What does the remake of a children’s film have to do with a Scottish literary legend? JENNIFER MORAG HENDERSON explores a link between two imaginative — and diverse — worlds


IN 1932, Hugh MacDiarmid met Pamela Travers, the creator of Mary Poppins. The vision of children’s favourite Mary Poppins alongside MacDiarmid, the serious man of Scottish letters, seems like a clash of two entirely different worlds – but a closer inspection shows that it is not so unlikely.

With a new Mary Poppins film currently in the making, and MacDiarmid’s poetry freely quoted in the independence referendum campaign by journalists and politicians, including Alex Salmond, both writers are still relevant and important in the 21st century.

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What the meeting reveals is a quirky, different and illuminating way of looking at literature, culture, and modern biography.

MacDiarmid famously wrote about the ability to encompass opposites and ideas that were poles apart – the Caledonian Antisyzygy: English and Scots, Highland and Lowland, the split self of Jekyll and Hyde.

In Scottish character and literature, he argued in his essay on the subject, there was a distinctive ability to pass from one mood to another: from highs to lows, tragedy to comedy. An energy comes from the contradiction and juxtaposition, and MacDiarmid and Mary Poppins are an extreme antisyzygy: from the Little White Rose of Scotland to Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.

MacDiarmid’s meeting with Travers is recorded in his collected letters. In 1932, he was living in London, where he worked variously as a journalist, at the Unicorn Press and at his own writing, and was making contact with different groups of writers and thinkers.

One such group included the Irishmen Oliver St John Gogarty and AE (George William Russell). AE contributed the Introductory Essay to MacDiarmid’s First Hymn to Lenin and Other Poems, in 1931, and was a writer and mystic. Among AE’s friends and followers was Pamela Travers.

PL Travers’ first Mary Poppins book was published in 1934. Indelibly linked, now, with the cheery Walt Disney film, Travers’ eight original books have a darker edge, starting in Depression-era Britain and incorporating something of her interest in mysticism.

Travers herself was a complicated woman, and her life is the subject of a fascinating biography by Valerie Lawson, which in turn inspired the 2013 film Saving Mr Banks, starring Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks.

This film focuses on the pivotal moment in Travers’ life when Disney bought the rights to film her book: the deal made her a rich woman and ensured the longevity of her work, but it also eventually reduced her in the public mind to a sugary children’s author.

Travers was born Helen Lyndon Goff in Australia, the daughter of an Irish bank manager. Travers Goff struggled with alcoholism, and died young after contracting pneumonia.

Lyndon, as she was known then, wrote poetry from an early age and was involved in the arts, becoming an actress. She took the stage name Pamela Lyndon Travers, partly in homage to her father. Acting led to writing theatre reviews and other journalism, and in 1924, Pamela Travers moved to London, where she started to focus on her writing.

Travers was earning money through journalism but wanted to be a poet, and sent some of her poems to the writer AE in Ireland, where he edited literary magazine Irish Statesman. He replied, and their correspondence grew after she visited him at his home in Dublin.

Travers was completely fascinated by AE, and reckoned him to be one of the most brilliant men of letters of his day. She embraced his mystic philosophy of theosophy, a spiritual way to understand the world through personal ecstasy and enlightenment. Through AE, Travers became what her biographer called “a pet and protégée” of other writers such as Gogarty, Yeats, Padraic Colum and Sean O’Faolain.

In December 1931, Gogarty wrote to Hugh MacDiarmid in London, asking whether MacDiarmid had met Travers yet: “Has she delighted you? What wit! But perhaps she was shy or didactic, another form of shyness with her, in the presence.”

Gogarty liked Pamela very much, writing poems in praise of her youth and beauty.

MacDiarmid wrote back to Gogarty early in 1932: “The lady with the pheasant-coloured hair [Travers] is quite a figure in Bloomsbury circles. We have had some most amusing times together — and would have had more but for the horrible tangle of my own affairs (the divorce went through last Saturday)”.

MacDiarmid’s remarks about Travers are presented without comment in the otherwise painstakingly-annotated published collections of his letters. As an Irish-Australian who considered herself a citizen of the British Empire, Travers could have had a discussion with MacDiarmid about their differing nationalist beliefs, or, alternatively, could have talked about their mutual interest in communism: Travers was to visit Russia later in 1932, and the trip was to become the subject of her first book, Moscow Excursion.

In the 1930s, though, it was not unreasonable that MacDiarmid saw Travers as a woman first and a writer second. His divorce, as he said, was just going through. Travers, with her wild, curly hair, was in her early thirties, much younger than AE, who she saw as a sort of father-figure. Likewise, she saw Gogarty as an old (and married) man. However, Travers wrote intense, sometimes erotic poetry about her love affairs, and was soon to become involved with Francis Macnamara (the father of Dylan Thomas’ future wife Caitlin), who she felt was one of the loves of her life. In 1932, however, Pamela was living with a woman, Madge Burnand, with whom she had what some saw as an intense but ambiguous decade-long friendship.

AE wrote again to MacDiarmid in 1934, two years after MacDiarmid wrote of meeting Travers. The letter was mainly concerned with the possibility of MacDiarmid editing a Golden Treasury of Scottish verse, but AE added that Pamela was visiting London from her Sussex cottage. MacDiarmid was still aware of the circle of writers around AE, including Travers – and 1934 was the year that the new nanny “with her large bag in her hands… slid gracefully up the bannisters” and into children’s lives with the publication of the first Mary Poppins book.

MacDiarmid’s “most amusing times” with Pamela Travers are one interesting, isolated incident, but they give a new way to see his work in the wider context of the inter-war years, the swirl of ideas that included nationalism, communism and theosophy. This sort of tangent is not really a tangent at all, it is a way to see the world from a fresh perspective. It is also a very modern perspective. In the 21st century, the reader can switch easily from reading MacDiarmid’s poems or the Mary Poppins books to reading something as different as Ta-Nehisi Coates’ newest article in The Atlantic online.

MacDiarmid himself took notes on a wide variety of subjects, and did not exclude popular culture. In The Kind of Poetry I Want, he says: “I dream of poems like the bread-knife / Which cuts three slices at once… / …Or like Fred Astaire, who has combined / All forms of dancing into one perfect whole.”

MacDiarmid’s interest in writing and culture was not narrow, and equally he did not see his writing as limited to Scotland. His work is usually seen and analysed in the context of the Scottish Literary Renaissance. To see it in the context of theosophy, Irish poetry or even children’s literature is to add another dimension to it. MacDiarmid explored and was aware of contemporary writings of his day, and his understanding of them fed into his own work.

Pamela Travers was not just dedicated to Disney-style children’s writing, but tried to understand the world in a mystical way, constantly searching for literary and spiritual gurus. In her relationships with men and women, and the difficult story of her adopted son, she had a sometimes very complex life.

“I’ll stay until the wind changes,” said Mary Poppins, and Pamela continued to write about her famous creation until 1988.

To know little details, like the story of Travers and MacDiarmid’s meeting, places their writing in a wider context of writers and thinkers. Hugh MacDiarmid could easily meet Mary Poppins at a party.

Revealed: How friendship blossomed between firebrand Hugh MacDiarmid and Mary Poppins writer PL Travers