Neolithic Orkney—Literature on Location

Ring of Brodgar

The forecast was for 11⁰C, but I doubt it rose past 5⁰. The clouds were low; the sleet piercing; the wind penetrating—a perfect day to start exploring Neolithic Orkney.

It was the first time I’d physically set foot on the Orkney island of Mainland, but the almost treeless landscape already felt familiar. My reading had taken me there on several previous occasions.

I often begin to know a place through reading, whether it’s 19th century Dorset in Tracy Chevalier’s Remarkable Creatures or 14th century London in Robyn Cadwallader’s Book of Colours or 7th century Northumbria in Nicola Griffith’s Hild.

And so, before visiting the Orkneys, I had searched out books that would awaken my senses to place and landscape, climate and peoples. I wanted to reach back into Orkney history. I reached for fiction. ‘Factual’ histories are often rife with gaps and biases; historical fiction operates in time’s spaces and silences. Done well, historical fiction fills the gaps and redresses the biases; it shapes conceivable lives and probable landscapes.

Cover image courtesy of Kelpies

The first book I turned to on my Orkney discovery trail was Kathleen Fidler’s The Boy with the Bronze Axe (originally published in 1968). It introduced me to Skara Brae and the Ring of Brodgar and the burial mound of Maeshowe at a time when each was central to the life of Neolithic human communities.

Fidler, the author of over 80 books for children, prefaces The Boy with the Bronze Axe with some background information. ‘In the winter of 1850’, she writes, ‘a terrible storm struck the coasts of the Orkney Isles’. The storm ‘washed away part of the high sand dunes that fringed the Bay of Skaill and laid bare the ruins of some ancient dwellings’. That much is fact, detailed in historical records. Fidler bookends that 1850  storm with the possibility of another storm, thousands of years earlier, in which the dwellings might, just as suddenly, have been filled ‘by sand dunes moving like the waves of the sea’.

Fidler takes her readers back to the late Stone Age, on the cusp of the Bronze Age. Siblings Kali and Brockan, from the community at Skara Brae, are rescued from a rising tide by an unknown visitor from the south—Tenko, the boy bearing the bronze axe.

House #1, Skara Brae

Fidler uses the outsider’s viewpoint to illuminate life at Skara Brae.

Inside Kali and Brockan’s home, Tenko observes the ‘stone bed like a trough … filled with heather and bracken’, and the ‘stone dresser built of flat slabs resting on pillars of stone’. En route to the Ring of Brodgar, Kali’s father explains to Tenko that the quarry they pass at Bookan is where he ‘split off the great stone’ that will be added to the incomplete Ring.

Maeshowe

And on his first visit to Maeshowe, Tenko marvels at the ‘great green mound … shaped like a cone’, rising high above the surrounding plain’. Proceeding down Maeshowe’s low, narrow tunnel, Tenko catches his breath as he enters the ‘great square chamber’, its ‘stone slabs placed one above the other, with edges projecting to make a beehive roof’.

My reading creates pictures of life at Skara Brae in my mind. I am ready to translate Fidler’s fictional world—replete with flint scrapers, bone needles, broken beads, carved stone balls, and pottery shards—into a physical encounter. When I visit the site in person, the ancient remains are  immediately familiar (and fancifully inhabited).

Of course, I continue to learn.

Standing stone, Stenness

Back home in Australia, I read more. Now—finally—I turn to factual accounts, initially to UNESCO’s World Heritage listing for the Heart of Neolithic Orkney. The property’s inscription, dated December 1999, begins: ‘The group of Neolithic monuments on Orkney consists of a large chambered tomb (Maeshowe), two ceremonial stone circles (the Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar) and a settlement (Skara Brae), together with a number of unexcavated burial, ceremonial and settlement sites … Through the combination of ceremonial, funerary and domestic sites, the Heart of Neolithic Orkney bears a unique testimony to a cultural tradition that flourished between about 3000 BC and 2000 BC.’

There are many ways of entering a landscape; of learning a place. As I get to know Neolithic Orkney, I am slowly building layers—just like the slabs that make up the walls of Maeshowe. Layers of fiction and memory and fact. Layers both real and imagined. More strata will be added but, for me, fiction provided a good starting point.

Links and Sources

Standing stones, Stenness, May 2019

Will the Real Mary Poppins Please Stand Up?

mary poppins floats away

Illus. by Mary Shepard, ‘West Wind’, in Mary Poppins (1934)

Perhaps, like me, you’ve been to the cinema to see Emily Blunt in Mary Poppins Returnsthe 2018 movie incarnation of author P L Travers’ redoubtable nanny, Mary Poppins. The film is Walt Disney Pictures’ second foray into Travers’ London-based world, centring on the home of the Banks family who reside at Number Seventeen Cherry Tree Lane. The first movie, with Julie Andrews in the role of Mary Poppins, was released in 1964 and featured music by Robert and Richard Sherman.

Both films offer an interpretation of Travers’ book character. But do they reflect the original manifestation of Mary Poppins? Let’s take a closer look at the nanny as she appears in the first of Travers’ six story-based Mary Poppins books, the eponymously titled Mary Poppins, first published in 1934. (In addition to the story books, a standalone alphabet book and a cook book also feature the English nanny.)

Mary Poppins—The Look

dutch doll_model for mp illustrations

Wooden Dutch doll

Mary Poppins is a thin person with ‘shiny black hair’, ‘large feet and hands, and small, rather peering blue eyes’. It’s no accident that she is described by Jane Banks, the eldest of Mary Poppins’ nursery charges, as looking ‘rather like a wooden Dutch doll’. In fact, Travers provided her illustrator, Mary Shepard, with a model doll on which to base the drawings. (In later years, Travers presented the doll to the New York Public Library. The library also holds a parrot-headed umbrella donated by Travers, a version of which is among Mary Poppins’ most recognisable accessories.)

Mary Poppins is particular about her attire. Whenever she has a new item of clothing—a new hat, or new shoes, or a fresh pair of gloves—she can be found checking her reflection in any available surface. She is undeniably vain. While shopping with Jane and Michael (‘Christmas Shopping’), she examines herself in the shop windows:

‘On the whole, she thought “she had never seen anybody looking quite so smart and distinguished”.’

Eventually, she has to wrench herself away from her ‘glorious reflection’.

Mary Poppins—Character and Behaviour

mary poppins admires her reflection

Illus. by Mary Shepard, ‘Christmas Shopping’, in Mary Poppins (1934)

Vanity aside, it’s hard to get under Mary Poppins’ skin. No one in the Banks household ever knows what she feels about them, ‘for Mary Poppins never told anybody anything’. Her reserve does not mask ignorance. When Michael Banks enquires of Mary Poppins whether his and Jane’s night time adventures at the zoo (‘Full Moon’) really happened, Jane interrupts, saying: ‘It’s no good asking her … She knows everything, but she never tells.’

While reticent on some matters, Mary Poppins is highly opinionated on others. Upon arriving at Number Seventeen Cherry Tree Lane (‘East Wind’), she refuses to provide Mrs Banks with references, declaring it a ‘very old-fashioned’ idea. She even sets her own terms of employment (‘The Day Out’), demanding every second Thursday afternoon off.

Mary Poppins is prim, orderly and dignified. She sniffs with displeasure rather a lot. She is often haughty, dismissive and scornful. As Jane observes, their nanny ‘never wasted time in being nice’ (‘West Wind’).  But … there are exceptions.

A softer Mary Poppins is revealed in her interactions with Bert, the match man and pavement artist (‘The Day Out’). With him, she is warm and kind. So, too, with Maia, the second of Pleiades’ sisters, whom Mary meets while Christmas shopping. When Maia finds presents for each of her sisters but has no gift for herself, Mary Poppins whips off her new (and much admired) gloves and thrusts them onto Maia’s cold hands. A look passes between the two and they smile ‘as people smile who understand each other’ (‘Christmas Shopping’).

Mary Poppins—Philosophy

It comes as no surprise that Mary Poppins and Maia have an understanding. Mary Poppins is a creature of the ages. Her wisdom reaches back in time. Her understanding of the universe does not reside only in the world of day-to-day activity, it expands into a broader reality—the world of Fairylands, and of mysterious and unexpected journeys. A world where humans are attuned to the language of all living things.

John and Barbara, the infant twins in the Banks household, are perplexed that grown-ups cannot understand their baby speech (‘John and Barbara’s Story’). Mary Poppins tells them that grown-ups did understand once.

Grown-ups used to understand ‘what the trees say and the language of the sunlight and the stars’, but they’ve forgotten ‘because they’ve grown older’.

The fact that Mary can still understand is because she is ‘the Great Exception’.

Mary Poppins does not answer direct questions. She deflects. She obfuscates. She accompanies the Banks children through eye-opening experiences, but she doesn’t validate their memories. The children second guess themselves: did the unusual events really happen? ‘Is it true or isn’t it?’, wonder Michael and Jane. But there is ‘nobody to give them the right answer’ (‘Laughing Gas’).

Who Is Travers’ Mary Poppins?

In the 21st century, Mary Poppins could be accused of ‘gaslighting’ but in Travers’ scenario, written in the 1930s, her purpose seems to be not to make the children doubt themselves, but to stir their curiosity. Travers’ Mary Poppins shapes and guides her young charges’ experiences; meaning-making is left up to the children.

It is this stance of being open and alive to the world, and of allowing space for children to make sense of it, that is lost in the movie depictions of Mary Poppins. The adventures remain, but the time for reflection disappears.

Perhaps this is best summed up by P L Travers’ biographer, Valerie Lawson, in her book Mary Poppins She Wrote. Lawson observes that the Sherman brothers thought they were making a Disney film about ‘the miracle that lay behind everyday life’. For Travers—and by extension for Mary Poppins—‘everyday life was the miracle’.

Links and Sources

  • Mary Poppins by P L Travers. London: Gerald Howe, 1934.
  • mary poppins she wroteThis blog post has touched on Mary Poppins only as she is revealed in Mary Poppins, the first of Travers’ six books about the English nanny. According to Valerie Lawson, author of the Travers biography, Mary Poppins She Wrote (Sydney: Hachette, 1999, rev. ed. 2010), the character of Mary Poppins becomes more philosophical in the later books.
    If you are interested in learning more about the expatriate Australian Travers’ life, Lawson’s biography is based on extensive research and is thoroughly engaging.
  • mary poppins_the complete collections_harpercollins_coverAll six books featuring Mary Poppins (originally published between 1934 and 1989) are available in an omnibus edition from HarperCollins (2010). The Mary Poppins books are episodic. The narrative is told in non-sequential, self-contained, chapter-length stories.
  • P L Travers first featured Mary Poppins in short stories written for newspaper publication. See, for example, this reproduction: ‘Mary Poppins and the Match-Man’, originally published in a New Zealand newspaper, the Christchurch Sun in 1926.
  •  For further background on the wooden Dutch doll that informed Mary Shepard’s drawings of Mary Poppins, see ‘Mary Poppins Treasures on View at the New York Public Library’ (2015).
  • More information on the two Disney films is available via Facebook, on the website for Mary Poppins Returns and via the Internet Movie Database.
au revoir

Illus. by Mary Shepard, ‘West Wind’, in Mary Poppins (1934)