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B4 The Ottawa Citizen, Saturday, March 25, 1995 Observer pooiniM off siogair still tough to swallow P.L. Travers file P.L Travers, author of Mary Poppins, can be as speechless, as unreadable and unnerving as a grave. Still, here's what she has said about life, happiness and her famous nanny. The idea: "I've been looking for an idea all my life. I know what it is and sometimes I come near to it, and that's all that I will say." The creation: "I have no idea where Mary Poppins came from, what do you think?" The spoils: "To ask me if I was tyrannized by the success of Mary Poppins is like asking me if I was tyrannized by having a nose on my face." The shadow: "Happiness is not the same as being happy-go-lucky.
I have not said this before, but I have suffered a lot in my life. I will only share my suffering with my pillow." I A mm AV Citizen file photo REALLY QUITE ATROCIOUS: Author P.L. Travers hated the cheery sweetness of Disney's Mary Poppins. In the 1964 film, Julie Andrews transformed the astringent menace of the original into a singing nanny to misunderstood children everywhere. THE MOUSETRAP: Disney got it all wrong.
Mary Poppins wasn't lovable she was sinister and sour, says P.L. Travers. And she should know. By Nicci Gerrard The Observer LONDON Deep in the heart of Chelsea, west London, in a spit-spot white house with a bright pink door and a wooden rocking horse in the hall, lives a very old lady. She has round blue eyes in a face collapsed by time and a frail crumpled body.
Her knees are ruined and her hearing is bad. She talks in painful gulps. A lot of people have never heard of her, or think she died long ago, but she has written books that almost everyone knows. Her name is PL. Travers, her fame is Mary Poppins.
P.L. Travers is not a dear old thing, she's an ancient hippy, a splendid dragon who guards her secrets and holds her tongue. Mary Poppins first blew into 17 Cherry Tree Lane, to look after Jane and Michael Banks, in 1934 although the book is set in Edwardian times, when women didn't have the vote and every middle-class family had servants, a nanny and a polished doorknob. She was vain and officious and lower-middle-class-respectable with polished cheeks and neat dark hair, but she made medicine taste like candy, and she understood the language of birds; she slid up banisters, and unpacked her belongings from an empty carpetbag. Although she smelled of toast, she wasn't cosy.
She was sinister and sour a brisk suburban pagan who listened to what the wind said and had authority over the stars. That first time, Mary Poppins did not stay long she was blown away when the wind changed. But she returned one year later in Mary Poppins Comes Back, then in four more widely spaced books (Mary Poppins Opens the Door, 1944; Mary Poppins in the Park, 1952; Mary Poppins from A-Z, 1962; and Mary Poppins in Qierry Tree Lane, 1982). The books have been translated into dozens of languages and have sold millions of copies worldwide. Travers didn't write her stories for children.
In fact, many children child (she had two sisters). In her essay in Wliat the Bee Knows about the Irish mystic poet. AE (George Russell), she writes: "The Celtic twilight had already cast its long blue light over my childhood." She loved reading (especially fairy tales) and she wrote poetry. "Not exactly W.B. Yeats," said her father; "I like the way you rhyme smother with mother," said her mother.
Her father died when she was seven and that, she says enigmatically, is when the problems began. But she recalls a happy childhood, although she once tried to run away with the gypsies. When she was quite young she left Australia with about $12. Early photos show her dark-haired and wide-eyed fresh and blithe. She renamed herself Pamela Lyndon Travers (Pamela her stage name; PL.
for her writing one) and travelled to England and then to Ireland, where she struck a friendship with her hero, AE. wrote poems for the Irish Statesman, met W.B. Yeats and fell in love with the land of her forefathers. Travers has been (in no particular order) an actress, a journalist (she hated asking personal questions) and a writer. During the Second World War she worked in the Ministry of Information.
She has lived in London and Dublin, and she was a writer-in-res-idence in the U.S. She once travelled to Japan to learn about Zen Buddhism and she has lived among the Navajo Indians in the U.S. to study their ways. "I've been looking for an idea all my life," she says. "I know what it is and sometimes I come near to it, and that's all that I will say." I do not know if she was ever married, but she has an adopted son, grandchildren, and many friends.
She says she is happy sometimes, but "happiness is like the weather, and I have something deeper than happiness." Sometimes she is scared of death. Life has been an adventure, she says, but nowadays she is easily tired. When I was a girl, I read the Mary Poppins books with anxious joy. I have read them all again to my children. Meeting PL.
Travers was a bit like meeting a legend; leaving her was sad. That evening she rang me to say that when she had talked about happiness, she feared she might have been misleading: "Happiness is not the same as being happy-go-lucky. I have not said this before, but I have suffered a lot in my life. I will only share my suffering with my pillow." carpetbag in hand). Travers doesn't respond to ordinary demands; she cannot be flattered or cajoled; she can be as speechless, as unreadable and as unnerving as a grave.
She is not in Who's Who, she dislikes being photographed, and she refuses to answer 'personal' questions. Her latest book, What the Bee Knows is a collection of essays about astrology, crop circles, reincarnation and nature, in which she meets Laurens van der Post and Merlin. She sits by a window, under a spotlight, running her tongue slowly over her swollen lips and holding her hands carefully in her lap, listening to questions. Very often she does not respond, just smiles secretly for minutes on end. Sometimes she says "No-o-o-o" or "Ye-e-e-e-s," suddenly Irish in her intonations.
"I have no gift for numbers" is a catchphrase. "How old are you?" I ask. "I have no gift for numbers," she responds. Next question: "How long have you lived in this house? "I have no gift for numbers." "I hear you have grandchildren, find them frightening as well as spellbinding, but then, "magic is scary," she says. Travers thinks the handed-down-tales from ancient cultures can 'heal' our wounded world, but her enchantments are powerfully amoral and scornfully subversive, running amok in frock-coated Edwardian England.
Stars come to earth and break all the rules, marble statues cavort naked in the park, babies chew contentedly on the fingers snapped off the hands of fat witches, people find themselves lifted into the air while walking through the park, the world is topsy-turvy and giddy. At least it was until 1964, when Disney made the film. Julie Andrews, with her charming upturned nose, sparkling eyes, choirboy voice and Girl Guide goodness, transformed the astringent menace of the original into a singing, dancing nanny to misunderstood children everywhere; Dick Van Dyke massacred the Cockney accent; Mrs. Banks sang Let's Go Fly a Kite; Jane and Michael learned to feed the birds, twopence a bag; and the moral of the film was that parents must make more time for their children. The world loved it and Travers hated it, for its traditionalism and cheery sweetness.
There's a saying in Hollywood: "Don't with the mouse." Disney is ruthless, always maintaining a rigorous control over its products. A few years ago, for example, it sued a school for underprivileged children in Los Angeles that had painted a mural using Disney characters. With Travers, they met their match. After the film of Mary Poppins, she steadfastly, refused to permit any sequels or any stage versions until now. It has just been learned that rights to the musical have been optioned to David Pugh and Cameron Macintosh.
The musical is a long way from production, but Macintosh confirms the attraction comes from the Mary Poppins of the book rather than the film. So who'll play Mary Poppins? Gossip has suggested Meryl Streep, Emma Thompson and Fiona Shaw. Meeting Travers, it's easy to see how she maintained control over her fabulous creation (although she says she didn't 'make up' Mary Poppins; one day the suburban witch flew into her life parrot, umbrella and how many?" I try. dear, you are asking the wrong questions; I have no gift for numbers." She can be epigrammatic ask me if I was tyrannized by the success of Mary Poppins is like asking me if I was tyrannized by having a nose on my contrary have no idea where Mary Poppins came from, what do you and poignant measure my days now by the lamp posts along this road: on a good day I can walk the length of three lamp posts; on a bad day, But just like Mary Poppins, she will never, not ever, say more than she wants. She apologizes often 'for yet she also insists that she remembers all of her life "like yesterday it is with me all the time, the whole length of it; it's all there, as near as someone sitting beside me." Forgetfulness is a convenience for a clam.
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