I read Peter Pan for the first time when I was about eight years old. I won a paperback copy in a German language class exam at North Cottesloe Primary School circa 1974. Aside from counting from one to ten and being able to offer the observation, das is ein hund in a questionable accent should the need arise, the book was the only substantial impact learning German had on my life. But I was utterly transformed through the gift of reading that book.
I was mesmerised by the boy who could fly and who never grew up. I would do anything to join him. It felt very possible. Maimie, his first friend who appears in Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens and Wendy Darling, were long gone by now, I figured. Neverland was ripe for a Gillian. And if Peter wasn’t coming for me, I was prepared to go to him. Like most children of Irish Catholic heritage in my era would do, I began by praying to God to help me learn to fly.
I said prayers every night before I went to sleep. It was quite the convoluted process even without my aviation ambitions. I recited the Our Father, then the Hail Mary and followed that with a list of family and friends for God to bless if he happened to cast his Almighty eye their way in the night. You couldn’t be too careful. I did this mostly in order of personal preference, swapping mum and dad into first place on alternative nights to be fair, my sister in next and my cat, Tiddlywinks last because I wasn’t really sure how God felt about pets. At the end, I’d add a personal wish list that up until this moment consisted of anything from a pair of patent leather Mary-Janes in powder blue or Gloria and Dawn Paper Dolls exactly like the ones my friend Jenny Harvey got for her birthday.
Those minor desires were discarded forever once I discovered Peter Pan. I wanted to fly. To Neverland. To see fairies and lost boys, pirates and crocodiles and Indian princesses who wore fringed leather dresses and their hair in long black shiny plaits. Most of all to be friends with Peter. I knew the way there, from the helpful instructions supplied by Mr Barrie, first star on the right and straight on till morning. All I needed was a way to launch. Asking God to help out seemed a reasonable first step. I knew it was a big ask, so it came with a promise that if he would grant me this one wish, I would never bother him again. Mum, Dad and my sister and the cat could look after themselves.
Praying was only the start. I also practised on swings, which was the closest I could get to the feel of flying as I imagined it might be. I’m not really sure what I was aiming for, some kind of transcendental crossing of sorts, I guess. I’d swing as high as I could and while I was whizzing back and forth with no small amount of determination, I’d sing the words to the Peter Pan song from the Disney cartoon of the same name which, I took for some kind of incantation. I cringe so much to remember it now because I really put my heart into it. It went as follows…
Fly, fly to Never Neverland
You and I
To Never Neverland
No worries, no cares
Just fly everywhere
And you can live happily
I was oblivious to any audience I may have had on the ground, so focused was I on attracting the attention of a passing Peter or Tinkerbell. Who knows what the other kids waiting for their turn on the swing thought about it, but safe to say it’s a surprise I wasn’t beaten up more often.
I saved up my pocket money and spent it on small tubes of glitter available at the local shop for around 5 cents a vial. To my child’s eye, it looked like genuine fairy dust and even though it took all of my popsicle cash, I thought it was a fair bargain. I would arrange myself on the edge of our veranda, balancing precariously on the railing, scatter the contents over my head and leap off, the very picture of optimism. When I crashed to the ground, I was undeterred. I tried over and over in the hope that one of these pots of glittery gold would come through and I’d finally be borne aloft into the clouds and spirited away. I felt a twinge of guilt about poor mum and dad who would no doubt wonder where I’d gone, but children disappear in fairy tales all the time and adults get over it pretty fast so I wasn’t too concerned.
None of it worked. Eventually, I gave up and accepted my fate as a groundling. Most people would consider my efforts a failure because I never learned to fly. If that’s how you measure such aspirations, then yes, all I got was a reputation as an oddball, a twisted ankle, glitter that would never completely come out of my hair and a shortened sleep cycle because it took such a long time to get through my prayers. But I learned how to dream. And believe in magic. And once that belief is embedded deep, it sticks fast. It may be lost for a time, but it’s never all that far away.
I found it again only yesterday in fact. My husband and I arrived in London for the start of six-month-long trip we have waited for, for a long time. There was a thick snowfall right across the city. Our hotel is on the doorstep of Hyde Park and the first thing we did was walk through to Kensington Gardens to find my holy grail. The statue of Peter Pan commissioned by J M Barrie in 1912. Kensington Gardens in the snow. It was magical. It was as beautiful as I imagined it would be.
There’s a moment in Peter Pan where he tells Wendy that fairies are born when a new baby laughs and every time a child says they don’t believe in fairies, somewhere a fairy dies. Near the end of the story when Tinkerbell herself lies dead, Peter in his grief brings her back to life with his longing and his conviction that she is real. It’s a beautiful literary moment when we are reminded of the power of belief.
If you are worried about the state of the world, or you stopped believing in fairies too many years ago to remember, you can be assured of this. There is power in magic and wonder, however you choose to find it. For me, it was waiting here in Kensington Gardens, just behind the big lake where the white swans glide. And the stories and dreams that have given me wings all of my life, saw a statue for the very first time and remembered.