Can one steal someone’s very being? Take it and run away with it, like any other possession?
The very thought adds a chill to the air. Surely that is what the Dracula legend was all about, someone perpetrating an act from which it seemed one might easily recover – a bite – but which, it transpired, would gradually eat up the whole self and replace it with a stranger.
Our being is so precious to us. We go through the whole of life taking it for granted, this sense of who we are.
I was idly investigating a piece of trivia linked to a London tube station when I came across the end of a story. It was Sloane Square Station, built in 1868, part of the District and Circle lines, in the heart of what is now a salubrious part of London. It seems they had a problem when they built it, because a river ran through it.
The River Westbourne. The river which fuelled the Serpentine in Hyde Park also had the audacity to run along Sloane Square and down, eventually, to the Thames.
The engineers were temporarily flummoxed . What to do? Diverting a river in the heart of London is not an easy business.
Finally, they hit on a solution. They robbed it of its identity. The did not hide it, send it underground or sidewards. They lifted it high above Sloane Square station using a five foot diameter pipe; above the platforms and the railway, and there, for 145 years, it has flowed, carrying water and fish alike over the heads of the trains and passengers.
Poor River Westbourne. Once a royal river, and now a waterway in an iron mask, clad in man-made armour.
92 years after they stole the riverness of the Westbourne, a man threw himself under a train as the waterway flowed sadly above.
His name was Peter Llewelyn Davies. And when JM Barrie first met him, he was just a baby in a pram. He and his brothers were the inspiration for Peter Pan, Or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up. The family moved away in 1904, when the play debuted in London; but in a terribly sad state of affairs Davies’ father and mother died of cancer shortly afterwards, and Barrie ended up adopting them.
He was famous, because he was Peter. People knew him as the real Pan.
After a time at Eton, Peter served as a signal officer in the First World War in the trenches. He gained the Military Cross but lost his brother George; afterwards, he took up with a woman Barrie deemed unsuitable; Vera Willoughby, 27 years older than himself. And constantly, the fame brought upon him by the boy who wouldn’t grow up haunted him.
And then more tragedy: his brother Michael was drowned in an accident at Oxford, aged only 20.
He founded a publishing house and attempted to live his life. He married, and had children. But the shadow of Peter Pan was very strong. And when Barrie died there was no sign of recompense for the profound effect Peter Pan had had on his own identity. Barrie left most of his estate to his secretary; the copyright for Peter Pan had already been given to St Ormond’s Street Hospital.
He used to call the play: “That terrible masterpiece.” His son once explained: “He accepted that Barrie considered that he was the inspiration for Peter Pan and it was only reasonable that my father should inherit everything from Barrie. That was my father’s expectation. It would have recompensed him for the notoriety he had experienced since being linked with Peter Pan — something he hated.”
Poor Peter. His identity was enclosed by Peter Pan, a boy who refused to grow up, and though he was brought high above the heads of the masses by the Barrie’s attentions, his wings had somehow been clipped. Like the river, the course of his life was altered. Irrevocably. And so he ended it.
So can you? Can one steal someone’s very being?
Perhaps, if you stand in Peter Pan’s shadow, the answer is yes.