Peter Pan flew away from his nursery and landed beside the Long Water in London’s Kensington Gardens. And there, on the very spot, Scottish author J M Barrie decided to erect a statue to his creation. It has been there since 1912, the boy who would never grow up frozen forever in bronze, surrounded by adoring mice, squirrels, bunnies and – of course – fairies. Do not say you don’t believe in them; clap your hands…don’t let Tink die!
The statue of Peter Pan in London’s Kensington Gardens is one of the capital’s icons. Perhaps not quite on a par with the Houses of Parliament, or the spot where I once saw in the New Year, but Peter Pan has a justifiable place in our affections. Even so, unless you’re an enthusiast, or doing research, you probably wouldn’t go far out of your way to see his statue; however, if you’re wandering across Kensington Gardens, it is definitely a thing to do.
Queue up and snap fast to avoid the almost inevitable, unthinking, photobomber. You barely get the chance to wind back the imagination to apparently more innocent times, when all perambulators headed for fashionable parks and gardens, wheeled by the prim nannies of the filthy rich. You try to picture the curious genius that was J M Barrie befriending the Llewelyn Davies boys who, we are told, inspired the tales of Neverland and gave their names to several of the characters – not least the Great Pan himself. “I suppose I always knew that I made Peter by rubbing the five of you violently together, as savages with two sticks produce a flame,” said Barrie. The origin of Wendy seems uncertain – but she’s essential to the story; without her, and the mother she represents, the point of Peter is significantly reduced. The urban myth is that the name is entirely fabricated – a corruption of ‘Friendly’, inspired by a very young fan of Barrie’s, Margaret Henley, who had trouble saying the letter ‘R’. Other sources claim that Wendy is a diminutive of Gwendolyn, and/or that Wendy was used as a girl’s name in the 19th century in both the UK and the US (the most usual example cropping up on the web is a Wendy Gram, apparently born in Ohio in 1828). Wendy’s older than that, though. A good blogfriend, John at By Stargoose and Hanglands, pointed out to me that there’s a Wendy family associated with Haslingfield in Cambridgeshire and that a Thomas Wendy was Royal Physician in the 17th century. Allegedly, Wendy has also been a boys’ name. Finally, there is a village of Wendy in Cambridgeshire, which is at least a thousand years old; you can’t help hoping that it has nice houses, can you?
James Matthew Barrie (Sir James, as he became) was born in Kirriemuir in 1860 and was a successful writer long before Peter Pan made his first appearance. This was within a novel, The Little White Bird (in which our young hero lands next to the Long Water), published in 1902. The play Peter Pan or the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up came out in 1904, followed in 1906 by Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens (reproducing the relevant chapters from Little White Bird) and, in 1911, Peter Pan and Wendy, which was the novel of the play. Barrie’s relationship with the young Llewelyn Davies boys, George, John, Peter, Michael and Nicholas and their mother, Sylvia, has been a matter of some debate. The boys’ father, Arthur, died in 1907 and Sylvia, sister of Gerald du Maurier (actor and also father of Daphne), died in 1910. Barrie had helped the family financially and became one of the boys’ guardians. George was killed in 1915 fighting in the Great War; Michael drowned himself in 1921 and Peter, who apparently came to resent what he called “that terrible masterpiece” jumped under a train at Sloane Square in 1960. John and Nicolas (Nico) died of natural causes in 1959 and 1980, respectively.
It seems an egotistical thing to do, to commission a statue of one of your own creations. Not only that but, allegedly, Barrie had the thing erected overnight, without telling anyone. Even with influential friends, that seems to be pushing it a bit. Still, I guess Barrie had good reason to feel proud of Peter, the Lost Boys, Tinkerbell, Hook and all the rest. It is a magical tale, which still captures the imagination in this cynical, digital, age. That said, the plot and the characters are not without an intriguing element of darkness – and the very idea of ‘the lost boys’ is infinitely sad. The Disney cartoon, Peter Pan, produced in 1953, is a highly sanitised version of the story. Barrie said of the statue that it “doesn’t show the devil in Peter”, which must have disappointed its sculptor, Sir George Frampton, no end.
Barrie strikes me as a troubled soul. He had an older brother, David, who died in a skating accident aged 13. James perceived David to be his mother’s favourite; and of course, his brother would never grow up. There’s enough in JM Barrie to keep teams of psychologists happy for days. From what I can make out, Barrie always seemed to be most at ease with children, because he understood them, but there doesn’t seem to have been anything malevolent about it; Nico Davies said of Barrie that “He was an innocent; which is why he could write Peter Pan.” The author died in 1937, having very generously given the copyright of Peter Pan to Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children in 1929. Fittingly, there’s another Peter Pan statue there, as well as others in Sefton Park, Liverpool, in Perth, Australia, Brussels, New Jersey, Newfoundland and Toronto.
Peter the character – and his creator – have inspired countless books, TV productions and films, not least the aforementioned cartoon, Steven Spielberg’s enjoyable romp, Hook, (1991) and the slightly sugary fictional Finding Neverland (2004) starring Johnny Depp as Barrie and Kate Winslet as Sylvia.
Should you visit the statue, Royal Parks have installed a little gismo that reacts with your smartphone. Swipe your ‘phone to get a personal call-back from Peter Pan. Creepy. I gave it a miss – it seemed rather a bizarre thing to want to do. Some of us don’t need technology in order to have perfectly reasonable conversations with inanimate objects, anyway; but others might want to investigate the world of talking statues.
Finally, fans of Downton Abbey will be delighted to remember that Peter Pan’s statue is where Lady Mary delivered the devastating news to Charles Blake that she was having no more of him, as it were. Yes, folks; read A Bit About Britain for exciting tales from history, dreary personal rants and tawdry social gossip!