I met P.L. Travis in July 1976 for what I thought was to be a routine interview for the “Irish Press” Newspaper (God bless it). But we hit it off immediately and stayed in contact for many years afterwards.

Tragically a lot of the correspondence was thrown out by mistake some years ago. But I went to the National Library and dug out the interview which I have reproduced here along with a telegram from her giving her views on “Our Article”.

She trusted me with a drawing of herself by “AE” (George Russell) on a piece of toilet paper which she had kept since 1917. I reproduced it in the article.

Our meeting was in 1976 and the whole experience was of its time. In the T.V. Programme “Life on Mars” a policeman gets knocked down by a car in 2006 and wakes up in 1976. Had it been Dublin he would have met me in July of that year in a three piece suit with flared trousers and a young head full of journalistic ideas. I had also started to write songs and go to acting lessons on Saturday mornings.

P.L. Travis was also of her time, genteel and fragile. She could have come all the way from an Ealing Movie. I realised as soon as she started talking that only she could have written “Mary Poppins”.

Sometimes the things you remember most about interviews are the things that are said after them.

We stood on her door-step in Morehamton Road before she made her way back to her memories of W.B. Yeats and A.E. and before I set out on the uncertain road that brought me to this web-site. The last thing she said to me (and I made a quick note of it) was “Michael, I do hope children will be reading books in the next century. I would prefer them to create their own characters in books not the ones that people give them in films”. Now, nearly thirty years to the day that we spoke I think she needn’t have worried.

The woman who wrote "Mary Poppins"leaves Dublin

Download the article in acrobar reader format

View the transcript below

 

 

The woman who wrote ‘Mary Poppins’ leaves Dublin

By Michael Fitzgerald

“You sound as if I were going to Kamchatka or something, or that I was a kind of shooting star, poof! you see it one minute and then you don’t …”

P. L. Travers, creator of Mary Poppins, poet, essayist, friend of A.E., was all set to leave her Pink House in Leeson Street, for a new headquarters in London’s Chelsea and was treating the whole thing with her usual disregard of fuss.

“I mean, I will often be back. I can’t give up Ireland. It’s my father’s country and although I was born in Australia in a sense I was brought up here. Even the lace of our clothes was sent for from Ireland.

“I won’t have a house here, but maybe and I think of this very seriously, maybe I’ll get a place in the country sometime. Donegal is a favourite county of mine”.

Over the years I have passed the Pink House many times. Its storybook colour suggesting that its architect’s child had lent a hand, with the design. On rainy days the loosely spread stones on the drive twinkle like stars and steam rises in small drifts from its parked cars. It seemed fitting that someone like P.L. Travers should live here.

“Don’t ask me about dates”, she was saying. “I don’t even know my own age until I look at my passport”.

At 17 she became a reporter in Australia with a Sydney newspaper. Already she had had many poems published. “I was a rookie reporter for a short time but my whole aim was to get to this part of the world where I could really test myself. Was I a writer or wasn’t I”

As a reporter in Sydney she specialised in human interest stories, interviews with visiting actors or musicians. “I wasn’t a bit good at human interest stories. However a friend of mine, a reporter on the paper said to me: ‘Well I can give you ideas for human interest stories but you can’t have them for nothing. So you’ll have to pay for them. I’ll charge you 9p each for them’. Well I bought them. Eventually I saved enough money and I came to England”.

It was after she sent a poem to A.E., then Editor of the New Statesman, that a friendship developed which lasted until his death.

“He was just a wonderful big living soul of a man. I have often been asked to write about him. After all I saw him very often and I was with him when he died. But I always felt that I couldn’t write his biography because with A.E. you would have to write a biography of a soul and who am I to do that?

“I was very young and very small amidst all these giants. I remember in one poem I describe Yeats as “that old hawk of the West” and Yeats said to A.E. afterwards: ‘I rather like being called a hawk of the west but not an old hawk’. Still, to me he was a very old hawk, he was an antique.

“I didn’t know Yeats nearly as well as A.E. but I often saw the two together. Yeats would ask A.E. to bring me when they would have evening talks together. I would sit there agog listening to these two great men.

“Once I went to the lake Isle of Inishfree. I got the boatman to row me there and he said, ‘Inishfree”! You mean rat island’. But he brought me anyway and I cut as many rowan branches – which were fruiting – as I possibly could. I then brought them to Dublin, to Yeats. I got to his house. I prayed that Yeats wouldn’t open the door because it was raining and I was bedraggled and there were my great branches which I regretted immediately bringing.

“However, he did open the door. He took one look at me and shouted for someone to come and get me. He wasn’t going to deal with this situation at all.

“So somebody took the branches and took me into the kitchen where I could dry my hair and be warm. Then they said ‘the master will see you’. I went upstairs shyly and there in a glass was a little sprig of my rowan berry, not a branch – a sprig was enough. All he said to me was, ‘I want you to see my canary, she’s laid an egg’.”

At the moment she feels that the names of A.E., Yeats and James Stephens, have become synonymous with tourist attractions. “Tourists are told ‘You must see Yeats’ Tower, you must see the graveyard where he is laid’. But I would think that the greatest tribute you could pay to any of these men would be to read them and make their poems your own”.

The first Mary Poppins – there was a series of five – was written during an illness. “I wrote it to please myself really and I was very surprised when a friend saw it and said he would take it to a publisher. I was more than surprised when the publisher took it immediately and got 11 publishers in America fighting to have it”.

Why children’s books? “Well, C.S. Lewis, creator of the Narnia books, and a great hero of mine, once said: ‘I write children’s books because the form of a children’s story seems most likely to fit what I have to say’. I think this is true of myself”.

Had she noticed the child’s taste in reading material differing over the years since the first Mary Poppins was published in 1934? “Isn’t the child’s imagination always the same”, she answered. “His mind is, of course, different in the sense that he knows about the atom bomb and the metric system … his knowledge has increased. But what about his inner life – isn’t that always the same, the questing spirit of wonder, looking for his own myth, and won’t he always return to myths?

“I should be terribly sorry for any child who did not know the fairy stories”, she said. Walt Disney’s production of Mary Poppins became perhaps the most loved children’s film of them all, but what were her impressions? “I cried when I saw it. I said ‘Oh God, what have they done’. I really hadn’t wanted Disney to do it – I don’t think he was the man. I had been with him in Hollywood, and he had made me certain definite promises as to about 20 items. And it seemed to me that these promises had not been kept. But when I got over my first shock, I saw that he had, in a sense, kept to the letter – not the spirit but the letter. So I began to forgive him.

“I began to try to live in the same world as the film. It has a certain clean air abut it, although it is not very like my books. In a sense I think it betrays the chief character. But in another sense, it doesn’t because Julie Andrews, who is a friend of min, has all the necessary integrity to play the part. She was just directed wrongly. She was quite prepared to put on a black wig, with a nob of hair at the back, and a turned up nose, she’s a great trooper, and very honest. But to her surprise, as well as mine, Disney turned her into a very pretty girl, which really loses the point”.

And as for her future – she seems to sit back and put it in the light of the same fantasy world from which her many excellent books come. “I’m not in a position to make plans”, she says. “I am waiting for the future to come to me. I have something seething in me, but if I were to tell you what it was, do you know what would happen … I’d lose it”.

Letter from PL Travis - click for enlarged version Letter from PL Travis - click for enlarged version
Original envelope from PL Travis

Download above letter from P.L.Travis (read transcript below)

 

29 Shawfield Street
Chelsea
London S.W.3

11 October 1976


Dear Michael Fitzgerald,

That was a nice article we did together. Thank you for it and for the Block and Drawings. The Drawing improves with reproduction, I think! So – nine people wanted the Pink House! It has been bought by a millionaire Italian Count who is going to alter it entirely and I wouldn’t wonder if it stopped being pink very soon. Anyway he doesn’t deserve it as he has (and I hear is not likely to have) no children to enjoy its fairytale quality and run about its pretty garden. Never mind. It had its moment of glory, looking like a rose.

You have my address above so if you come to London at any time, ring me up. And I wish you good luck in your career and life – read Yeats and AE – they will make you feel proud (and of course you have other reasons) to be an Irish man.

Yours sincerely,


P.L. Travis