It’s Pantomime Time again. What’s your favourite: Jack in the Bean Stalk, Cinderella or Peter Pan? They are all ways of approaching the mystery of childhood and the hold it has on our imaginations. Psychohistorically, Peter Pan is an important piece, I think.
Boys are always destined to become men, but if the process is interrupted or speeded up there can be consequences – and making boys into men in quick-march, double-time is what the British militaristic boarding schools were designed to do. With this goal, they have had a peculiar effect on the whole of British life, including our families, schools, literature and institutions. The side effect is that in some sense many of the boys who went through the process never really grew up and never really came home again, just like J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan and his Lost Boys.
Take a look at the incongruous youthfulness of our ex-boarder politicians. It is as if you can see the boy inside the man. It is as if they will always stay young and then perhaps suddenly turn into old men. For generation upon generation, Britain’s traditional elite have been boys from ‘Never-Never Land’ dressed in men’s bodies. Prime ministers used to try to look as grown up as they could, like headmasters with their stiff collars, pipes and cigars.
But now, as today’s technology allows us to see much more of them, as they become increasingly true to type and as we see more into things, they are starting to look like Peter Pan again, in their open-necked shirts, swinging cricket bats for the camera, trying very hard to look interested while touring factories and extremely serious when meeting foreign leaders. Peter Pan, the boy who never grew up, is alive and well and, horror of horrors, running the nation. How did we let it happen?
Barrie’s seminal myth of English boy-in-manhood first appeared as the Victorian dream was about to fade and the playing fields of Edwardian Eton were about to be transposed to the killing fields of Belgium. The stories of Peter and his chums’ eternal childhood, his adventures with Captain Hook, the crocodile, the coquettish mischief of Tinkerbell the fairy and his need for Wendy to be his substitute mother have been a perennial favourite in Britain, surviving a Disney treatment as well as countless amateur dramatic pantomime productions.
For Peter is a classic Puer Aeternis, the name CG Jung invented for this phenomenon: an eternal boy trapped within a man, refusing to grow up. His abode is Never-Never Land, the name later adopted for the ranch retreat of that reclusive gender-free Über-Puer of indeterminate race, Michael Jackson. But Peter’s original home is of course a posh London SW1 address, Kensington Gardens, where, now cast in bronze, he can be seen, forever young.
The jumping off point of the story is that Peter has gone away and has become an orphan, like all boarders do. His family home is strangely quiet; his mother and the dog are touched with a faraway sadness; pictures of absent children adorn the mantle-piece. Like all boarders, Peter uses mental processes to compensate, flying away in his imagination to faraway lands with fairies. Peter categorically refuses to grow up.
Crucially, Peter feels entitled to the mothering he never had and demands it from the main female in his life, Wendy – something that will probably ring bells for wives of ex-boarders but seems to have passed unnoticed into the myth that this story became.
The myth of British elite entitlement, however, is still going strong, with its compensatory greed for what should have been theirs to begin with: a safe loving home with good-enough parents. That is where the trouble starts, for as Grotstein said: “When innocence has been deprived of its entitlement, it becomes a diabolical spirit.”