Letterfrom Andrew Birkin to Nico Llewelyn Davies, 1 December 1975
December 1st, 1975
Many thanks for yours, which was waiting for me when I got back from our Pilgrimage north. 'Nico' is certainly much easier for me as I've always thought of you as that, but my own age (29) makes me cautious when addressing elders and betters! I've also read your letter to Sharon: Kirriemuir was indeed a depressing spot – and the Den a complete anti-climax, ringed with bungalows and turned into a sort of poor-man's Battersea Park – no wonder Tommy couldn't find the Way!
But the Museum was fascinating: we spent two days pouring over Barrie's corrected proofs (he must have driven his printers mad), the various drafts of Courage, and – for me the most intriguing of all – a photographed copy of ‘The Boy Castaways’. However faded and scratched the pictures might be, they still manage to convey ‘intimations of immortality’ that no words could ever hope to express.
In fact Black Lake was my first exploratory port-of-call some months ago. It’s as it was in the summer of 1901, and the present owners (a Major and Mrs. Mathias) have given us permission to recreate the Castaways sequence there. Mrs Mathias is the grand-daughter of the Anderson who owned Waverley in JMB's time; I tracked down one of the sons, now living in Farnham, who told me that he well remembered Barrie walking across the fields to Waverley, “a boy in each hand and another on his shoulders”, on their way to have tea with his mother. He produced the family visitor's book for me, and I photographed JMB's contribution: a fictitious exchange of letters between Anderson and Mary Ansell which, I'm sure you'll agree, only Barrie could have dreamed up!
Your fiery dismissal of sweet Alison's bollox carries a heart-felt conviction that can only spell the truth. It was one of the first things I ever read on JMB, and confess that the article as a whole was an initial factor in arousing my curiosity. I take the point entirely, but would, by way of clarification, ask you this: were you PROUD of JMB when he used to come and visit you at Eton? Not from the famous-writer point-of-view, but as a friend? Did you want to 'share' him with friends of your own age, or was he too personal to you?
When I was at school I used to be very conscious of what other boys thought of my visiting friends and relations (though I admit it to my shame!). I remember a certain uncle who used to come down to Harrow, and although I was very fond of him, I found some of his eccentricities embarrassing in front of my friends, because although I understood him (or thought I did), I was afraid they wouldn’t.** Maybe I'm labouring the point, but when I first read the "embarrassment" bit, and not realising it was bollox, I thought, "Yes, I understand that absolutely." I assumed that it applied to that awkward period one goes through, between 14 and 15, when one has neither the ingenuous feelings of a child, nor the perceptiveness of an adult. There’s a bit in “The Little White Bird” which reminded me of it (though David is still only 8): "And shan't I call you David then [when you go to Pilkington's]?" – "Oh no,” said David cheerily. Thus sharply did I learn how much longer I was to have him. Strange that a little boy can give so much pain."
In Sharon's letter you mention that you're not clear as to what the trilogy comprises. In practical storyline terms, it covers the years 1897 (the first meeting in Kensigton Gardens) up to Michael's death in 1921, with “Courage” as a kind of epilogue since it ties up so many elements, ending with Michael's poem: "But the mists were round him." I was not going to include the P. Pan gift to Great Ormond Street, except perhaps as something in Barrie's mind – and by ending it in 1922, I avoid the problems of the Will! But there's been a suggestion from the BBC that they might run to a fourth part, which would then carry one on from 1922 up to JMB's death. The problem here is that the actor playing Barrie would have to age over 40 years; as it is, each of the Davies boys will be represented by 3 different actors (with the change-overs coming between episodes), and to have 2 actors for JMB would, I feel, be a big mistake. Besides, my 'theme’ will have more or less played itself out by 1922.
As to the theme itself, this is partly to be found in JMB's Dedication to the Five, partly in his notes on Michael: "A love affair? How would I hint it ...?" – and by 'love', I mean in the David and Jonathan sense without Freudian undertones – “Death in Venice” as in Mann's short story, not the Visconti film, and partly a larger version of Barrie's own theme in “The Little White Bird”. A.E.Housman: "Into my heart an air that kills, from that far country blows ... The Land of Lost Content," etc.
Certainly you're right when you say that Peter's contribution to Janet Dunbar's biography is much the most interesting part: from my point of view it's a vital element in the trilogy. As I think I mentioned in my first letter, I don't start writing the scripts until February, and I'm still very much formulating my ideas. But it's certainly not going to be a "message" drama; the audience can psycho-analyse as they see fit, but I'm not going to do it for them!
Somebody asked me the other day, "Why Barrie? Why not Hardy?" (Thomas Hardy has, since my teenage reading days, been my favourite author) But that's not the point – I'm not writing JMB because I think he was a great writer; rather, he embraces a whole number of strands and emotions that I’ve long wanted to express in some form or another. I tried to chrystallize this in the opening of the Peter Pan narration for the NBC Musical: "It is, I suppose, one of the ironies of life that we should spend our childhood wanting to be grown up, and the rest of our lives wanting to relive our childhood. If two is the end of the beginning, twelve is the beginning of the end ... but then all children, except one, have to grow up ... (etc)"
I naturally have my own model of Sylvia, and I find my relationship with her children already painfully close to Barrie's. In particular Sacha, aged 9 – so close to David that it hurts! He too "is so enamoured with Achilles (in his case, Scott of the Antarctic!) that he wants to die to meet him", and I too "can't explain the particular pleasure it gives me when he calls me Father." I didn't mean to ramble on at such length – and reveal my hidden motives! But your letters are so wonderfully evocative that I wanted to reply immediately for fear that you might stop writing! I really feel that you should continue Peter's book – believe me, your style makes for compulsive reading.
PS: Yes, Angie is my father's first cousin – her sister, Penelope Dudley Ward, is also my godmother, and I think it was Angie who introduced my Mother to my Father. Pempie's husband, Carol Reed, has been giving me enthusiastic moral support for the JMB trilogy since its inception. I tried to call Angie after getting your letter, but she's now returned to Spain, where she lives for most of the year.
[** This is rubbish – no uncle ever came to visit me, and I didn’t care what others thought of my family. I invented it in an effort to create empathy with Nico and draw forth his feelings about JMB while at Eton.]
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