Monday 3 March 2014

Peter Pan and Me

However unlikely this may seem, when I was a young teenager my family went to Dundee for our summer holiday. While this may sound unexciting to most people, I grew up in a family that simply never went on holiday, so Dundee was the business. Little did I think that many years later, I would be working in the city, and restoring a castle in the surrounding countryside.

On that holiday, I recall walking across the Tay Road Bridge and back again, from Dundee to Broughty Ferry and back again. These are feats I have never repeated, despite actually living there!

I remember visiting Glamis Castle (amazing then and amazing now) and the birthplace of J.M.Barrie in Kirriemuir, now my local town. We got shown around by a lady tour guide. I recall that so many elements of “Peter Pan” were present in Barrie’s childhood home, that it seemed almost too be good to be true: a Wendy house in the back court, a stuffed crocodile on the wall, and portraits of St. Bernards, which the family kept.

My father turned to me in the presence of the tour guide on the upstairs landing, and asked “And of course you have read “Peter Pan” haven’t you David?”. I was shocked, my Dad must have known I hadn’t read it. We didn’t have the book in the house, we had never studied it at school and I had never borrowed it from the library.

We did have “The Children’s Treasury of Literature” which had the first chapter of a number of children’s books including “Peter Pan” and “The Hobbit”, and I had read this. So for the first and only time in my life I had to lie. “Yes, I have.” I replied muttering “first chapter only” repeatedly in my head. The whole experience was so traumatic, I have never forgotten it and the shame has stayed with me.

Where I first read "Peter Pan" - well just the first chapter!

One of most memorable aspects of “The Children’s Treasury” were the illustrations for “The Hobbit”. They were sufficiently weird to be disturbing, and the text of the first chapter of “The Hobbit” did nothing to dispell my disquiet. :-) Internet research, reveals Tolkien himself described these illustrations as “vulgar, stupid and entirely out of keeping with the text”.

This creeped me out so much, it was years before I read the rest of "The Hobbit". :-)

As the prospect of restoring Balintore become more realistic, I realised I needed to read “Peter Pan” and once and for all put the ghost of the incident to rest - how else could I hold my head up in Kirriemuir? It was not the classic read I expected, and I was shocked at how badly written the book is. It needs an editor to come-in and sort out the bad grammar, let alone the ugly sentence structures.

The worst part was that there was no magic and that I was not transported. This is not simply an unimaginative adult’s take on a child’s book, as I only read “The Wizard of Oz” series as an adult, and indeed I only read the full “Magic Faraway Tree" series as an adult - and they both worked for me! :-)

What was most alarming was the attitude towards women in “Peter Pan”: if it was not misogynistic then it was seriously disturbed; and I was left with a “chill in my soul” after reading the book.

Sometime later, I continued my researches on J.M.Barrie - and I found out about his childhood. His brother had died as a child in a tragic ice-skating accident. This brother was his mother’s favourite, and Barrie’s mother really did say “I wish you had died instead”. Thus must have done untold damage, with Barrie trying to become his dead brother. I also learned of the real lost boys: five brothers that Barrie adopted when their parents died of cancer. The story of the real lost boys is another tale of high tragedy that legends are made of, and I felt that I could excuse Barrie the flaws in Peter Pan. The book presents a classic archetype from children’s literature to the world, but is not itself a classic book. 

I also managed to catch up with DIsney’s Peter Pan, which is in my view the weakest of the early DIsney films. The tone is not right. In fact the only successful Peter Pan film, in my view, is the 2003 one, though Maggie Smith saves the end of Hook (1991) as an elderly Wendy.

J.M.Barrie was born in Kirriemuir the same year Balintore Castle was built, so I have long wondered did he know the building growing up and did he ever visit the castle? He certainly wrote of the glories of “Glen Quharity” where the castle is situated. And this recently tracked-down newspaper snippet indicates that Barrie did visit the castle with Cyril Maude who was a famous actor manager of the day. The visit is dated the 25th February 1896, before Barrie wrote "Peter Pan". I looked it up on the map, and cycling from Strathtay to Balintore is no mean feat - it's a good 40 miles and not on the flat.

Aberdeen Weekly Journal, Friday, February 28, 1896

Another interesting connection is that the real-life lost boys were the cousins of Daphne du Maurier (one of my favourite authors). Daphne du Maurier knew Barrie as "Uncle Jim", and one wonders if her tales of dark gothic houses come from her Uncle's tales of Balintore. And it was the magic of Mandalay in Hitchcock's film "Rebecca" based on her book, that helped switched me on to such buildings. So the tale could go full circle! 

At least I can now claim J.M. Barrie as the castle's most famous visitor - so far!

J.M.Barrie - Balintore Castle's most famous visitor

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