experienced early childhood trauma; Nesbit just like P.L. Travers lost her father at an early age and had a difficult relationship with her mother. Both had an interest in spirituality and esoteric teachings, and both led quite unconventional lives.

In her work Edith Nesbit then attempts to revive a female mythology, drawing on the theosophical writings of Helena Blavatsky and Annie Besant (cf. Knoepflmacher 1989, 320), just as Travers instils her writings with the esoteric teachings of Gurdjieff, whose cosmogony is in part linked to that of Blavatsky.

Intertextuality and Psychology in P.L. Travers’s Mary Poppins Books, Julia Kunz

I was pleased to read Kunz’s assertion of the value of the Mary Poppins books for the adult reader.  Kunz points to one obvious fact, yet one that is still largely disregarded by the public:

P.L. Travers transmits her knowledge to the reader on an unconscious level. The Mary Poppins stories tackle universal problems in symbolical ways but also with the help of parables and fables modeled on the traditional fairy tale structure.

The conclusion of the book is that the Mary Poppins stories offer an endless ground for exploration, and that is something that fills me with joy and encouragement.  This year I am revisiting the Mary Poppins books with the intention of compiling my own ideas and connections and hopefully writing the book I’ve been dreaming to write since I started blogging about P.L. Travers and Mary Poppins.

__________________________________________________________________

* A story in which shadows are having a party on the lawn outside of the Bank’s house.

**A story about a marble statue that comes to live.

Celebrating New Year’s Eve with Mary Poppins

Mary Poppins Opens the Door

There is a story about the celebration of the New Year’s Eve in the third Mary Poppins book, Mary Poppins Opens the Door published in 1943. “Happy Ever After” is its title, and I think it appropriate for this time of the year to ponder on its meaning.

Mary Poppins Happy Ever After

“When igzackly does the Old Year end?”

“Tonight”, said Mary Poppins shortly. “At the first stroke of twelve.”

“And when does it begin?” he went on.

“When does what begin?” she snapped.

“The New Year”, answered Michael patiently.

“On the last stroke of twelve”, she replied, giving a short sharp sniff.

“Oh? Then what happens in between?” he demanded.

Of course, in her usual manner, Mary Poppins refuses to give any answers and puts Michael, Jane, John and Barbara to bed instructing them to go to sleep at once. Michael rebelliously declares that he will stay awake and watch the New Year arrive. Jane decides to follow his lead, but a few minutes later the children are all fast asleep.

“Suddenly, through the silent night, a peal of bells rang out.”  “Boom said the Big Ben”. Jane and Michael are now wide awake and confronted to a strange scene taking place in the Nursery. Their favorite toys, the Golden Pig, Alfred the Elephant, Pinnie the Monkey and the Duck are alive and on their way to the Park.  There, under the silver light of a round white moon, the most amazing party is taking place. Characters from fairy tales and nursery rhymes are “moving backwards and forwards in the shimmering light.”

New Year Party Mary Poppins 1

The astonished children meet the Three Blind Mice and the Farmer’s Wife, Miss Muffet and the Spider, Humpty-Dumpty all in one piece, the Unicorn and the Lion, Jack-the-Giant Killer and his Giant, the Old Woman in the Shoe, Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf and many more. All these characters are talking, laughing and dancing together on music played by Mary Poppins!

New Year Party Mary Poppins 2

The sight is dumbfounding. How is it possible for Humpty-Dumpty to be whole when all the King’s men could not put him together again? And, how is it that Miss Muffet does not fear the Spider?  And why is not Little Red Riding Hood scared of the Wolf?

Mary Poppins Humpty Dumpty

It is Sleeping Beauty who explains the mystery. They are all in the Crack, the space between the first and last stroke of midnight.

And inside the Crack, all things are one. The opposites meet and kiss. The wolf and the lamb lie down together, the dove and the serpent share one nest. The stars bend down and touch the earth and the young and the old forgive each other. Night and day meet here, so do the poles. The East leans over towards the West and the circle is complete. This is the time and, my darlings – the only time and the only place – where everybody lives happily ever after.

Harsh as it may be, this is a necessary lesson to learn for Jane and Michael if they are to be prepared for adulthood. Life here on our planet is anything but peaceful. Minds and hearts are divided. Opposites clash. Peace for all remains a dream that seems possible only in the Crack. That of course is almost like saying it is all an impossible dream. The realization of the inescapability of life struggles, obstacles and dangers prompts Michael to ask:

“Shall we too, Mary Poppins?” he asked blurting out the question.

“Shall you too, what?” she enquired with a sniff.

“Live happily ever afterwards?” he said eagerly.

 A smile, half sad, half tender, played faintly around her mouth.

“Perhaps,” she said thoughtfully. “It all depends.”

“What on, Mary Poppins?”

“On you,” she said quietly, as she carried the crumpets to the fire…

Mary Poppins teaches the children (and all who want to be taught) that there is always hope, even in seemingly hopeless situations if one takes responsibility for one’s own mind. Nursery rhymes, fairy tales and myths are the mirrors of our own minds and hearts, and they reflect back to us our struggles.

The question then is: Are we to dance to the cacophony of our inner and outer conflicts or are we to be the ones playing the music? How are we to reconcile the opposing forces in our lives? Mary Poppins doesn’t tell us how, but she tells us that it is possible. She has done it!

We can be happy ever after; it all depends on us! 

Happy New Year to all!

Christmas Shopping with Mary Poppins

Christmas Shopping Mary Poppins

(illustration by Júlia Sardà)

Would you like to go Christmas shopping with Mary Poppins? I know I would, for the obvious reason, the outing would most certainly entail some kind of unexpected magical experience. And who wouldn’t enjoy a little magic? Although, Mary Poppins’s magic is never meant to entertain.

No, despite all appearances, Mary Poppins’s magic has a much more serious purpose. And, it is not the one conveyed by Disney’s movie “Mary Poppins” (and even less so by the sequel “Mary Poppins Returns” ). Mary Poppins does not visit the Banks family to save them or Mr. Banks, as another Disney movie “Saving Mr. Banks” suggests.

Mary Poppins comes to teach the Banks children, and all those who read the original stories, about life and its mysteries. The essence of these stories is mystical and with each subsequent book* (as the spiritual journey of P.L. Travers evolved) they become more and more spiritually infused.

I thought that a blog post about the story Christmas Shopping from the first Mary Poppins book published in 1934 would be an appropriate theme for this time of the year.  

Christmas Shopping Mary Poppins 2

(illustration by Júlia Sardà)

It is almost Christmas, and Mary Poppins, Jane and Michael Banks are riding the bus on the way to the Largest Shop in the World. Jane and Michael are excited:

                                    ‘I smell snow’, said Jane, as they got out of the Bus.

                                    ‘I smell Christmas trees’, said Michael.

And what does Mary Poppins reply?

                                    ‘I smell fried fish?’ said Mary Poppins.

Now, this is Mary Poppins! She never gets overly excited and she never gives away any sign that something magical is about to happen. And why would she? There would be no magic without an element of surprise!

Of course, Mary Poppins’s attitude does not stop Jane and Michael from being excited about Christmas and from marveling at the toys displayed in the windows of the Largest Shop in the World. The children take their time because, by now, they know Mary Poppins, and they know that there is nothing she likes more than to look at her own reflection in shop windows.

Christmas Shopping Mary Poppins 4

(original illustration by Mary Shepard)

Jane and Michael are looking for presents for their family. The Toy Department is definitely the designated place for such a purpose; a clockwork train with special signals for Daddy, a small doll’s perambulator for Mommy, a mechanical beetle for Robertson Ay, a pair of spectacles for Ellen who, by the way, doesn’t have any eyesight problems, and Robinson Cruose for the twins to read when they grow up. You get the gist. The children are choosing for themselves. And what does Mary Poppins do? Nothing. She lets them do as they wish, for she does not interfere with their choices, at least not in an obvious way. And anyhow, she it too busy having an argument with Father Christmas over a cake of soap. Now, it is time for tea, and they have to leave the store. Understandably, Jane and Michael are not ready to tear themselves away from the toys.

But Mary Poppins hurried on and they had to go with her. Behind them Father Christmas was waving his hand, and the Fairy Queen on the Christmas Tree and all the other dolls were smiling sadly and saying. “Take me home, somebody!” and the aeroplanes were all beating their wings and saying in bird-like voices “Let me fly! Ah, do let me fly!” Jane and Michael hurried away, closing their ears to those enchanting voices, and feeling that the time in the Toy Department had been unreasonably short.

Just at that very moment, when the children are about to walk out of the shop, a flickering figure of a child pops out of the spinning door at the shop entrance. The adventure begins.

… the child had practically no clothes on, only a light wispy strip of blue stuff that looked as though she had torn it from the sky to wrap round her naked body.

This is Maia, she is the second star of the seven Pleiades; those are the stars that Mr. Banks showed one night to Jane and Michael.

Christmas Shopping Mary Poppins 3

(illustration by Júlia Sardà)

Maia has come down to earth to do a little Christmas shopping and buy toys for her sisters who can’t get away very often because they are “so busy making and storing up the Spring Rains.”

So, Michael and Jane are now following Maia in the store as she choses the gifts she wants to bring back home. Maia selects a little stove with silver saucepans and a stripped broom for her eldest sister because she is domestic, and because, of course, up there where they live there is a lot of star dust.

Then Maia choses a skipping rope for another one of her sisters because she likes to dance and a book for another who is quiet and never wants anything. As for the youngest one of Maia’s sisters, Maia asks advice from Jane and Michael. A humming-top and rubber ducks will do the job.

Now it is time for Maia to go back home. Jane remarks that Maia has no Christmas gift for herself and she starts searching through her parcels to see what she could spare for Maia.  It is then that Mary Poppins whips off her new gloves with the fur tops; the first gloves she ever had and the ones she thought she would never grow tired of looking at in the shop windows, and she gives them to Maia, because it is cold outside. Maia kisses Mary Poppins and steps on an invisible ladder carved into the sky and begins to climb up in the air.

Christmas Shopping Mary Poppins 5

(original illustration by Mary Shepard)

Clearly, Mary Poppins teaches Jane and Michael about generosity and the nature of gift giving. A lesson taught without preaching, in the most effective way, by example. She shows them that a gift is an act of love and that one must choose a gift to match the desires and needs of the receiver and not the giver.  And, if we push the interpretation further, we can say that there is an element of sacrifice in the ritual of gift giving, at least in P.L. Travers’s mind. The lesson here is similar to another Christmas story written by P. L. Travers The Fox at the Manger.

Another interesting theme in the story is the question of money. After Maia has chosen all her gifts, a practical question is raised by Michael:

                                    “But she has no purse. Who will pay for the toys?”

And Maia answers:

What did you say?” demanded Maia with round, surprised eyes. “Pay? Nobody will pay. There is nothing to pay – is there?” She turned her shining gaze to the Assistant.

“Nothing at all, madam,” he assured her as he put the parcels into her arms and bowed again.

“I thought no. You see,” she said, turning to Michael “the whole point of Christmas is that things should be given away, isn’t it? Besides what could I pay with? We have no money up there.” And she laughed at the mere suggestion of such a thing.

After all, the spirit of Christmas is about love, generosity and compassion and not so much about shopping. Mary Poppins might have been written in 1934 long before the invention of the internet and smart phones, but she is just as relevant today as she was back then. If we could only remember her!

Maia’s comment about money hints at something we lose out of sight in our everyday life. Money outside of our human social structures has no importance whatsoever. The Universe in which we spin couldn’t care less about money.

We might be living in a material world of our own creation, but we must remember that we are a part of a much vaster macrocosm that obeys different laws. How are we to strike a balance between our material and spiritual needs? And, does one exclude the other? Don’t we need both perspectives even if they appear to be at odds with each other?

And did P.L. Travers succeed in finding that balance? I am not certain, but spirituality was a major part of her life experience, and the spiritual teacher who influenced her outlook on life was G. I. Gurdjieff.

I have written a few posts on this blog about Gurdjieff and I believe that it is relevant here in this Christmas post to talk about Gurdjieff’s inverted Christmas tree and P.L. Travers’s own thoughts about the meaning of this symbol.

There is an ancient tradition originating in Eastern Europe of suspending Christmas trees by their roots and it appears that this tradition was also adopted by G.I. Gurdjieff.

Gurdjieff inverted Christams tree

(picture from Gurdjieff and the Women of the Rope)

Rene Zuber a pupil of Gurdjieff experienced Gurdjieff’s inverted Christmas tree firsthand and wrote about it in his book Who Are You Monsieur Gurdjieff?:

(…) I will describe what happened to me on Christmas Eve (the Russian Christmas which is thirteen days later that ours). I had been asked to go to his flat where I found another of his pupils. The master of the house showed us into the empty drawing-room, and there in the middle of the floor lay piles of toys, sweetmeats and oranges. We had to divide them up and put them into little paper bags, so that each child could have his share.

A lovely pine tree, fresh from the flower market, confirmed that everything would be done to custom. I took upon myself to transform it into a Christmas tree with the necessary tinsel, candles and stars. For someone from Alsace, like myself, this was a deeply satisfying task.

I had almost finished when Mr. Gurdjieff came in, glanced at our work, and going up to the tree signalled to me to hang it from the ceiling. I could not believe my eyes. ‘But….Monsieur….from that hook up there? Upside down, with the roots in the air?’ That was exactly what he wanted. So I was left to strip the tree, climb on a stool and attach the roots to the ceiling as best as I could. (…) The story is perplexing. (…)

Maybe Gurdjieff wanted to encourage Zuber to change his perspective on life, to look at things from different angles, to question customs and habits. Zuber writes of Gurdjieff’s teaching as being “invigorating” with “provoking quality” that is “inexhaustible”. These are some of the traits of Gurdjieff’s teaching that must have appealed to his pupils. Or, maybe Gurdjieff was pointing in the direction of P.L. Travers’s interpretation.

P.L. Travers examined the symbol of the tree in a talk she gave for The Far West Institute in the summer of 1973. In that talk she informed her listeners that the tree appears as a major mythological symbol throughout different cultures at different times in the history of humanity, and almost always in the same vein: as a cosmic pillar connecting the underworld, the earth and the Heaven.

She gave examples from the Bible, the Kabbalah, the Norse and Teutonic myths, the Avestan tradition, the ancient writings of the Parsees. And then she introduced her audience to a lesser known mythology, that of the inverted tree:

But it is in the earliest writings of Hinduism that one finds it most vividly portrayed, the mysterious Asvattha Tree of the Rig Veda, with its roots in Heaven and its branches spreading downward. Clearly this tree has a solar aspect, not so much of a physical as of a supernal sun whose rays strike downward bringing life.

 And thus, she links the symbol of the inverted tree to G.I. Gurdjieff’s cosmogony:

And all this can be assimilated to Gurdjieff’s system, whose great symbol, the Ray of Creation, is also an inverted tree, rooted above in the Absolute and descending as an octave through ever denser stages of being from one Do to another. Clearly the message of this many faceted symbol is that the roots of man are not on earth but in the Heaven….

In that talk she alos mentiones, although rather briefly, the Tarot card of the Hanged Man. This gives me an idea for another blog post. And on and on it goes… I hope you enjoyed reading this post and that you will come back to read more about Mary Poppins and P.L. Travers.

____________________________________________

* There are eight Mary Poppins books.

Who Are You Monsieur Gurdjieff?

Who Are You Monsieur Gurdjieff cover page

In this post I want to continue the exploration of Gurdjieff’s use of meals as a function of his spiritual teachings. And, René Zuber’s book Who Are You Monsieur Gurdjieff? is just perfect for this purpose. Zuber was a French writer and photographer, and a pupil of Gurdjieff.

In her Foreword of the English translation of Who Are You Monsieur Gurdjieff? P.L. Travers qualified Zuber’s testimony about his experience of Gurdjieff’s teaching strategies as being “fresh, vivid, wholly unprejudiced” .

First published in France in 1977, Zuber’s account of his time with Gurdjieff during the German occupation of Paris was translated in English by one of P.L. Travers’s friends and a fellow member of the Gurdjieff tribe, Jenny Koralek, herself an author of children’s books. The English translation of the book was first published in Great Britain in 1980.

I purchased an old copy of Who Are You Monsieur Gurdjieff? online, without knowing anything about Zuber and the fact that he wrote his book in French, which turned out to be a lucky ignorance on my part because had I purchased the French edition, I would have missed P.L. Travers’s Foreword. Of course, I interpreted this lucky coincidence as maybe P.L. Travers sending me a wink from the beyond, but that’s just me, and I don’t expect the readers of this post to share my interpretation of this coincidence. 

Who Are You Monsieur Gurdjieff Foreword Page

The reason why I chose this book was its title. I wanted to know who Gurdjieff was and a book by one of his pupils asking this same question was intriguing to me. I admit, sometimes I choose books by their titles!

Zuber’s questions “How can we think of Gurdjieff? As a musician? Choreographer? Writer? Physician? Psychiatrist? Master Cook?” remain largely unanswered, because Gurdjieff was paradoxically all of the above (without the conventional credentials) and none of the above. His talents composed a peculiar composite that defied labels of any kind. And, I believe that it is precisely because of his shapeshifting abilities that Gurdjieff was so fascinating to his pupils.

In her Foreword P.L. Travers vouched for the veracity of Zuber’s account of Gurdjieff. She wrote that Zuber’s “testimony shows him to be a perceptive and veracious member of this tribe.” I read these words as a confirmation of the resonance between her experiences and memories of Gurdjieff and those of René Zuber.

P.L. Travers wrote in her article George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff (1977-1949) about how Gurdjieff shattered to pieces the egos of his pupils to make place for the arising of  a new awareness in their consciousness.

…or assisting at one of Gurdjieff’s great feasts where, under the influence of good food, vodka and the watchful eye of the Master, opportunities were provided, for those who had the courage, to come face to face with themselves.

(…)

“If take, then take!” was one of his favourite aphorisms—no sipping, no trifling—and for many the special nourishment that was offered in addition to the delicious edibles was indigestible, hard to stomach. The exotic flavours and the vodka in which the famous “Toasts to the Idiots” were drunk (Gr. idiotes, private person, that which in myself I am) did not make things easier. But easiness was not the aim. The patriarchal host, massive of presence, radiating a serene power at once formidable and reassuring, dispensed this “food” in various ways, always unexpected; sometimes in thunderclaps of rage, sometimes telling a story that only one of all the table would know was meant for himself, sometimes merely by look or gesture thrusting home the truth. Masks were stripped off mercilessly. Beneath the exacting benevolence of his gaze everyone was naked. But occasionally, for those who could face their situation Gurdjieff, always fleetingly, would let his own mask fall. It was possible then to see that behind the apparent mercilessness stood sorrow and compassion.

P.L. Travers

Zuber’s description of Gurdjieff’s meals is very similar to that of P.L. Travers:

When Mr. Gurdjieff was nearby it was impossible to sleep in piece. Nobody was safe from being tripped up and sent flying. It is a wonder that there were not more broken bones. His table, at the end of a meal, when a great silence fell to make way for the questions of his pupils, resembled the mat in a judo club.

At first glance Who Are You Monsieur Gurdjieff? appears to be just a small booklet of 75 pages. But for me it happens to be so much more. It is a magical portal to another time and place, that of a small Parisian apartment at 6, Rue des Colonels Rénard in 1943, during the German occupation of Paris.

Here is Zuber’s description of this dark period in time:

Paris during the war, under German occupation, was in the grip of the blackout: if the slightest ray of light filtered through a window it had to be smothered quickly and the curtains more tightly drawn. The city was under curfew: no one would have dared on pain of death, to go out into the deserted streets after eleven o’clock at night. It was the reign of what we called the ‘restrictions’, that is to say, of organised poverty, with its corollary, obsession with food; not to mention the constant hammering of Nazi propaganda which tried, in vain, to rob the Parisians of their last glimmer of hope.

I don’t have a picture of the building at 6, Rue des Colonels Rénard from 1943 but I found a street view on Google, taken in April 2018. The Building is still there, and I wonder if its current occupants know of its history.

Street view Gurdjieff flat 3

 

Street view Gurdjieff flat

Amazingly, Gurdjieff, even though a foreigner with suspicious appearance, described by Zuber as “a Macedonian smuggler or an old Cretan capetan”, found his way around occupied Paris and always had exotic food on his table.

Not only is Who Are You Monsieur Gurdjieff? beautifully written but it is also very candid. Zuber discusses his doubts about Gurdjieff, about his need to categorize him and pin down the sources of his teachings. And despite the fact that a personal relationship is almost impossible to translate in words, Zuber’s recollections provide the reader with a vivid description of Gurdjieff’s meals and a subtle hint of what it might have felt to be a pupil of Gurdjieff.

While reading this little book I felt like a small fly on the wall of the “ordinary bourgeois dining room” in Gurdjieff’s first-floor apartment overflowing with guests sitting on “ill-sorted chairs” that “could have come from any saleroom” and listening to the conversations and the famous Toasts to the Idiots.

I’ve always wondered why his pupils submitted themselves to this humiliating exercise and Zuber gave me an interesting explanation; the ritual of the toasts was a “play of mirrors where others served as reflections of our own image.

But could one trust these projected images? It was, I believe, a dangerous game to walk into Gurdjieff’s hall of mirrors. Maybe this is what Zuber intended to communicate when he wrote “I do not know how to sum up the highly varied impressions we experienced during these dinners.” 

Apparently, Gurdjieff’s meals always began in silence; the conversations were kept for the end because Gurdjieff considered eating as a “sacred act” by which we absorb and assimilate the “first food.

This act asks for our appreciation. It has the value of a call to order since it brings us into communion with the natural forces which we constantly forget we depend upon. It cannot be done in the way one gives swill to a pig, while the mind and feelings are given over to their own affairs or dreams. 

Zuber, like other pupils of Gurdjieff report of his culinary talents. Zuber writes that Gurdjieff cooked like “a gourmet with the knowledge of a scientist. (…) He cooked scientifically, like a dietician who foresees the action on the organism of each dish, each flavouring, each spice.”

I loved reading Zuber’s description of the human chain made by the pupils between the dining room and Gurdjieff’s kitchen, the “passing the plates from one person to another, empty on their way out, laden on their way back.”  For Zuber this chain was an allusion to the “great chain which exists everywhere in the universe between substances (or energies) of different levels”.

With all distinctions as to age, size and sex abolished, the chain, when formed functioned as a whole. At one end, Mr. Gurdjieff took the dishes from the oven, carved the meat or poultry, and, with supreme authority, shared out the helpings. At the other end, the food was kept warm on plates covered by soup bowls. When this ballet was over the circle would close around, and together we would eat the extraordinary fare Mr. Gurdjieff had prepared for us.

For me the description above evoked an image of little orphans lined up to receive a bowl of soup. I could easily imagine P.L. Travers holding her place in the chain and feeling as being part of a family. She, as well as the rest of the followers, found in Gurdjieff a father figure dispensing food and wisdom. But, in order to be factually accurate, P.L. Travers was not present at these dinners 6, Rue des Colonels Rénard. At that time, she and her adopted son lived in New York.

Who Are You Monsieur Gurdjieff 2

In the Kitchen with Gurdjieff

Gurdjieff Special Meals

Pamela L. Travers’s spiritual teacher G. I. Gurdjieff had many talents, but his ability to stimulate other people’s imaginations was the one that served him best.  His stories, allegories, music, dances and exotic meals were the magical tools which he used to provide those unsatisfied by their ordinary existence with a glimpse of something mysterious, a promise of a way towards a higher state of being and of experiencing reality.

In some way, he was the real-life Wizard of Oz.  A gifted man, an original and highly individuated one, but no wizard, except in the eyes of his followers. Did his teachings, the green tinted glasses attached to the eyes of his pupils, improve their life experience? Well, the answer to this question is beyond the scope of this blogpost.

Oz

However, after reading extensively on the subject of Gurdjieff, I am convinced that he possessed vast religious and esoteric knowledge. And, I do believe that in his youth he was a true spiritual seeker. It’s just that at one point in his life he decided that he had found all the answers and that it was time for him to start teaching others.  I am not convinced  that his Fourth Way was (is) the right way for spiritual growth, meaning that I doubt that his teaching techniques were beneficial to his followers. More on this subject in another post.

In this post I want to explore Gurdjieff’s use of food as a function of his teachings. He used different teaching methods at different periods of his activities but during the last period of his life, meals became an important component of his modus operandi.

It is important to compose a dish in its correctly blended elements as a composition of music or the colors in painting. Harmony in scale. Must have much knowledge to be a good cook. A culinary doctor.

G.I. Gurdjieff

A “culinary doctor”? What did he mean exactly? Was he referring to some special culinary knowledge? Was that knowledge related to some healing combination of the three types of food necessary for the nourishment of the three-brained system of the human being?

Now, for those of you not familiar with the concept of the “three-brained beings”, note that Gurdjieff believed that man was a machine, an unconscious automaton reacting impulsively to his external environment with the function of one of his three “brains”, the physical, mental and emotional.  According to Gurdjieff our three brains are invariably at odds with each other, and, it is precisely this inner disharmony of the functions of the human inner workings that cause the fragmentation of our psyches into many different “I”s. The sensation in the average person of a unified “I” is an illusion.

Gurdjieff held that the average man is unaware of his multiplicity, sleepwalking through his life. Only a man who has awaken and has struggled to integrate the functions of his three brains into one harmoniously working unity, is a real man. And, only a real man is able to perceive the terror of his situation, his fate, which is to fulfill the organic cosmic needs of nature. 

Gurdjieff’s cosmology proposes that the purpose of organic life on our planet is to provide the energy needed to sustain the Moon, and that energy is liberated through the process of death.  Once a man has recognised his fate, he could by the exertion of his will (the concept of intentional suffering) have a chance at developing a soul that could outlive the death of his physical body. (Note to readers: Please keep in mind that this is only a simple over-view of Gurdjieff’s system synthesised for the purposes of this post.)

Now let’s examine how Gurdjieff conceived of the nourishment of our three-brained system.

Mr. Gurdjieff next drew a scheme of the human body and compared it to a three-storied factory, the stories being represented by the head, chest and abdomen. Taken together the factory forms a complete whole> (…) and he explained that while the food of the lower story was man’s meat and drink, air was the food of the middle story, and that of the upper story was what could be called “impressions”.

 Glimpses of Truth, Views from the Real World

Gurdjieff held that the air, the “second-being food”, nourishes the mind (and on a physical level we all know that the brain needs oxygen to survive) and helps build the astral body which he called the “Kesdjan body”.  The third type of food, the “impressions” are the emotional records of all of our life experiences.

Since Gurdjieff believed only in experienced based knowledge, then the logical conclusion is that his concept of the alignment of the functions of the three brains is absolutely necessary for the construction of the soul. Hence, the “right” ideas can only be asserted as being right if experienced with the body, mind and heart.

Gurdjieff claimed to be a teacher of “Esoteric Christianity” and from that standpoint we can easily extrapolate that Jesus’s custom of sharing meals with others was Gurdjieff’s source of inspiration for his habit of serving food to his pupils. Gurdjieff, a keen observer of our human nature, must have realised the connecting power of this ritual. His daughter, Dushka Howart, confirms the teaching function of Gurdjieff’s meals in the shared memoir with her mother, Jessmin Howarth:

Much that was said at table had very personal application to the person addressed, but it could also be understood on different levels, in various ways, (or maybe not at all!) by others present.”

“It’s Up to Ourselves” A Mother, A Daughter, and Gurdjieff

A Shared Memoir and Family Photo Album

By Jessmin and Dushka Howarth

Obviously, to succeed in creating his versions of The Last Supper Gurdjieff had to have a talent for cooking.  

cooking cabinet

Dushka reports of this talent. Once Gurdjieff, expecting important quests for lunch charged his nephew Valia to roast four chickens in the oven. Unfortunately, Valia failed to pull them out of the oven in time.

Mastering his rage and disappointment, Gurdjieff strode off toward the kitchen. With a quick twist of hand he tore off the skin which stuck to the burned carcasses of the birds. A few spoonfuls of butter, some cream, onion, garlic powder and some spices transformed into a delicacy what was a hopeless disaster a few moments ago.

“It’s Up to Ourselves” A Mother, A Daughter, and Gurdjieff

A Shared Memoir and Family Photo Album

By Jessmin and Dushka Howarth

Gurdjieff concocted exotic dishes and turned his table into a dramatic stage where he acted as the master tamer of egos, administering the necessary external shocks that he believed were necessary to awaken his pupils from their identification to their thoughts and emotions.  His provocative remarks, the famous ritual of the Armagnac Toasts to the Idiots, the readings from his books and the music he played on his harmonium after the meals, assisted him in opening up  his pupils to new “impressions”. 

Gurdjieff handed down four books to posterity but unfortunately none of them was a cookery book. There is however Gurdjieff’s famous marinated salad for which Dushka generously provides the recipe in her family memoir.

What he called his “salad” was a soupy, highly seasoned mixture of raw vegetables that was nearer to a chunky “gazpacho”. Ripe tomatos, cucumbers, onions, dill pickles, herbs and spices were marinated to a thick consistency, redolent of fresh dill, fruit juices and gingery chutney. It was offered in a small bowl and was especially succulent with the smoothing addition of smetana (sour cream).

“It’s Up to Ourselves” A Mother, A Daughter, and Gurdjieff

A Shared Memoir and Family Photo Album

By Jessmin and Dushka Howarth

Obviously, I wanted to have a taste of the salad, but unfortunately the measurements in the recipe are “for three hundred forty-six cup-sized servings …” .   I decided that the effort to reduce the measurements to something more reasonable would be futile given the fact that I have never tasted the salad before. How would I know if the result is accurate?  So instead, I made Russian borsch. I know he served borsch to his pupils.