Steely, self-centred, controlling — the Mary Poppins I knew

PAMELA Lyndon Travers, author of Mary Poppins, would not, I think, have been best pleased with Emma Thompson’s reincarnation of her in Saving Mr Banks.

Steely, self-centred, controlling — the Mary Poppins I knew

I think she would have hated the new movie as much as she disliked the original Disney film of Mary Poppins. The story had been coarsened, “Disneyfied”, she said. To have her long spat with Walt Disney over the film rights resurrected so publicly would probably have annoyed her even more.

The new film would have been better titled Looking for Mr Banks, for that was the driving force in her life and of her writing: looking for her father, Travers, whom she had dearly loved but who, at the age of 8, she had lost.

He was a rural bank manager in Australia. He fell into disgrace, became an alcoholic and died in his early forties, leaving Pamela to the charity of some aunts. Pamela was looking for a father for most of her life, and made up for her loss by creating the idealistic father figure of the bank manager Mr Banks in Mary Poppins. Pamela was a contrary, divided, hypochondriac of ambiguous sexuality — and Mary Poppins, her cure-all magic nanny, satisfied her need to escape from reality into fantasy and was also a wonderful tonic for millions of children.

I would never have met Pamela but for the fact that she was a friend of my grandfather, old Joe Hone, friend and biographer of Yeats and George Moore. And from him she had adopted my younger brother Camillus in 1940. He was a twin with his brother Anthony who, with another four children, were all to be abandoned by our parents in London. She picked up Camillus in Dublin from my grandfather, where he had been landed with Anthony.

Joseph Hone, who lived with Pamela Travers and his younger brother Camillus in the 50s.

My grandfather, who had already been dumped with me and my sister Geraldine in three previous years, was anxious to get shot of the twins as soon as possible. So that when Pamela, in her forties, childless, husbandless and loverless and longing for a child, arrived in the nursery and saw the two tiny babies, my harassed grandfather said to her, like a grocer: “Take two, they’re small.”

She didn’t. Noting the small differences in their birth times, she went away and had both babies’ horoscopes prepared by an astrologer guru friend in California, who firmly recommended she take Camillus, not Anthony. Pamela was very big on gurus. This was very tough on Anthony who, with Geraldine, was abandoned once more to my mother’s impoverished parents in the south of Ireland, while I was adopted by better-off friends of my grandfather farther north in Co Kilkenny.

Anthony, an increasingly unhappy youth, learnt in his late teens that he had a twin brother, and thinking that he would set his life to rights by finding him, discovered where he lived in Chelsea with Pamela and turned up on her doorstep. Camillus opened the door. “I’m your twin brother!” Anthony announced. Sensation! Pamela had never told Camillus that he had a twin brother, or about his real parents. She had told him that she was his mother and that his father was a sugar planter in the colonies who had died of fever. Camillus and Anthony set out around the pubs of Chelsea for some days celebrating the reunion.

Pamela was not amused. She had had difficulties enough with Camillus, his having been sent down from Oxford and involved in a serious drink-driving accident — difficulties no doubt partly a consequence of Pamela’s lies.

Emma Thompson (right) who plays Travers, in the film Saving Mr Banks

The truth might have made things easier for both of them, but Pamela rarely had a firm foot in reality. She had written the first in the Mary Poppins series in 1934. After she adopted Camillus, she had occupied herself with her increasingly difficult “son” while looking for answers to both their problems by immersing herself in arcane philosophies, fairytales, myths, legends, dodgy health cures and Jungian panaceas. She was encouraged by an assortment of usually charlatan gurus and sages, most notably the caviar-guzzling, Armagnac-tippling Russian mystic Gurdjieff, whom she consulted in his exotic Paris flat. He told her that she should have a daily enema and charged for the advice.

Pamela asked me to stay with her in her Chelsea house in the late 1950s, in the hopes that in meeting his more secure elder brother, I would help set Camillus to rights. I don’t think I helped him. I was out working all day in a bookshop and Camillus, staying in bed most of the day, was out all night gambling at private card parties in Mayfair. Of an evening, Pamela and I sat in her first-floor drawing room chatting rather warily, over drinks which she equally warily mixed from a locked cupboard on the landing: sweet and dry vermouth, fifty-fifty. Pamela was first and foremost a wonderful fairytale storyteller, and Camillus suffered from this.

Like Carroll with Alice and Barrie with Peter Pan, Pamela found herself in possession of a universal figure, a magic nanny who has roused the wonder and delight of generations of children. The problem was that Pamela had not the nursery, nannying and mothering skills of her creation. Rather the opposite. She had had her cake with Mary Poppins and then she wanted to eat it — with Camillus. Despite her airy-fairy fantasies, in her books and with her many mystic gurus, there was a steely, self-centred, very controlling woman. It is hard not to argue that, on seeing the baby twins in my grandfather’s house in 1940, Pamela should have adopted both of them or neither, and then looked for a single baby elsewhere. Instead, in her separating the twins she condemned both boys to unhappy, drunken lives. Anthony died in 2005, before his time and largely from the bottle, as indeed Camillus did, from the same alcoholic excess, six years later.

Pamela got what she wanted. And what she wanted in 1940 was a ready-dressed, oven-ready baby boy: Camillus. It was understandable, being without a secure family background of her own, that with Camillus she should want to create a real family for herself. Just as she had imagined the Banks family, so she would invent a conveniently dead father for her new off-the-shelf son, and motherhood for herself. If she had invented Mary Poppins then she would be Mary Poppins in reality.

There is another argument in Pamela’s favour and of her adoption of Camillus, however: he was far better off with her than he would have been with our real, feckless and inebriated parents in London, or with our mother’s impoverished family in Ireland. With her patience, love and money, she gave Camillus many practical and happy things that he would never otherwise have had — things that he made little use of in his later, wild and self-destructive life. Many people get over being lied to about their family, and Camillus should have done this. He destroyed himself much more than Pamela might have done.

And Pamela taught me a good lesson the last time I saw her. “You should never use the words ‘With love’ in a dedication unless you mean it,” the witchy, 70-year-old, keen-eyed woman with a flounce of curly white hair and a jangle of silver bangles up each wrist had said to me once when I’d inscribed the words in a novel of mine I’d given to her after we’d taken part in a book festival together. And she was right. I didn’t love her, but I remember looking at her then, and I thought: “You’re a tough one all right.” And she was. She was a real artist. And she had the application. She lived to be 96 and left well over £2 million. Mary Poppins and Pamela Travers — the same little lady of Cherry Tree Lane.

However, none of these dramatic trials and tribulations of Pamela’s with Camillus and Anthony appear in Saving Mr Banks. Pamela would have at least been thankful that Hollywood didn’t publicise these things. It would have presented a truer picture of her life if it had, though.

Joseph Hone / The Times /

* Saving Mr Banks is out now

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