Sunday, December 10, 2006

The LITTLE BOOK of VENOM

With permission, I should like to share with you a few cyanide-scented sentiments and arsenic-flavoured accolades from another of my loo-side treasuries - The Little Book of Venom: A Collection of Historical Insults compiled by Jennifer Heggie

A quite excellent nosegay of nastiness, this innocent-looking little collection is one in which musicians are murdered...

Bernard Levin on the music of Frederick Delius: "The musical equivalent of blancmange"

Oscar Wilde on Richard Wagner: "I like Wagner's music better than any other music. It is so loud that one can talk the whole time without people hearing what one says. That is a great advantage."

...politicians are pulverised...

Benjamin Disraeli on Robert Peel: "His smile is like the silver fittings on a coffin."

Aneurin Bevan on Clement Atlee: "He brings to the fierce struggle of politics the tepid enthusiasm of a lazy summer afternoon at a cricket match."

...historical figures are hammered...

Charles Dickens on Henry VIII: "The plain truth is that he was the most intolerable ruffian, a disgrace to human nature, and a blot of blood and grease upon the history of England."

George Bernard Shaw on Queen Victoria: "Nowadays, a parlour maid as ignorant as Queen Victoria was when she came to the throne would be classed as mentally defective."

...playwrights are poleaxed...

H G Wells on George Bernard Shaw: "An idiot child screaming in a hospital."

Queen Victoria on William Shakespeare's King Lear: "A strange, horrible business, but I suppose good enough for Shakespeare's day."

...divas are destroyed...

W B Yeats on Mrs Patrick Campbell: "An ego like a raging tooth."

George Bernard Shaw (again) on Isadora Duncan: "A woman whose face looked as if it had been made of sugar and someone had licked it."

...and authors are assassinated...

Lord Byron on John Keats: "A tadpole of the lakes."

Dame Edith Sitwell on Virginia Woolf: "Virginia Wolf's writings is no more than glamorous knitting. I believe she must have a pattern somewhere."

Finally, here's an all-purpose Arab curse that is seriously worth committing to memory for daily use in any stressful situation: "May your left ear wither and fall into your right pocket."


The Little Book of Venom: A Collection of Historical Insults, compiled by Jennifer Heggie in 1999, is published by Michael O'Mara Books Ltd.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

The HALLOWEEN TREE

Every October in the weeks leading up to Halloween grimacing skeletons and gap-toothed pumpkin-heads seem to proliferate everywhere…

In only a few years, Halloween in this country has gone from being a totally American and utterly un-British (and therefore inexplicable) holiday to being up there in the UK marketing and merchandising league with Christmas, Easter and Valentine’s Day.

There was a time when the only glimpse those of us on this side of the Atlantic ever got of the trick-or-treat world of Halloween was in Charles Schulz’ annual Peanuts strips in which Linus vainly waited in the pumpkin patch for the arrival of his own mythical invention, the Great Pumpkin!


Even though our stores are annually full of Halloween paraphernalia, there is precious little cultural knowledge in Britain about the Catholic feasts of All Hallows (or All Saints) and All Souls celebrated on the 1st and 2nd of November or of the European traditions, superstitions and amusements that preceded them on the 31st October known as All Hallows’ Eve or Hallowe'en…

Those who would like to understand more about the origins and multi-faceted accretions that comprise the dark festival of the turning year can, obviously, look them up in on-line or on-shelf encyclopaedias...

But, if you'll take my advice, you'll, instead, hitch a ride with the mysterious Mr Carapace Clavicle Moundshroud in The Halloween Tree, an autumnal conjuring trick by literary magician Ray Bradbury with haunting tombstone black-and-white illustrations by Joe Mugnaini.

The cadaverous Moundshroud leads a group of youngsters on a frantic time-travelling jaunt through the “deep dark long wild history of Halloween,” beginning within the shadow of the Halloween Tree…

The pumpkins on the Tree were not mere pumpkins. Each had a face sliced in it. Each face was different. Every eye was a stranger eye. Every nose was a weirder nose. Every mouth smiled hideously in some new way.

There must have been a thousand pumpkins on this tree, hung high and on every branch. A thousand smiles. A thousand grimaces. And twice-times-a thousand glares and winks and blinks and leerings of fresh-cut eyes…



By wing and kite and broomstick they fly on the winds of lost centuries from the darkness of the cave before the discovery of fire, and the rituals of Druid England with its scythe-wielding October God of the Dead, to the gargoyle-encrusted towers of Notre Dame; from the bone-and-mummy-dust tombs of Ancient Egypt through the Grecian Isles to the City of Rome and away to South America and the candles and sugar skeletons of El Dia de los Muertos, The Day of the Dead...

It is a journey that memorably explains how light and darkness, faith and fear have shaped a festival more wildly celebrated, perhaps, than understood…

So, maybe when the little terrors come around knocking our knockers next Halloween, we should slip a copy of Mr Bradbury's classic into their Trick or Treat bags - then they might know why they were doing what they were doing and, if nothing else, at least it wouldn't rot their teeth!

I find that re-reading The Halloween Tree - just as happens every time I re-read any of Ray's books - is an invitation to allow a bony finger to stir and prod among the leaf-mould and mummy-dust of my memories...

I travel back in time twenty-six years,,,

It is 1980 and, after six years of corresponding with Ray Bradbury, we met for the very first time when I interview him at the offices of his London publishers.

The book which I take with me on that occasion to ask him to inscribe is the first UK edition of The Halloween Tree...


Six years later, we meet for lunch in a restaurant on Rodeo Drive in Los Angeles and waiting for me under the napkin by my plate is an American edition of the book with an inscription and a golden Halloween Tree drawing by the author, studded with grinning pumpkin lantern stickers!


No wonder this book has always been special to me...

That lunchtime gift was given twenty years back and this year came another gift from Ray Bradbury: an e-mail in which he recounted a short history of how the Halloween Tree came to be planted and how it grew and put forth its unique autumnal fruits...

Here, with Ray's permission, is that story...

The Halloween Tree came about because I had lunch with [legendary Bugs Bunny animator] Chuck Jones forty years ago; he had just become a new friend.

The night before, an animated [Peanuts] film - The Great Pumpkin - had been on TV. My children disliked it so much that they ran over and kicked the TV set, along with me, because the whole idea of the Great Pumpkin supposedly arriving and then not arriving was incorrect to me. It was like shooting Santa Claus on the way down the chimney!

Chuck Jones and I agreed that we didn't like The Great Pumpkin, though we did admire Charlie Schultz, the cartoonist, very much. Then Chuck said, "Why don't we do a really good film on Halloween?" I said, "I think we could. Let me go home and bring something."

So I went home and brought Chuck a large painting of a Halloween Tree that I had painted down in the basement with my daughters a few years before.



Chuck took one look at it and said, "My God, that's the genealogy of the holiday. Will you write a screenplay on this?" I said, "Yes, hire me!" So Chuck Jones and MGM hired me to write a TV script called The Halloween Tree.

Several months down the road, MGM decided to turn its back on animation, so they closed their unit and fired Chuck and me. I had nothing to do then so I took the script and wrote the novel of The Halloween Tree.

Later I wrote a second script for the final animated film, which was done by Hannah-Barbera a few years later, for which I received an Emmy Award for the script.

About three years ago I produced Something Wicked This Way Comes at a theater in Santa Monica and on Halloween night my biographer, Sam Weller, drove me to the play and then home again at around 10:30 at night and on the way, in four different yards we saw that people had placed pumpkins, real ones or papier mache, lit with candles in trees in their front yards.

Now, there are Halloween Trees beginning to appear all over the United States and I realized that with my story and that picture that I painted down in the basement with my daughters more than forty years ago, I've changed the history of Halloween in the entire country.

I've discussed this with the Disney people and suggested that they invite me to Disneyland on Halloween night and put up a tree full of papier mache pumpkins and have me there to turn on the whole thing. They would make themselves and me part of the future history of Halloween because no trees existed forty years ago -- they began to appear only after my book and my film.

The Disney people haven't reacted so far because, I believe, the notice is very short. If we don't do it this year I'm hoping that Disney will invite me out next Halloween and initiate the birth of the Halloween Tree and the history of the holiday.

It's been an interesting experience for me and it thrills me to think that 100 years from now there will be Halloween trees all across our world...



For more information about Ray Bradbury and his books, read my profile of him on Gateway Monthly; and many pages of information on the excellent Bradbury Media.


[Images: Peanuts © 1971 United Features Syndicate, Inc; illustrations to The Halloween Tree by Joe Mugnaini, © 1972 Alfred A Knopf, New York; the cartoon of Ray Bradbury is by myself and accompanied my first interview with him in 1980; the autumnal Tree was painted by Ray in c. 1960, the green Tree, some years later and both are featured in a superb limited edition of the book from Gauntlet Press.]


[Images: ]

Sunday, November 19, 2006

DR JEKYLL and MR HYDE

Amongst the paraphernalia of Halloween this year, I noticed - in addition to witches’ hats, devils’ pitchforks, vampire fangs and warty hag noses - a whole range of masks that take their inspiration from the horror folk of literature: Count Dracula, Frankenstein’s Creature, the Hunchback of Notre Dame and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde: all of whom represent far more than the mere fear engendered by the genuinely terrifying and ruthlessly violent aspects of their various sagas.

Each of these characters is a symbol of some facet of the fears and phobias that assail the human imagination - among them death and deformity and, in the case of those experimental doctors, Frankenstein and Jekyll, the potential threat of technology and science…

The warring psyches of Jekyll and Hyde as described by Robert Louis Stevenson, have never lost their fascination in the 120 years since the story was first published.

It has been the subject of many films and television versions and a number of illustrators have attempted to capture the terror of Henry Jekyll’s struggles to control his murderous alter ego. An artist who succeeded with dramatic brilliance was Mervyn Peake.

Peake illustrated Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde for the Folio Society in 1948 with a suite of drawings that demonstrate that the artist clearly understood the need to resist the temptation to merely draw the monster that was the flip-side of the man.

So, whilst he depicted the haunted Dr Henry Jekyll (above right) when it came to Mr Hyde, Peake chose only to hint at the horror, depicting him as scuttling off down alleyways (top left) dwarfed by the city he terrorizes yet, at the same time, casting a towering shadow; or - as shown in the book’s frontispiece - pausing beneath the guttering gas-lamp, the only indication of disease being the hunched shoulders and the unkempt demeanour.


Peake’s economy of design and simplicity of line - almost Japanese in style - and his use of a disturbingly sickly-yellow wash is inspired as can be seen in the illustration of Hyde before the mirror (itself almost animal in form) considering his shrunken frame draped in Jekyll’s too-large clothing….

Or, again, in a cunningly contrived drawing of Hyde slumped on a park bench in which the full grotesqueness of his brutish depravity still remains hidden from us but is noted by the upright Victorian gentleman who gives a disturbed backward glance as he passes by with his wife and child…


And so, when Mervyn Peake finally reveals Hyde to us in his bestial form - the simian features, the crab-clawed hand clutching the fateful, upraised phial - the effect is all the more terrible for our having waited for the revelation…


[All images: © The Mervyn Peake Estate]

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

ROCK STAR

Some people might be surprised to find a copy of Jackie Collins' 1988 novel Rock Star on my shelves. Admittedly, it not quite my type of book but it is inscribed, "For Brian with love, Jackie" and is a memento of a fascinating encounter.

I was to interview the author for a programme on the BBC World Service and, to begin with, it did not look set to go well. On her arrival, Ms Collins was clearly in a far from happy mood and snappily observed that she hope that this interview was going to go better than the one she had just recorded for another BBC network.

"Oh," I asked innocently, "What went wrong?" Back came the whiplash reply: "The idiot interviewing me asked: 'Well now, what can I possibly ask Jackie Collins, that she's never been asked before?' To which I replied: 'Why ask me? I thought that was your job!'"

Ho-hum, I thought... I guess I can't do any worse than that! And, mercifully, I did a good deal better - maybe because I'd taken the trouble to actually Ms Collins' chunky doorstop of a novel.

Towards the end of the interview - by which time Jackie and I were clearly getting on considerably better than expectations - I commented on a remark made by one of the characters who had observed:

“Sex is the most important thing in the world - more important even than money…”


“So," I cheekily enquired, wondering if I dared ask the question, "what’s most important to Jackie Collins ---- sex or money?”

Both!” she replied without a second’s pause, “and, preferably, together!”


"Thank you," I purred.

"No, thank you!" she purred back. "And shall I sign your book...?"

GEORGE'S MARVELLOUS MEDICINE

It starts out as the interview from Hell and ends up with a passionate conversation about the joys of chocolate over a Tupperwear-box crammed full of Smarties, Crunchies, Mars Bars and Kit-Kats

It is 1988, and I am travelling to Great Missenden in Buckinghamshire to interview Roald Dahl for the BBC. I go with numerous warnings hammering in my head: the creator of Willy Wonka and the BFG is known to be difficult with interviewers. If he doesn’t like you or your line of questioning, you can easily find yourself being shown the door quicker than you can say “Oompah-Loompas!”

Of course, I know my stuff (I’ve been reading Dahl long before the writer achieved his status as the country’s premiere children’s author), but I’m anxious - TOO anxious - to impress… So, I have thoroughly boned up on dozens of articles about the man and made copious notes drawn from other people’s assessments of Dahl’s genius. I am absolutely determined to leave nothing to chance…

I arrive and am shown into the sitting room, where I set up my recording equipment. A few minutes later, Dahl enters wearing a cardigan and smoking a cigarette. He is considerably taller than I’d expected and I am intrigued by the way in which he sits down, collapsing his considerable height into an armchair rather as you might close up a large umbrella. The atmosphere is polite, if a little frosty; the eyes are gimlet-sharp rather than twinkly.

And so, the interview begins…

Referring to my numerous notes, I say in as confidant a tone as I can muster: “One commentator has noted that, essentially, your characters are all archetypes----”

I get no further.

“Are WHAT?” growls Dahl suspiciously.

“Archetypes…” I repeat lamely…

“Oh! That’s not a word I’m accustomed to using myself,” snaps Dahl waspishly. “What exactly does it MEAN?”

“Well…” comes the fumbled reply, “It means - um… That is - er… Well, an archetype is…”

The gimlet eyes bore deeper and my voice trails away.

“I see!” snorts Dahl. “You don’t seem to know what it means either! So, do you have anything YOU want to ask me, based on your own knowledge, as opposed to other people’s opinions? Or shall we forget this interview, rather than waste any more of each other’s time?”

Desperate measures are clearly called for…. Abandoning my notebook, I blurt out the first thing that comes into my head: “At the end of George’s Marvellous Medicine, you say that George felt as if he had reached out and, with the very tips of his fingers, had touched the edge of a magic world… Is that what you want your young readers to do?”

There is a long pause. Dahl gives a wry half-smile. I await the inevitable explosion. Instead, comes a question: “Do you drink?”

It has just gone 10.30 in the morning, but I nod.

“Whisky?”

I nod again.

Two large glasses are filled and the interview begins all over again - as if the uncomfortable prologue had simply never taken place - and continues for an hour-and-a-half, with Dahl talking freely and incisively about his books and how he writes them: "Whatever age group I'm writing for, I can instantly and precisely project myself back into what it felt like to be a child of three or seven or nine and then write for that child..."

He talks his philosophy of life: his love of libraries and good teachers and his passion for chocolate which stems from a childhood ambition to work as an inventor in a sweet factory just like the one in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang for which he wrote the screenplay: "Oh, God, but that was an awful movie!"

His ultimate appraisal of the books he has written is almost self-deprecating: "I think one or two of them may outlive me and even come to be thought of in a 'classicy' sort of way..."

He also reveals some of his pet-hatreds which include - in addition to the unthinking use of such words as ‘archetypes’ - virtually everyone involved in politics, bad teachers, bad parents and all instances of facial hair, such as the beard sported the terrible Mr Twit and, indeed, by the hapless interviewer!

“I have to tell listeners,” Dahl confides into my microphone, “the gent who is talking with me now has a face COVERED in fungus! It’s really quite DISGUSTING! I can even see part of his breakfast in there! I dare say if it wasn’t smothered in all that ghastly hair, it would be quite a NICE face, but there’s absolutely no way of knowing!”

“Do you have a razor?” I daringly quip.

“Shave in your own time, not mine!” parries Dahl with a chuckle.

“I wasn’t thinking of shaving,” I instantly reply, “I was thinking of CUTTING MY THROAT!”

Dahl roars a long, deep, smoker’s laugh.

At the end of the interview, Dahl signs my copy of his very first book, The Gremlins that was originally to have been made into a Disney WWII animated film.

He inscribes it “With love, Roald Dahl”, asks my date of birth and then adds it to the inscription - but cunningly backdated six years to 1943, the year of publication.

“There!” he bellows triumphantly, “If they come across this after you’re dead, that should screw things up nicely for whoever’s trying to sort your affairs!”

Not wishing to push my luck, I make my thank-yous, pack up my tape-recorder and prepare to leave -- only to be invited to stay for lunch!

A deliciously long and jolly meal eventually concludes with a dessert in the form an outsized Tupperware-box stuffed with sufficient sweets and chocolate bars to satisfy even the great Mr Wonka!

An unforgettable encounter - and a most valuable warning against the irresponsible use of the word ‘archetype’!


© Brian Sibley 2006
[Illustrations (except 'The Gremlins'): © Quentin Blake]

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES

I make no apology for taking a volume by this author off the shelf so soon after writing about another of his books... After all, today is his birthday!

It all began one August day in a long hot summer month of my youth. I opened a book and read:

“First of all, it was October, a rare month for boys…”


I was hooked! Just as I was when I read Charles Dickens' line: “Marley was dead to begin with…” The same cunningly clever opening: something that needs to be understood and explained and the knowledge that it is, first of all, just the beginning…

I didn’t know then that the author of this story I was about to read revered Dickens’ A Christmas Carol as one of his favourite books.

Something Wicked This Way Comes - the title, courtesy of one of the Witches from Shakespeare’s Macbeth - is an irresistible beckoning, bony finger.

Resistance is useless…

It is a dark tale, darkly told, about what happened - or what might have happened, or might yet happen - in the misty, musty, leaf-rustling days of October…

Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade are the best of friends. They are also opposites. One blonde, the other dark-haired, both born on Halloween: Will at one minute to midnight, Jim at one minute after midnight. One is drawn to the light, the other summoned by the dark.

Then, into the sleepy, autumnal atmosphere of their small mid-west American town comes Tom Fury, the seller of lightning rods, with a bag rattling with curiously-wrought ironmongery and muttered warnings of storms to come...

AND COME THEY DO…


In the early hours of a moonless night, a mournful train-whistle heralds the arrival of a carnival that will change the lives of everyone in the town forever.

Cooger and Dark's Pandemonium Shadow Show offers a variety of apparently harmless candyfloss laughs and thrills. But behind the flaps of the great black tent, lurk terrifying freaks; and the seemingly innocuous attractions set up along the midway are anything but what they seem: a Mirror-Maze that reveals ugly reflections of untrue futures; a Ferris Wheel that spins its passengers into oblivion and a Carousel that can ride you backwards to youth or forwards to death...

Will and Jim discover the secret of the dark carnival and its long, torturous history winding its way across the world and down the years. For them alone: the challenge of confronting and overcoming raw evil; it is their destiny, but it is a task that puts their friendship and their very lives at risk…

I treasured that book; became the passionate lover of the story: writing and broadcasting about it whenever I got the opportunity, spreading the gospel that this is a tale that everyone should read once before they forget what it is to have been young...

In 1986, many years after my first reading of Something Wicked, Ray and I met for one of our sporadic meetings - infrequent only because, most of the time, the breadth of the Atlantic divides our lives. Anyway, on this occasion, we had lunch at the Walt Disney Studio where Something Wicked film-sets still stood on the back lot, so Ray signed my copy of the first British hardback edition of the book-that-would-become-the-film with an appropriate location-tag!



Why do those who love this book have feelings towards it that are both proprietorial and evangelical?

Like so much of Ray’s writings, it is partly to do with the way in which the author luxuriates in language: if you come to Bradbury when you are still young and learning the mystery and mastery of words, then you cannot help but apprentice yourself to someone who is not only a craftsman but also (very probably) a magician!

Bradbury books fizz and sizzle on the eye and the ear: the rich, almost baroque, architecture of the narrative; the startling, metaphor-embellished paragraphs; the lavish, adjective-encrusted sentences; the audacious theatricality of vision and the razor-sharp observation with which the characters are given life and costumed for the beautiful and bizarre dramas they are called on to enact…

The man was tall as a lamp post. His pale face, lunar pockmarks denting it, cast light on those who stood below. His vest was the colour of fresh blood. His eyebrows, his hair, his suit were licorice black, and the sun-yellow gem which stared from the tie pin thrust in his cravat was the same unblinking shade and bright crystal as his eyes.

The name is Dark.

He flourished a white calling card. It turned blue. Whisper. Red. Whisk. A green man dangled from a tree stamped on the card. Flit. Shh.

Dark. And my friend with the red hair is Mr Cooger. Of Cooger and Dark’s…

Flip-flick-shh. Names appeared, disappeared on the white square.

Combined Shadow Shows…

Tick-wash.

And cross-continental Pandemonium Theatre Company.

He paused…

Are you… CURIOUS?


Read my interview with Ray, The Brabury Machine here.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

MARY POPPINS


The blog post below has earned me a nomination for the Most Fascinating Blog of 2012 Award: one of 93 blogs nominated by Librarians from a pool of over 2,300 submissions.

Voting closed on 6 March 2012
and whilst my blog didn't win, it earned Ex Libris 10th place out of the 93 nominations in the running for the award.

Thank you to all my readers who voted for PLT, Miss Poppins and Me!
There was some recent talk on My Blog (or, I should say, since you're reading this blog, 'on my Other Blog!) about Mary Poppins, which has prompted me - on what is, today, the 107th anniversary of her creator's birth - to post the following reminiscence, entitled...

TEA with MARY POPPINS

I was going to tea with Mary Poppins! Well, no, not exactly, but I was going to tea with P L Travers, who had written the Mary Poppins books, and at that precise moment I was walking down a street of neat-and-tidy-looking houses that reminded me very much of Cherry Tree Lane…

True, Shawfield Street - off the King’s Road in London’s Chelsea – didn’t boast any really grand houses (with two gates) like that owned by Miss Lark and none of them were quite as unusual or as exciting as the ship-shape home of Admiral Boom… But, as I arrived at the door of number 29, I felt as if I might expect to find Robertson Ay asleep on the doorstep or hear the argumentative voices of Mrs Brill and Ellen coming up from the basement…

This all happened over twenty years ago, but I remember it now as vividly as if it had only happened yesterday…

I’d been invited to come to tea at four o’clock and I was a little early – ten minutes early to be precise – because I really didn’t want to be late and keep Mary Poppins waiting...

I went up the steps to the front door – which, rather surprisingly, was painted candyfloss pink – and I rang the bell.

Silence.

I rang again.

Still silence.

Had I got the wrong day, I wondered.

Then a window, two storeys up, flew open and a head popped out and asked, in a brisk tone, “Are you Brian Sibley?”

I said that I was.

“Well,” said the head, “you are early!” And the window rattled shut again.

I waited. And I waited. For the full ten minutes I waited - until the clock on a nearby church struck ‘four’. Only then did a woman with curly grey hair and bright forget-me-not blue eyes open the door.

So, this was P (for Pamela) L (for Lyndon) Travers…

I noticed that she was wearing a pair of ‘sensible shoes’ of the kind Mary Poppins wore; but, in contrast, she sported a very un-Poppinsish dress with lots of frills and flounces, a number of jingly-jangly bracelets and bangles (rather like those favoured by Miss Lark, I thought) and a chunky turquoise necklace.

After my wait on the doorstep, I was a little nervous, but she welcomed me in with a smile, threw my coat over the back of a noble rocking-horse who galloped up the hallway and showed me into the room where, many times afterwards, I would come to have tea and talk with the woman who introduced the world to Mary Poppins.

When Jane and Michael Banks once asked Mary Poppins who she would choose to be if she wasn't Mary Poppins, she replied, in her sharp, non-nonsense tone: “Mary Poppins.” It is a typical Poppins response: supremely confident, yet - at the same time – as mysterious and elusive as the place where a rainbow ends…

And, sometimes, P L Travers could be much the same. For one thing, that was not her real name: when she was born, in Australia in 1899, she was called Helen Lyndon Goff. Then, as a young woman she became an actress and a dancer and took a ‘stage name’: “Pamela” (which she thought sounded pretty and actressy), “Lyndon” (her own second name and a reminder that her ancestors came from Ireland, the land of myths and stories) and “Travers” which was her father’s first name. He had died when she was seven years old and she never forgot how much she had loved him and missed him.

I think Mr Banks in the stories is, probably, rather like her father and although Pamela used to tell people that he was a sugar-planter in Australia, at the time that she was born he was working in a bank – just like Jane and Michael’s father.

Pamela usually got irritated if you talked about her having ‘created’ Mary Poppins. She preferred to say that she had ‘discovered’ rather than ‘invented’ her, but as with so many things in Pamela’s life, you never quite knew…

She told me, for instance, that Mary Poppins had first blown into her imagination – rather as she blows into the lives of the Banks family – when she was recovering from an illness in an old country cottage in Sussex.

She said that somewhere - in that strange state between being ill and getting better – the idea of a person like Mary Poppins had come to her.

The truth, however, is that several years earlier she had written a short story called ‘Mary Poppins and the Match Man’ that was published in a New Zealand newspaper.

This story was an early version of the second chapter of Mary Poppins in which Bert accompanies her on her ‘Day Out’ and they enjoy a wonderful tea with heaps of raspberry jam-cakes!


Anyway, during that illness, she obviously thought up some new stories and wrote them down and the first book, Mary Poppins, was published in 1934, with illustrations by Mary Shepard, the daughter of the man who drew Winnie-the-Pooh.


The following year, she wrote her second book, Mary Poppins Comes Back and, then after a nine-year gap, the third book in the series appeared. Pamela had wanted to call it Good-bye, Mary Poppins, but eventually – after her publisher begged her not to be quite so final - it was renamed Mary Poppins Opens the Door.

And, as it happens, it wasn’t goodbye to Mary Poppins because, eight years later, P L Travers wrote Mary Poppins in the Park and the practically perfect nanny then reappeared in various spin-offs including an alphabet book Mary Poppins from A to Z (which, for some reason, was later translated into Latin) and a book of stories and recipes entitled Mary Poppins in the Kitchen. Late in life, the author wrote two more slim volumes: Mary Poppins in Cherry Tree Lane and, finally in 1988, Mary Poppins and the House Next Door.


“If you are looking for autobiographical facts,” P L Travers once wrote, “Mary Poppins is the story of my life.” This seems an unlikely claim when you think that Mary Poppins goes inside a chalk pavement picture, slides up banisters, arranges tea-parties on the ceiling and has a carpet bag which is both empty and yet contains everything.

But if we take her at her word, we can find many things in her books that spring from her own life and shaped the stories she told…

For example, several of her fictional characters have names borrowed from people Pamela had known in her childhood - among them a strange little old woman with two tall daughters who ran the local general store where the young Pamela bought sweets. Her name, of course, was – as it is in the stories - Mrs Corry.

As for Miss Poppins herself, her first name was probably inspired by the younger of Pamela’s two sisters who was known in the family as ‘Moya’ – the Irish version of ‘Mary’.

As for ‘Poppins’… Well, Pamela never gave any clues as to where that name came from. But when she first arrived in London to work as a journalist, she used an office near Fleet Street and on her way to visit nearby St Paul’s Cathedral – home to the Bird Woman – she would have passed a little lane with the curious name, ‘Poppins Court’.


Unlike today's street signs, early London gazetteers did not include the apostrophe and Poppins Court was once the site of a 14th Century inn called ‘The Poppinjay’ that was owned by the Abbots of Cirencester and had an inn-sign displaying the Abbey's crest: a parrot-like bird.

And while we're talking parrots, as it were...

Although she and her sisters never had a Mary Poppins for a nanny, they did have an Irish maid named Bertha --- or maybe she was called Bella, Pamela could never quite remember! Bella (or Bertha) was a marvellous character with almost as many eccentric relatives as Mary Poppins.

What’s more, Bertha – or Bella – possessed something that was her pride and joy: a parrot-headed umbrella. "Whenever she was going out," Pamela once told me, "the umbrella would be carefully taken out of tissue-paper and off she would go, looking terribly stylish. But, as soon as she came back, the umbrella would be wrapped up in tissue-paper once more.”

You will remember that Mary Poppins always carried her umbrella, regardless of the weather, simply because it was too beautiful not to be carried. “How could you leave your umbrella behind,” asks the author, “if it had a parrot’s head for a handle?”

"Spit-spot into bed," was a favourite phrase of her mother's, and other bits of Mary Poppins' character were clearly inspired by Pamela's spinster aunt, Christina Saraset, whom everybody called 'Aunt Sass'. She was a crisp, no-nonsense woman with a sharp tongue and a heart of gold who, like Mary Poppins, was given to making "a curious convulsion in her nose that was something between a snort and a sniff."

When Pamela once suggested to her aunt that she might write about her, the elderly lady replied: "What! You put me in a book! I trust you will never so far forget yourself as to do anything so vulgarly disgusting!" This indignant response was followed up with a contemptuous, "Sniff, sniff!" Now, doesn't that sound just like Mary Poppins? Equally, it might have been P. L. Travers herself who said something along the same lines to me, when I rashly suggested, one day, that I might write her life-story!

As a young girl, Pamela took dancing lessons and there seems to be dancing, of some kind or other, in every one of the books - remember Mary Poppins joining all the birds and beasts at the zoo in dancing the Grand Chain? Or the Red Cow who catches a falling star on her horn and can’t stop dancing?

And, speaking of stars, reminds me that as a child Pamela had been captivated by the beauty of the constellations she saw in the clear southern skies above her home in the Australian outback.

She never lost her fascination with star-gazing and there are stars scattered throughout the pages of all her books. In one story, Mrs Corry, her two gargantuan daughters and Mary Poppins paste Gingerbread Stars on to the night sky and in another, Maia (one of the stars in the constellation known as the Pleiades), comes down to earth to do her Christmas shopping.

Over the years that I knew Pamela we had many conversations but the one I remember most clearly took place not long before she died at the grand age of 96 and it was also about a star.

I had asked her if she thought perhaps another story - maybe one last tale about Mary Poppins - might come to her. “I think it might,” she replied slowly, “because, the other day, on the street outside, I found a star on the pavement!”

“A star?” I repeated, with surprise.

“Yes,” she said softly, “a star. Go and look for it yourself. I hope I shall find out where it came from and what it is doing there.”

It was dusk when I let myself out of the candy-pink door of 29 Shawfield Street and headed off to look for that star. Light was failing, but I found it, at last: just as Pamela had said - a star-shape, faintly but clearly marked in the surface of a paving stone.

A puzzled passer-by looked quizzically at the man staring intently at what looked like a very ordinary pavement. But I was remembering the words of the old snake, the Hamadryad, on that night of the full moon when Mary Poppins took Jane and Michael to the zoo:
“We are all made of the same stuff... The tree overhead, the stone beneath us, the bird, the beast, the star - we are all one, all moving to the same end...”

Like Mary Poppins, P L Travers saw - and gave others the ability to see - the magical in very ordinary and everyday things.

She had discovered something as rare and amazing as a star in a London street and, then, she had given it away...

I hope she found out why it was there…

Of course, Mary Poppins would have the answer, but, as you know, she would never, never tell...

© Brian Sibley, 2006

Saturday, August 05, 2006

The BARD’s GUIDE to ABUSES and AFFRONTS

This is another of my favourite volumes from the ‘loo-library’! Published by Running Press (2001), with wood engravings by John Lawrence, The Bard’s Guide to Abuses and Affronts contains a generous supply of excellent put-downs penned by the man from Stratford-upon-Avon with a quill dipped in vitriol!

If you ever want to tell someone EXACTLY what you think of them, but find yourself lost for words, you could do worse than quote the Bard and here are a few suitably poisonous insults that are possibly worth committing to memory:
That kiss is as comfortless as frozen water to a starved snake.
- Titus Andronicus


There is no more faith in thee than in a stewed prune.
- Henry IV, Part I


The tartness of his face sours ripe grapes.
- Corialanus


You are like the painting of a sorrow, a face without a heart.
- Hamlet


I was searching for a fool when I found you.

- As You Like It


Thou hast no more brain than I have in mine elbows.
- Troilus and Cressida


You are not worth the dust which the rude wind blows in your face.
- King Lear


Thou art unfit for any place but hell.
-
Richard III

Friday, July 21, 2006

The GOLDEN APPLES of the SUN

Ray Bradbury’s The Golden Apples of the Sun has worn many different covers over the years…

My original copy - sadly, long ago lost - was dressed in black with a roundel of purple grotesqueries that I later discovered were the work of Goya.

On the back was the word IMAGINATION printed backwards!


It caught my eye one hot summer day when I was idly looking at an assortment of paperbacks on one of those swivelling bookracks outside my local newsagent’s shop.

A collection of twenty-two weird and wonderful tales, it had been named The Golden Apples of the Sun by its author with a gracious nod to W B Yeats and sundry mythological sources.

Some of these tales were about sea serpents and space ships; about witches and murderers and time-travelling big-game hunters who take a safari back into prehistoric times to hunt a living Tyrannosaurus Rex.


But by far the majority were about ordinary (and, therefore, extraordinary) people and the wildly ricocheting rollercoasters of their emotional lives: love lurching to hatred; despair soaring to joy; happiness plummeting to sorrow…

Each story had a headpiece by the artist, Joe Mugnaini, whose distinctive black and white decorations were a frequent embellishment to many of the author’s stories and book jackets.


I encountered Ray Bradbury at an age when wide-eyed childhood wonder was beginning to crumble in the face of budding teenage angst. It was a moment of apotheosis; a baptism; an epiphany…

I gobbled up The Golden Apples in a day and wanted more! I found them, soon enough, in library and bookshop, and was soon drinking down Dandelion Wine, dosing myself with A Medicine for Melancholy, burning with the paper-shrivelling heat of Fahrenheit 451, leaping into the velvet darkness of outer space in pursuit of The Silver Locusts and jumping astride the backwards-running carousel in Something Wicked this Way Comes, about which I will write more on another occasion.

In 1974, many years after my first reading of Golden Apples, I wrote the author a fan-letter. Ostensibly, it was asking questions about our shared passion for the work of Walt Disney, but that was merely an excuse to tell the Pied Piper that I was captivated by his music!

Did I expect a reply? With the arrogant confidence of a twenty-five year old, I probably did! And I was not disappointed…

Ray’s answer came in instalments: an envelope of cuttings and articles on Disney (scrawled across one in his ubiquitous capital letters: “LETTER FOLLOWS IN ABOUT 10 DAYS!”); the following month, a postcard with a contact address for a veteran staff member at the Disney Studio who might assist me with my research; then, another month on, the awaited LETTER...

“This will have to be short," it began. "Sorry. But I am deep into my screenplay on Something Wicked This Way Comes and have no secretary, never have had one… so must write all my own letters… 200 a week!!!”

Short it was NOT! Ray signed off, added a post-script and then started another page and, picking up on a naïve comment from my original letter, let fly a barrage of counter-arguments, issuing challenges, demanding a re-think…

“P.S. Can’t resist commenting on your fears of the Disney robots… Any machine, any robot, is the sum total of the ways we use it. Why not knock down all the robot camera devices and the means for reproducing the stuff that goes into such devices, things called projectors in theatres? A motion-picture projector is a non-humanoid robot which repeats truths which we inject into it. Is it inhuman? Yes. Does it project human truths to humanize us more often than not? Yes…”

Closely typed - top to bottom, edge to edge - the letter exploded with thoughts and bristled with opinions.

I felt as if I had suddenly inherited a mentor, been adopted by a godfather, had received an embrace from a fellow lunatic-lover of strange and curious things and, totally unexpectedly and utterly undeservedly, had been given a present in the form of a Friend…


That is how it proved to be: a friendship that, to date, has spanned 32 years and is represented by stacks of letters, notes, cards and, most recently, e-mails; piles of books and mementos and memories of many meetings.

At one such, during the grand opening-day celebrations of Disney’s EPCOT Center (22nd October 1982), Ray autographed my copy of Twice 22 (a volume combining The Golden Apples of the Sun and A Medicine for Melancholy) with an inscription unique to the day, the book and our shared passion for Disney.



It was several more years before I managed to find a copy of the 1952 first edition of Golden Apples to present to Ray for signing...



By that time, I had made a unique addition to my Bradbury collection.

It appeared in a catalogue of animation art where it was described as: “Fantasy illustration showing a planet and a space ship. Signed by the artist”. The cataloguer obviously couldn't read the signature - and anyway 'Mugnaini' is not a common name - but I knew precisely what it was and where it came from! It was the headpiece to ‘The Wilderness', the fourth story in Golden Apples, and which (with the small amendment of an additional distant planet) had originally been used as the book's dust-wrapper design.


The picture now hangs in my study above a tottering pile of books authored by Ray Bradbury and our friendship continues to this day, with Ray still inspiring me, questioning me, clapping me on the back to encourage me and prodding me to think and to write…

In return, I have managed one or two small offerings, such as a few articles, a handful of radio dramatisations and the only gift I can ever truly give: unconditional love for a man who has made me see the world and myself, in a way I had never seen them before…


Read my interview with Ray, The Brabury Machine here.

[Portrait of Bradbury: Yousuf Karsh]