There’s a reason I wanted so much to go sit on the steps of St Paul’s in London. It’s not that I wanted to be the Bird Woman from Mary Poppins. Anyone can feed birds, and I kind of think she was ripping people off by charging them tuppence a bag when they could bring some crumbs or leftovers from home for free.
Anyway, being a Bird Woman (or Man) is an easy thing to do in places with any quantity of scavenger birds like pigeons, ducks, seagulls, and vultures. You just sit down and hold something in your hand – any old thing will do – and act like it’s food, and the birds will come. For pigeons, ducks, and seagulls, it helps if what you’re holding looks like a chip or a piece of bread, but it’s not absolutely necessary. I fooled a seagull once with a bit of orange peel. For vultures, hold something that looks like a half-rotted animal carcass. Anyway, about 0.2 seconds later, the birds will be swarming around you. And on you.
The reason I wanted to sit on the steps of St Paul’s is more complex than that.
Back in 1964, my parents took me and my siblings to see Mary Poppins. My grandparents went, too. It was a memorable occasion, first because we went to what we kids at that time called a “walk-in” theatre. Our family rarely went to walk-in theatres; with so many kids to wrangle, our parents usually made us get into our pajamas, shooed us into the back of the station wagon with the seats down and a few blankets and pillows strewn about, bought a pile of 10¢ hamburgers from some pre-McDonald’s joint, and proceeded to the drive-in theatre where they told us to eat our dinner and then lie down and go to sleep while they watched the double feature. So, yeah, going to a walk-in theatre to see Mary Poppins was a big deal.
Second, I fell in love that night. I imagine there had been a movie or two before this one that touched my heart, and there have certainly been many since. But Mary Poppins stuck with me for a very long time. Like until . . . still. After the movie, as we were walking out of the theatre, I started singing the chorus to one of the songs. My grandmother was impressed that I could remember the lyrics after having heard them only once. I’m not sure I remember which song it was, but I think it was either “Feed the Birds” or “Stay Awake”. Since it would fit in so perfectly with this post, I’m going to say it was “Feed the Birds”.
Mary Poppins was the talk of the schoolyard for weeks. During that time, I enjoyed a short-lived popularity because I was the only kid on the playground who knew how to say supercalifragilisticexpialidocious forwards and backwards. Say to a child docious-ali-expi-istic- fragil-cali-rupes and you entertain him for a day. Teach him to say docious-ali-expi-istic-fragil-cali-rupes and you make yourself obsolete.
The Christmas after seeing the film, my sister gave me a book of the Disney adaptation of Mary Poppins. I was so excited. I felt that now all I needed to make my life complete was a carpetbag that contained everything I’d ever want and the ability to fly.
I also discovered the original Mary Poppins book, the one by P L Travers. The one that everyone said was so different from the movie.
It’s true that the tone of the film is quite different from that of the book (not to mention the shift in time from the book’s 1930s to the film’s 1910s). As for Mary Poppins herself, in the film she is prettier and she sings, but I think in essentials she’s rather close to the character of the book. They are both unsentimental, bossy, and vain. And I loved them both. I read the book – or I should say books, for there were sequels – and then I read them again.
My favorite part of Diane Setterfield’s book The Thirteenth Tale was when Margaret (the narrator) says, “I have always been a reader; I have read at every stage of my life, . . . yet I cannot pretend that the reading I have done in my adult years matches in its impact on my soul the reading I did as a child. . . . When I was a child, books were everything. And so there is in me, always, a nostalgic yearning for the lost pleasure of books.”
I know that exact feeling – that impact of certain books on my soul – because I felt it with Mary Poppins. I didn’t want to be any specific character in the book; I just wanted to live it, the whole thing. It’s not the only book that’s ever affected me that way, but it might be the first. And I knew that to live it, I would somehow have to get to England. Yes, it was true. The night I saw Mary Poppins, I also fell in love – rather hard – with England.
In The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, Helene Hanff wrote, “All my life I’ve wanted to see London. I used to go to English movies just to look at streets with houses like those. Staring at the screen in a dark theatre, I wanted to walk down those streets so badly it gnawed at me like hunger.”
She had nothing on me. At the age of 10 or 11, I couldn’t go to the movies whenever I wanted, and even if I did, how much could I see from the back of a station wagon when I was supposed to be asleep? But I remember going to the entries “England” and “Great Britain” in our Encyclopedia Americana time and again just to look at the pictures of Big Ben’s clock tower and police officers in their cool hats and Tower Bridge and school boys playing rugby and Anne Hathaway’s cottage and green fields demarcated by hedgerows and the Angel of Christian Charity in Piccadilly Circus (which at the time I thought was a real circus, and a very dull-looking one at that, with all those cars and no trapezes). I gazed at those pictures and felt an aching in my heart. Sometimes I cried.
The years went by. I tried to assuage my longing in simple ways. Whenever we went to Disneyland (which wasn’t all that often in those days), I beelined it to the Peter Pan ride. I liked Peter Pan all right, mostly because he could fly and didn’t have to do chores. But I kind of resented how he used Wendy to look after him and the Lost Boys. Here she goes, flying through the heavens to this magical Neverland and then, while Michael and John get to play, she becomes the babysitter/cook. Well, maybe that’s the way she wanted it, but I didn’t like it. No, the main reason I love the Peter Pan ride so much is because of the nighttime aerial view of London, with Big Ben towering above the rooftops and the fluorescent Thames flowing between the tiny city lights as you fly over them in the little pirate ships. I used to have a plan for running away to Disneyland and living in Wendy’s bedroom; then I could look out the window at London every night.
I understood that what I was seeing from the pirate ship wasn’t really London. I also came to understand that the Cherry Tree Lane of the Mary Poppins film was not in London but in some studio in Burbank, CA. I even came to understand (and this was quite a bit more of a shock to me) that Julie Andrews didn’t have dark brown hair like Mary Poppins.
In spite of the collapse of my belief system, I kept sight of my goal. Eventually, many years later, I did go to England. One of the first things I did was go sit on the steps at St Paul’s.
There was no Bird Woman there. There weren’t even any birds.
I admit to being a little disappointed. Then I decided I’d been wrong. Perhaps the Bird Woman wasn’t really ripping people off by selling cheap little bags of bread crumbs, but rather providing an important service. Once she was gone, there was no one to make sure the birds got fed, so they lit out for more cornucopian locales like train stations and city parks and the lunch of fish and chips in my friend’s lap.
In the end, though, it wasn’t the birds that mattered. What mattered was that I was there, sitting on the steps of St Paul’s, living a moment from Mary Poppins.