Last month I said my piece (or did my pieces) about restoring the reputation of Samuel Rutherford Crockett. Another month, another contemporary whose reputation is in serious need of a restoration project. James Matthew Barrie. Like Crockett he came from humble origins, in Barrie’s case the son of a Kirriemuir weaver, but unlike Crockett he lived long and prospered. Barrie became inconceivably rich during his lifetime on account of his tremendous skill at writing work that crossed the barrier (or blurred the boundaries) between literary and popular. He started off as a journalist in Nottingham and ended up as a dramatist taking the London stage by storm time and again. He became Sir J.M.Barrie Bart. He was a well known philanthropist of his day – and still the only may I know who has managed to ‘control’ and re-write copyright law – he gave the rights to Peter Pan in perpetuity to the Great Ormond Street Hospital. This has caused some ‘issues’ over the years and is an example of how difficult the whole copyright thing is. Barrie was undoubtedly offering a philanthropic gesture, quite in keeping with his many other financial gifts both to individuals and to families. It doubtless seemed like a good idea at the time. But what we do in life is impossible to control after our death and the fearful combination of copyright and commercialisation has caused many a problem for Barrie.
Perhaps more of a worry though, is that (as I’ve written about elsewhere) he was pretty much hoist with his own petard. Peter Pan is now the only thing that many people know about him. Well, there’s one more thing – a still circulating and ill-founded rumour that he was a paedophile. People believe the strangest things, but to my mind it’s the sign of a sickness in society that it cannot accept the spirit and nature of a man who gave so generously that it has to find not just fault but to completely destroy a man’s reputation because it does not understand the nature of his nature.
It’s time to bring Barrie out of the shadows. Crockett (and Barrie to a lesser extent) were damned by the ill-fitting Kailyard soubriquet, even in their lifetimes, though both ‘outgrew’ it if you actually read their writing. (Again, read my earlier pieces for a more prolonged comment on Kailyard). Crockett died and was condemned to obscurity. Barrie lived - but after he died he was subject to the even more damning indictment, bred from nothing of substance, of being shall we say ‘inappropriate.’
Now one thing that you could say about Barrie is that yes, he was often inappropriate. In actuality it’s a hallmark of his writing. But the inappropriateness of his writing is simply that of a man who refused to conform to the standards and was experimental beyond the comprehension of many of his contemporaries (and most since!) This in turn created its own jealousies and the wee man with the big dog was given the worst of names. Stuck in the eternal return of lies, lies and damned falsehoods simply because he stood apart and was in most cases streets ahead of many of his contemporary writers, we have lost sight of everything to do with him except his character Peter Pan. How right I was last month when I suggested that the higher they climb the further they fall.
Now don’t get me wrong. The character of Peter Pan is every bit as complex as the character of J.M.Barrie himself, and the story (and character) which developed over many years of writing, are fascinating on many, many levels both narrative and dramatic. But this is not what most people think of when they think of Peter Pan. They think Disney. They take the soundbites ‘to die will be an awfully big adventure’ and ‘the boy who wouldn’t grow up’ and never look any further. Or if they look further they attempt some cod psychology which never quite stacks up to any proper interrogation.
This is a massive shame. Barrie’s work defies categorisation – and that stands for both his prose and his dramatic works. They are quite unique in the pantheon of late 19th century/ early 20th century writing. They give an insight into questions of identity, flexibility of narrative, they play with dramatic form, and yet the writing is spare, comic and easy to read. You can engage with Barrie on many, many levels but you never quite come to an understanding – either of the man or his work – through the endeavour.
Barrie plays God in his writing and plays with the reader – consciously. Maybe this is part of why he got such a bad press? Because he dared to go that little bit further than most writers ever dare. He was beyond honest – he didn’t just stare reality in the face, he dug into it, explored it and in exploring it uncovered much of what it is to be human – warts and all. That’s both a difficult and a dangerous thing for a writer to do.
But you won’t know any of this unless you read some Barrie. And where do you start when everything is hidden behind Peter Pan? This is the conundrum the recently formed J.M.Barrie Literary Society (of which I am a founder member) seeks to address. The goal is to spread the word both digitally and in ‘reality’ by hosting reading and reviewing of Barrie texts as well as by encouraging members and the wider world to engage and form opinions based on what they read rather than on what they believe.
Barrie was a chameleon of form (narrative and dramatic) and in setting up the website the aim is to try and, if not copy him, then take his innovation as an inspiration to try new ways and forms of communicating creatively. How will it develop? That all depends on the membership. A community literally is the sum of its members and the growing J.M.Barrie Literary Society as Community hopefully wil create a place for open discussion and the sharing of knowledge and opinion in a way that I’ve not seen elsewhere. It’s something beyond Goodreads and online book groups – or at least it may be.
The Society launched at Kirriemuir, where Barrie was born, on the 9th May – his 157th anniversary – at the Barrie Pavilion. The building was gifted by Barrie to the town on the occasion of him being granted freedom of Kirriemuir in 1930. Being Barrie there is much more to the building (now ably run by the Kirriemur Regeneration Group) than the outside suggests. It is part cricket pavilion, part camera obscura. It remains as an important legacy of the fact that Barrie left much more than copyright and money – he thought carefully about the needs of the community and tied them with his own interests. He was passionate about cricket, setting up the first celebrity cricket team which became known as the Allahakbarries. And he thought (rightly) that a camera obscura is exactly the sort of thing that would entertain a huge range of people whether they liked cricket or not.
If you get the chance to go to Kirriemuir, you should definitely visit the Pavilion, his Birthplace (managed by National Trust for Scotland) and the Gateway to the Glens museum which houses many Barrie artefacts including the ‘freedom casket’ (run by AngusAlive)as well as the graveyard where Barrie and his family are buried. There are spectacular views to be found all round, but the camera obscura on a clear day is both achingly beautiful and mind-blowingly clever.
Lest this seems to read too much like a travelogue, I shall point out that reading Barrie will surpass even the delights of Kirriemuir, if you give yourself up to it and forget everything you think you know about him. Whether you read the Thrums stories, or the Tommy novels, or whether you explore Barrie through his full length dramas or the shorter dramatic form, there is plenty to amaze and excite you and most of all to make you think, and re-think your previous knowledge (and prejudices?) To find out more about Barrie’s work you should definitely check out the Literary Society www.jmbarriesociety.co.uk where you can be sure of a warm welcome.
At the launch event we were given a speech which paid tribute to Barrie and exhorted us to read and talk about Barrie’s work. We were reminded that reading is not just for children and that the range and depth of our adult reading and debating on literary issues is reflective of and indeed a part of our very creative nature as well as the a significant factor in the development of our society. I often worry that we are in danger of losing all our critical faculties and most of all our pleasure in reading these days. Barrie is a writer who can pick you up, give you a slap round the face, and remind you why you used to find reading such a necessary part of life. Do us all a favour and give him a go. If you want a quick ‘entry’ you can read the short story in this month’s Gateway HERE. If that takes your fancy, why not head over to McStorytellers where more of An Edinburgh Eleven is being serialised. You can also check out ‘Better Dead’ an early Barrie work which gives quite an insight into his youthful mind and modus operandi. It’s not the finished article by any means, but that’s what is so good about Barrie, he never ‘finished’ he is always open to interpretation and discussion. And if all of that isn’t enough, M’Connachie’s Talking shop is in the throes of opening at the Literary Society website – where you can find other free texts and suggestions of what to read – and the opportunity, once you’ve done so, to add your own thoughts. So what are you waiting for…?
To find past articles please use monthly archives.