About this blog

This is a window into the weird world of Anglicanism, as experienced on a Cathedral Close. Has anything much happened since Trollope's Barchester Chronicles? You will still see the 'canon in residence' hurrying across to choral Evensong, robes flapping, as the late bell chimes. But look carefully and you will notice he is checking the football score on his iPhone as he runs. This is also a writer's blog. It charts the agony and ecstasy of the novelist's life. And it's a fighter's blog. It charts the agony and ecstasy of the judo mat. Well, the agony, anyway.

Thursday 10 November 2011

WEEK 43--Reading Peter Pan

Never read Peter Pan?  Shame on me!  There is a very very long list of books I ought to have read but haven't.  Being a Grammar School girl I'm riddled with guilt about this.  (I once blurted out to the archbishop of Canterbury that I have never finished a single Dostoevsky novel.  He gasped.)  I chose Peter Pan as a representative of the genre, because without ever reading it, I assumed I knew it well.

That isn't the real Peter Pan in the picture above. This is Disney's Peter Pan.  When my sons were little I got to know the Disney version all too well, being a Bad Mother and in the habit of using videos as a cheap childminder.  The pope himself denounced mothers like me.  I remember thinking at the time, Well, if you'd like to pop round and entertain them educationally instead, that would be lovely, and then maybe I could have a shower?  Yes, Disney's Peter Pan.  Or rather, Petah Pen.  That's my chief memory of it, Wendy swooning about in her nightie sighing 'Oh, Peter!'  Petah Pen, naturally, was American.

If I dig on down through the strata of my memory, I uncover a much deeper layer of Peter Pan recollections.  The very first school I went to was a classic two-roomed village primary school in the village of Pitstone in Buckinghamshire.  Sounds idyllic.  We were dwarfed by Tunnel Cement, with its four, and later five, stacks belching out white dust that left the village locked like Narnia in a permanent concrete frost.  My Dad used to clean the car with steel wool.  I remember a school trip to London one December evening to see Peter Pan.  I can remember bits of it, in that slightly distant academic way akin to looking at old photos.  But occasionally I surprise myself by a memory with real interiority to it.  A pirate sitting on a toadstool chimney and burning his bottom.  Peter trying to reattach his shadow.  The real flying.  I was just five at the time.  By the time I was 8 my extreme short-sightedness had finally been picked up on.  At five, inhabiting a soft-edged world I assumed was reality, I simply couldn't see the wires.  I remember the snow swirling past the coach window in the dark on the way home.

This is what Peter Pan is about.  The real/unreal world of childhood, the blurring of fact and imagination and memory.  And about growing up, of course, and motherhood.  Stage versions of Peter Pan are remarkably faithful to J.M.Barrie's book, but there is a deep unsettling weirdness and brilliance to the text that isn't conveyed by those Christmas productions.  A kind of arch callousness aimed by turns at the child listener and the adult reader-out-loud.  Not something the modern writer of children's fiction would get past agent and editor.

If I'd read this as a child, what would I have made of it?  Would I have resented the role allocated to poor Wendy?  'Wendy, of course, [of course!] had stood by taking no part in the fight, though watching Peter with glistening eyes.'  But she did get to be the only girl in a crowd of adoring boys (tempting prospect to me, one of four daughters)  The only female apart from that cow Tinker Bell.  Who does die in the book, incidentally.  Wendy is shocked to learn Peter has forgotten who Tinker Bell is.  He dismisses her airily: '"There are such a lot of them," he said.  "I expect she is no more."'

There are some children's books that can't be read properly by adults.  If you haven't begun Lord of the Rings by the age of 14 you are probably stuffed, and will never love Tolkein.  But Peter Pan is not in that category.  However academically and distantly you read it through your adult prescription glasses, it will still surprise you with its astonishing splashes of colour, and you will be five years old again, back when everything might still turn out to be magical.

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