The Adventures of a Witch

AE Exhibition 4

This month’s blogpost is a guest post by Brian McKernan who has a specialist knowledge of George (AE) Russell – the literary mentor of P.L. Travers.

Brian says that although he had heard of AE since the days of his undergraduate Irish history tutorials, no-one seemed to be properly aware AE’s significance during the ‘birth of modern Ireland’ period. Within thirty years of AE’s passing, and across the following half century, AE became largely overlooked and regarded as a minor peripheral figure. Over the last four years Brian has played a central role in creating and developing an AE Group and the ‘AE Festival’ in Lurgan (Northern Ireland) where AE was born. Following the work of McKernan and his associates, the truth of this forgotten genius is once again beginning to be heard.

The group, known as The Lurgan & North Armagh George Russell Festival Society hold their festival in Lurgan each April to mark AE’s birth. The festival, which includes talks, walks, tours, creative workshops, exhibitions, school events and live music, has been developing at pace and aims to place AE back alongside some of the more readily recalled names in Irish history. The AE group have published articles and books on AE, created an active Facebook presence (AE Russell Appreciation Society – Lurgan), and have various local authorities now interested in supporting AE heritage. Plans for the creation of a large ‘AE Centre’ are currently at an early stage.

Brian McKernan’s post:

AE was a great believer in reincarnation and held that the ultimate purpose in life is perfection of the soul. Accordingly, he devoted himself to others, to society, to making the world a better place for everyone. He sought no fame, wealth or recognition for his brilliant talents and constant outpouring of good deeds.

My interest in Pamela Travers resulted from my research on AE. She made barely an appearance in my early studies – the chief AE biographer only giving her a passing mention at the end of his book, as a ‘young poetess who appointed herself his devoted nurse‘ when AE was dying. In hindsight, it is a wonder that I ever discovered the truth that Pamela and AE were immense friends from the time they met, up to his death, and for Pamela – across the following sixty years of her life. I have no doubt that both benefitted greatly from their mutual companionship, and now I sense that their bond is eternal.  As Pamela, a girl from so far away, became AE’s close friend in life, Lina (author of ‘The Mary Poppins Effect’) and I have reunited them in memory through our cross-Atlantic connection.

George William Russell, known simply as AE, was a benevolent genius who dedicated his life and energies to advancing a number of causes, in the main, related to the well-being of the people of Ireland. He did this through the Arts, Politics/Economics, the Co-operative movement, Social Reform, journalism, and his deep beliefs in the connectivity between the inner and outer worlds. And into this mix, in 1925, came a bright and lively young woman, who had more questions than answers, in her search for purpose, identity, love, home and success. AE loved unearthing, promoting and supporting new energetic and vibrant talent. Pamela was right up his street!

She was soon embraced by the Dublin literary scene,  where AE opened doors of opportunity for her both in London and America.  In the words of Pamela, “AE fished up friends for me from his inexhaustible cauldron.” AE understood that Pamela had an interest in mysticism and fairy tales long before she left Australia, so he helped her along the spirtual path and introduced her to the study of the spirit world, theosophy, mythology and Eastern Religions – all of which fascinated Pamela for the rest of her life.

AE liked her poetry and her Irish connection which was not just some romantic childhood fantasy. Her father’s parents were Irish, and he had been schooled in Ireland before eventually going to Australia. Pamela had relatives in Ireland, and she became acquainted with them when she visited AE in Dublin. After AE’s death, Pamela’s associations with Gurdjieff  and his followers can be seen as the continuum of the mystic elements she first explored with AE. 

Pamela was an exceptional person, determined and forthright, creative and intelligent, yet also delicate, unable to heal her childhood wounds, and searching for meaning in her life. AE was greatly impressed by her imagination and her fiercely rebellious nature. She was by no means an empty vessel into which he poured his ideas, but he had answers and directions which from the start helped her to explore and crystallise her core.

She was never his trainee or follower. He helped her. He connected with her. He raised her spirits and she raised his. Pamela admired AE, loved his company, and valued being educated by him. Such a warm and loyal mutuality grew between them that she became AE’s closest companion and comfort during his final days, taking charge of his personal affairs and final letters. She later wrote a beautiful piece about his passing, in ‘The Death of AE: Irish Hero and Mystic’

Pamela  accompanied AE’s remains from England back to Ireland, and was at his side as the mile long procession of mourners walked from AE’s famous office in the heart of Dublin, to his burial place close to 17 Rathgar Avenue where he had lived for thirty years. A little later, grieving deeply, she went back to Ireland and spent six weeks in Donegal, staying where she and AE had holidayed, to absorb what lingered of his spirit there. This was a special coastal place, complete with a fairytale cottage, hidden in a deep wood which overlooked the scenic Marble Hill Strand, where AE loved to paint and write poetry, and where they had been able to be alone together. In ‘The Death of AE: Irish Hero and Mystic’ Pamela offers glimpses of this holiday:

I stayed with him often in his beloved Donegal, at Janie’s-on-the-Hill above Dunfanaghy – a white washed cottage where at night one would hear the cows moving about in their stalls below the attic bedroom and in the daytime Janie churning butter or clanging the lid of the iron cauldron that swung on a chain above the peat fire and in which everything was cooked: bread, meat, cake, soup. … From Janie’s, he would take me with him on his excursions to friends in the neighbourhood or to those parts of woodland or strand that set up in him the strongest vibrations. Was he intentionally educating me, I wondered! No matter: it was being done, with or without intent.

Ninety years later, I went in search of these places, no doubt drawn there by AE’s spiritual gravitation. I found Janie’s farmhouse, fully matching Pamela’s description. I walked through the bog looking for the boots  she had left behind after getting stuck in the mud on a walk with AE, and I climbed up the trees overlooking the strand. I asked at Janie’s for directions to the fairy house but was told that it had been removed after it had fallen into disrepair, and the stone reused elsewhere. Despite this setback, I wanted at least to stand at the site of this sacred oasis where Pamela had soaked up AE’s strongest vibrations following his death. I made my way into the woods to the general area and walked in every direction, stopping and stirring – searching for any clue to its original location. I was drawn to a clearing in the woods with fairytale trees – magically shaped, like no trees I had ever seen before.

Tree near the Fairy House

However far I went, in any direction, I kept returning to this spot, as a fixed point to guide me safely back out of the woods. After a most unsuccessful and tiring hour, I decided to take one last look from where I now stood. I would turn round, one full circle on this spot, and then give up my quest. Halfway round, and looking as carefully and intently as possible, I saw something that seemed to be out of place. It was something ‘blue’. AE’s favourite colour was blue, and this looked like his favourite shade of blue.

As I tried to focus on this through the wiry tangled thicket, what I saw began to resemble a post, perhaps an old direction sign. I pressed slowly forward trying to get closer to the sign, one difficult step after another, trying not to get too badly scraped by thorns. My eyes scanned the tangled mass of branches and briars to the left of the post, and as I neared, things suddenly began to appear which I had not seen from further back. Right in front of me was a metre high wall. I clambered around the post and recognised (from my memory of an old photograph) that the post and the wall were parts of the porch of the Fairy House. I had found  it, on my very last attempt, and as I forced my way closer so much more became clear. The roof had collapsed in on the building and some parts of the walls were missing. Although the forest had worked hard to gobble up this magical abode, I was able to clamber into the large room, examine the crumbling fireplace and peer out through a side window. I was completely alone, but bursting to share my discovery. I thought of AE and Pamela being here and wondered if they had somehow played a part in my finding – could this have been spiritual gravitation at play?

Fairy House

I took photographs of these places and sent some to Lina along with a brief account of my Donegal adventure. We exchanged a series of emails, back and forth between Canada and Ireland, in which we shared our knowledge of Pamela, the Mary Poppins books and AE . I found myself seeing more and more of AE and his connection with Pamela in the Mary Poppins books.

Although AE spent much of his time writing thousands of serious journalistic articles about society, political turmoil and economic issues, it is practically impossible to find one complete piece which is not warmly wrapped in a blanket of spiritual wonder and mystical magic. He was tremendously imaginative and creative, and whimsical beyond compare, and exceptionally witty.

Myriad hidden spiritual thoughts, talking objects, life within pictures and a oneness with nature, flowed effortlessly and constantly from his mind. AE helped Pamela to explore unknown possibilities and imaginations primarily in conversation across the ten years friendship which saw her become a highly respected writer. They also wrote numerous letters back and forth across the Irish Sea when they were not together.

In early 1932 AE suggested in a letter that she should write a fantastic tale about a young witch.

When you go to your Cottage drop me a postcard with the address of that abode of the vulture witch with her broomstick. It would be rather a nice subject for a fantastic tale of a young witch who found that by white magic the broomstick would fly as well as by the black art & she went here and there doing good deeds or looking at loveliness & wonders. So think over a tale which would use all your powers of fantasy ‘The Adventures of a Witch’ and it may be the idea for letting you say all you want to say.

I see so much of AE and Pamela in the characters of Bert and Mary Poppins. From their first outing in a short 1926 story, in which Mary is a young and inexperienced nanny and where the magic emanates from Bert the Matchman, to the end of the second Mary Poppins book, when Mary has transformed into an older, wiser, and self-assured magical figure, I see how Pamela herself had grown aided by her great friend AE. At the close of Mary Poppins Comes Back, completed shortly after AE’s death, Pamela creates a personal element of closure between herself and AE. In 1926, in the story Mary Poppins and the Match-Man and then in 1934 in the story The Day Out, they rode the Merry-go round together, she on a black horse and AE on a white one, but then in 1935, with him gone, Pamela (Mary Poppins)  rides alone on a dappled horse, possibly symbolising a shared spiritual unity. The text includes utterances denoting finality – ‘Never again! Never again!’ .. ‘If only we could have gone on forever!‘ .. Mary gazes down at the children – ‘Her eyes were strangely soft and gentle in the gathering dusk‘ (AE’s favourite time of day) and says for the second time that day ‘All good things come to an end.

Mary Poppins chooses a return ticket (which is a strange option for such a ride, but may well relate to AE’s deep belief in reincarnation) thoughtfully saying ‘You never know’. The Merry-go-round spins and rises up beyond the trees and soon a new star appears in the night sky. Could this new star be her AE? On the final page Pamela writes –‘And high above them the great shape circled and wheeled through the darkening sky, shining and keeping its secret for ever and ever and ever…

On one occasion, Lina asked me if I had any thoughts on who Pamela could have been referring to when she dedicated Mary Poppins Comes Back ‘To PIP This Keepsake’. I immediately swung into action, thinking this would be a nice puzzle to try solving. I noticed that Pamela had also written ‘P-p! P-p!‘ to describe the sound  made by  Mr Bank’s pipe and I was drawn to the similarity between ‘PIP’, pipe, and P-p. As AE was very much on Pamela’s mind during the writing and completion of the book I wondered if this could all relate to AE. I factored in my belief that Pamela used to refer to AE as ‘the matchman’ due to him constantly leaving a trail or puddle of spent matchsticks wherever he went or sat. This messy habit was common knowledge to all who knew him, and he even had to have a special supply of matches arranged in advance of going on holiday to an isolated location. AE was never without his pipe, and I suppose his two most noticeable features were always his marvellous beard and the pipe. Then I remembered how Pamela had been the one who had sorted through AE’s belongings after he died, and thought that the best keepsake she could possibly have would be his pipe, as I believe he had taken his beard with him to the grave. I think the answer lies within these thoughts and would love to ask Pamela if that is correct. Of course, I could not ask her, so instead I asked Lina, who appreciated my imaginative proposition.

Perhaps a light sprinkle of AE  and Pamela’s magical stardust helped me to discover the connection between them, and find my way to Lina’s blog. But if so, it may not be the first time this magic has come my way. Considering how I only really came across Pamela Travers through my uncommonly rigorous approach to studying AE’s life, I have recently discovered my own personal connection with her, which also links to AE. Remembering how  says, ‘Your own will come to you‘, I must tell you – the first poem AE published by Pamela was titled Christopher, and my son, named Christopher, was born on the very day  Pamela died – 23rd April 1996.

Midsummer’s Eve with Mary Poppins

Bulgarian Mary Poppins in Cherry Tree Lane

Cover illustration by Piers Stanford, 1994

Yesterday, as a celebration of the summer solstice, I read the Bulgarian translation of the fifth Mary Poppins book, Mary Poppins in Cherry Tree Lane. The Bulgarian edition in my possession was published in 2004 and is translated by Anelia Ianeva.

It is Midsummer’s Eve and Mary Poppins takes the Banks children for an evening picnic in the park.

Mary Poppins in Cherry Tree Lane

Illustration by Mary Shepard

There, in the furthest corner of the park, in the herb garden, they feast and dance with celestial constellations who have taken the shape of their appellations:  Orion, Castor and Pollux, the Bear, the Fox (or Vulpecula in Latin) named in the late 17th century by the astronomer Johannes Hevelius, and the Rabbit (or Lepus in Latin), a constellation that was listed in the 2nd century by Ptolemy. PL Travers was interested in astrology and like a pastry chef fond of sugar, she sprinkled her Mary Poppins books with stars and constellations.

Mary Poppins celebration Midsummers Eve

Illustration by Mary Shepard

Down a lane in the park comes Ellen, the maid, strolling backwards with her eyes closed. She had put herbs under her pillow the night before and now is on her way to meet her true love.

Ellen the maid Mary Poppins

Illustration by Mary Shepard

The lonely Park Keeper decides, rather uncharacteristically, to try his luck. He follows suit only to bump into Mary Poppins. Afterall, opposites attract. What better match for a rigid man overly concerned with rules.

Mary Poppins and the Park Keeper

Illustration by Mary Shepard

The Bulgarian translation of the story, just like the translation of Mary Poppins, is loyal to the original text, but there is one interesting modification. Midsummer’s Eve is translated for the corresponding Bulgarian folk holiday Eniovden.

On Eniovden, according to old Bulgarian beliefs the celestial lights “go crazy”. At midnight, the sky opens and miracles happen. The stars descend on Earth and bathe in the cold waves of the sea. People gather herbs because on this day the herbs’ healing powers are at their peak. Young women perform divination rituals and put herbs under their pillows in the hope that their dreams will reveal their husbands-to-be. On Eniovden there is also a custom of making offerings of fresh cherries to the deceased. 

Surprisingly, these old Bulgarian customs are reflected in Mary Poppins in Cherry Tree Lane, first published in 1982. Aren’t these similarities of beliefs between two different cultures fascinating? I am certain P.L. Travers would have been interested to hear about Eniovden. Then, maybe she did.

I have two editions of Mary Poppins in Cherry Tree Lane but none of them contain any illustrations. The Bulgarian one does! What a nice surprise for a Mary Poppins nerd like myself.

Happy Summer Solstice!

Bad Tuesdays with Mary Poppins

Mary Poppins Bad Tuesday compass.jpg

Original illustration by Mary Shepard

“Bad Tuesday” is a story in the first Mary Poppins book published in 1934 in which Mary Poppins, with the help of a compass, takes the Banks children on a trip around the world. In a flash, Jane and Michael experience the vastness and variety of our human world. With a shake of the compass, they are transported to the North Pole where they meet with an Eskimo family. Then, to the South where they encounter a family with a skin much darker than their own. In the East the children are greeted by a Chinese Mandarin, and by a tribe of Indians on their last destination in the West. All the characters in this adventure are friends of Mary Poppins. The different attires, manner of speech and greeting customs are not experienced by the children as something threatening, but on the contrary, as something extremely exciting and enjoyable.  

Yet, many years after its first publication the story underwent two alterations for socio-political reasons. The first revision, which left the plot of the story untouched, occurred in 1971. Then, in 1980 the San Francisco Public Library removed Mary Poppins from its shelves because of alleged racist references and derogatory treatment of minorities. Lawson, P.L. Travers’s biographer, reports that P.L. Travers was angry with her publisher at that time for not defending her loudly enough. In fact, P.L. Travers learned about the unfortunate event from her friends.  

After pondering whether she should stick to her artistic expression or risk to see her book banished from more shelves, P.L. Travers  decided to rewrite the story. With a stroke of her pen, she changed the colorful trip around the world into a wildlife nature expedition. In this last version of the story, which is now in print, the Banks children meet a Polar Bear, a Hyacinth Macaw, a Panda and a Dolphin.  

Mary Poppins Bad Tuesday Revised.jpg

Original illustration by Mary Shepard

Now, was the original story racist? This is the question that will be explored in this blogpost.  

The major issue with “Bad Tuesday” was brought to P.L. Travers’s attention in 1971 by her friend Dr. Francelia Butler. She told P.L. Travers how embarrassed she felt when reading the story to the black students in her class. Her embarrassment being caused by the words “Negro lady” and “a picaninny baby” as well as the picaninny language used by the characters.    

Beneath the palm trees sat a man and a woman, both quite black all over and with a  very few clothes on. But to make up for this they wore a great many beads – some hung  round their heads just below great crowns of feathers (….). On the knee of the negro lady  sat a tiny black picaninny with nothing on at all. It smiled at the children as its Mother  spoke.  

“Bad Tuesday”, Mary Poppins, P.L. Travers 1934 

P.L. Travers decided to alter the descriptions and dialogues in this section of the story because “if even one Black child were troubled, or she (Dr. Francelia Butler) were troubled, I would have to alter it.” 

 So, the description was redrafted and read: 

Under the palm-trees sat a man and a woman as black and shiny and plum as a ripe  plum, and wearing very few clothes. But to make up for this they wore a great many  beads. (…) And on the knee of the dark lady sat a tiny plum-black baby with nothing on at all. It smiled at the children as its Mother  spoke.  

“Bad Tuesday”, Mary Poppins, P.L. Travers, redraft published in 1972 

This time around the characters expressed themselves in formal English. 

P.L Travers accepted to be interviewed about this first revision of “Bad Tuesday”. The interview was published in Interracial Books for Children in Vol.3, 1974. She said:  

I have no racism in me. I wasn’t born with it. And it’s never happened inside of me. And therefore, I feel perfectly at ease and at home no matter what color anybody’s skin is. I was brought up in a family and in a world where there was no hint of racism of any kind (…) I was brought up by large minded people who never had any sense of racism at all. 

P.L. Travers, Mary Poppins Revised: An Interview with P.L. Travers, Interracial Books for Children, Vol. 3, 1974 

P.L. Travers was just like her Mary Poppins, apolitical, a rebel and a freethinker.  She was completely engulphed in her imagination and her spiritual explorations which had to do with the much larger universal laws of creation. She was not interested in socio-cultural conventions. Hers was the world of myths and fairy tales, and the human experience of life on a larger scale. Not surprisingly, she said so herself. 

Literature and imagination are my world. I don’t like being pulled out from that world and being forced to live in a sociological world of which I am not a native habitant. Imagination is a pure thing. It is envisaging. Imagination does not depend upon the sociology of the time. More functional books do; imagination does not.(…) Mary Poppins is not a contemporary book. It is a timeless book, and probably it goes back a great deal to my own childhood.  

P.L. Travers, Mary Poppins Revised: An Interview with P.L. Travers, Interracial Books for Children, Vol. 3, 1974 

This is P.L. Travers in a nutshell. This was not a statement made for the occasion. I have spent years reading her writings and interviews and listening to testimonials from people who knew her. This was truly her stance in life. It does not matter if you agree or not with her assertion about imagination not depending on the sociology of the time. What matters here is her subjective truth. What matters is the fact that she had no intention of being disrespectful towards other ethnic groups.  Her willingness to alter the story not once, but twice, proves just that.  

It is important here to note that the accusations of racism were raised in the socio-cultural context of North America many years after the story was first written. People in North America assumed that the characters in the story were from Africa. However, it is possible that their assumption was wrong. It is possible that these characters were inspired by P.L. Travers’s memories of or ideas about the Australian aboriginal tribes. Maybe this is what she meant when she told the interviewer that the story goes back to her childhood. P.L. Travers was born and raised in the Southern Hemisphere of the Earth. So, when Mary Poppins tells the compass to take her and the children to the South, that probably meant Australia. What’s more, in the early 1900’s, the newspapers in Australia contained Picaninny Pages and “negro” was not considered to be a socially unacceptable word. It was all just part of the reality of her life back then and it was absorbed into her imagination without any negative connotation.  

“Bad Tuesday” reflected P.L. Travers’s childhood fascination with people and stories. Encounters with people who were not part of her family, mostly the help, stimulated her imagination. These outsiders made her realize that she was living in a world much vaster than her household. And, let’s not forget another important aspect of her childhood. She was an avid reader. She loved to read fairy tales, fantasy and adventure novels. Her childhood readings included Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan and the adventures of Buffalo Bill. 

The descriptions of the characters in “Bad Tuesday” may not have been accurate, but factual preciseness is beside the point here. Obvisouly, P.L. Travers did not use researched information for the portrayal of her characters. She simply pulled them out of the mixture of her childhood memories, readings and musings. Facts were never of a great concern for P.L. Travers. She was interested in big ideas. And, the original “Bad Tuesday” was a big idea kind of story. It was a story about the variety of human life on this planet and the possibility for all human beings, despite their socio-cultural differences, to be friends. It was a lesson in openness and willingness to take part in other people’s customs.  

Isn’t it a sad paradox that a story about diversity and inclusion was relegated to oblivion by misguided reading and interpretation? The story was not promoting racist ideas or making children believe that other ethnic groups were somehow inferior. It was just a story, an imaginative story, and a humorous one at that.   

Halloween With Mary Poppins

Mary Poppins Halloween

At this time of the year, here in the Northern Hemisphere, autumn is in full swing. Winds are rising, trees are gradually shedding their colorful leaves and nights are getting longer. Symbolically, we are beginning our descent into darkness, and holidays like the approaching Halloween invite us to honour this shadowy season. So, this is an appropriate moment to write a blogpost about Hallowe’en, a story from Mary Poppins in the Park, the fourth Mary Poppins book published in 1952.  

It is Halloween night and Jane and Michael see their shadows outside in the garden “floating down the front path and through the garden railings”. Encouraged by the sounds of music coming from the Park and the messages left on their pillows – two maple leaves on which are inscribed the words “Come” and “Tonight”- Jane and Michael leave the warmth and safety of their nursery and follow their shadows into the night.

In the Park, under the light of the Full Moon, they attend a strange party crowded with shadows of people they know, and fictional characters from nursery rhymes and fairy tales.  Of course, the children are amazed to see  something unreal, that just goes through things and has no substance, to suddenly have an existence of its own.

But then, The Bird Woman’s shadow explains to Jane and Michael that shadows are more than real. In truth, she tells them, they are the outside of our inside, and they know important things.

And that’s what they are made for – to go through things. Through and out on the other side – it’s the way they get to be wise. You – take my words for it, my loves, when you know what your shadow knows – then you know a lot.  

Mrs. Corry, a close friend of Mary Poppins is also at the party, but just like Mary Poppins her shadow is firmly attached to her feet. She warns the children that shadows have feelings.

They feel twice as much as you do. I warn you, children, take care of your or shadows or your shadows won’t take care of you.

Then Mary Poppins arrives, and Jane and Michael learn that it is not only Halloween, but also the eve of Mary Poppins’s birthday. The celebration begins. However, soon after the dancing starts, the owners of the merry shadows show up in the Park looking for them. Things get even more interesting for Jane and Michael.

The Park Keeper.jpg

The Park Keeper is a character that appears in many of the Mary Poppins adventures. He is always fretting and admonishing people to follow the rules, while living in constant fear of punishment for the irregularities that inevitably occur each time Mary Poppins comes to the park.  On this Halloween night the Park Keeper is particularly frightened. Spooky things come out in the night, and he decides to abandon the Park for just this one time.

Understandably, when Jane and Michael see his shadow at the party, they are quite surprised, but the shadow explains:

Oh. I am not frightened, Miss – it’s ‘im. My body, so to speak. A very nervous chap’e is – afraid of ‘is own shadow.

The Park Keeper, who ignores that he has lost his shadow, but can not bring himself to ignore his duty, returns to the Park. When he sees his shadow dancing, which by the way is against the rules, he orders it to behave like a human being. His shadow replies with a giggle: “But shadows are so much nicer!” Then, the Park Keeper is forced by some mysterious powers to dance with his shadow, but even this shocking experience does not succeed in changing the Park Keeper’s rigid mind. At the end, he gets a firm hold of his shadow, and it is clear that the Park Keeper will remain just as he was before this uncanny incident. Apparently being forced to face one’s shadow is not enough. One has to willingly enter the dance for change to occur.   

Mrs. Boom

Admiral Boom, another frequently encountered character in the Mary Poppins adventures, is aware that his shadow is missing, but he is unwilling to face it. Instead, when he realises that his shadow has gone missing, he sends his wife out in the dark to look for it. Now, this is a rather cowardly act, and one that contradicts his usual authoritative behavior during the day. But Admiral Boom’s shadow knows better. It knows that behind the Admiral Boom’s imposing façade hides an entitled, spoiled child who wants everything on a plate. When things get tough, Admiral Boom gets tough on people. Someone else needs to fixit the situation for him.

I leave him for one night in the year – and he threatens to sink the ship! Now, that’s a thing I’d never do. He is nothing but a spoiled child – no sense of responsibility.

Obviously, the Admiral will remain locked in his anger and his experience of life will remain unchanged.

Mrs. Lark

What about snobbish Mrs. Lark?  She too braves the darkness and shows up in the Park looking for her shadow.  When confronted with it, she is horrified by its behaviour. In her opinion, it is totally unacceptable for the shadow of a woman of her social standing to be dancing around the Park with total strangers. But this is not how her shadow sees the situation:

I’m gayer than you think, Lucinda. And so are you, if you knew it. Why are you always fussing and fretting instead of enjoying yourself? If you stood on your head occasionally, I’d never run away.

Surprisingly, Mrs. Lark does not need a lot of convincing, although she does not quite know how to go about this standing on your head business. Anyhow, she is going to practice on the hearthrug in her drawing-room.

The Professor, Mrs. Lark’s companion, follows in her footsteps. He walks in the Park knowing that he is looking for something, only he does not remember what that something is.  This is much in line with the Professor’s usual absentmindedness. Funny enough, his shadow is just as forgetful as he is.

‘Lost and found!’ He (The Professor) embraced his shadow. ‘How beautiful are those two words when one hears them both together! Oh, never let us part again! You will remember what I forget – ‘

‘And vice versa!’ his shadow cried.

This happy reunion suggests that the Professor is not at odds with his shadow like the rest of the characters in the story. The Professor’s wholeness and alignment with his true nature is illustrated by the affectionate hug he shares with his shadow.

Mr. Banks Sleepwalking.jpg

Mr. Banks, Jane and Michael’s father, comes sleepwalking across the Park with his arms stretched out before him. He talks in his sleep about feeling that there is something missing, although he cannot figure it out. In his dream, he has his bag and morning paper, so what could possibly be missing? His shadow gently comes forward and takes him back to his bed.

                                                ‘There, old chap! I’ll do the counting. Come along back to bed.

Obviously, Mr. Banks is unconscious of his soul searching. Sadly, he is hopelessly trapped in the rat race of his existence, and his role as the provider of his large family. There is no revelation for him on this Halloween night. 

Knowing about P.L. Travers’s spiritual allegiance to Gurdjieff and his teachings, it is easy to make the link between Mr. Banks’s sleepwalking and the functioning, according to Gurdjieff, of the average person. Gurdjieff believed that, for the most part, we are asleep and unconscious of the forces that control our lives. He compared the human being to a machine with three commanding, so to speak, centers: the physical center, the emotional center, and the intellectual center, which act independently from one another. Meaning that Gurdjieff viewed human beings as fractured beings who need to integrate their split off parts.

In interpreting this story, it is tempting to make a parallel between P.L. Travers’s metaphor of the shadow and Jung’s concept of the shadow. In Jungian terms the shadow is the dark part of the human psyche. It contains our unconscious motivations, unfulfilled desires, needs and complexes. Simply put, if completely split off from our consciousness, our shadow gathers up destructive powers which can be harmful both to us and to others.  According to Jung, the only way of becoming mentally and emotionally healthy is by integrating our shadow, by acknowledging its existence and examining its needs.  In this sense, stories about adventures in the underworld can be understood as reminders that we can go into darkness in our lives and emerge on the other side better for it.

However, P.L. Travers’s metaphor of the shadow in this story is one paradoxically full of light. In this story the shadows are aware of the problems and complexes of their owners. However, they are not the embodiment of these forces. The shadows appear to be the repressed inner essence of the characters, their soul, the inner voice of truth. Or why would the Bird Woman’s shadow tell the Banks children that shadows never hurt anybody? “A “shadder” never did anyone harm-at least, not as I know of.”

P.L. Travers’s allegorical tale teaches an important lesson.  Blindly following social rules and norms will never make us happy. Assuming roles imposed from the world outside of us will never allow us to live a life of fulfillment. To experience life fully, we must focus on our inner world, and recognise our true nature, or else, we are setting ourselves up for an unhappy, unfulfilling, small lives. And, now is as good a time as any to bring a little light into the dark corners of our inner worlds.  Will you take on P.L. Travers’s invitation and party with your shadow?  

Happy Halloween to all!

About the Descriptions in the Mary Poppins Books

The Complete Mary Poppins cover page

The world of Mary Poppins is a whimsical place where inanimate objects come alive and animals talk, where stars come down to Earth and children go up in the sky, or deep down in the ocean. A world where Kings climb on rainbows and cows dance to exhaustion, where people laugh so hard that they fly up to the ceiling, and where fictional characters come out of the pages of their books. Everything in this magical universe imagined by P.L. Travers is alive and endowed with consciousness. It is so vivid and vibrant with life that it begs a question. How did she conceive of it?

Of course, P.L. Travers’s spiritual inclinations play an important part in her creative process but there is something else. There is something particular in these stories that resonates with young children (and with our inner child, if we let it). What is it?

P.L. Travers did not keep it a secret. She said that she remembered herself as a child.

To be aware of having been a child – and who I am but the child I was, wounded scared and dirtied but sill essentially that child, for essence cannot change – to be aware of and in touch with this fact is to have the whole long body of one’s life at one’s disposal, complete and unfragmented.

I Never Wrote for Children, P.L. Travers 1978

P.L. Travers remembered how she perceived the world as a young child and how she explained it to herself. In some of her essays written in her old age and compiled in What The Bee Knows, she shared some childhood recollections and revealed, at least in part, young Helen Lyndon Goff (P.L. Travers’s real name); a deeply inquisitive child with great observational skills and adventurous temperament. 

What the bee knows Mary Poppins

As young children we filter the world through our feelings and sensations and then we begin to apprehend it, from what psychologist term, an animistic point of view.  For young children anything that moves is alive and thus capable of thoughts and emotions.  

The first psychologist to come up with the concept of animism as a developmental stage in children’s cognitive development was Jean Piaget. He observed how his own children perceived the world and he remarked that they often attributed human emotions to inanimate objects.  In a book I recently read, On Looking, the author Alexandra Horowitz gives examples of Piaget’s observations. She wrote that one of his daughters told him that “the sky is a man who goes up in a balloon and makes the clouds and everything and that another explained to him that the “sun goes to bed because it is sad” and that boats pulled out of the water are “asleep”.

Piaget believed young children were making an “animistic mistake”. Today psychologists believe that animism is an expression of the young child’s imagination that shows us the child’s understanding of the word. Simply, the child is making analogies with what she has learned so far about the world in order  to elucidate a new experience.

P.L. Travers kept her childlike ability to perceive the surrounding world in animistic terms and that allowed her to create a world relatable for young children. This ability is displayed in some of the descriptions in the Mary Poppins stories. Here are a few examples. 

All the afternoon the house was very quiet and still, as though it were thinking its own thoughts, or dreaming perhaps.

John and Barbara’s Story, Mary Poppins (1934), P.L. Travers

 

Tick-Tack! Tik-tock!

The pendulum of the Nursery clock swung backwards and forwards like an old lady nodding her head.

Tick -Tack! Tik-tock!

Then the clock stopped ticking and began to whir and growl, quietly at first and then more loudly, as though it were in pain. And as it whirred it shook so violently that the whole mantelpiece trembled.

Bad Wednesday, Mary Poppins Comes Back (1935), P.L. Travers

The summer day was hot and still. The cherry trees that bordered the Lane could feel their cherries ripening – the green slowly turning to yellow and the yellow blushing red.

The houses dozed in the dusty gardens with their shutters over their eyes. “Do no disturb us!” they seemed to say.

Every Goose a Swan, Mary Poppins Comes Back (1935), P.L. Travers

It was a Round-the-Mulberry-Bush sort of morning, cold and rather frosty. The pale grey daylight crept through the Cherry Trees and lapped like water over the houses. A little wind moaned through the gardens. It darted across the Park with a whistle and whined along the lane.

“Brrrrrr!” said Number Seventeen. “What can be that wretched wind be doing -howling and fretting around like a ghost! Hi! Stop that, can’t you? You are making me shiver!”

The Other Door, Mary Poppins Opens the Door (1943), P.L. Travers

The Complete Mary Poppins back cover

The Mary Poppins stories regaled me a great deal as a child. I enjoyed the fantastical aspects precisely because I knew that things did not work quite the way they did in fairy tales. Although, many times I wish they did. Still, I knew, what happened in books remained in books. There was no confusion between the fictional reality and my own reality.

Today, as an adult reader of these stories, I have a quite different understanding. It turns out that the fictional reality of Mary Poppins is connected to our nonfictional everyday reality. What fascinates me now are the hidden meanings of the Mary Poppins adventures and the workings of P.L. Travers’s imagination.

But I still enjoy the descriptions in the books for the same reason I liked them as a child. I like how P.L. Travers creates an atmosphere of aliveness. Anything in the Mary Poppins world has the potential for interaction with its inhabitants. Anything can become a portal to another dimension of time and space.

And, all this thinking about the aliveness of the Mary Poppins world made me think about our own “ordinary” world and how it may appear dull in comparison. Yet, is it really less alive and beguiling than the magical one imagined by P.L. Travers? How much of the aliveness around us do we dismiss each day?

Just because animals and vegetation do not use human language it does not mean they do not communicate. And even if we know that inanimate objects do not have feelings we can still stop and notice what feelings they invoke in us. Could it be that by being oblivious to the aliveness of our surrounding world we become oblivious to our own aliveness?  

It is unfortunate that so many of us lose the ability to wonder as life experience accumulates and familiarity sets in. The child that once was in a state of discovery ends up shut off from the mystery of the world. I recently came upon this quote from Einstein:

 The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all true science. Whoever does not know it, who can no longer pause to wonder or stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead.

Albert Einstein

The child you once were will show you marvels hidden in plain sight.

 

Mary Poppins, Rainbows, the Psychology of Hope and the Virtues of Joy and Serenity

Robertson Ay Story Mary Poppins

Drawings of rainbows are popping up, like mushrooms overnight, on many windows in my neighbourhood. As I count them on my walks, I realize that the rainbow has become our modern-day symbol of hope. Our rational minds know that the ultimate salvation from the COVID 19 pandemic will come from a scientific breakthrough in the form of a vaccine, but in the meantime, while science is wanting, our hearts need hope.

According to findings in the field of positive psychology, the emotion of hope is a result of our hopeful thinking. The hopeful thought induces feelings of hopefulness. Then, our hopeful thoughts and emotions transform into a belief in the possibility for our wishes to become a reality. Which in turn makes us resilient in the face of adversity and prompts us to action towards the desired result. But, in the flood of bad news and scary images how are we to think hopeful thoughts? The fear can be so overwhelming that our brains are paralysed like a deer caught in the headlights of an upcoming car.  And if we cannot think hopeful thoughts then there is no hope to feel hopeful. Or is there?

Actually, there is a way of simultaneously nudging our thoughts and emotions into the desired direction. Symbols are the tools used for that purpose since the dawn of humanity.

The rainbow is the perfect illustration of the wordless, yet effective, communication of a symbol. Its message is clear. Be patient and resilient because just like a bad storm this pandemic too shall pass, and something beautiful will come out of it.

A rainbow path appears at the end of Robertson Ay’s Story in Mary Poppins Comes Back (the book, not the movie!) and although its meaning is not one of hope, I believe that the story is interesting to examine in the context of the current pandemic.

Robertson Ay Story

Mary Poppins takes the Banks children to the park where they encounter a peculiar character.

Along the path at the edge of the Lake came a tall, slim figure, curiously dressed. He wore stockings of red striped with yellow, a red and yellow tunic scalloped at the edges and on his head was a large brimmed red and yellow hat with a high peaked crown.

He was whistling loudly and as he drew nearer they saw that the peaks of his tunic, and the brim of his hat, were edged with little bells that jingled musically as he moved. He was the strangest person they had ever seen and yet-there was something about him that seemed familiar.

Robertson Ay’s Story, Mary Poppins Comes Back, P.L. Travers

This is the Dirty Rascal from the Nursery Rhyme and Robertson Ay from the Banks’ household. The children are intrigued and want to know more about him. So, Mary Poppins tells them the story of the Dirty Rascal’s visit to the King of the Castle. Here it goes.

The King of the Castle has everything in the world except wisdom, and because of his lack of wisdom he is disrespected not only by his people but also by the Queen. Eventually, the Queen and the Lord High Chancellor take over rule of the kingdom. In the meantime, professors are summoned to the Castle to teach the King some wisdom. As is the custom in fairy tales, a generous price is allotted to the professor who successfully completes the task. Of course, those who fail will see their heads cut off, and in this particular story, spiked on the Castle gates. Many professors try to teach the King some wisdom but to no avail. They all lose their heads while the King sinks deeper into his depression.  

One day the Dirty Rascal shows up at the castle. He becomes the King’s Fool and only friend. Together they set on fire all of the King’s books and spend their time singing and dancing joyfully around the castle.  Obviously, the Queen and the Lord High Chancellor do not approve of the King’s behaviour, which in their minds only confirms the King’s poor judgement.

When the Queen and the Lord High Chancellor learn that the Chief Professor will be visiting the Kingdom, in one last desperate attempt to reason the King, they invite the Chief Professor to the Castle.

A witty discussion takes place between the King of the Castle and the Chief Professor.

“How deep is the sea?”

“Deep enough to sail a ship on.”

Again, the Chief Professor stared and his long beard quivered. He was smiling.

“What is the difference, Majesty, between a star and a stone, a bird and a man?”

“No difference at all, Professor. The stone is a star that shines not. A man is a bird without wings.”

The Chief Professor drew nearer and gazed wonderingly at the King.

“What is the best thing in the world?” he asked quietly.

“Doing nothing”, answered the King waving his bent sceptre.

Robertson Ay’s Story, Mary Poppins Comes Back, P.L. Travers

At the end, the Chief Professor tells the Queen and the Lord High Chancellor that the King does not need his services and that the price goes rightfully to the Fool, who after all, has taught the King how to be wise.

At that moment, a rainbow path appears down from the sky and the King of the Castle follows the Dirty Rascal on it, throwing down his crown and sceptre. The King leaves behind his old identity and all that no longer serves his higher good. Power, prestige and riches are no longer important to him. Nor is the approval of the Queen and the Lord High Chancellor.

Midway through the climb the King decides to sit and rest for a while.

 “You won’t be lonely?” the Fool enquired.

“Oh, dear, no. Why should I be? It is very quiet and pleasant up here. And I can always think – or better still, go to sleep.”

Robertson Ay’s Story, Mary Poppins Comes Back, P.L. Travers

Rainbow me-time.jpg

Whimsical as Robertson Ay’s Story may appear at first, and amusing as it may be to young children, it is in truth an allegory meant for the adult readers.

P.L. Travers tells us, in a nutshell, that books alone cannot bestow wisdom. Accumulation of factual knowledge is not enough to help us live the good life. For that, we must consider the virtues of playfulness and the benefits of spending some alone time. Both, attributes that are currently undervalued in our modern-day societies.  In truth, we can aspire to gain wisdom only if we practice mindful alternation between periods of activity (while adopting a playful attitude) and rest and self-reflection.

P.L. Travers wrote this story in 1935 when she was in her mid-thirties, and today positive psychology confirms that the emotion of joy (playfulness) gives us momentum and optimism, it makes us eager about the world and open to new experiences and opportunities.  Joy allows us psychological flexibility and gives us courage to explore new avenues. By having a playful attitude in life, we are more willing to let go of old preconceived ways of thinking. To be playful is to be fully alive, alert, curious and available for an authentic connection with others.

At the same time, we also need rest to process our experiences internally. We are creatures dwelling simultaneously in two different worlds. That is not, as we all know, an easy task. Often times there is a great gab between our inner world and the outer, visible, collective world. Wisdom is the bridge that can help us unite and harmonise our experiences of these two worlds.    

Maybe the disruption of our habitual ways of living caused by COVID-19, will bring some positive changes. Maybe we will come out of this experience with a better understanding of what really matters to us.  Maybe this forced quiet time at home will allow us to see that there is no need to rush life, it is already short as it is. Maybe we will admit that we need to make more space in our schedules for those we love and for the things that feed our souls even if that does not translate into dollars. Maybe we will come to see that business is a distraction, the greatest waste of our precious time on this planet. Maybe we will truly understand that the pursuit of ever-increasing profit is alienating us from each other and from our planet.

And, maybe it sounds absurd and insensitive to talk about play and rest in a time of great suffering, but for those of us who are privileged with health and sheltered away from the front lines, let us use this time to connect with ourselves and hear the music to which we want to dance. Each individual choice has an effect on the collective.  Because this too shall pass. Then what?

I am willing to be hopeful.

 

Celebrating Easter with Mary Poppins

Mary Poppins Easter Eggs

As I write this post all of humanity is under lockdown. Our frantic, busy, profit driven societies are stopped in their tracks. Survival fears are blowing around the globe and no one really knows how things will play out in the end. Of course, we all hope for the best but fear the worst. Facing the unknown is always scary. But we must, in spite of all this madness, be patient and courageous. And above all, we must find ways to keep our spirits high.

As usual, I find comfort in Mary Poppins, P.L. Travers and nature.  This blog is my grounding rod amid the storm of bad news. Daily walks outside remind me that despite our ongoing struggles the regenerative powers of nature are in motion, trees are budding, birds are singing, and the squirrels are jumping from tree to tree. Spring is here and Easter is just around the corner. 

I know, it feels absurd right now to celebrate rebirth in the midst of a global pandemic. Yet, it is what we need to celebrate. We need to remind ousrselves that life is cyclical and that we are part of the larger living fabric on this planet. We are all guilty of focusing on the tiny picture of our individual lives. This is human and understandable. But civilizations have come and gone before us. What looks unprecedented today has happened, in some form or antoher, before. This too shall pass, and I want to believe that there is a seed in this crisis for a positive change. 

I was not raised religiously and although we do celebrate Easter in my family, it is mostly a celebration of the coming of spring, and an occasion to get creative with Easter decorations. This year because of the lockdown I am celebrating both Easter and the coming of spring with Mary Poppins.

How? Simple, I drew some characters from the Mary Poppins stories on white plastic eggs and I baked an Easter Cake. But not just any Easter cake. I baked Mary Poppins’s Easter Cake from the cookery book Mary Poppins in the Kitchen.   Although, Mary Poppins may not be impressed by the result. My baking talents being limited, the outcome was not extraordinary. Regardless, the process was enjoyable.

Mary Poppins Easter Cake 2

Mary Poppins Easter Cake

Mary Poppins Easter Egg

Balloon Lady Easter Egg

St. Paul's cathedral Easter Egg

Once the eggs and cake were done, I reread Nellie Rubina, a whimsical story about the coming of spring from the second Mary Poppins book, Mary Poppins Comes Back published in 1935.

 Mary Poppins Comes Back cover page

Outside it is a snowy winter. Jane and Michael are being stuck for a week inside the house.  Jane can’t take it anymore, while Michael doesn’t seem to mind it that much. He is busy arranging the animals of his Noah’s Ark.

‘I wonder why they never have any relatives’ he remarked presently.

‘Who don’t?” said Jane crossly, for she didn’t want to be disturbed.

‘The Noahs, I’ve never seen them with a daughter or a son or a uncle or an aunt. Why?’

‘Because they don’t have them,’ said Jane. “Do be quiet.”

And the fight begins.  Of course, the discord does not last long. Mary Poppins walks abruptly in the room and interrupts the altercation. Now the children are instructed to get ready because they are going out.  

In the park Jane and Michael start a snowball fight and a misguided snowball falls right on Mary Poppins’s nose. In a typical angry outburst, she announces that this is the end of the snowballs. Then she throws a tiny snowball forward a few times and follows it until she  and the children arrive in front of a strange building. There is no door, only windows and a deck. The building, writes P.L. Travers, looks more like an ark than  a house.   

Noah's ark

Mary Poppins leads the way along the deck to a notice that reads “KNOCK THREE AND A HALF TIMES’’.   

Immediately, as though it had been listening and waiting for the signal, the roof of the building flew back on its hinges.

Once inside the ark Jane and Michael meet Nellie Rubina and Uncle Dodger, two strange characters made out of wood and propelled by the motion of round flat disks at the very bottom of their bodies. Reading the description of Nellie Rubina, I immediately thought of Russian nesting dolls.

From her face and size she seemed to be quite young but somehow she looked though she were made, not of flesh, but of wood. Her stiff, shiny black hair seemed to have been carved on her head and then painted. Her eyes were like small black holes drilled in her face and, surely that bright pink patch on her shiny cheek was paint!

Russian Doll Nellie Rubina

It is actually possible that P.L. Travers based her two magical characters on these little Russian wooden dolls. They were very much in vogue in Russia at the beginning of the twentieth century and P.L. Travers must have seen them while in Russia on her Moscow Excursion in 1933.

Inside, the ark is filled with tree branches, flowers, butterflies, clouds, and little lambs all made out of wood. But the purpose of these objects remains mysterious to Jane and Michael. As the story unfolds the children learn that Nellie Rubina is the Eldest Daughter and a Direct Descendant of Noah while Uncle Dodger, older and less cheerful, is only an Uncle-by-Marriage. On Mary Poppins’s request Nellie Rubina offers her guests some Conversations from a jar (sweets with inscribed messages). The children are amused.  

Jane pulls out a star shaped sweet that reads “You’re my Fancy”. Michael’s is a pink, shell shaped sweet saying: “I love you. Do you love me?”.  But the most mysterious one is of course the message addressed to Mary Poppins: “Ten o’clock tonight.”  The children realize that something is about to happen and that they must stay awake to witness it.

What happens at ten o’clock is exactly what Mary Poppins announced earlier in the park. It is the end of Jane and Michael’s snowballs. The children witness a magical ritual as Mary Poppins, Nellie Rubina and Uncle Dodger summon Spring.

Nellie Rubina

All over the park went the three, jumping up to the tallest branch as if they were on springs. And in no time every tree in the park was decked out with wooden spays of leaves and neatly finished off with dabs of paint from Uncle Dodger’s brush.

And now Nellie Rubina and Mary Poppins took up in their arms the flat white wooden clouds. With these they soared higher than ever before, shooting right above the trees and pressing the clouds carefully against the sky.

The next morning Mr. Banks exclaims “The Spring is here!”

P.L. Travers was spiritually inclined and sensitive to the invisible. She was a true master of the language of metaphor, allegory and symbolism.  It is by these indirect means that she communicated in her writings her knowledge, beliefs and questions about life. And, this is why I believe that the Mary Poppins stories, just like scripture, myths and fairy tales are primarily designed to teach. Therefore, we should not think of the Mary Poppins stories as fantasy meant to amuse children, although they certainly serve that purpose too.

The magical characters in Nellie Rubina are symbols of the invisible life forces at work during the seasonal transitions. The children in the story are learning about the natural cycles of life. But there is something more in there, something for the adult reader. It is interesting to note  that P.L. Travers chose to incorporate the concept of seasonal rebirth into the biblical story of Noahs’s Ark, an allegory about another cycle of death and regeneration. This is  a perfect example of P.L. Travers’s indirection. She was always hinting and never explaining.  

I wonder how P.L. Travers would’ve seen the current pandemic situation. Maybe she would’ve made the same connection to Noah’s story. Maybe she woud’ve told us about the esoteric interpretation of the story and about Noah being a symbol of the human soul, and the need for all of us to develop our souls. Maybe she would’ve told us that we are living out a mythical story. Only, we are finding out that real myth is not meant to entertain and that it does not feel pleasant. Maybe she would’ve told us that there is a seed in this crisis for the birth of a different and better way of living.  

And, maybe, just maybe this pandemic will be the death of greed and consumerism and the birth of authentic connection and collaboration.  Only time will tell,  but we must remember  that we have a part to play in the collective actions of our societies. 

May better days come soon! Stay safe!

 

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.   

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.

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* There are eight Mary Poppins books.

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