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PL Travers and Mary Poppins: A unique encounter

By John Moran, Copyright 2019

MARY Poppins, the magical nanny loved by generations of children, had her genesis in the Australian State of Queensland, where the author, who introduced her to the world, was born.

Back in the early 1990s this was not widely known, but thanks to telephone interviews I did with the said author, PL Travers, in 1994 (not long before her death in 1996), and a feature article I penned for Brisbane's Sunday Mail newspaper in February 1995, it gradually became better known and since then articles, books and films aplenty have been produced on the brilliant, but difficult, writer. My fleeting encounter with the bestselling scribe was a unique experience, to say the least.

Here is a slightly edited version of that 1995 article. Given the large amount of research done on PL Travers since this first appeared some of the information has been superceded, but it is still mostly accurate.

MARY Poppins was partly, but only very partly, modelled on a maid in the Darling Downs town of Allora, in Australia, who carried a parrot-handled umbrella. Her marvellous world was first chronicled 85 years ago by a Queensland-born author who went on to spend most of her adult life in the United Kingdom.

Just as elusive as Mary Poppins, who turns up out of nowhere and can just as mysteriously depart, her creator, then in her 90s, kept her real name a secret, which initially made researching her early life difficult.

She lived and worked under the pseudonym Pamela Lyndon (PL) Travers for decades. My ultimate discovery of her real name - Helen Lyndon Goff - is discussed below, but suffice to say it was controversial between us.

PL Travers in later life: The brilliant, but difficult, writer was unhappy her real name - Helen Lyndon Goff - was discovered.

Her works, Mary Poppins, Mary Poppins Comes Back, Mary Poppins Opens the Door, Mary Poppins in the Park, Mary Poppins from A to Z, Mary Poppins in the Kitchen: A Cookery Book with a Story and Mary Poppins in Cherry Tree Lane, have delighted children and adults alike, sold millions and been translated into dozens of languages.

A whole world still sings and hums those simple, catchy tunes A Spoon Full of Sugar, Chim Chim Cheree and Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious from the 1963 Walt Disney block-buster.

Despite all this fame, an OBE, honorary doctorate, numerous interviews and articles, Dr PL Travers seldom dispensed more than hints about herself. The details of her childhood were shrouded in considerable mystery - to the point that, until the 1990s, few who enjoy the zany world of Mary Poppins would have known the author lived in Australia for the first two decades of her life.

She readily conceded its contribution to her artistic development, but the discussion seldom moved beyond a basic outline of this period of her life. Even for my interview, she would not discuss such things as which boarding school she attended in Sydney.

The numerous biographical snippets compiled over six decades acknowledged her professional acting and writing careers started in Sydney and that Queensland was her home in early childhood, where she formed her first impressions of the world. It was under sun-bleached southern skies, in which the stars always appeared so close, that she first developed a love of fairy tales, myths and legends.

Back in 1994 I set out to lift the veil on the author of Mary Poppins, but I quickly found myself in an interesting, but at times confusing, adventure. At first the mystery deepened, then an interview with the subject, some lateral thinking and a dose of serendipity, unravelled the trail of clues. The intriguing picture that emerged contained many images and facts "hidden behind trees'' or ""in the background."

As already mentioned, the first mystery was her name. Queensland's Births, Deaths and Marriages database has no Pamela Lyndon Travers listed. It took me weeks to discover her real name, but I got there. Hints from our first telephone conversation helped, which was typical of her approach to the release of personal information. She was surprised, shocked and unhappy when I started talking about her real name - Helen Lyndon Goff - during a second telephone conversation, some weeks later, and that basically ended our collaboration.

Apart from the touchy subject of her real name, I also discovered that, like the fictional Cherry Tree Lane in London, the factual Queensland thoroughfares of Kent and Richmond streets in Maryborough, Brisbane and Bell streets at Ipswich, Lisson Grove at Wooloowin, and Herbert Street in the Darling Downs town of Allora featured in the life of PL Travers.

Items as diverse as sugar cane fields around Maryborough and penny books in Allora all contributed to the development of this creative literary mind.

And like Mary Poppins's charges at No. 17 Cherry Tree Lane, Pamela Travers no doubt watched her father leave Lisson Grove for the city, ""every day, except Sundays of course, and bank holidays.'. There he would "sit on a large chair in front of a large desk and make money.'.

But first things first.

It all started a long time ago - sometime around the turn of the 20th century - when an Anglo-Irish migrant (whose heart never really left the green hills of long-suffering Eire) married a girl (whose family pioneered European settlement in Australia and held large tracts of this ancient yet new land). This was in one of the world's newest cities, Brisbane.

The following year, on August 9, their first daughter - given her sensitivity about names, let's call her PL Travers - was born in the even newer town of Maryborough. Mr ""Travers'' was there managing the local branch of the Australian Joint Stock Bank (later absorbed via numerous mergers into one of Australia's "big four" banks, Westpac). And that is how PL Travers came to live at the corner of Richmond and Kent streets, Maryborough.

""I do remember it was a lovely old house I was born in,'' Dr Travers said about the building, which is still standing.

She also had memories of the sugar cane fields and the adjacent Great Barrier Reef and Maryborough features in at least one of her poems.

As a toddler, in the nearby sugar cane fields, Pamela Travers first began to explore the world of imagination and dreams. While her family never actively encouraged her writing, Pamela Travers did grow up feeling comfortable in a world she first discovered beside the Mary River. (2019 note: Later research proves this wrong.)

But, picturesque Maryborough, with its green sugar cane fields and off-shore coral reefs, was soon replaced by the industrial and landlocked landscape of Ipswich when her father was transferred there three years after her birth. (2019 note: Later research proves this wrong. She was only about six months when the family left Maryborough.)

Within another two years the family, which now included two sisters, was listed at the swanky address of ""Heytor," Lisson Grove, Maidens Hill (now Wooloowin) - the street now a potpourri of renovated homes, homes needing renovation, and unit blocks.

Her father was based at the AJS Bank headquarters in Queen Street, opposite the Brisbane General Post Office, and the proximity of the pretty Wooloowin Railway Station and the horse-drawn trams on Sandgate Road made Maiden's Hill popular with city executives like Mr ""Travers''. Dr Travers could not recall much of this period, but the years that followed provided rich memories of life in Queensland.

After a short time at Lisson Grove, her father was appointed manager of the Allora AJS Bank and lived with his wife and three young daughters in the attached residence. (The building in Herbert Street is still standing in 2019 as a private home.)

Australian Joint Stock Bank, Allora, Queensland: PL Travers' childhood home, where her father died. The house still stands in Herbert St, Allora, more than 100 years later.

""I remember it was only a small town surrounded by lots of farms,'' Dr Travers said. ""It suited my father because he was a great one for horse riding and things like that.''

He did not enjoy the wide open spaces around Allora for long. Within two years of arriving, after a short and sudden illness, he died at the bank residence, aged 43. The next day a large funeral left the local Anglican Church for Allora Cemetery and the loss was a bitter blow for a seven-year-old girl.

""When my father died it was my mother who broke the news.

""She said, "Father has gone to God'.

""Well, I didn't believe her and for years I didn't believe her, because I adored him.

""He was not a man who would do a thing like that; leave his children and go away to God. He just wouldn't do that. It was many, many years before I would accept it.''

Mr Travers: Australian bank manager, Travers Robert Goff's, death at Allora in 1907 was a defining event in his daughter, PL Travers'. life.

So strong was her kinship with her father, who taught her much about Ireland and its writers, that when she moved to England in the 1920s she wasted little time before visiting her paternal relatives in Ireland. It was there that she developed a close friendship with the Nobel laureate, William Butler Yeats, and the Irish Statesman editor and poet, A.E. (George William Russell).

But, Allora provided more than the melancholy recollection of her father's death. It was there she encountered those special books that remained a cherished memory of her childhood reading, books she regretted she did not keep, books she regretted modern children are not able to experience.

"In the main street (Herbert Street) there was a little shop and in it you could buy penny books. The fairy tales were green and Buffalo Bills were blue and red.

"Standing there with your penny it was an agonising choice. I used to mainly buy the fairy tales, but I would sometimes buy the Buffalo Bills as well.''

Buying fairy tales for a penny nourished her love of the genre and lit a literary spark that still blazed more than 60 years later. These thin little books had such an impact on young Pamela that she later wondered if their existence wasn't a fairy tale itself.

"At one stage I wondered if it were true you could buy a book for a penny, until a good friend of mine, a great writer herself, told me, of course you could. Everybody could.''

One mischievous incident Pamela Travers remembers at Allora gives some insight into the ""never explain anything'' philosophy that underpins Mary Poppins's curt, matter-of-fact exchanges.

"We were sent to the local school (Allora State School) while we waited for a governess and the teacher lost a brooch. Well, my sister found it and this so pleased the teacher that she gave her two shillings. We never had money like that before, but our stern father said we must send that two shillings back at once. "Oh no-o-o!' I said. "We spent it'.'

"So he wanted to know what we spent it on. So I replied, 'Cigarettes'. This was shocking to him and he asked, 'Well, what have you done with them? Smoked them?' I was only seven, remember, and I said, "No, eaten 'em'.

"He suddenly thought he had a tobacco chewer on his hands, until my mother made a dash for my pinafore pocket and brought out a little packet called Simpson's Sugar Smokes. They were made of some white sugary stuff.''

Her mother was very much attuned to the fantasies and games of children. Dr Travers once described to writer Jonathan Cott (Pipers at the Gates of Dawn: The Wisdom of Children's Literature, Random House, 1983) how, when she was six, she used to nest in the field of weeds next to their house, thinking she was a bird. She would sit there brooding for hours, with her arms tightly clasped. One day, in the middle of one of these scenes, her mother called her for lunch and the other children tried to explain she could not come because she was laying.

"My mother came and undid my limbs saying, 'I have told you once, and I have told you twice - no laying at lunchtime'. She never said, 'No laying! You're not a bird!' She never thought, 'Oh, my God, she must see a psychiatrist - my child thinks she's a wren or a kiwi'.''

There is one special item from the Mary Poppins books definitely traceable to her life in Allora; one which often lifts Mary Poppins off to wherever it is she goes.

""A maid we had, had a parrot-handled umbrella and I admired it so much, I used to beg my mother to get one. But she would sniff and say, 'Certainly not'. It was supposed to be a rather common thing to do.''

In keeping with the Mary Poppins story line, a common thing became a rather extraordinary thing, and at any moment could rearrange the course of events.

At the age of seven, Pamela's life was transformed by her father's death and the grieving family moved to Sydney where her mother's people were, eventually settling at Ashfield.

Pamela attended a Sydney suburban boarding school, which she would not name, where she developed her love of the theatre by writing and producing the school play for several years running. (2019 note: The school was called Normanhurst.)

When she left school she found work as an actor with Allan Wilkie, who ran the George Marlow Grand Shakespearian Company between 1916 and 1919, before starting the Allan Wilkie Shakespearian Company in 1920. Pamela Travers became one of the many young Australian actors to learn their craft under Wilkie. While touring with Wilkie throughout Australia and New Zealand she also started successfully submitting articles and poems to newspapers and journals, including The Bulletin.

A young Pamela Travers: In Australia she.started successfully submitting articles and poems to newspapers and journals.

With the money she saved from writing and acting she bought her passage to England in the early 1920s, leaving her mother and two sisters in Australia. In the 70 years Dr Travers lived outside Australia she returned only once, when on route to Japan. Her mother Margaret, to whom the first Mary Poppins book is dedicated, died in Sydney in 1928.

In setting out to unveil the detail of one writer's early life in Queensland I was more successful than I could have dreamed. Consequently, like Mary Poppins, there were certain secrets I decided to keep at the time.


2019 note: Many of those secrets have been revealed in the 24 years since I interviewed PL Travers and did this preliminary research on her life. Of course, there is still a lot hidden for the determined researcher to uncover. My biography of Travers Robert Goff (PL Travers' father and Mr Banks in the Disney film, Saving Mr Banks) is nearly complete. It also contains large amounts of new information on the life and literary work of PL Travers.

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