Monday, August 27, 2007

Pete n Di

Mrs GOB and I went to London last week -- a rare event. Having an hour to spare, we wandered through Kensington Gardens.

The Gardens are the site of two interesting memorials, of a sort. I suppose that top billing these days must go to the Princess Diana memorial fountain. You can see a photograph of part of it here.

Actually the memorial isn't so much a fountain, in the ordinary sense, as a water feature. It is positioned on a slight slope, and takes the form of an approximate circle of concrete -- but concrete tarted up to look like some kind of low-grade marble. A considerable volume of water rises from underground at the top of the circle, but doesn't shoot up into the air. Instead, it moves away sharply, both left and right, rippling over a variety of cunningly shaped ridges and hollows. Then, at the bottom, the two streams meet, and the water disappears again, into an underground drain.

The fountain is quite an intriguing piece of park architecture, but quite what it has to do with Princess Diana I really don't know. Comments about it being both fast and wet would, I suppose, be quite inappropriate.

As mentioned here a while back, there are already more than 200 books about Princess Di, so when is someone going to produce one about the fountain? Or did I miss it?

More important than such frippery, however, is the far older, and, in some quarters, far more famous, statue of Peter Pan. This was erected in the park, at the expense of Sir James Barrie, in 1912.

I have several times previously mentioned Sir James Barrie and his disturbing story about Peter Pan: notably when I agreed with the eminent critic Amanda Craig in describing it as 'terrifying'. The story emerged in several versions, early in the twentieth century, but it soon became a hugely successful stage play, with a prose version to match. The edition that I have is the Everyman edition of the version of 1911, which was originally published as Peter and Wendy.

Here, to be more forthcoming, is the full note of what I scribbled in the back of my copy of Peter Pan after I had finished reading it -- well, re-reading it -- perhaps ten years ago:

Terrifying. Appalling. It is the confusion of mother/wife role, in Wendy, which is so disturbing. The story does not so much reveal, as give a horrifying glimpse of, the author's dreadful confusion of mind. Painful to contemplate. It is the embodiment of the fear of maturity -- the dread of adult responsibility -- of having to take command of one's own life.

Not the best quote for a book cover, really, is it?

Anyway, from 1904 onwards Peter Pan was famous, and the Kensington Gardens statue was commissioned by Barrie from Sir George Frampton. It took a year to create, and was erected overnight, with no opening ceremony; it was said by the Times to a gift to the young children who played in the park -- no doubt carefully supervised by their nannies.

But just look at the bloody thing. I mean, it's all right as far as it goes. Quite charmingly done. But what the hell are we to make of it -- and of the subject's progenitor?

Official sources tell us that the topmost figure of Peter himself was modelled -- loosely -- upon some photographs of six-year-old Michael Llewellyn Davies, taken by Barrie, with the boy wearing an outfit which apparently represented the author's 'ideal vision' of his character.

But, I repeat, just look at it. The boy is wearing a dress for a start. Did you ever see anything more androgynous in your life? (And it is traditional, please remember, for an actress to play the part of Pan on stage.)

The base is populated by quite a number of figures and animals. The animals are mostly unexceptionable rabbits, and squirrels, with a few mice and snails. The figures are said to be fairies, and indeed they obviously are. But am I alone in finding their wings much more insectivorous than is usually the case, and consequently slightly sinister? They remind me of flying ants -- not my favourite creature.

What I found really worrying, however, was the topmost figure, the one whose head reaches almost to Peter's knees. This figure is larger than the others, and although identified as a fairy in an authoritative source, you could certainly be forgiven for mistaking her as human.

In either case, what in the world is she doing? She appears to be staring up Peter's skirt, as if anxious to ascertain whether he is wearing any knickers; and, whether he is or is not, she appears keen to identify his gender. As well she might.

Perhaps I am taking this all too seriously. The statue is probably harmless enough. And judging by the rubbed areas, where many generations of hot little hands have stroked the bunny rabbits' heads, I dare say that most children emerge from viewing the thing without any great harm done.

But I do wonder about the sculptor, Sir George Frampton. Was he just a bit of a bumbler, with a talent for sculpture, who produced the Pan statue, pretty much to order, in return for a fee? Or was he, as at least seems possible, a much more thoughtful man, possessed of a keen insight into Barrie's personality? And perhaps, just perhaps, the man had a sense of humour.

Note to self: read him up. But this might prove difficult, I find. A man at Leeds has done a PhD thesis on him, but there's no full-length biography.

A handy starting point for Pan studies in general is the wonderful Terri Windling's essay, which has a useful bibliography at the end.


Anonymous said...

May I be so bold as to suggest that by far the most important sculpture in Kensington Gardens is none other than the Elfin Oak, so lovingly (in part) restored by the late Spike Milligan.

As to Peter Pan ; it was the Victorian custom for "upper class" boys to wear dresses in their younger years (but then, Michael, I am sure you knew that already !!)

Anonymous said...

I always enjoy seeing His Grumpiness in torment! I greatly enjoyed the Windling essay, as well. I suspect her best comment was the suggestion that Peter has become more folklore, now, than Barrie, in which children can "still dream of flying off with Peter to Never Land, where they'll never bathe, or eat broccoli, or (the worst fate of all) have to grow up."

Anonymous said...

Oh really, Michael, I think this is very much tongue in cheek. Sexing up a 'pretty' statue to liven up a dull Bank Holiday?

archer said...

As I recall Barrie was about five feet high and lost his brother at an early age, and was also forced to stand on the roof of the Albert Hall or something, which led to all of this. So you shouldn't be so hard on him.

Anonymous said...

'concrete tarted up to look like some kind of low-grade marble' - I think its actually very expensive granite, Cornish I think.

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