Corresponding with a Friend of Pamela L. Travers

Mary Poppins Anything Can Happen If You Let It

Last November marked the end of the second year of my blog project. The Mary Poppins Effect is now officially two years old and what started as a part-time hobby has now become an all-consuming fascination with the inner world of Pamela L. Travers and her Mary Poppins. Now, after spending two years with Mrs. Travers, I am giving myself the permission, at least for this blogpost, to call her simply Pamela.

One of Pamela’s friends, author Jenny Koralek, wrote about the character of Mary Poppins “…that as far as this so-called nanny is concerned “Appearances are Deceptive,” well, I dare say, the same conclusion can be drawn about Pamela herself.

She seems to have led quite an unconventional life, but unfortunately, the unusual aspects of her personal life are presented to the public in a rather narrow-minded way. However, her complex, rebellious nature deserves to be examined in a more compassionate manner.

Obviously, I would have loved to meet Pamela, but since that wish will remain just that, a wish, I consoled myself for the last two years with her writings. However, at one point it simply became imperative for me to reach out to someone who knew her well. So, after some hesitation, I mustered up my courage and a wrote a long email to British author Brian Sibley. I wanted to get closer to Pamela with the hope of gaining some new insights, and Brian Sibley is, in my opinion, one of the rare people who seemed, judging by the interviews I saw, to have had an enormous respect for her. What’s more, in the 1980s, Brian Sibley and Pamela worked together on a sequel to the Mary Poppins movie (unfortunately, that project never came to be).

You can imagine my exhilaration when I saw Brian Sibley’s name pop up in my inbox!

In my correspondence to him, I expressed the concern that people who have documented Pamela’s life, be it in a book or on screen, seem to have completely misunderstood her and simply labelled her as being an eccentric person. Brian Sibley responded quite wisely that even if my assertion was true, the fact is that “Of course, few of them knew her… Indeed, few of us who thought we knew her, truly did...”

And, this is exactly what is so upsetting and at the same time so fascinating about Pamela. Who was she? She was so self-contained and yet her vessel was so deep. Luckily, her writings remain and, as she said on many occasions, if one wants to learn about a writer one must study the writings. Only she did her best to cover her tracks.

I wanted to know what it was to be a friend of Pamela; especially when her friends and acquaintances who were interviewed for different documentaries seem to agree that she was not an easy person to be friends with. Even Brian Sibley mentioned in an interview that Pamela was a “demanding friend.” But she had great wisdom and great knowledge of so many things: literature, life, love, faith. She was prickly and difficult at times. But she was also someone of a towering intellect whose friendship I really valued.”  I asked Brian Sibley if he could share an anecdote or two to illustrate the nature of her expectations in a friendship relationship? This is what he generously accepted to reveal:

 B.S.     I guess I mean that she expected you to be the one who did all the running in the relationship and she could be prickly, or act ‘hurt,’ even with people she knew well if they said or did something that displeased her. I remember getting a note after I had not turned up for afternoon tea, following what had been a vague and unconfirmed invitation. The note said, in words to this effect: “For some reason, I had taken it into my head that you were coming for tea yesterday. If I were mistaken, I apologise.” The implication, of course, was that I needed to apologise!  There was always a sense in which you were ‘courting’ her… Also, although she made much of only being a ‘conduit’ for her writings, she was vain enough (like Mary Poppins) to enjoy praise even as she brushed it aside.

This last comment reminded me of what Jenny Koralek wrote about the character of Mary Poppins:

 Brusque as well as brisk, unbending, a “snappy dresser,” extremely vain, with absolutely no sense of humor and easily offended, she never “tells anyone anything” and is a convincing incarnation of the author’s deep understanding that not answering, not explaining leaves the possibility of going further.

I can’t help it but think that there is a lot more of Pamela in Mary Poppins than Pamela ever wanted to admit.

Difficult as she might have been, Brian Sibley was a true friend.

B.S.     Her friends – her real friends – were amused by and tolerated her eccentricities; others could find her overbearing, apt to play the grande dame. Despite these occasional irritants, I loved her and only now realise how privileged I was to spend so much time with her and just how many opportunities I missed to ask the right questions – to discover, as she might have said, “What the Bee Knows.”

Well, maybe Brian Sibley didn’t ask her the right questions (and even if he did, who knows if she would have answered), but he must have done something right because one thing is certain: Pamela liked him. Or why would she introduce him to her family? From what I have learned about her, she was an extremely private and secretive person.

B.S.     There was one very curious afternoon when I was invited to tea and turned up only to find Camillus (Pamela’s adopted son), his wife, and their children all present. In fact, the wife opened the front door to me: I was taken aback and made apologies and tried to excuse myself. But, “No,” I was told Pamela is expecting you.” I then realised that she had engineered the meeting for some reason of her own…

Well, the reason is obvious isn’t it? She wanted to let him in her inner circle, and this peculiar and clumsy way of doing it could be suggestive of her fear of rejection. It seems to me that she simply didn’t leave him the chance to refuse the invitation. I suspect that in general intimacy must have been a challenge for Pamela.

When I asked Brian Sibley if Pamela talked about Gurdjieff’s Work and her spiritual beliefs or spiritual work, he responded that their conversations were mostly about story, myth, and poetry.

B.S. She talked a lot about the Irish poets: Yeats, of course, and her beloved ‘AE’ and James Stephens (author of The Crock of Gold and 19 years Travers’ senior) who, she once told me in a uncharacteristically candid moment, had made an unwanted romantic overture to her. I asked her how she handled it and she replied: “I simply told him that the fragility of my youth would be crushed beneath the weight of his talent and intellect.”   

This memory reveals a quick-witted and funny Pamela and the response is definitely not something Mary Poppins would have said. Of course, intertwined as they may be, Pamela and Mary Poppins are two different characters.

Mary Poppins feels at home wherever she is. But, when in a recorded conversation with Pamela, Brian Sibley asked her where her true home is, she said that she would like to be able to answer just as Mary Poppins, but that she hadn’t achieved that yet!

This caused me to ask Brian Sibley if he would say that Pamela was a happy person.

B.S      Ah! Were you to have asked her that question, I suspect, you would have been given a lecture on unanswerable questions! I think she was ‘content’ which is not quite the same thing...

And indeed, it is not the same thing…

I am infinitely grateful to Brian Sibley for these lovely anecdotes and for making me feel a little closer to Pamela. Needless to say, my mind is now fired up with more questions to which I must find the answers.

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A Christmas Story by Pamela L. Travers

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Christmas is just around the corner, which means that now is the right time to revisit Pamela L. Travers’s Christmas fable “The Fox at the Manger”.

It’s Christmas Eve in postwar London. The narrator along with three young boys takes part in the carol service at St. Paul’s cathedral. The young boys have brought their old toys for the poor children. Only, when the time comes to part with their toys, the boys swiftly change their minds and run off remorselessly in the opposite direction. The narrator witnessing their selfish behaviour affirms that “A gift must come from the heart or nowhere”. But the meaning of the story of the fox at the manger expands beyond this aphorism about love.

Right from the start, the title of the story hints of its unusualness, as Pamela L. Travers’s friend and collaborator, Brian Sibley, accurately noted when he first discovered the book: “What a bizarre, almost blasphemous idea: the wild, rough, red-haired chicken-thief at the place where the mysterious drama of the Incarnation had been enacted.” The idea is certainly provocative and the fox’s discourse throughout the story challenges our well accepted ideas about good and evil, love and service. I can assure you that Pamela L. Travers’s Christmas fable is definitely unlike any other Christmas story you have ever read or listened to. The story begins in a Christian religious context, but then quickly veers off and dives into the author’s inner world of esoteric beliefs, such as this poetical reference to the mysteries of time and space, to the Akashic records where all past, present and future human events, thoughts, emotions and intents are encoded in the non-physical etheric plane of existence:  

What had been here – some stately office? A bank? A merchant’s hall? And before that, what? I wondered. If it is true the print and form of things remain forever, as they say, invulnerable and invisible – surely these children were dancing now through forgotten board-meetings, and shades of accountants. lawyers, clerks. Or, if one went back further, through the flames of the Fire of London in 1666. Further still, the marble floor would be mud and marshland and all around us brontosaurs; and beyond that we would whirl in lava, turning fierily through the air, nothing but elements.

Contrariwise, would not the City lords to come, in rooms that would rise from this fern and rubble, start up in astonishment at the fancied sight of willow-herb breaking through the carpet? And old cashiers scratch their heads, wondering if they were out of their wits or whether they had really seen three little boys run through the cash desk? Are we here? Are we there? Is it now? Is it then? They will not know. And neither do we.

When one of the boys asks the narrator “Why weren’t there any wild animals at the crib?” the narrator tells the story of the forgotten verse in the Carol of the Friendly Beasts, the one about the visit of the fox at the manger. The fox comes with a special gift for baby Jesus. The fox presents the Son of God with its cunning.  The idea is subversive as it goes against the teachings of the Bible where the fox is portrayed rather negatively. But in Pamela L. Travers’s story, the fox appears in its positive aspect: wisdom and discernment. And at the end, wild and cunning and selfish as it may appear to be, the fox proves itself capable of the ultimate act of love, self-sacrifice. “‘It was not sudden, the fox said, coolly. ‘I was a long time coming to it and it was not easy.’”

Of course, when the fox arrives at the manger, it is not welcomed by the tamed animals, but their rejection does not deter it from its plans. In response to the common disapproval of its character the fox says:

Reynard you called me, and that is my name. But if you use it to threaten me, ass, I bid you remember its meaning. It comes from Raginohardus, a name that means ‘strong in counsel.

The farm animals see the fox from a narrow perspective. They see the selfish predator, the thief of chickens, but then the fox turns the tables around on them and confronts them with the idea that man is no different than the fox and that chickens are made to be stolen. The fox did not invent the laws of nature it simply lives by them. “I serve as man himself serves. I breath in, I breath out. What I take in from the air, the earth takes in from me. But what it is I serve, I do not know.” Does man really know? Nothing is less certain…

The dialogue between the farm animals and the fox also questions man’s place in Creation:

You speak like a slave, said the fox, mildly. Man, man, always man! Is there no other living thing? What of the forests no man has seen- do they not still go on growing? Will the fire at the core of the earth go out because man cannot warm his hand on it?

The fox also directs our attention to our all too human failure to see our life situations for what they are and the price we pay for not thinking for ourselves: “What would it profit me to run with the flock, shoulder to shoulder with woolly brother, when all it leads to is the basting dish.”

And as for the nature of the fox’s gift, well, it is ingeniously confounding, isn’t it? What use can Jesus have of cunning? I was dumbfounded by the fox’s gift, just as the farm animals in the story. Dumbfound and at the same time amused by Pamela L. Travers’s obstinate refusal to give explanations.

But what will you do with such a gift? I am puzzled at these riddles. What is this cunning? There is something here I do not understand.” Pamela L. Travers’s answer to the questions of the ass is that it is not important to understand but to simply let it be. Although this is a wise advice, especially when confronted with unanswerable questions, in this particular case, I couldn’t let it be. Knowing a little (just a little) about Pamela L. Travers’s spiritual beliefs I was convinced that there was some hidden meaning to the fox’s gift, some allusion to something deeper. This was not an unanswerable question.

My doubts were confirmed. I learned that:

Pamela L. Travers’s spiritual teacher G.I. Gurdjieff believed that in order to make progress in the world it is necessary to have the devil on one’s side.” and also that “St Paul speaks of the cross as a trick against the Devil whose own cunning failed to make him aware that by crucifying the Lord of Glory he was thus caught in a trap which would see his end. Jesus’s crucifixion releases the end time: the end time for the wicked angels who have governed mankind. The cross is then a kind of trick, an act of pre-ordained cunning, played on Satan.”**

Pamela L. Travers must have been aware of the ambiguities and subtleties of the issue, or why would she write: “ For wild and tame are but two halves and here, where all begins and ends, everything must be whole.”

If you are interested in the story of “The Fox at the Manger” you could listen to Brian Sibley’s radio adaptation. Music is omnipresent throughout the dramatization and it beautifully enhances the emotional tonalities of the story. British actress Dame Wendy Hiller lends her voice to the narrator in the story, and I am almost certain that she must have prepared herself for the role by listening to interviews given by Pamela L. Travers (or maybe they even met), because the intonations of her voice are strikingly similar to the dramatic way of expression of Pamela L. Travers.

And one last comment, Pamela L. Travers had a somewhat analogous difficulty relinquishing the character of the fox in the hands of Brian Sibley as she did with her Mary Poppins and Disney, but of course with lesser intensity, the stakes were not the same. Only in this case the adaptation is loyal to the original creation.

She, who didn’t bother with radios or television found it almost as difficult to entrust the Fox at the Manger’ to me as the children in the story found it to relinquish their toys. ‘How is the child going to speak? How can you possibly give Him a voice? Why don’t you call the children X,Y and Z, as they are in the book? I don’t want them to be given names, you understand, but how will we know which one’s speaking? Does quite so much of the narrative have to go? Couldn’t someone just read the story? I’ve read it many times – in cathedrals too! Does it have to be a play…?*

One must admire Pamela L. Travers’s constancy.

Happy Holidays!  

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*  Excerpt from “A Good Gift, Thoughts on The Fox at the Manger” by Brian Sibley

** Tobias Churton, author of “Deconstructing Gurdjieff”