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!

The Nativity Reimagined by the Author of Mary Poppins

The Fox at the Manger

The Fox at the Manger is a short Christmas story by P.L. Travers, the author of Mary Poppins. It was written on demand, as a service to her publisher.  However, despite its small size and the fact that it was commissioned, this tiny booklet is packed with big questions and pays tribute to P.L. Travers’s ability to say more with less.  

The Fox at the Manger was discussed previously on this blog.  In Pamela L. Travers and the Fox at the Manger (Part I) the story was examined as a possible expression of P.L Travers’s disappointment with the God she believed in as a child.  

In the second post Pamela L. Travers and the Fox at the Manger (Part II) the character of the fox was examined from three different perspectives: the fox as the embodiment of P.L. Travers’s feelings of loneliness and alienation from others, the fox as the personification of P. L. Travers’s spiritual teacher, G.I. Gurdjieff, and the fox as the expression of P.L. Travers’s unsatisfied childhood needs for unconditional love and acceptance. 

In A Christmas Story by Pamela L. Travers I tried to understand the nature of the fox’s gift to baby Jesus. For those who are unfamiliar with the story, the fox offers its cunning to Jesus on the night of his birth. Isn’t this mystifying?  Cunning is not a personality trait one usually attributes to Jesus. What can he use it for? In the story this same question is raised by the ass: 

“But what will you do with such a gift?” cried the ass, in bewilderment. “I’m puzzled at these riddles. What is this cunning? There is something here I do not understand.” 

The answer however is far from satisfying. 

“It is not necessary to understand,” said the Child, gently. “It is only necessary to let it be. Love and let it be.” 

No explanations, only indirection. This is the style of P.L. Travers.  The reader, if willing, is offered a chance to ponder the question for however long, and maybe one day find the answer.  Well, I gave it a try. And then, I took a shortcut. Since the question appeared to be of a theological nature, I reached out to Tobias Churton, a writer and theologian, expert in esoteric mysteries, spiritual history and philosophy.  He offered an interesting theological perspective which I shared in A Christmas Story by Pamela L. Travers.   

So, what is left to say about The Fox at the Manger? Actually, there is still a lot that can be inferred from this story.  For instance, it can tell us something about the workings of P.L. Travers’s creative mind.  

In The Fox at the Manger, we are confronted with the duality of Jesus’s fate. His birth is presented in the context of his tragic death. Time in the story is not linear. It wraps around itself like an ouroboros.  Past, present and future all happen at once. The result is a holistic view of Jesus’s life and a meditation on the nature of good and evil, or more accurately, about our dual human nature.   

But where did P.L. Travers get the idea for her Christmas story? She was often asked about the origins of her ideas, and her interviewers were regularly made aware of her irritation at the question. No one can tell where ideas come from, that was in short, her position on the matter.  

Well, that is not entirely true. In the case of The Fox at the Manger it is possible to trace back the origins of her ideas. Things I’ve read, like pieces of a puzzle, interconnected to form an interesting picture.  

Apparently P.L. Travers explored the idea of Jesus’s dual fate some thirty years or so before she sat down to write  The Fox at the Manger. It was in her poem Noel written in her twenties (or early thirties) and published by her literary mentor A.E.: 

Noel 

Child of the bright head 

Take now your myrrh 

and gold 

and incense as we 

kneel 

With the three 

Child of the gentle heart 

Do you guess that we mean 

To crucify you 

When the leaves are green. 

But what inspired both the poem and The Fox at the Manger? To answer this question we must go back in time and space to one hot, Australian Sunday afternoon. Mrs. Goff, P.L. Travers’s, mother was lying in the bed, reading the Bible aloud. It was the story of Jesus’s Crucifixion and it caused young P.L. Travers great distress.  Grief-stricken, she could not contain her sorrow.  It was her first experience of empathy.  She wrote about this childhood memory when she was in her eighties. Undoubtedly, the story of Jesus’s sad fate left a lifelong impression. And, here we are, the basis of her idea to tell the story of the Nativity within the context of the Crucifixion is rooted in this early childhood experience.  

Now, let’s turn our attention to the character of the wild fox in The Fox at the Manger.

Fox at the Manger engraving 2

Engraving by Thomas Bewick 

P.L. Travers’s friend and collaborator Brian Sibley expressed the shocking originality of the idea to introduce the fox in the story of Jesus’s birth: 

The Fox at the Manger. What a bizzare, almost blasphemous idea: the wild rough, read-haired chicken thief at the place where the mysterious drama of the Incarnation had been enacted.  

Brian Sibley, A Good Gift, A Lively Oracle 

The question again is: What inspired P.L. Travers? Why did she bring the fox at the manger?  I found a clue dated May 1943.  P.L. Travers wrote an intriguing diary entry. She mentioned her fascination with the element of the fox. For a long-time, she wrote in that entry, she had a strong connection to hens but now, she was tired of the hen*.  Reading these words led me to the next logical question: Why was she interested in the element of the fox at that moment in time?   

In 1943 Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, at that time exiled in the United-States, published The Little Prince.  P.L. Travers read the story and in April 1943 she wrote a delightfully insightful review of The Little Prince in The New York Herald. You can read about it in Mary Poppins Meets the Little Prince

Clearly the idea of an untamed fox offering a gift to an innocent child was inspired by another famous allegory. The wild fox who befriends the Little Prince stayed with P.L. Travers. It appears that the idea about the wild and untamed fox becoming tamed of its own free will fascinated P.L. Travers.  

Fox in the little prince

Illustration by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Of course, the differences between these two stories outweigh the similarities. The gifts offered to each child are of a different nature.  The fox in The Little Prince gifts the child with a secret that teaches him to seek guidance from his own heart.   

The fox’s gift in The Fox at the Manger is of a quite different nature. The Child in this story  already knows how to listen with his heart. He needs something else to help him carry the burden of his fate. And, what better gift to offer than cunning to one who is setting out on a perilous journey. Jesus may be the symbol of selfless love, but heart alone is not enough to get us through the uncertainties of life. The gift of the fox is the gift of the mind.      

____________________________________ 

*P.L. Travers associated the hen’s habit of silent brooding with writers’ predisposition for pondering ideas. 

Mary Poppins Meets Pinocchio

Pinocchio

Illustrated by Gioia Fiammenghi

Today P.L. Travers is mostly remembered for her Mary Poppins books and for the clash between her vision of Mary Poppins and the one that Walt Disney had in mind for his film adaptation. Regrettably, the general public is mostly unaware of P.L. Travers’s extensive writings on the subject of myths and fairy tales.

Recently, I had the chance to read her lovely essay The Footfall of a Cat* and I was reminded of P.L. Travers’s fluency in symbolic language and her ability to discern alternative meanings within a single story. The ideas expressed  in The Footfall of a Cat are all interesting and could be the subject of many blogposts, but for the purposes of this particular one, I chose to explore the connection she makes between the theme of the spiritual nature of all craft and The Adventures of Pinocchio, written by Carlo Collodi.

Her comments about Pinocchio’s story are rather brief but, once pointed out, the connection appears evident. This is what I love about P.L. Travers, the originality of her ideas and the assertive ways in which she articulates them.

Unwittingly, seeking only to amuse, Carlo Collodi, the author of Pinocchio, happened upon a theme that he did not clearly understand and one that was older than he knew.

P.L. Travers, The Footfall of a Cat, 1976

She tells us that to see the connection between the theme of the spiritual nature of craft, and the relationship between the craftsman and the material, one must read the story of Pinocchio “on a level other than that on which it is written”.

I have always understood Pinocchio’s story as an allegory of the process of ego-maturation and the relationship between a father and his prodigal son. So, of course, this alternative interpretation tickled my curiosity, and I decided to follow the thread. I reread The Adventures of Pinocchio as the adventures of Geppetto.  And, since in this blog post we will examine the story from Geppetto’s standpoint, the focus here will be on his interaction with Pinocchio at the beginning and ending of the story.

The story begins with old Mr. Cherry busying himself in his carpentry workshop. He is making a new table and he finds, among the material lying around in his workshop, what he believes to be the perfect piece of wood for the leg of his table. But when he approaches it with his axe, the piece of wood begins to talk. It beseeches Mr. Cherry not to strike him too hard. The old man, deaf to the call of the material, gives it a blow anyhow. A cry of pain comes out of the piece of wood and frightens Mr. Cherry out of his wits.  Just as he is composing himself, old Geppetto knocks on the door of the woodshop.

Mr. Cherry in Workshop.jpg

Geppetto has an ambitious idea of making a fine wooden puppet that would dance, fence, and turn somersaults in the air, and with which he wants to travel the world to win his bread and wine.  For that purpose, and because he is extremely poor, he needs to ask Mr. Cherry for a favour. He needs a piece of wood.  

When the talking piece of wood hears about Geppetto’s plan, it enthusiastically approves of the project but, and here is the first sign of the misadventures to come, it addresses Geppetto in a very irreverent manner. It calls him by Geppetto’s despised nickname, Polendina, given to him by the boys in the neighbourhood. And, since Geppetto is short-tempered and does not understand that the voice comes out of the piece of wood, a ferocious fight begins between him and Mr. Cherry. In the end the two old men make amends, and Geppetto leaves the workshop with the mischievous piece of wood.

Geppetto.jpg

Back in his derelict room, Geppetto begins to shape the piece of wood into a puppet. But to his surprise the crafting process does not go smoothly. The piece of wood is acting out. As soon as Geppetto makes the eyes of the puppet, they start staring at him. Then, after he shapes the nose it begins to grow exponentially no matter how much Geppetto tries to shorten it. After the nose, Geppetto forms the mouth only to hear it laugh and poke fun at him. Then, immediately after Pinocchio’s hands are carved out, Geppetto’s wig is snatched out of his head. At this point of the shaping process, Geppetto is deeply disappointed by his creation. So much, that he blames himself for not knowing better earlier. However, he needs to finish what he has started. 

Pinocchio kicks Geppetto.jpg

Right after the puppet gains control of its newly carved legs, Geppetto receives a kick on the nose. The troubles officially begin. Pinocchio runs out in the street where a policeman catches him by his long nose just as Pinocchio tries to slide between his legs. Geppetto is angry and talks about punishment but then he finds himself arrested for mistreating Pinocchio, and sent to jail for the night. Pinocchio, cold and hungry, falls asleep with his feet on the brazier of  burning coal in Geppetto’s room.  The next day, when he wakes up, he finds out that he no longer has legs. However, his distress does not last long. Geppetto returns back home and repairs Pinocchio’s legs.  

Pinocchio caught by the policeman.jpg

Pinocchio wanting to show his gratitude decides that he wants to go to school. The trip around the world is postponed, and Geppetto sells his coat in order to buy Pinocchio a primer. Of course, Pinocchio never makes it to the classroom.  On his way to school he hears music, and he is compelled to go to The Great Puppet Show. From that point on in the story, propelled by a series of bad decisions, Pinocchio goes on a long journey away form home.  A little later in the story, we encounter Geppetto from afar. We find him in a small boat struggling against the waves of a stormy ocean, and then, we hear no more until the very end of the story. All we know is that Geppetto too has embarked on a journey of his own.

Both Geppetto’s and Pinocchio’s journeys unfold separately, but they both end up at the same place, in the belly of a giant dogfish. The story line is clear, both characters have lost their way in life.  And both of them experience a descent into the dark night of the soul. It is their unexpected reunion and the love they have for each other that saves them from annihilation. 

Pinocchio escape.jpg

The giant dogfish is sound asleep with its mouth ajar, and Pinocchio seizes the opportunity. With his father on his back he jumps out into the ocean and swims to the shore. Though, the journey back to safety requires an extreme effort on Pinocchio’s part. At the end, he is rewarded for his bravery by the blue-haired fairy, and transformed into a real boy.

Pinocchio transformation.jpg

P.L. Travers understood that talent and skill, although important components of the creative process, are not sufficient. Real craft, she tells us, calls for something more, something mysterious. To manifest an idea from the realm of the invisible into our physical world one needs not only to have an idea, the right material and the skill to execute, but one also needs to listen to what the material has to say.

P.L. Travers understood the role of the craftsman as one who humbly acts as a bridge between the immaterial world of ideas and their physical embodiment in our world. The real craftsman puts his skills at the service of the creative process.

Evidently, from what the story tells us, Geppetto does not have a clear understanding of his role as a craftsman. He may be channeling an idea and he may be shaping skillfully the right material, but he is not possessed by the right attitude, and that is because he is not consciously aware of the deeper meaning and purpose of his idea.

Geppetto does not consciously answer the call of the material and this is the interesting nuance in this story; the craftsman who possesses the necessary skill does not hear the call of the material. He is handed the right material by someone who hears the call but is not up for the task.

The story of Pinocchio is a warning. There is an element of surprise in the creative process. Each creation has a life energy of its own, and if misunderstood, it can disrupt the craftsman’s life. The disturbances that Pinocchio causes in Geppetto’s life are all necessary for Geppetto to understand that what his soul really wants is not a puppet to help him make a living. Geppetto is lonely and longing for a family of his own. This is why he is visited by the idea of a lively puppet. The existence of this unconscious need is hinted at the beginning of the story, when Geppetto chooses Pinocchio’s name. He names him after a loving family of poor but happy Pinocchios. In this light, the transformation of Pinocchio into a real boy at the end of the story can also be seen as Geppetto’s reward for his courage to face the darkness of his unconscious. 

And this is what I believe P.L. Travers meant when she wrote:

Geppetto answers the call of the wood and presently there is a puppet. And ultimately, through his own suffering and self-searching – he too goes on a night journey in the belly of the dogfish – his puppet becomes a real boy.

P.L. Travers, The Footfall of a Cat, 1976

I think she meant that Geppetto unconsciously answers the call of the wood. Or else, why would he go on a self-searching journey? I wish I could discuss this further with P.L. Travers.  People really did not ask her the right questions. Of course, she was not known for giving straight answers either. Those who knew her sometimes compare her to Mary Poppins, who never ever gives any explanations. But this is not completely accurate. P.L. Travers did not give lengthy explanations but she gave hints. And this can be enough  for those who want to find the answers.

__________

* published in 1976 in The Way of Working, The Spiritual Dimension of Craft

 

Two Pairs of Shoes by P.L. Travers (Part II)

Sandals of Ayaz 1

Illustrated by Leo and  Diane Dillon

The Sandals of Ayaz is a retelling of a Middle Eastern tale by P.L. Travers. As mentioned in my previous post, this story and the story Abu Kassem’s Slippers first appeared in Parabola (a magazine P.L. Travers helped co-found in 1976) under the theme of initiation, and then, in 1980 in the illustrated book Two Pairs of Shoes.

P.L. Travers saw a connection between these two stories, but she only gave a hint of it and left it to the readers to find the meaning by themselves. A firm believer in the virtues of teaching and learning by indirection she wrote:

These two stories have been lying around for hundreds of years in the minds of men, yet no one has thought of linking them and showing how each reflects the other. Fate left it for me to do. What a piece of luck.

P.L. Travers, 1980

Before I tell you what possible link P.L. Travers might have made between these two stories, let me tell you the story of The Sandals of Ayaz.

Ayaz was King Mahmoud’s Treasurer and most trusted man. One day the King decided to test the honesty and loyalty of his courtiers. He offered to each one in turn a beautiful pearl and then ordered them to break it. To the King’s surprise, the courtiers could not bring themselves to destroy such a beautiful and valuable object. Only Ayaz, without any hesitation, obeyed the King’s order and crushed the pearl between two stones.  The King praised Ayaz’s loyalty and the courtiers frightened for their lives, as they realized they were put on trial, began to lament themselves.

Sandals of Ayaz 3

Illustration by Leo and Diane Dillon

The King’s anger was mighty.  He signaled the Executioner and if Ayaz did not intervene on the courtiers’ behalf their lives would have been lost. But, instead of gratitude the hearts of the greedy courtiers were filled with jealousy. And as jealous people often do, they scrutinized Ayaz’s every action in the hope of finding something to destroy him with.

Thus, they noticed how every day Ayaz spent time alone in his room, and how each time he came out of it, he locked the door and put the key in his pocket. To add to this suspicious behaviour, no one was ever invited in Ayaz’s room.  

The courtiers suspected Ayaz of stealing from the King’s treasure and without wasting much time they sowed a seed of doubt in the King’s mind. But, after a thorough search of Ayaz’s room the courtiers could not find any stolen treasure. What they found instead were the remnants of Ayaz’s humble beginnings as a shepherd boy: a “dusty sheepskin jacket and a pair of tattered sandals”. The evil men had to admit to the King that their suspicions were unfounded.

Sandals of Asyaz 4

Illustration by Leo and Diane Dillon

The King wanted to know why Ayaz was so attached to his sandals and sheepskin jacket. Ayaz explained. These objects helped him remember where he came from. He knew that the prosperity he was enjoying was a gift from the King, and he kept asking himself the question: “Without this gift, what am I?” The humble sheepskin jacket and tattered sandals helped Ayaz to know himself. And, as all spiritual teachings attempt to impart, he who knows himself knows God.

By reminding himself his lowly birth Ayaz avoided the trap of attaching himself to his new identity as the King’s treasurer clad in costly robes. Although he enjoyed his new position, he did not identify with it and he did not fear losing it.  All identities, teaches us the story of Ayaz, are but costumes we change in the course of our lives. And if we are to flow with life and keep growing, we better not attach to our costumes but remember our true essence.

Sandals of Ayaz 5

Illustration by Leo and Diane Dillon

P.L. Travers was a follower of the spiritual teachings of Gurdjieff and his influence on her writings can be traced even in her retelling of this Middle Eastern tale. Gurdjieff taught his pupils self-awareness. He aimed to wake them up from their state of self-ignorance which enslaved them to their passions and impulses. He talked about self-remembrance and self-observation. Without knowledge of oneself, Gurdjieff believed man to be living his life in an automatic machinelike manner, a creature under hypnotic sleep.

I believe that P.L. Travers’s study of Gurdjieff’s teachings helped her to make the connection between these two stories which mirror Gurdjieff’s metaphor of the “two ends of the same stick”: one story illustrating a successful pattern of embracing a new identity without unnecessary attachment, and the other showing us a pattern of a failed initiation.

Abu Kassem was someone who was unsatisfied with  his condition in life and who did all that he could do to improve it. But his shrewdness and cunning overpowered him and caused his ruin. Ayaz was luckier than Abu Kassem. He lived without any ambition and was lifted up to a prosperous position by virtue of his good reputation.  The differences in the personality traits of these two fictional characters make me wonder. Does ambition always lead to a downfall and does integrity always leads to success? In a spiritual sense I do believe that to be the case, but since we  also live on the physical plane, we must find the balance between the inner and outer worlds.

Gurdjieff himself was a self-made man and one that did his best to direct his life in the desired by him direction. Sometimes that worked and sometimes it did not. Moreover, Gurdjieff was cunning, and he defined his teaching as “the way of the sly man”. And if we are to apply his philosophy of cunning and canning (meaning ability) the right way of being in the world  would be a combination of Abu Kassem’s cunning and frugality, and Ayaz’s purity of heart. A fine balance between two seemingly opposite positions: personal interest versus humility and service to others; between outer success and inner growth. Now, how is one to achieve this balance?

Who Are You Monsieur Gurdjieff cover page

According to P.L. Travers, and echoing Gurdjieff, we can achieve it through sustained attention. However, sustained simultaneous focus on our outer world and our inner world is an extremely difficult task.  P.L. Travers suggests that the first step towards the attainment of this sort of all-encompassing attention is our intention to be attentive.

Many are those down the ages who, sorrowing for their own lack of watchfulness, have too late learned what it means to pay attention, that it is not something that simply happens, nor to be had by chance…

 If man has within him the potential, if only as a germ, to share in the consciousness of the universe, even to glimpse at moments certain aspects of the Unknown (behold, I show you a mystery!) above all, to learn to know himself, can this be done without attention?

 And what of that word “pay”? First of all the whole person, all the functions closely cohering—thought, feeling, bodily sensation—must be ready, vigilant, alert; and to preface this ingathering there must be present in us—one can sum it up in one single word: attention’s closest kin, intention.

P.L. Travers, Sunflower, Parabola Magazine, Vol. XV, No. 2, Summer 1990

Two Pairs of Shoes by P.L. Travers (Part I)

Abu Kassem Slippers 1

Illustrations by Leo and Diane Dillon

P.L. Travers is mostly known for her Mary Poppins books but her literary contributions unfold beyond the fantastical world of her magical nanny. She was an explorer of a variety of spiritual esoteric traditions, more interested in experiencing life and extracting the truth as one extracts gold from the earth, than following the prescribed dogmas of organised religions. She weaved her spiritual notions into a spiderlike web of stories and musings about the mysteries of life.

In her seventies P.L. Travers was very much involved within the Gurdjieff Society and the study of the mystical branch of Islam, Sufism. Here is what is written in the Gurdjieff Review  about P.L. Travers:

It was her special skill in connecting or linking the pearls of spiritual tradition which was undoubtedly her greatest and perhaps her unique contribution to the activities of the [Gurdjieff] Society. She helped to set up and index the Society’s library to include not only all Gurdjieff’s books and those of Ouspensky, Nicoll, Walker and others pertaining to Gurdjieff’s teaching, but also a comprehensive collection of major texts and works on Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Neo-Platonism, Gnosticism and so on.

While studying Sufism in the early 1970s, Pamela and her study group presented a dramatized reading of The Conference of the Birds, but only when she was satisfied that enough years had been given to a shared study of The Koran, the Hadith, the historical life of the Prophet, as well as the works of al-Ghazzali, Rumi, ibn Arabi, al-Hallaj, the question of al-Khidr (the Islamic green man) and dul-Quarnein (Alexander the Great).

Thus, P.L. Travers familiar with Middle Eastern tales, wrote her own retellings of two ancient stories for the first issue of Parabola in 1976 (a magazine she helped co-found) on the theme of Initiation: Abu Kassem’s Slippers and The Sandals of Ayaz. These two stories reappeared in 1980 as an illustrated story book under the title “Two Pairs of Shoes” and then in 1990 in the compilation of her essays “What the Bee Knows”.

In this post I want to entertain you with P.L. Travers’s retelling of Abu Kassem’s Slippers*.

Abu Kassem Slippers 2

Abu Kassem is a prosperous merchant who shamelessly displays his miserliness by walking around town with a pair of shabby slippers. One day, as he roams the bazaar for bargains, he successfully acquires a few beautiful crystal bottles and some attar of roses for a fraction of their value. On his way home he decides to celebrate his good fortune by stopping at the public hot baths for a soak. There he meets an acquaintance who tries to convince him to get new slippers. But, Abu Kassem disregards his friend’s suggestion because he lives by the adage: Want not, waste not.

When Abu Kassem comes out of the bath, he finds a pair of beautiful slippers instead of his own tattered ones, and without a shadow of a doubt, he assumes that it must have been his friend who has decided to gift him with these glittering new slippers. So, he happily puts them on and goes back home. Unfortunately for Abu Kassem, from the moment his feet enter the foreign slippers his life is turned upside down.

Abu Kassem Slippers 3

The new slippers were not a gift from his friend, but the slippers of the Cadi (judge) of Baghdad, who of course was not happy to find his slippers missing. Abu Kassem is found by the Cadi’s servants and is fined an enormous sum of money for the offense caused to the Cadi. Abu Kassem is outraged and tries to get rid of his slippers but at every attempt he makes to destroy them,  the wretched slippers come back and cause some sort of disaster for which Abu Kassem is blamed and must pay an onerous fine. At last, Abu Kassem begs the Cadi to free him from his slippers for they have completely ruined his fortune.

Abu Kassem Slippers 7

Why did P.L. Travers choose this story for the theme of initiation?

Because the story of Abu Kassem is one of failed initiation. Deep inside Abu Kassem resists to change his identity of a poor man for a new identity of a prosperous one and thus, fails to reach the next stage of his life. Abu Kassem’s survival fear of not having enough is a self-fulfilled prophecy that takes him right back to the starting point of his journey.

Abu Kassem Slippers 8

His frugality and shrewdness, once helpful to him, have turned into vices holding a powerful grip on his psyche, forbidding him to embrace his new identity. The inner world of Abu Kassem did not reflect the outer conditions of his life, and that conflict had to be resolved either by a conscious choice on his part, or by fate.  

The process of recognising that his values are no longer serving him, and that he is controlled by fear, is a long one for Abu Kassem.  When he tries to get rid of the slippers they just keep coming back. Even the elements of water, earth, fire, and air could not destroy them. Abu Kassem had to realize that the only way to throw them out of his life is through his personal transformation. And the first step of that transformation requires him to consciously integrate his survival fear of not having enough. It is this fear that compels him to hoard material goods and to alienate himself from others.

Abu Kassem Slipeprs 6

Abu Kassem’s story shows us the pattern of resistance and the consequences that ensue when we choose to cling to an out-worn identity. Life is everchanging, and we as part of life are everchanging too, even when we desperately cling to identities that no longer serve us. We have a choice, the story tells us, we either shed our old self to allow the new one to emerge, or like Abu Kassem, we arrest our inner growth and regress in life. There is no middle ground.

Change will occur anyhow, and we must pay attention to the warnings life sends us if we are to avoid disaster. Abu Kassem is advised by his friend that it is time to change his slippers. But he refuses to listen. How familiar is this to you? How many times have you refused to listen to life’s signs and warnings?  Can we all learn from the mistakes of Abu Kassem just in time before our own out-worn slippers teach us the hard way? Surely, P.L. Travers believed that stories could teach us the ways of life. And, maybe it is time to believe her and stop looking at myths, folk tales and fairy tales as means for entertainment.

* retold from the Thamarat Ul-Awark (Fruit of Leaves) of Ibn Hijjat Al-Hamawi

Mary Poppins Meets the Little Prince

The Little Prince Mary Poppins

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry masterfully shaped his story The Little Prince into a fairy tale, illustrated with his naïve, childlike drawings. However, despite the child-friendly appearances of the story, Saint-Exupéry did not, just as Pamela L. Travers, intend to write a children’s book. And, even if The Little Prince and Mary Poppins are enjoyed by children, both characters communicate the life experiences of their authors, and their hard-learned life lessons; they speak to the child within the grown-up reader, they talk about what these authors believed to be true in life.   

Nonetheless, The Little Prince and Mary Poppins are still, more often than not, perceived by many as whimsical stories unrelated to life as we know it, only meant to amuse children. And that is unfortunate. It is unfortunate that today we have no time to ponder on the real meaning of the fairy tales; as the fox in the The Little Prince remarks:

People never have the time to understand anything that is worthwhile. They buy everything ready made in the shops. That’s why people don’t have friends, because they can’t buy friends in the shops.

Saint-Exupéry wrote The Little Prince during his exile in the United States in 1943. The story contains some biographical elements and we can interpret The Little Prince as the expression of the author’s feelings of loneliness and isolation in a world torn by war, a world populated by:

one hundred and eleven kings (including the African kings), seven thousand geographers, nine-hundred thousand businessmen, seven-and-a-half million drunkards, three-hundred-eleven million egoists; in other words, about two billion grown-ups.

And of course, needless to say, these numbers have largely increased since 1943.

But beyond the personal, the journey of the Little Prince can be viewed as an allegory of the death of the inner child; the loss of connection with one’s own heart and with that, the loss of the ability to truly connect with other human beings. All the grown-up characters in the story live alone on their separate planets, unconscious of their pathetic predicament, unconscious of their inability to fully embrace their aliveness and the vastness of the world beyond their limited conceptions.

The Little Prince had to leave the Earth because it was a strange place to live, “It’s dry and sharp and hard. And people have no imagination. They repeat whatever you say to them.

And that is a sad moral, unless of course one succeeds in transcending the death of innocence by keeping an eye on the stars…

Pamela L. Travers was also in the United States at the time when The Little Prince was published in April 1943, and it happened so that she reviewed it in an article that was published in The New York Herald.

Since Pamela L. Travers was a dweller of the fairy tales world, she knew that fairy tales are allegories of our human experiences and that their morals can be applied in our own existence. She wrote in her review:

The Little Prince certainly has the three essentials required by children’s books. It is true in the most inward sense, it offers no explanations and it has a moral. But this particular moral attaches the book to the grown-up world rather than the nursery. To be understood it needs a heart stretched to the utmost suffering and love, the kind of heart luckily is not often found in children.

Pamela L. Travers, The New York Herald on April 11, 1943

Pamela L. Travers also knew that precisely because of its allegorical style the story of The Little Prince had a chance to penetrate deeper into the inner world of the reader, beyond the confines of the mind, and reach the reader’s inner child homeland, the reader’s heart.

We can not go back to the world of childhood. We are too tall now and must stay with our own kind. But perhaps there is a way of going forward to it. Or better still, of bearing it along with us; carrying the lost child in our arms so that we may measure all things in terms of that innocence. Everything Saint-Exupéry writes has that sense of heightened life that can be achieved only when the child is still held by the hand.

Pamela L. Travers, The New York Herald on April 11, 1943

During the Second World War Pamela L. Travers was drawn into the national and international propaganda coordination effort between the Office of War Information Department of the Roosevelt administration and the British Ministry of Information. The network that formed between these two establishments reached out to contributors from the literary and journalist communities. And this is how Pamela L. Travers was asked to do some radio broad casting to all the occupied countries. Interestingly, she used in her radio programs the same communication tactics as the one employed by Saint-Exupéry in The Little Prince:

How could I speak to anyone except speaking to their child? And so to every country I did broadcast on their fairy tales, their legends, their folklore.

Mary Poppins She Wrote by Valery Lawson

The Little Prince never explained anything, nor did Mary Poppins, nor Pamela L. Travers for that matter. But truth does not need explaining, what it needs is a childlike-heart because as the fox in the story tells us “One sees clearly only with the heart. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes.

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!  

_____________________________

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

** Tobias Churton, author of “Deconstructing Gurdjieff”

Pamela L. Travers and The Avant-Garde Hamlet

Hamlet 2

During her stay in Moscow in 1932, Pamela L. Travers met a Director (identity and details about that Director are omitted in her book) who gave her a card to a theatrical presentation of Hamlet. Leaving the ranks of her fellow tourists and the prescribed by the tourist guide route, Pamela L. Travers ventured out alone into the streets of Moscow in search of Hamlet. After going into the wrong theater, she managed to get into the right one by the end of act one. And the Hamlet (or Gamlet) she met that night left a strong impression on her, so much, that it could be said that her evening out in the theater became the highlight of her visit to Russia.

Hamlet 3

I learned from Olga Maëots’s comments (in the Russian edition of Moscow Excursion) that the play in question was directed by the experimental theater director Nikolai Pavlovich Akimov and was played at the Vakhtangov Theater. At that time in Russia there was an unofficial prohibition (but known by all) of Shakespeare, and the play needed to be adapted to Soviet Principles because Stalin was suspicious of Shakespeare’s plays. He considered Hamlet to be a reactionary and mystical character, unsuitable for presentation to the workers and peasants audiences. Back then, caricatures of this theatrical production appeared in satirical magazines in Moscow and according to Olga Maëots’s comments this “scandalous production” is to this day a nightmare for Shakespeareans.

Hamlet 4

So how can a grotesque and bilious Hamlet leave such a positive impression on Pamela L. Travers?  She loved Shakespeare and she was well versed in drama having been herself an actress for a brief time.

Pamela L. Travers first found Shakespeare’s writings in her father’s library and she read them as a child simply because they were books to be read, and books were few and difficult to find in the Australian countryside. Later, while writing as a drama critic for The New English Weekly, Pamela L. Travers wrote essays on seventeen Shakespearean plays, five out of which were on Hamlet. So, I assumed that she would have been a fervent admirer of the original plays. Well, my assumption was wrong. (And her essays in The New English Weekly were actually written after her trip to Russia.) Anyway, it is a fact that young Pamela L. Travers loved the Russian adaptation of Hamlet, and that even though it had been distorted beyond recognition:

Well, they’ve turned their backs on Hamlet as we know him, but he shone forth more brightly than I’ve ever seen him. Every possible rule was broken, the text was murderously cut about and great wads of Erasmus and anonymous buffoonery interpolated. The characters too were altered.”

Not Hamlet, perhaps, but Hamlet enough for me, and I can’t help feeling that Shakespeare would have preferred it to highbrow productions that can get a new kick out of Hamlet only by putting him into plus-fours and to those other horrors where Hamlet is only a peg to hang scenery on – a Mr. Cochran’s Young Gentleman, perhaps.”

Pamela L. Travers, Moscow Excursion

 I can’t help but notice a paradox here!

When talking about a largely distorted adaptation of another writer’s creation Pamela L. Travers considered it to be a refreshing avant-garde art. Then, some thirty years later, when the same fate fell upon her Mary Poppins she did not see it as avant-garde art. And yet, it could be argued that Disney’s Mary Poppins was, for its time, avant-gardist cinematography combining human actors and animated characters, and stretching the boundaries of what was known to be possible in the sphere of special effects.

Of course, changing perspectives in the course of one’ s life is not that surprising. We all have all sorts of opinions about all sorts of things, but when thrown into a situation where we are emotionally invested all previous thought-based opinions and judgements go up in smoke.

And I wonder, would it have been easier for Pamela L. Travers to accept the Disney’s adaptation of her Mary Poppins if someone reminded her of her opinion about the Russian Hamlet?  

Maybe, or maybe she would have dismissed this paradox at once…she was a paradoxical character herself. Unfortunately, we will never know what Pamela L. Travers’s reaction would have been.

Pamela L. Travers’s Moscow Excursion (Part II)

 

 

Pamela L. Travers Moscow

Lenin discovered that bears dance naturally and Stalin knew well how to put rings in their noses and lead them through the streets. But somewhere behind all the cunning exploitation, is there not the bear’s own desire to be so led? Haven’t the people themselves chosen the tyranny that flatters their deepest instincts and relives them of the necessity of thinking for themselves?” 

Pamela L. Travers, Moscow Excursion 

Pamela L. Travers’s travelogue, Moscow Excursion, is a written record of the author’s astute observational insights into the soul of Stalin’s Soviet Union. Unfortunately, Pamela L. Travers’s observations, despite their accuracy, might not have been well received by the critics of her time. Here is one extremely negative review of her book which appeared in The Saturday Review on August 17, 1935. 

Pamela L. Travers Book Reveiw

Not long after its publication, the book fell into the abyss of collective oblivion.  It was briefly mentioned by Valerie Lawson in her biography of Pamela L. Travers, Mary Poppins She Wrote, but its importance was, regrettably, downplayed.   

Anyhow, a Russian librarian and translator, Olga Maeots, resuscitated Pamela L. Travers’s book for the Russian readership in 2016. Not only did Olga Maeots translate Pamela L. Travers’s book but she truly infused it with a fresh breath of life by uncovering the undisclosed identities of the people Pamela L. Travers met during her visit.   

During the Holidays I read this Russian edition of Moscow Excursion and learned some fascinating facts. I truly hope that one day soon Maeots’s discoveries will be translated in English for the benefit of a larger audience. 

Now back to Pamela L. Travers and her Moscow Excursion. The book reveals Pamela L. Travers’s depth of perception and her capacity to think for herself. This is not surprising though, for Pamela L. Travers was an authentic rebel, never allowing the opinions of the majority to influence her own take on things.  

The trip to Russia was organized by Intourist, an organization created by the Soviet State in 1929 for the purpose of hosting organized and controlled visits by foreign tourists. I don’t know if Pamela L. Travers was aware of that fact, but it is obvious that she sensed the controlling grip of this organization right from the start: 

It seems that everybody goes to Russia in a Tour – it is against Soviet principles, if not Soviet laws, to travel about alone. (…) A sheaf of questionnaires, all identical, were handed to me. (…) I am no longer the cheerful tourist but somebody who has asked for a job and is waiting for his references to be taken up. Not a human being, as I had mistakenly thought until now, but an entry in a “T” file. 

It did not take long either for Pamela L. Travers to realize that what the tourist guides were showing her had nothing to do with the real life in Russia.  

“Properly to see Russia one must not be a tourist. One must know the language, move about alone and dispense with the questionable blessing of the State guides. With these the traveler with any sense of history finds himself often at variance, for few historical events are recognizable once they have been doctored with Marxism and Expediency.” 

During her trip Pamela L. Travers visited Leningrad, Moscow and almost Nizhny-Novgorod, but the visit to the latter was cancelled at the last minute. Intourist explained that all the boats were broken down. The real reason was probably the desire of the authorities to hide the rampant famine in the city from the tourists’ eyes.  The cancelled trip to Nizhny-Novgorod was replaced by a visit to a Collective Farm and a ballet: The Swan Lake. 

In Leningrad Pamela L. Travers visited the House of Culture, the Winter Palace, the Smolny Institute, the Summer Palace, Alexander Palace, St. Isaac’s Cathedral, Peter and Paul Forteresse and the Hermitage. And in Moscow, the Kremlin Tomb, a Creche, St. Basil’s Cathedral, Moscow Prison, a Courthouse, the House of Prostitutes (a rehabilitation center of a sort to which Pamela L. Travers resolutely refused to go), the National Gallery, the Moscow Aerodrome, the Stadium and a theater.   

Although under surveillance (all foreigners were closely watched) Pamela L. Travers managed to escape the tourist guides and to make a few independent visits. (In England, prior to her trip, a friend provided her with letters of introduction).  In Leningrad Pamela L. Travers spent an evening in the company of T, Z and a Young Poet, on another day she visited the Nevsky Cemetery with T, the Young Poet and a man from the Cheka (the first secret police of the Soviet State). She even succeeded in having brief conversations with two local women, one in a store and another one during a secret church service. She also met a movie director in a cinema studio and went to see a member of the communist party and his wife at their apartment. 

Moscow Excursion reveals young Pamela L. Travers as a free thinker, a rebellious and independent spirit with a great sense of humor and a taste for Vodka. Bored by the visit at the Collective Farm and of all the insipid statistics about lettuce production, she decides to go back to the coach and wait until the rest of the group returns. This is what happened next:  

As I got in he (the driver of the coach) coughed gently, struck his chest and flung out his hand questioningly. I took this to mean that he saw I had a cough and wanted to know was it very bad. (Pamela L. Travers was recuperating from TB right before she left for Russia.) I nodded, smiling. With that he dived into some recess under his seat and brought out a grimy bottle and a cup. Beaming he held them up before me. ‘Vodka?’ he enquired. I became a mandarin. I could hardly stop nodding and smiling and bowing my appreciation and acceptance. (…) We sat there gleaming at each other, utterly happy, the horizon gradually becoming blurred, the trees doubling themselves and dancing, and somehow there seemed to be four mules instead of one on the green, moving rather unevenly in a row. The cottages were going up and down the sky like swings at a fair. It was lovely.” 

It surely does sound lovely. Pamela L. Travers was really talented for descriptions. All the descriptions in all her writings are simply exquisite. Never too long and always giving rise to vivid images in the reader’s mind’s eye. Here is Pamela L. Travers’s elegant description of Leningrad: 

Leningrad came towards us, swimming like a faintly colored water-bird over the flat swampy sea. It was a solemn moment when we drew into the quayside flanked by beautiful eighteenth-century chrome-colored buildings.” 

(In this post I am using more quotes from Pamela L. Travers than usual because I really want you to hear her voice!) 

Pamela L. Travers saw the communist regime for what it was, a new (for the time) fanatical religion. 

One sees at once that the Soviet is not concerned with atheism, but with throwing over one god to deify another –  Man perhaps with the ultimate ideal Paradise, here and now, Heaven on Earth, the symbol Lenin, and the choir of angels the Communist Party. ” 

The rebel in her immediately realized that the State did not encourage individualism but aimed to control people; and that control was achieved by the use of brainwashing propaganda and the exercise of tight surveillance. 

We are beginning to merge. The drabness, the universal grey, the complete sameness of the people is having its effect on us.” 

Grey, grey, grey – nothing but grey on the faces of the people and in the whole width of the sky.  

I met a woman in the Torgsin stores yesterday. She was gray and pinched, but there shone in her eyes that curious fanatical gleam I am beginning to know so well. She had been to America, she told me, and had returned to Russia after the Revolution. Her faith in the Soviet Regime was supreme. ‘We can endure the present’, she said proudly, ‘for the time that is to come’ (…) She talked gently, in a series of slogans.” 

That’s what one misses in Russia-the person in the eyes. The faces are so still and blank and the eyes glazed and empty. And dangerous, too, for one feels that any mood, cruel or fanatical, might blow in upon them and take up residence. One wants persons, not reiterated Soviet States.” 

And what did Pamela L. Travers think of Lenin, the great revolutionary? The visit to Smolny Institue, Lenin’s residence during the October Revolution of 1917, gave rise to this intuitive observation: 

Such an emptiness was there, an emptiness that was not merely the lack of the room’s inhabitant.  Could it be that even when he lived something was missing, some warmth, some central sun? Genius is light and heat. Had Lenin really that rare and twofold fire? Was it not rather a fierce and single light in which he burned? Consumed by mind – that is the impression one has when one looks at portraits and photographs of him. The only purely human quality in them seems to be a certain self-satisfaction, and amid such inhuman intensity one welcomes that with relief.”  

And then, at the Kremlin Tomb, where Lenin’s preserved body was (and still is apparently) exposed for public display 

But the nothingness of that figure was pitiful, a statue of pure flesh, preserved against its own will and against all law. It wasn’t death, which is dynamic and immediate. It was nothing. The resolute materialism of the Soviet State finds its end in this. This emptiness could not move one except to anger, perhaps, against those who defrauded a great man of his body’s disintegration and made it a thing for tourists to gape at and peasants to pray to.” 

In Moscow Excursion, Pamela L. Travers called things by their names, told it as she saw it, for those who wanted to see and hear. 

My favorite book from Pamela L. Travers is truly Moscow Excursion (along of course with the Mary Poppins books.)  Her voice sounds so authentic and young and rebellious and feisty. In her later writings that voice morphs into one of resilience and endurance in the face of life. And that makes me sad… 

Pamela L. Travers’s Moscow Excursion (Part I)

Mary Poppins in Moscow

Few people know that the first book ever written by Pamela L. Travers, the author of Mary Poppins, was not Mary Poppins but Moscow Excursion. And it was not a story about magic but a travelogue about her not so magical discoveries of Stalin’s Russia in the autumn of 1932 (at that time Pamela was in her early thirties).  

The book is composed of letters addressed to some unknown friend whom I personally suspect to have been her literary mentor George W. Russell (AE).  Extracts from these letters were published in The New English Weekly in 1933 and the book was published in 1934 by the Soho publisher Gerard Howe 

At the very beginning of Moscow Excursion, Pamela L. Travers confides that her entourage was quite flabbergasted by her decision to travel to Russia.

My forthcoming trip seems to be either the Chance of a Lifetime or a Piece of Utter Recklessness.” And she adds: “Nobody, it appears, can conceive that a person who is admittedly neither for nor against the Soviet regime should want to go there. And it is an acid comment upon the Communist State that both sides are at one in their conviction that it is impossible for anyone to go to Russia for purposes of enjoyment.  

So, was it for her personal enjoyment or was there some other reason for her trip to Russia? This she does not discuss in Moscow Excursion. But, if one carefully reads the facts chronicled in her biography Mary Poppins, She Wrote, it appears, somewhere in between the lines, that at that particular time in her life she was trying to establish herself as a serious writer (or what she believed a serious writer should be). Until then Pamela L. Travers was publishing the occasional poem in the Irish Statesman (whose editor was her beloved mentor George W. Russell) and she was a contributing drama critic for the Australian magazine The Triad. Her initial aspirations of becoming a great poet were withering with time. The romantic/erotic poems of her twenties were not infused with the timeless sensibility expressed by the great poets she admired  

Her biographer Valerie Lawson reports that in the late 1931 Pamela L. Travers sent two poems to George W. Russell only to receive a polite rejection. He wrote to her that the poems were “well phrased but a little artificial in comparison with others of yours. You say they are simple. Yes, simple in expression but I feel they are artificial beneath that. You seem to have a hankering for Biblical symbolism which I doubt is natural. Quality is the thing my dear, not quantity. This must have been disappointing… 

(By the way, Biblical references find their way in Moscow Excursion but that will be explored in the following posts on this blog.) 

The political atmosphere in Europe in the early thirties of the last century was disrupted by the rise of the fascist and communist regimes, as described in Pamela L. Travers’s own words: 

In a world rocking madly between Fascism and Communism the writer (herself) prefers the latter form of tyranny if the choice must be made. But it is a desolate alternative, for Communism in Russia is for one class of the community only and thus is hardly on bowing terms with Communism as defined in the dictionaries. 

Significantly interesting fact, visits to Russia appear to have been somewhat of a trend among the constellation of renowned intellectuals Pamela L. Travers orbited around. The writer/poet Hubert Buttler, a friend of George W. Russell went to Russia in 1931. Another influential intellectual of that time who was also a contributing writer to The Irish Statesman, George Bernard Shaw, traveled to Russia where he personally met with Stalin. Shaw wrote about his observations of the Soviet State in a most positive light and it is quite possible that Pamela L. Travers had read his praise for the communist regime before undertaking her own trip to Russia. 

The idea of writing political articles with the intent of establishing herself as a serious journalist could very well have been the major motivation for her visit to Russia. According to her biographer a year after her visit to Russia Pamela approached Russel for “names and phone numbers of contacts for a series of articles on Irish politics which she planned to sell to Australian magazines. Pamela was unhappy with the result.”  Even Russell told her that writing political articles was a complicated matter. I believe that she would have been a great political reporter judging by what she wrote in Moscow Excursion. I can’t help but think that the real reason for her not succeeding in the endeavor was because she was a woman, although she had said in interviews to have never felt cast aside because of her gender. But then again, she published under the name P. L. Travers….  It was also in the autumn of 1933 that Pamela L. Travers asked Russell to introduce her to his friend Alfred Richard Orage the editor of The New English Weekly where the extracts from her letters were first published. Her contribution to The New English Weekly span from 1933 to 1949, but she mainly wrote about theater, books and films.   

Pamela L. Travers was apparently so eager to find her place as a writer that even her serious health issues could not stop her. In the early 1932, the same year of her Russian trip, she had to stay in a sanatorium because of a tuberculosis infection, a condition that without any doubt must have caused her deep feelings of anxiety. Her biographer, Valerie Lawson, reports that starting in her late twenties Pamela began to experience serious bouts of anxiety which escaladed to sheer feelings of dread. Going through serious health issues must have only exacerbated her mental condition.  

In the light of these circumstances her decision to undertake a long trip to a controversial country can be viewed as a personal affirmation of her determination and zest both for life and writing A young woman travelling alone in a dangerous foreign country, the idea must have appealed to her romantic, adventurous mind.     

But was it that dangerous to travel to Russia in 1932? According to her biographer, Valerie Lawson, it was not: “The journey was in fact a carefully packaged experience with little risk. Pamela traveled with a party of English tourists herded about in boats, trains and museums by a guide following a strict schedule. This organized tour was to take Pamela L. Travers to Leningrad-Moscow and Nizhny-Novgorod.  

The trip might not have been extremely perilous but it was definitely not devoid of risks. Pamela L. Travers strayed away a few times from her appointed group of tourists and the tourist guide to go and explore Russia on her own. She wrote: 

I never go out by myself without being told by a guide where I have been. How is it done? Have I a special bit of the Cheka to myself. And which is he –or she? The woman in the tram yesterday carrying one of those eiderdown bags which (judging from the faint muffled protests one hears coming from within) contain slowly suffocating babies? Or the man who was knocked down by an ambulance and left on the road to die or recover as he wished? It is no good explaining to Intourist that I have friends here and letters of introduction and that anyway even if I hadn’t I should want to be alone sometimes. That to them is the worst of evils. A good Bolshevik never wants to be alone. 

However, before I tell more about her Russian adventures I must share a most interesting and contemporary piece of information.  While I was trying to find a copy of Moscow Excursion (which was not easy but proved to be possible) I stumbled on a YouTube video posted by Pushkin House in 2017, The Russian Travels of Pamela Travers: A Talk by Olga Maeots. The video is a recording of a conference given by Olga Maeots , a Russian librarian and translator, who  in 2016 published a Russian annotated translation of Pamela L. Travers’s Moscow Excursion.  I was amazed! Olga Maeots performed an incredible investigative feat and succeeded in identifying the people whose identity Pamela L. Travers willingly disguised in her book by only identifying them by single letters: T, Z, V.   

It is perhaps necessary to stress the fact that the characters in the book are all synthesized personages and that I have studiously given fictitious initials for names throughout. So that should anyone, slipping among the paragraphs, imagine that he has come face to face with himself, I take this opportunity of courteously assuring him that he is mistaken. It is always someone else.   

Was this a safety precaution on Pamela L. Travers’s part? Maybe, some of the characters she met in her book were persecuted shortly after. And maybe her reasons for mystifying the identity of the characters were of a totally different nature. Regardless, I believe that Pamela L. Travers, wherever she might be in the beyond, is pleased with Olga Maeots‘s work. I will tell you more about Maeots’s discoveries and about Pamela L. Travers’s adventures in Russia in the following post on this blog.  

Hope you stay tuned!

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