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Letter from Nico Llewelyn Davies to Andrew Birkin, 25 November 1975
Dover, CT15 4BE
24 November 1975
Dear Mr Birkin,
I find your long letter very interesting – and not a little daunting! I’ll do my best to help you tho’ of course you’ll realise I’m pretty biassed on some of the points.
We start off badly, with my being forced to say I dread the thought of a musical version of Peter Pan! I doubt if I shall dare switch it on … even more do I feel this realising that the idea stems from America where Captain Hook has always aimed at doubling them up in the aisles. But I do think Mia Farrow looks the part and I much like the idea of John Gielgud’s narration. There was a time when he longed to put on the play, as did [Laurence] Olivier, but these were the days of Crook’s music! However you’re no longer interested in the musical…
We can continue very well if I jump ahead and say loud and clear how much we agree about that lamentable Barrie/[Bernard] Shaw thing on TV. Quite apart from the fact that they didn’t much like each other, and I doubt if Shaw ever came inside the flat (as we always called it) – he certainly didn’t during the many years I lived there – the poor actor was less like Uncle Jim than Ken Dodd would have been. My dear cousin Daphne du Maurier begged me to write to The Listener, but I wouldn’t and she did! I never saw any come back from the poor author.
We five brothers were, in our different ways, very devoted to each other: we were a very happy family despite the rains of death. There was never the remotest feeling that Uncle Jim liked A better than B, though in time of course – George being dead – we all knew Michael was The One. If George hadn't been killed, who knows? Probably Michael would always have been Number One, half perhaps connected with the date of his birth vis–a–vis with my mother after my father's death, half with the fact that Michael was the cleverest of us, the most original, the potential genius – though we all know that "those whom the gods love die young" or whatever, and think extra highly of those who are less tarnished.
Of the Five of us, only Jack sort of took against Uncle Jim. But he was different from us – the one sailor, the other four Etonians: holidays at different times and so on. George, alas, I never talked to on the subject, but Jack who worshipped our father and mother couldn't stand the thought of this little man thinking he could take Father's place etc. Peter less so, Michael still less and of course as Father died when I was only three, I had no such feelings at all.
Eton. I can't remember/can't find Janet Dunbar's mention of "embarrassment": I would wholly deny this! Michael and I, at any rate, loved Uncle Jim coming to see us. I don't know whether Peter was ragged at Eton, but he certainly loathed being connected with the play of Peter Pan – which always tickled me (both "being connected" and Peter's revulsion!)
Much of this will be simpler to talk about than to write about. Take Peter (my brother): during Uncle Jim's last ten years or so Peter was the closest Davies to him. Peter takes a book on his own! The 1914 war ditched him, really. He was only 17 when it started and "grew up", as those fortunate (?) to survive grew up; the war over, for a number of years he lived with a woman a good deal older than himself, all of which shocked Uncle Jim to the core. Peter was "out of the family" till Michael was drowned in 1921. For the next five years I was "the one", living with Uncle Jim at the flat, etc. But in 1926 I married and left the picture except for occasional lunches. Peter, with his publishing, and only a short distance from the Adelphi, began to see more of him. But meantime Cynthia Asquith had begun to rule the roost.
You ask “At what age did you begin to realise that Barrie was an extra–ordinary person?", to which I can only answer: not until after I was married and away. You see, he had always been THERE, I'd always known him and so on: his queer little tricks or whatever were those I naturally expected. Perhaps I began to see what a remarkable man he was only after I had got away and could look back. And yet, even now, it seems to me that he was not so extra–ordinary, was more just the person I hoped most would be coming in to see us ...
I suppose there are two or three fundamentals – probably many more than that number – that one must realise. Perhaps first, how astonishingly simple/ignorant = un-knowing JMB was about what went on around him in the so-to-speak dirty things in the world. For instance, right towards the end of his life, at the time of the Abdication in 1936 – or just after – I was having lunch with him. He'd just been reading a book called Coronation Commentary by Geoffrey Dennis (I think) and asked me if I could explain a passage about Mrs Simpson. “It says here, ‘She was shop–soiled’ – what does that mean?” “Well, Uncle Jim, it means simply that plenty of other men had been sleeping with her.” The look of horror on his face I shall never forget – perhaps "mystification" rather than horror: he didn't "know" about such things (as maybe is obvious enough for anyone who could write Peter Pan!) His impotence must be a vital element in trying to understand Uncle Jim. This of course accounts in the main for the cruel fate that struck Mary Ansell, and for – really – all his dealings with women. A (presumably – I wasn't there!) wonderful romantic imagination and companionship but zero when it came to what the reading public thinks of as love-making. Is this among those things that made him melancholy? I would guess so. But of course none of this struck me as I grew up with him, when he was the most wonderful companion into whose hand I would slip mine as we wandered round the Round Pond, coaching me how to answer tomorrow's examination at my private school's holiday task on Stevenson's The Black Arrow!
Many things I should/probably shall tell you when we meet are his ‘asking my permission’ to give Peter Pan rights to the hospital; Cynthia Asquith’s sucking him dry and getting all his money; much, much earlier the “You cad!” story; but also lovely anecdotes such as “Ach michty what a clink I’ll get” or “Mind that post” or the single false tooth he could cough across the room, or my finding him playing the fool with my daughter [Laura] aged about 4, etc. These must wait, pro tem.
Perhaps the only line I can’t get into key with in your letter is Barrie typifying the Kipling “Bulldog Breed” … We can talk about this. There can have seldom been two people more different than JMB and RK! I don’t at all mind myself “doddering down the brimstone path” tho’ as you write the paragraph I think you put Peter Scott higher than he should be in Uncle Jim’s life.
I particularly liked your quotation from Aristotle (which I didn’t know, or anyway had forgotten) “Melancholy men of all others are the most witty" – that is Bang On! I suppose one has to admit that Uncle Jim was melancholy, though I repeat I saw so much more that was the reverse of melancholy in him during the 20 years that I knew him more or less intimately.
Get this right – so far as we Davieses were concerned – we never thought of ‘Peter Pan and Barrie’ or vice versa: we thought of Uncle Jim. Yes, we went to rehearsal after rehearsal and royal box after royal box and theatre after theatre but it was just as likely to be Hullo Ragtime as it was Peter Pan! – except of course that the latter was revived year after year. But what I'm trying to say is that to us he was Uncle Jim, not a playwright let alone a genius, i.e. he would be bowling to me between two wooden chairs in Campden Hill Square rather than that I'd be sitting with baited breath while he told us magic stories ... they’d come all right, as we walked through Kensington Gardens or Dhivach or through the Trossacks, but as from an Uncle, not from a genius.
I remember vividly our last Scottish summer holiday on Eilean Shona in 1920 – my wife and I went back there on our honeymoon in 1926 – a wonderful place – but then I've been pretty faithful to all the wonderful places to which Uncle Jim took us, particularly the Outer Hebrides, to Amhuinnsuidh in 1912 where we ‘found Mary Rose’, and to where I have returned yearly since 1962 (50 years after) till last year when I stopped. Nothing has changed there, and I can even now see exactly where he ‘thought’ of the Mary Rose Island – which incidentally is minute, i.e. no one could land on it!
This surely is more than enough to start with! Keep on asking, if you would like to: and I hope we shall (and Sharon) meet early in the New Year.
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