“I met Peter Pan when I was young,” my mother confided to me the other day.
On further enquiry it turned out that she was referring to the publisher Peter Davies, who had published a memoir she’d been hired to ghost-write as a young woman (yes, that kind of thing happened in the 1940s too). Earlier in the century, as Peter Llewelyn-Davies, he had been the middle of the five Llewelyn-Davies brothers who collectively inspired J. M . Barrie’s most famous creation. (“I made Peter by rubbing the five of you violently together, as savages with two sticks produce a flame,” Barrie later wrote.) Perhaps because of the name, however, Peter Davies was particularly dogged by the association in the public mind, and found it oppressive. Even when he eventually committed suicide in 1960 by throwing himself in front of a train, the newspapers referred to him as “Peter Pan”.
There is a tragic roll-call of classic children’s books whose authors’ children (adoptive in Barrie’s case) led blighted or violently foreshortened lives. Some forty years before Peter Davies’s death his younger brother Michael – another of the “five” – died by drowning, possibly in a suicide pact, aged just twenty. Alastair Grahame, for whom his father Kenneth wrote The Wind in the Willows, was even younger when he lay down on a railway track to await the train that would decapitate him. The role (if any) of the books in those deaths will never be known, but there is no doubt that Christopher Milne found his immortalization as Christopher Robin in Winnie-the-Pooh a burden through much of his life, recording his resentment that A. A. Milne “had got where he was by climbing on my infant shoulders, that he had filched from me my good name and had left me with nothing but the empty fame of being his son.”
I was reminded of these unhappy cases a few days ago, when I heard John Wilson interview Hanif Kureishi on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row. Wilson mentioned that Kureishi had sometimes drawn on his own family for inspiration in his novels, not least in The Buddha of Suburbia, a book that caused Kureishi’s father to feel (by his sister’s account) that “Hanif had robbed him of his dignity.” The tone of hurt betrayal is strikingly similar to Milne’s, but Kureishi Senior was at least an adult and to that extent better able to defend himself. What of Kureishi’s children?
JW: How do your sons feel about it? There are sketches here, we get a sense of who they are in a couple of these stories. Do they mind being written about?
HK: I would advise them to keep out of a writer’s way if you don’t want to be in a book.
JW: That’s pretty hard when the writer is their own dad!
HK: That’s tough. I mean, that’s something that they have to live with. You’d have to ask them about it. Writers are rather merciless. You see it with painters too. There’s something really ruthless about a real artist. Virtue is the worst quality in any artist.
Personally I find the implication that artists – sorry, real artists – somehow get a pass when it comes to treating people decently rather contemptible, and doubly so in the case of vulnerable people whom they have a particular duty to protect. On the other hand, it’s true that writers tend to pick up material from all over the place, magpie-fashion, and the people whom they know best and see most are unlikely to be exempt. Cyril Connolly famously asserted that “There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall,” but I’m sure some children’s authors especially have looked at that pram and thought, however involuntarily: “Source material!” Most parents feel a mixture of pride and regret at seeing their children grow up, but children’s writers are likely to feel in addition a slight panic at being cut off from a free source of information about teenage slang and preoccupations. This does not put them in the same bracket as Kureishi, and for the record I should make clear that many children of writers have, with professional help, been successfully integrated into mainstream society and gone on to lead happy and fulfilled lives. But still, but still, how do you deal with that omniverous writerly appetite when it comes to the ones you love? Are there ground rules? No-go areas? What’s your way of squaring the family circle?