Timeliness, timelessness, and the boy with no birthdays
By Geraldine McCaughrean
As Captain Scott sat in his tent in the Antarctic in 1912, pinioned between the dead bodies of Birdie and Uncle Bill, he wrote countless valedictory notes to people he would never see again, in places half a world away. One was to the godfather of his son, expressing his love and admiration for the man and asking him to look after the boy. A hundred years ago that letter was lying unread in the death tent. But eventually, of course, it was delivered – to J. M. Barrie, foremost playwright and author of his day.
As Scott set off for Antarctica, Barrie sat down to write the book-of-the play of Peter Pan. When he received Scott’s note three years later, he not only obeyed Scott’s wishes, he carried the letter with him everywhere, ever after – his most prized possession. He read aloud from it during his inaugural address as Rector of St Andrews University: an address entitled simply ‘Courage’. It is hard to imagine two men more different than Scott and Barrie, but the love and admiration was entirely mutual.
In 2005, I suddenly found myself writing the sequel to Peter Pan and Wendy, titled Peter Pan in Scarlet. (I know authors are not generally caught unawares by books, but I had entered the competition for the commission without expecting to win, so it was a bit of a shock.) I had just finished a novel, The White Darkness, in which Captain Oates featured heavily; a lot of Antarctic research was still shunting about in my head. That mortally sad little letter became my ‘travel pass’ into Barrie’s world. When the door opened on to Neverland, a blizzard inevitably blew through.
Of all the things to know about Barrie’s life, it might seem a minor one, but in fact it says a lot about the man. His personal heroes were exactly the kind who would go on reckless adventures to the ends of the earth and think their lives well lost so long as the endeavour was noble. If I was going to write a sequel to his book, my first obligation was towards Barrie. I could not ask the man’s permission, but I could at least try and be true to his ethos. So I took phrases from Courage and put them into Pan’s mouth. I made courage Peter’s watchword.
As a character to hijack, Peter Pan was splendidly interesting, of course. He might be brave but he is also egocentric, obnoxious and violent. If the Lost Boys grow too big, he kills them. Disney chose to overlook this, so that a public perception grew up of an impish, cute little chap well suited to being a logo on the front of romper suits. Since Peter Pan in Scarlet aimed to be a counterpart to Barrie’s book, it came out quite dark. So it was dismaying to find it being bought for tiny rompered children and as Christening presents for babies, while readers over ten assumed they were too old to enjoy it. Hence the younger, picture book version of Scarlet published three years later.
Barrie only wrote the book-of-the-play because he grew irritated by other people publishing their own versions. Seven years into the play’s run, some of the shine must surely have come off the story as far as he was concerned. It is quite a self-conscious book — full of asides to the adult reader. Yet for all his flippant whimsy, Barrie was drawn back in by the idée fixe that had haunted him since 1900. He found expression for all his bitter-sweet insights into the nature of children, childhood, belonging, loneliness, aging and, of course, courage: universal things that kept the book selling and the play running long after all his other work fell out of fashion. Peter Pan is the boy who never grows out of date.
For a boy who never grew up, and therefore forfeited his right to birthdays, Peter Pan enjoys more celebrations than most. In place of his own, he acquired ‘Peter Pan Week’ in March and J.M. Barrie’s birthday – today – not to mention Christmas – as annual opportunities to renew himself in people’s imagination. As unbirthdays go, these are more important than most because, of course, Barrie gifted his copyright in Pan to Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children, so the more exposure he gets the better. In 2005, certain exclusive rights were about to expire, curtailing a source of income that has been vital to the Hospital for 80 years. So they hit on the idea of the “Official Sequel” whose copyright would remain with them.
Publication of Peter Pan in Scarlet was timely, then — you might even say, in the nick of time. Yet Peter Pan, thank God, lives in a place where Time does not move on at all. He could afford to forfeit his birthdays. Child readers are impervious to anniversaries anyway: one hundred, two hundred years signify very little when you have experienced only ten. As far as a child is concerned, a centenary is a birthday party with no cakes, for someone you haven’t heard of and who is extremely dead.
As for Scott, Titus, Birdie and the rest, the emotions they stir up have remained cryogenically fresh ever since 1912. The power of Antarctica to symbolise all manner of things — lives freezing and thawing, arrogant mankind dwarfed by nature, life against a backcloth of lifelessness, self-sacrifice, blind disorientation, the hideous void colour-rimmed with beauty — these are the stuff of universal angst and fascination. Francis Spufford said that the reason the story of Captain Scott enthrals us is that we travel with him to the very brink of death — and (unlike him) return alive, with a fuller appreciation of life itself. The arrival of 2012, or any ‘topical’ anniversary, cannot fabricate that reaction — not in an author and not in a readership; only age, fear, loss and the creak of ice within our blood streams bring it on.
Geraldine McCaughrean was born and educated in Enfield, North London. She trained as a teacher, worked for ten years in publishing, and in 1988 became a full-time writer. Since then Geraldine has written over 160 books and plays for both adults and children, including Peter Pan in Scarlet, the official sequel to J M Barrie’s Peter Pan, which was one of the most talked about and successful children’s titles of 2006. Geraldine McCaughrean has won the Carnegie Medal, the Whitbread Children’s Book Award (three times), the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize, the Smarties Bronze Award (four times), the Blue Peter Book of the Year award and the Blue Peter Special Book to Keep Forever award. In the States, accolades have included the Printz Award, America’s most prestigious teen-book prize. Geraldine’s most recent title, Pull Out All The Stops!, was published in October 2010 by Oxford University Press.