I thought a lot about family this week. I think family is one of the most important things in life and that you should cherish it if you have one. Family life is never easy though; you of all people know that very well. It often comes with as much trouble as it comes with love, but usually the love outweighs the trouble in the end. I mean just because I wanna kick my sister’s ass sometimes doesn’t mean I don’t love her, you get me.
When I was younger I always thought I have the best parents in the world, that they’re perfect. Today I know that is not true. I love my parents more than anything and they are great parents, but they are not perfect and that’s ok. There is this point in every child’s life when you grow up and realize that your parents are in fact not superheroes. They are just human and make mistakes; they don’t always know the right answer to everything and need help too sometimes.
There is an episode of friends where Rachel has trouble with her mum and dad and says “Why can’t parents just stay parents? Why do they have to become people?” I totally get that. But as annoying as it can be I really do believe that accepting that your mum and dad are people, who are also just trying to make their way through life as well as possible, is an important part of growing up. I guess most families are part von Trapp and part Bundy family. (Without the being chased by Nazis bit of course. And the nuns. And actually loads of other things, but you know what I mean.)
So I went to see my von Trapp-Bundy- Clan over Easter and when I flew back into London family was still very much on my mind and made me think of one famous London family who is also not perfect, but when the East wind blows one day they get a little help to figure things out.
So Charlie, this time I made my way through this fine city to track down the Banks family and their nanny, Mary Poppins.
Mary appears in a series of eight books written by P.L. Travers. Despite creating one of the most British books ever Pamela Lyndon Travers was actually not British at all, she was Australian and her birth name was Helen Lyndon Goff. She grew up with an alcoholic father who died when she was seven and a suicidal mother who was not really able to take care of her and her siblings. Helen had to take over a lot of responsibility for her sisters and to calm them down she would invent stories about a magical nanny that came to care for them like their parents couldn’t.
Helen wrote articles and acted in small rolls at the local theatre under the stage name Pamela Lyndon Travers, which she kept all her life. Not long after her mum died she moved to England. In London she mainly concentrated on writing stories. P.L. Travers admired J.M. Barrie and his stories about Peter Pan and so it is no coincidence that her first publisher was Peter Llewyn-Davies, Barrie’s adoptive son, who inspired the famous little boy.
In 1934 her book Mary Poppins was published. P.L. Travers writes about a nanny that comes to London with the East Wind to work for the Banks family who live in 17 Cherry Tree Lane. Unfortunately there is no such address in the real London, but taking all the clues from the book into account it is believed that the Banks family lived in Primrose Hill and that you can probably find Cherry Tree Lane there, just under a less fun name.
But also P.L. Travers’ first home in London at 50 Smith Street Chelsea inspired the famous Street. Neither this house nor the house at 29 Shawfield Street, where she moved to later, have a blue plague, in fact there is no plague for P.L. Travers in all of London. Not yet anyway and that is simply because she hasn’t been dead long enough. 20 years is the minimum to get a blue plague and Travers died in 1996.
When talking about Mary Poppins most people immediately think about the 1964 Disney Movie. And indeed the basic storyline is the same. Mary Poppins comes to the Banks household to help them find back to each other and become a happy family again. Hired for the children it actually mainly are Mr. and Mrs. Banks though that she influences. ‘She didn’t come to save the children; she came to save the parents’ P.L. Travers once said. And with her unusual methods she sets out to do just that.
But that is pretty much as far as the similarities between book and film go though. In the book Mary Poppins is not pretty or elegant and she doesn’t sing songs. Yes, she takes the children on unusual adventures where the meet some funny characters, but Mary is much more strict and much plainer in the books, she even has a proper cockney accent. And there are not only Jane and Michael, no the Banks family has 5 children: Jane, Michael, the twins John and Barbara and from the 2nd book on also little Annabel. Bert is not a chimney sweep and has a much more minor role. And Mrs Banks doesn’t have so little time for her children because she is a suffragette, but simply because she doesn’t care, a lot like P.L. Travers own mother did. The family in the book seems much more real and in much more need of a helping hand than the movie version. You meet a Mary Poppins who is not all unicorns and rainbows but still manages to make her way into our hearts and lets us discover her soft core only bit by bit, as she doesn’t show it very often. The story is more serious and some of the adventures proper scary, but that just adds to it being an exciting read for both children and adults. As with most children’s books there are also two sides to Mary Poppins. Children just see the adventures that Mary takes the Banks children on, some fun some quite grim but all page-turner exciting. But read it as an adult and you see a story about adults who forgot what it means to be a child. How we wear all once able to eat dinner hanging from the ceiling or jump into a painting at the park that takes us to a magical world, but many lose the knowledge theyn we grow up and with that the tolerance for kids with an overactive imagination and never-ending curiosity. We see the story of children who realise their parents are not without fail and parents who have forgotten how important it is to make your kids a priority. While the book shows us those two sides, the movie focuses only on the light hearted adventure bit of the story, with just a little conflict between children and parents that is fixed pretty quickly. But I think movie and book go perfectly hand in hand. It is lovely to let the book force you to think and make you very emotional just to then pop the DVD into the player and let the movie version make you wanna dance and sing and go fly a kite. The movie is the yang to the books yin.
With an iconic story like that set in London do of course come some connections to the city and some places you can go find traces of Mary if you want.
Mister Banks works at the Bank of England and his head is often so full off business related matters that he tends to forget about his children. P.L. Travers’ dad was also a bank manager, when his business failed and the bank went downhill he turned to drinking which later lead to his death. This addiction to success and that constant anxiety not to succeed ruined him in the end, just like it almost ruined Mr Banks. Mary come just in time to save him and his family, just like P.L. Travers hoped someone would have come to save her family when she was a child.
The Bank of England is still an impressive landmark in the city of London and these days has a museum where you can learn all about its history, how banking is done today and how it was done in Mr Banks’ time. (As always all info below this post)
A stone throw from the Bank is where Michael and Jane meet the Bird woman, on the steps of St. Paul. Today a sign asks visitors not to feed the birds, which is a bit of a shame. But of course the majestic cathedral is still absolutely worth a visit, the breathtaking interior, the whispering gallery, the view from the top, go see it! And they do still sell some bird related memorabilia in the gift shop if that’s what you’re looking for.
We already spoke about 17 Cherry Tree Lane, but let’s return to it again for a moment. Not to the Banks house, but to one of their neighbours, Admiral Boom. Admiral Boom is a former Naval Officer, but now lives in a house shaped like a ship with his wife Mrs. Boom and his assistant Binnacle, who is a former pirate. He fires a canon from the roof of his house to mark the time. The real building that inspired Admiral Boom’s house is in Hampstead on Admiral’s Walk. Its roof was shaped into a quarter-deck by an 18th-century resident who had been a naval lieutenant with aspirations to Admiral Rank. Legend has it, the Admiral always fired a broadside to salute a British naval victory, which is what inspired P.L. Travers to create her Admiral Boom. Apparently the house is now owned by Russell Crow, although I can’t vouch for that.
From all that I told you Charlie, you can probably see how the story of Mary Poppins was in some points very connected to P.L. Travers real life and how she even used it to work through some of her terrible childhood experiences. It took Walt Disney 15 years and endless conversations and production meetings to finally get the rights to the first book out of her. Things were changed and changed again and in the end she still hated it. She was not invited to the premier as Walt Disney had lost his patience with her by then. P.L. Travers still managed to turn up, though barely an attention was given to her and at the end of the screening she cried quietly. She felt that Walt Disney turned her story into a movie that is ‘all fantasy and no magic’ and that her vision wasn’t captured at all.
P.L. Travers is often described as prickly and annoying, pedantic old Lady who caused the movie makers many sleepless nights. But you know what I think Charlie? I think she was a woman who had a terrible start in life and put all her heart into a story. And when that story sold well and people started to love it that was the first time in life that she felt truly proud of herself that finally the sun was shining upon her as well. Queen Elizabeth II even made her an Officer of the Order of the British Empire for services to literature. I think it was her good right to stand up for something that meant so much to her. Something that she was probably hoping could help children through similar problems as she had experienced. Of course we viewers can say ‘The movie is not really like the book, but it’s nice anyway’, but obviously that is not enough for the author of that book. P.L. Travers felt like none of the essence and the messages she wanted to bring across in her book where captured in the movie. To her it was just a big spectacle with singing, laughing and dancing penguins when she wanted it to be so much more. And I don’t think you can blame her for that. When Walt Disney stood up for his opinions he was called a strong man, a visionary, when P.L. Travers did it she was called a silly old nuisance. As a woman I feel I have to sympathise with her.
P.L. Travers always wanted a family of her own, but it’s generally believed that she was homosexual since she shared her house with a woman for many, many years. And back then, that was obviously not an easy situation.
After the split from her alleged partner she adopted a boy, the son of an Irish family who was one of two twin brothers. Out of fear of losing the only family she ever really had she never told her son Camilus that he was adopted and had a twin brother. A mistake that came to haunt her when the brother one day showed up in Camilus’ local pub and he found out the truth. Somehow she never managed to achieve that sometimes troublesome but in the end always happy family life she dreamed of and wrote about.
I’m sure P.L. Travers was not a simple character and she did not always make the best life choices and yeah, maybe she was not even the nicest of women. But I believe it was her good right standing up for the story of Mary Poppins and I can’t help but admire her for standing her ground in the male dominated movie business, even if it didn’t quite work out in her favour in the end. The movie did make P.L. Travers very rich though and she wrote 7 more Mary Poppins books and didn’t give the movie rights away for a single one of them even though Walt came knocking again many times. So maybe she sort of was the winner after all. When she died she left specific orders in her will how to deal with her heritage but those have never been made public. I think I got a good idea though what they are about, I don’t think we will see a Mary Poppins sequel anytime soon 🙂
At the end of the day I do hope that there are still a lot of parents out there who read their kids the Mary Poppins books instead of just showing them the movie, many teenagers reading them themselves and adults who still reach for them too. There are just so many truths, anecdotes and lesson in them too good and too clever to be forgotten.
And who knows, if you have troubles in life, especially family related, it might be worth looking up when the east wind blows, no matter how old you are, as help might just be on its way.
Winds in the east, mist coming in,
Like somethin’ is brewin’ and bout to begin.
Can’t put me finger on what lies in store,
But I fear what’s to happen all happened before.
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Get a copy
Support your local book store and go find it there or order it here:
Done with the book? See the movie!
The Disney version: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0058331/?ref_=nv_sr_1
Slightly sugar coated but still a good movie – Saving Mr. Banks: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2140373/?ref_=nv_sr_2
Read the book, watched the movie? See the musical
The very successful l Mary Poppins Musical is on tour again for a limited time again in the UK from October: http://www.marypoppins.co.uk/tour-info/
The Secret life of Mary Poppins
An amazing documentary on Mary and P.L. Travers – watch it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WSnhq1R6IWA
See my Mary Poppins board: https://de.pinterest.com/viiiviiien/17-cherry-tree-lane/
Location, location, location
Take a spring walk through Regents Park and Primrose Hill: http://tripstylist.co.uk/spring-walks-regents-park-and-primrose-hill
Travers’ London homes: 50 Smith Street – http://libradventures.com/1934-mary-poppins/
and 29 Shawfield Street – https://www.google.com/maps/place/29+Shawfield+St,+Chelsea,+London+SW3+4BA,+UKemail@example.com,-0.1655013,17z/data=!3m1!4b1!4m2!3m1!1s0x4876056cbe92e8db:0x15f0198ebee95db3
Admiral’s House: http://www.hampsteadheath.net/admiral-s-house.html
Bank of England Musem: http://www.hampsteadheath.net/admiral-s-house.html
St. Paul’s Cathedral: https://www.stpauls.co.uk/
Last, not least
Listen to some of the P.L. Travers meeting at Disney: