Feed the Birds, Tuppence a Bag

Day 11 of isolation. Actually, I’m counting this as “Day 11” only because I had to leave the house briefly on the 20th. Church has been suspended because of the COVID-19 pandemic, initially until Palm Sunday, now indefinitely, so I haven’t been out in the two Sundays since. Otherwise, I’ve been living my life very much as normal.

It’s nowhere near as bad as the Spanish Flu of a hundred years back, but that’s largely because we don’t have half our able-bodied young men cramped into a few filthy trenches in Flanders this time round, and the media isn’t suppressing reports of the outbreak for the sake of morale in the face of war. Also, we’re taking things a lot more seriously now. If this never gets to be half as bad as the Spanish Flu, it will be because we “over-reacted”.

So let’s talk about something completely different: “Mary Poppins Returns”.

It follows the beats of the original Julie Andrews movie pretty closely, and I’m not the first to have noticed this. One might even say that it’s the same movie repackaged for a new generation. I don’t actually think this is a bad thing. From a narrative point of view, the implication here is that history repeats itself, despite the differing circumstances; or, as Bert sang in the original opening. “What’s to happen all happened before.” Michael’s problem seems to be the very reverse of his father’s but the end result seems much the same: a clutch of troubled children needing Mary Poppins to help set things back in balance again.

A few small notes to get out of the way:

Emily Blunt’s version of Mary Poppins is, supposedly, closer to the prickly, vain Mary Poppins of the books, and in one sense, she is. But I can’t shake the sense that she’s enjoying herself more than book-Poppins would consider seemly. She smiles too much. Julie Andrews better captured that aloofness with respect to her fantastic adventures with the children, even if Emily Blunt got the rest down pat.

Lin-Manuel Miranda brings a certain edge to Jack that I don’t think Dick Van Dyke’s Bert had. Watching Miranda stalk (yes, “stalk”) down the tunnel in “Trip A Little Light Fantastic”, it seemed to me that Jack could easily turn threatening if need be, whereas Bert would always be the jester, never the warrior. I mean, I’d be more willing to trust my children with Bert, but I’d prefer Jack on my side in a fight.

And now, the thing that strikes me about Mary Poppins and what the two movies seem to be presenting to us, whether Disney meant it that way or not:

Mary Poppins is, of course, a supernatural being — but there appears to be a class of people outside of the Banks family circle that knows and remembers her for who/what she really is. Bert is the prime example of this; Jack, as Bert’s successor, must know as well. Both Bert and Jack have access to others of that class: the chimney sweeps in Bert’s case, and the lamp lighters in Jack’s. These are people at the very bottom of society who keep things going for society as a whole, including the middle class Banks family. By their association with Mary Poppins, the sweeps and the lighters attain a certain magical quality. They are no longer simply men with earthly jobs, but members of the fae.

In the class-based society of the time, a nursery governess such as Mary Poppins (were she a normal human being) occupied an indeterminate position in the hierarchy of a house. She was not quite “upstairs” with the family, and yet not quite “downstairs” with the servants. The movies take this idea and expands upon it: Mary Poppins becomes a conduit by which the Banks children, heirs to the “upstairs” world, are introduced to the dregs of the “downstairs” world — the chimney sweeps and lamp lighters. Take into account the implied mythic quality of these so-called dregs and the magical nature of Mary Poppins herself, and the children’s adventures with the sweeps and leeries might be described as adventures into fairyland, with Mary Poppins as their guide.

It is at once classist and socialist. Classist, because it portrays the sweeps and leeries as useful little elves, monolithic in their unity, mysterious, and possessing knowledge that normal people cannot have. Yet socialist, because, in being introduced to their world, the children are taught that their own middle-class reality is not the entirety of the universe. The wheels upstairs do not turn of their own accord, but because someone’s hand is working the cranks downstairs. If Jane Banks now occupies herself with blue-collar activism, it is because Mary Poppins has introduced her to Bert’s chimney-sweep world.

I am thus inclined to think that the classist narrative is not a presentation of how the world should be, but of how the world of the movies’ two respective eras actually operate. And I think it would be a mistake to think of this classist narrative as a relic of a bygone era: it is in the nature of people, I think, to prioritise others and to decide that one profession is deserving of more or less respect than another. It is in the nature of certain professions that they should seem invisible to others. And as long as there exists a class of people who quietly get things done in the background so the we, as Rudyard Kipling put it, “may overcome it, pleasantly sleeping and unaware” — people who are essential to our way of life without getting any of our thanks or respect — there will be a place for Mary Poppins as a conduit to their world.

As COVID-19 pushes us into lockdown and we reassess the essentials of our way of life, I imagine Mary Poppins popping into 17 Cherry Tree Lane to take a new generation of the Banks children into the mystical world of the grocery store stocktaker, the Place Behind The Shelves. Classist, yes, in portraying them as “other” — yet humbling as it opens our eyes to the fact they exist at all.

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