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… 

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Pamela L. Travers and The Fox at the Manger (Part II)

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The story of the “Fox at the Manger” is a fable based upon the opposition between the tamed farm animals who view themselves as good, because of their seemingly selfless service to men, and the untamed, aloof, and selfish fox. The fox comes to the manger well into the night when everybody is asleep but his visit is not about his ordinary hunting business. He has come to give a special gift to baby Jesus. The fox’s gift is his cunning ability because he knows that one day baby Jesus will find himself “alone against the world” and that he will need all the protection he could get.

A careful reading of the dialogues between the animals reveal a great deal about Pamela’s outlook on life and her understanding of the nature of our human interactions. This post will attempt to articulate Pamela’s belief system through the analysis of the symbolical meanings woven into the character of the fox.

As you will come to see, the fox in the story is a multifaced character, a sort of symbol, sending signals to the reader. A quote from Pamela L. Travers about the nature of a symbol comes to mind:

If you hang a crystal in the window it will give off light from all parts of itself. That is how the myths are; they have meaning for me, for you and everyone else. A true symbol has always this ‘multisidedness’. It has something to say to all who approach it.” (The World of the Hero, 1976)

Three aspects of the character of the fox seem, in my opinion, to be revealing of Pamela L. Travers’s psyche. First, I believe the fox in this fable to be a personification of Pamela L. Travers’s feelings of loneliness and alienation from others. Second, the fox can be perceived as the personification of Pamela L. Travers’s spiritual guru, Gurdjieff; and third, the nature of the fox’s gift to baby Jesus can also be understood as the expression of Pamela L. Travers’s unsatisfied childhood need for unconditional love. Now, let’s examine each one of these three elements.

Pamela L. Travers’s feelings of loneliness

Pamela L. Travers left her familiar Australian homeland at the age of twenty-four in search of a new, more fulfilling life in the mythical land of her deceased father’s fantasies, Ireland. Her escape from the controlling forces of her mother and her great-aunt Ellie propelled her into a newly gained freedom, which unfortunately, had the effect of activating (or maybe intensifying some already existing) deep survival anxieties; anxieties which might also have been the cause of her various illnesses throughout her life. And despite her serendipitous new writing beginnings, her work provided only meager revenues. Her fortune came much later in her life and did not relieve her from her deeply ingrained fears of never having enough money.

When Pamela L. Travers arrived in England, she sent a poem to George W. Russel, the editor of The Irish Statesman, who then introduced her into the Irish literary society almost overnight. She attached herself to Russel who, until his death ten years later, played the role of the mentor and grounding presence in her life. When Russel died, Pamela L. Travers was totally devastated. Her love life was a disaster and her sexuality somewhat ambiguous. Her relationships seem to have been very intense and shortly lived. She never married, and four years after Russel’s death Pamela adopted a child which she ended up sending to boarding school at the age of twelve.

In her early eighties, Pamela was awarded an OBE from the Queen (Officer of the Order of the British Empire) as a recognition of her literary work.  She asked Aidrian House, Former Editor of Collins Publishing, who also happens to have edited the “Fox at the Manger” to accompany her to the Buckingham Palace; a request that came to him as a surprise:

I felt surprised when Pamela asked me to the Buckingham Palace, I felt surprised that she didn’t have any friends closer to her in age, friends from her past who might’ve come with her. But then I suppose that she was probably in her early eighties. But there was always something about her, she always stood back slightly from ordinary relationships in every day life. And maybe that made her slightly lonelier than some people.”  (Documentary “The Shadow of Mary Poppins”)

Now, knowing these facts from her life, one comes easily to the conclusion that the following statement made by the fox reflects Pamela L. Travers’s own life experience. I believe that it is Pamela lending her voice to the Fox:

No one bids me go here, go there. … I live in danger, as the halcyon lives that builds her nest on the wave; alone with myself at all times….To be alone is my nature. … I have or have not, according to fate and season – and either way it is whole. Half a thing is of no use for me.

The Gurdjieff teachings

 Pamela L. Travers followed the esoterical teachings of George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff and her writings were greatly influenced by her spiritual beliefs. (These influences will be explored in more detail in future posts.) For the purposes of this post, I will simply expose the basic idea of Gurdjieff’s teachings which has found its way into the story of “The Fox at the Manger.”

Gurdjieff taught his students that man was basically a sleeping machine with a potential to develop his consciousness through the practice of divided attention, which means to be simultaneously aware of both oneself and what one is considering. To delay reaction intentionally while consciously observing oneself, to question one’s ways of being and knowing, and thus generating the necessary inner friction to cause awakening. Continuous conscious effort and voluntary sacrifice are at the core of his teachings. Although inspired by Eastern philosophies, his system is uniquely different and articulated in a negative sort of way.

♥ The students are challenged to question their perceptions of reality and of their identities, and at the same time, they are constantly reminded of their incapacity to see reality; thus locking them in a loop of endless questioning and confusion without any hope of finding an answer. I believe that Pamela’s emotional needs made her vulnerable to these teachings and although she was looking for solace, I believe these teachings exacerbated her survival anxieties and identity issues.

So, when the fox questions the farm animals’ perception of the reality of things as they know them, I can’t help but imagine Gurdjieff talking to his followers. The following exchanges between the animals are self-explanatory.

You speak like a slave, said the fox mildly. Man, man, always man! Is there no other living thing? What of the forest 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 at it? I serve as man himself serves. I breath in, I breath out. What I take in from air, the earth takes in from me. But what it is I serve I do not know.

And when the farm animals confront the fox about his cunning techniques, the fox replies wisely:

Foolish creatures (his victims), I remember them well. They did not trouble to think for themselves. They deserved what they got.”

The need for unconditional love

The fox’s gift to baby Jesus illustrates Pamela L. Travers’s idea about the nature of true love, which she rightfully attributes to the act of giving. The problem with Pamela’s concept of true love is that she seems to have conceived giving as an act of painful self-sacrifice; an all or nothing affair. This notion of intrinsic pain associated to the act of loving is present in her other writings and was briefly examined in the analysis of the story of “Johnny Delanney.”

In “The Fox at the Manger,” the fox gives up the only thing that has value for him: his survival tool, his essence, his cunning. In Pamela’s eyes, the gifts of the farm animals are of a lesser value compared to the fox’s gift. Did she believe that true love must necessarily imply self-annihilation? To me, the fox’s gift is ambiguous. He gives up on his own nature and I don’t believe this is a loving act. To love another does not mean to stop loving oneself. To me, the fox’s gift looks more like a co-dependant impulse and it makes me wonder:  Did she lose herself in others? Did she expect from others self-sacrificing as proof of their love for her? Either way, if that was her mental representation of love, it is no wonder she experienced love as suffering. It is possible that she ended up believing that most people are incapable of true love. That somehow, she was one of the few people capable of true love and that others have somehow failed her….

The story ends on a lonely note:

And always, among the sleepers, there must be somebody waking – somewhere, someone, waking and watchful. Or what would happen to the world….

At the time when Pamela wrote the story she was herself acting as a guru and receiving people in her home to discuss Gurdjieff’s teachings. Did she see herself as one of the awaken few watching over the lost souls…? How lonely she must have felt…and how hopelessly burdened by the task…

 

Pamela L. Travers and The Fox at the Manger (Part I)

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The last two posts on this blog (analysis of the story of “Ah Wong” published in 1943 and analysis of the story of “Johnny Delaney” published in 1944) revealed Pamela L. Travers’s religious upbringing and the signs of her losing her religion after the early and sudden death of her father. These two stories were written during Pamela L. Travers’s war time evacuation to the United States, and as Christmas gifts for her friends; thus published privately.

The story of “The Fox at the Manger,” which is the subject of this week’s post, was published at large in 1963, almost twenty years after the end of the war and in my opinion, it expresses the same sentiment of rejection of the main-stream Christianity and the spiritual void experienced by Pamela L. Travers as the stories of “Ah Wong” and “Johnny Delaney“.

The “Fox at the Manger” is an account of the first Christmas service at St. Paul’s cathedral in post-war London when people were just beginning to settle back into their normal lives. The narrator (who is obviously Pamela L. Travers) takes three boys to the Christmas service. One of the little boys is dear to her heart and is obviously her son Camillus. By the way, the story is dedicatedTo C. to remind him of his childhood.” 

Each of the boys are bringing one of their favorite toys with the intention of offering them as presents for the poor children in London. But when the moment comes for the boys to part with their precious possessions, they remorselessly change their minds. To this, the narrator (Pamela L. Travers) wisely concludes “A gift must come from the heart or nowhere.” 

Obviously, the story is about giving and about loss. As Patricia Demers writes in her book, “P.L. Travers,” “The Fox at the Manger” is “an affective meditation on gift giving.” But there are also other layers woven into the story which deserve closer exploration. So, let’s explore them.

The story begins with, and is wrapped around, the Christmas carol of the Friendly Beast.

Carol of the friendly beast

(Here sang by Peter, Paul and Mary)

 Jesus, our brother, strong and good

Was humbly born in stable rude

And the friendly beasts around him stood

Jesus, our brother, kind and good.

 

I, said the donkey, shaggy and brown,

Carried his mother uphill and down,

I carried her safe to Bethlehem town,

I, said the donkey, shaggy and brown.

 

I, said the cow, all white and red,

Gave him manger for his bed,

I gave him my hay to pillow his head,

I, said the cow, all white and red.

 

I, said the sheep with curly horn,

Gave him my wool to keep him warm,

He wore my coat on Christmas morn,

I, said the sheep with curly horn.

 

I, said the dove, in the rafters high,

Cooed him to sleep with a lullaby,

We cooed him to sleep, my mate and I,

I, said the dove in the rafters high.

 

Thus, every beast by some good spell

In the stable dark was glad to tell

Of the gift he gave Immanuel

Of the gift he gave Immanuel.

 As a side note, I learned that this song probably originated in 12th-century France and was sung during the Fete de l’Ane (Festival of the Ass or Donkey), and the focus was the flight into Egypt by the Holy Family. At some point over the centuries, the scene shifted from the flight into Egypt to the journey to Bethlehem. Robert Davis (1881-1950) is attributed with writing the English words, probably in the 1920s. 

And now back to the story. The children in the story prove themselves to be keen observers. When the Church choir sings I, said the donkey, shabby and brown one of the boys remarks that the donkey in the Nativity scene is actually quite grey and smooth. Then another boy candidly demands: Why, he asked, are they (the clergymen) wearing nightgowns? They look like Wee Willie Winkie.

Now, I didn’t know who Wee Willie Winkie was, so for those who may be ignorant of the character, here is a link to Wikipedia. Basically, Wee Willie Winkie is a character from a nursery rhyme (Pamela loved nursery rhymes) dressed in a night-gown and running around town tapping on windows and reminding children to go to bed. Therefore, it is not  exactly a dignifying comparison for the clergymen.

Although seemingly embarrassed by the attention from the congregation caused by the children’s comments, the narrator does not find the words to contradict them. She herself wonders, looking at the bishop lip-syncing the carol, through what town of the mind this paunchy Wee Willie Winkie was running. And then, to continue with her own meditation on the nativity scene:

 “The rose-bloom faces of the kings gave no hint of the discipline, the labors, that must surely be the lot of any group of Magi.”

And what disappoints her the most, is the absence of a black sheep amongst the white lambs:

And I dearly wanted a black lamb. For without him, where are the ninety and nine? Flocks, like families, have need of their black sheep he carries their sorrow for them. He is the other side of their whiteness. Does anybody understand I wandered, that a crib without a black lamb is an incomplete statement?”

This passage in the story reminded me of another one of Pamela L. Travers’s essays published in Parabola in 1965, “The Black Sheep:”

What was a black sheep, I asked myself. Obviously, in the general view, one full of iniquity. If so, might I not be one myself, in spite of the tireless efforts of parents, teachers and friends.”

The expressed feelings of not belonging to a tribe and being somewhat flawed are so obvious and ever recurring in her writings; even in the stories of Mary Poppins. But that will be explored at another time on this blog.

So, from the dialogues between the boys and the narrator, and the narrator’s own reflections of the religious service, one can easily deduce Pamela L. Travers’s general dissatisfaction with the religious concepts from her childhood. The worship rituals are portrayed in the story as a thoughtless mimic and mindless repetitions by some slightly ridiculous clergymen.  Clearly, Christianity did not provide answers to her questions nor did its teachings reflect what she perceived as being the truth.

So again, as in the previous stories, we can trace Pamela L. Travers’s rejection of the Christian religious beliefs. Yet, at the same time, the reader can feel a deep sense of her spiritual sensibility. She writes about the passage of time, which is associated to the flow of life, as something deeply mysterious and undisturbed by human actions:

Whenever the bombs fell in London, reinforcements in the shape of sycamore, rose-bay     willow, and fern came to fill the gaps. …. 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 remains forever, as they say invulnerable and invisible -surely these children were dancing now through long forgotten board meetings, and shades of accountants, lawyers, clerks. Or if one went back further, through the flames of the Fire in London in 1666. Further still, the marble floor would be mud and marshland and all around us brontozors; 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 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 (Insert last name of author, page of quote).

Reading this, one feels the brevity of one own’s life and the impermanence of our human creations (or destructions for that matter). Pamela L. Travers must have felt rather small and insignificant, lost in a vastness of something beyond human comprehension. What is the meaning of it all? Pamela L. Travers does not know but the pain of the question remains forever present in her writings.

 After the service, the children ask the narrator why there were no wild animals at the crib. “Haven’t they got something to give?”  In response, the narrator finds herself, like in a dreamlike state, telling the children the missing verse in the carol; the verse about the Fox.  She then proceeds to tell them the story of the “Fox at the Manger,” which can be compared to a sort of fable where the dialogues between the animals convey a moral to the reader. What is the moral? And who does the Fox personify?  I will tell you more in next week’s post.

Pamela L. Travers and Johnny Delaney

Pamela L. Travers Johnny Delaney 2

The story of Johnny Delaney, another character from Pamela L. Travers’s Australian childhood, and the meaning of the religious references in that story are the subject of this week’s post.

Just as in the story of Ah Wong, which was the subject of last week’s post, the story of Johnny Delaney was written as a Christmas gift for Pamela L. Travers’s friends and was not intended for the public eye. It was only in November 2014 that the story became available for the general reader. Virago Press, with the authorization of Pamela’s estate, published Aunt Sass a compilation of three stories: “Aunt Sass,” “Ah Wong,” and “Johnny Delaney.”

“Johnny Delaney” was published privately during Pamela’s war-time evacuation to the United States. It is dedicated to a mysterious woman by the name of Frieda Heidecke Stern whom Pamela’s biographer, Valerie Lawson, could not identify. Underneath that dedication there is a German sentence which translates to: If one door closes, another opens.

What door had closed back then for Pamela and what door was she hoping would open? Chance did not write that sentence, it meant something. EVERYTHING was a metaphor for Pamela. She even asked once the bizarre question of what a man was a metaphor for.

 ♥ Then it is only logical to ask, what was Johnny Delaney a metaphor for? This post is an attempt to answer that question.

Pamela wrote the story of “Johnny Delaney” at a time when she was profoundly homesick. Likely, it was her longing to return home to a safe and familiar place that prompted her to turn mentally to the earliest memories of her childhood. Probably to the happiest ones, the more magical ones, and the ones that appealed most to her imagination.

The “real” Johnny Delaney worked as a stable boy and a carpenter but to Pamela he appeared as creature from a fairy tale. It is possible that he taught her, just like the children in the story, to spit with artistry, to make whistles from bamboo sticks, and to read the night starry sky. Although small and crippled physically, Johnny’s presence seems to have been magnified by his shadowy personality:

He was before anything else, an antisocial being. He was a man made entirely of blackness and shadow, the quickest-tempered, arrogantest, bitter-heartedest creature that ever stepped out of the County Clare.”

But did the real Johnny have a second sight?  Did he forcefully and unsolicitedly dispense his piece of mind to all who met him? Did he die as told in the story, of binge drinking? And above all, was his “life’s work” real? Somehow that last element in the story feels to me too romantic to have been true. It bears too much of a symbolic resemblance to Pamela’s own relationship with the God from her childhood (see last week’s post). I will get back to that. But first, let me give you a summary of the story itself.

Come to think about it, “Johnny Delaney” is not a genuine story because there is not really a plot in it. It is a character study; a retelling of a childhood memory about a tormented creature.His spirit glared through his dark eyes, a fierce, tormented prisoner.

He was a man who apparently had lost his religion because of some secret pain, and  a man betrayed by God just as Pamela herself felt betrayed by God. Truly, he was a man with His love heavy and silent within him just like Pamela and he also rejected the Church and the priests and kept to himself, just like Pamela:

 “The mere sight of a priest enraged him; and he deliberately pressed his hat a little further on his head when he met Mr. Preston, the vicar.”

 “Ah, what do they know of life at all, them ignorant white angels? Sittin’ an’ sthrummin’ their harps of gold with never a shadow upon them.”

But despite his antisocial behaviours and his heavy drinking, the reader learns at the end of the story that Johnny’s religion was love; love for the family he worked for, love for the people with whom he worked, and love for the wild life that surrounded him. And although he rejected the organised Christian religion, his life’s work (which is discovered only at his death) was a carving of the nativity scene. This is a nativity scene quite different from its traditional representation which dates to 1223 when Saint Francis of Assisi created the very first one to promote the true meaning of Christmas and worship of Jesus Christ.

This is what Johnny’s nativity scene looks like:

There were carved and painted kings and children kneeling beside a stable. No shepherds with flocks of snowy lambs, no angels with folded wings. Instead there were little native creatures – kangaroos, emus, red flamingos; horses and lizards and goats. The kneeling men were cane cutters, offering green cane boughs; …And alone-apart from men and beasts-stood a little bowed hump-backed figure, with a jockey hat in its hand. It seemed to be gazing at the crib…”

Even though his love was strong, Johnny did not believe himself worthy of love. He was forever the observer, the outsider, the misfit: Just like Pamela L. Travers.

The observations about the nature of love in this story have probably more to do with Pamela’s own beliefs than the actual character of Johnny.

♥ Throughout the story, there is a feeling of connection between the child narrator and Johnny. It is as if each one of them recognises himself in the other and a connection that lies between their “blackened by love” hearts.

Now, I don’t know how much of Johnny’s story is true and how much of it is the writer’s imagination. What I know for sure is that Pamela’s early childhood years were not spent on a sugar plantation as narrated in both “Ah Wong and “Johnny Delaney.” I also know that Pamela fancied the idea of telling people that that was the case, and that her father was the owner of a sugar plantation. This is what she told Patricia Demers who wrote a short literary analysis of her works in the early nineties, before Valerie Lawson’s biography Mary Poppins, She Wrote. This is also what some newspapers wrote as her obituary in 1996. Here is an example from the obituary that was published in the New York Times :  

Her father was a sugar planter, and Miss Travers recalled growing up near the Great Barrier Reef in a tropical world of sugar cane, shells and mangoes.”

The truth was different. Pamela’s father was a bank clerk who in his youth worked on a tea plantation in Ceylon. During the first three years of her childhood Pamela’s family lived in Maryborough, near the Mary River, in a two-story home from where Pamela could see the town’s sugar factory. So, there is an imaginative and mischievous stretch of reality on Pamela’s part. She did intentionally mislead people but, then again, people asked for it. She never wanted to be known for the facts of her personal life. She wanted to be understood through her art.

♥ I believe her resistance to reveal the personal details of her life were motivated by fear: fear of being judged, fear of being misunderstood, and a fear of being rejected. She needed to surround herself with a cloak of mystery so to appear worthy of people’s attention and, at the same time, to hide behind it as a protective shield. It was all just a defensive mechanism. What she wrote in “Zen Moments,” an article published in Parabola, confirms just that:

“We sit on our heels on the tatami, the Japanese woman and myself, telling the stories of our lives. One can do this with a stranger. Too near, and the perspective is lost. Only the far can be near.” 

So, what was “Johnny Delaney’ a metaphor for?  I believe him to be the expression of Pamela’s emotional inadequacy and her unfulfilled need to belong to a family, and above all, her need for a spiritual life after the loss of her faith.

Pamela L. Travers and Ah Wong

Mary Poppins Ah Wong

Pamela L. Travers stemmed from a religious soil. She heard readings from the Bible and attended church services on Sundays at St. David’s Anglican Church of England in Allora, Queensland, Australia.

Her parents were pious churchgoers; thus, God was an absolute and uncontestable part of Pamela’s reality:

“…God ubiquitously worked among us, forever unespied – playing the organ on Sundays, his feet bare on the pedals…..Once He looked me at through the gap in the fence with the face of a golden sunflower, awesome, quizzical, resolute. I put up my hand and I picked Him.”

Curious enough, despite her parents’ piety, this almost transcendental experience once shared was dismissed as inappropriate:

No one, they said, could pick God and if they could they would not. It was socially, if not ethically, unacceptable and not the kind of thing people did.” 

Yet, it was not these insensitive comments but her father’s sudden death that shook the foundations of Pamela L. Travers’s religious beliefs. She had no choice but to accept her father’s death, even if the process took her several years. What she failed to accept, however, was a God who allowed for such a loss.  By losing her father she also lost her religion.

Alas, she did not lose her spiritual needs. A deep inner void remained to be filled. And that explains her lifelong following of the esoteric teachings of George Ivanovich Gurdjieff (whom she met in her late thirties), as well as her general restlessness and search for spiritual masters.

Strangely, despite her rejection of the God from her childhood, Pamela kept a faint connection to her Christian upbringing. Some of her less known writings (“Ah Wong,” “Johnny Delaney,” “I Go By Sea, I Go By Land,” and “Fox at the Manger”) contain religious references which leave a vague impression of an ambiguous belief system.  And it is to be noted that Gurdjieff himself called his system esoteric Christianity because of his ideas about sacrifice and voluntary suffering. A similar conclusion can be drawn about her interest in the Durkheim’s system (see post from last week) which is a combination of Christian and Zen concepts.  

However, the major difference between her earlier religious training and the Gurdjieff’s and Durkheim’s teachings is that in these teachings the divine is described in a more mystical manner. There is also a strong emphasis on physical exercises as a gateway to a higher level of consciousness; ritual dances in the case of Gurdjieff and yoga and breathing exercises with Durkheim. In both systems, the process of personal growth is entirely the individual’s responsibility; an experiential inner process to be discovered by the individual on the spiritual path. Truth is to be experienced not known.

In 1943, Pamela L. Travers (at that time already a follower of Gurdjieff) wrote the story of “Ah Wong” as a Christmas present for her friends. She did not intend the story for the public eye and it was only in November 2014 that it became available for the general reader. Virago Press, with the authorization of Pamela’s estate, published Aunt Sass a compilation of three stories: “Aunt Sass,” “Ah Wong,” and “Johnny Delaney.” The story of “Aunt Sass” was previously discussed on this blog. It features Pamela L. Travers’s great-aunt Ellie (under the name of Aunt Sass) who was, to a certain extent, the inspiration of the character of Mary Poppins.

Also, just as in “Aunt Sass,” a child’s voice tells the story of “Ah Wong” and again, as in “Aunt Sass,” it contains some biographical elements form Pamela’s Australian childhood.

The Travers’s household in the early years, before her father’s death, employed a Chinese cook who left a lifelong impression on Pamela’s heart.

In the story, Ah Wong arrives out of nowhere, as an angel of providence, just at the right time when the family has lost their incompetent Chinese cook to a work-related injury.  Ah Wong, thin and wrinkled with a long, black pigtail swinging underneath his hat, is described as a benevolent, energetic, and caring force:

 For Ah Wong did not merely cook for the family. It soon became apparent that he owned the family. He darted like lightning about the house, dusting, making beds, sweeping and polishing.”

Ah Wang was the ultimate house elf:

 “Flowers bloomed, green rows of vegetables appeared, watermelons swelled like balloons. It was our belief that Ah Wong blew them up at night.”    

Now, this sweet man remained profoundly engraved in Pamela’s memory not only because of his loving care for the family, but also and probably more so, because he was different in a time and place of Christian homogeneity. Something mysterious was hidden behind a beaded curtain in his room; Ah Wong was bowing to a heathen idol.

Mary Poppins Ah Wong 2.PNG

Thus, Pamela and her siblings found themselves on a quest:

We were going to convert Ah Wang. At this period, we were immersed in those old stories wherein small children of extreme physical debility set so saintly an example that grown-up sinners were thereby brought to repentance.

The rest of the story goes on in a humorous way to describe the children’s efforts to teach Ah Wong the basics of Christianity and get him christened, of course, all without any success. It is in this story of Ay Wong that we glean Pamela L. Travers’s early religious education:

First, she mentions The Book of Common Prayers which I learned is a compilation of related prayer books used in the Anglican Communion, as well as by the Continuing Anglican, the “Anglican realignment,” and other Anglican churches. The book also includes the complete forms of service for daily and Sunday worship.

Book_of_Common_Prayer_1760.jpg

Then, she tells us that her Bible primer was the Peep of Day and that Ah Wong succeeded in learning the prayers. So, I looked it up, and Peep of Day turns out to be a series of religious instructions for young children with illustrative verses written by Favell Lee Mortimer.

Peep of Day

The book is separated in sections as follows:

Section 1: My Family and Me – Body, Parents, Soul

Section 2: Angels – Good Angels, Wicked Angels

Section 3: God’s World – The World (3 lessons), Adam & Eve, The first sin, The Son of God

Section 4: Jesus has Arrived – Virgin Mary, Birth of Jesus, Shepherds, Wise Men, King Herod

Section 5: Jesus at Work – The Temptation, 12 disciples, First miracle, Several miracles, Sinner & Simon, Storm at Sea, Jairus’ daughter, Loaves and fishes, Kindness of Jesus, Lord’s prayer, Jesus foretells his death, Lazarus, Jesus in Jerusalem, The Temple, Judas

Section 6: The Last Meal – The Last Supper (3 lessons)

Section 7: The Final Night – The Garden, Peter’s denial, Pontius Pilate, Death of Judas

Section 8: Jesus Dies – The Cross (3 lessons), The Soldiers, The Grave

And here is a verse from the Peep of Day which we can imagine Ah Wong and the Children sang together:

My little body’s made by God

Of soft warm flesh and crimson blood;

The slender bones are placed within,

And over all is laid the skin

My little body’s very weak;

A fall or blow my bones might break;

The water soon might stop my breath;

The fire might close my eyes in death.

 But God can keep me by his care.

 Ah Wong indulged the children by playing and listening to their stories, but when they described to him the glorious picture of their father at the Church service, trying to convince him to come with them, Ah Wong found the idea of giving money at the end of the service completely ludicrous.

 “….our father, in his white silk suit with the crimson cummerbund, taking round the plate. This, to us, was a sight ever glorious. Sunday after Sunday we thrilled with pride as, singing the last hymn in a roaring baritone, Father took up the collection.”

Whassa dam-silly-fellow nonsins? he shouted wrathfull. ‘Boss take-im money? I don’t tink so. Boss not take-im Ah Wong’s money.”  

After this incident, we learn that Ah Wong is saving his money to return to China. Soon after that, the tone of the story abruptly changes and becomes darker. The father suddenly dies and the family must leave its sugar plantation and its Chinese cook. Many years later, the child narrator, now a young journalist, meets Ah Wong on board of a ship sailing to China. Ah Wong is part of the ship’s cargo, a dying stock of old Chinese men on the way to their homeland. The story ends on a somewhat lyrical reflection about life and death being one river:

The same flood that was flinging me into life was taking Ah Wong home…

Next week we’ll talk about Johnny Delaney and the Nativity scene.