owers-that-be invariably present themselves to us as faits accompli, inevitable results of what had to be. Resistance is futile. Submit. Their ad nauseam theme is so pervasive we get used to it. It is the adult world we live in. It is the received wisdom, authority, and convention. The powers are unassailable fixtures of our universe.
But sometimes a shadow of nagging doubt sneaks into the back of your mind: Really, you discover, things do not have to be this way. Actually, you realize, this or that point of received wisdom is sheer arbitrary convention. Honestlyperish the thought . . . that emperor does seem rather indecently dressed!
Where do these subversive, shadowy thoughts come from? For those of us raised in the seventies, especially, the answer may well be Mary Poppins. Yes, that cheery, wholesome, innocent childhood movie we loved so turns out on later viewing to have rather far-reaching sociopolitical shades lurking in the background.
As with any classic, the themes of conflict can be understood on different levels: Old fuddy-duddies versus young brats. Moneyed tyranny versus the vulgar rabble. Formality versus fluidity. The spark of youth versus the wisdom of age. But some perspectives are more informative than othersand those dimensions whose ideas are most completely and consistently developed throughout the movie are the themes most likely intended by its makers.
On the young viewers levelor for anyone just wanting to be entertainedMary Poppins is just an imaginative, fun story: Forlorn but mischievous kids get a new childcare professional who turns out to be a magical being, able to travel at will between the worlds of childish fun, frolic, and fascination; the grinding poverty of the commoners out on the London streets; and the prim and proper stiffness of the parents established high society.
This magical being, this sparklingly mysterious young gypsy sage, is ablein the short time before the wind calls her to move onto bring these separate worlds into collision with each other. And the collision, while not painless, improves the lives of everyone involved.
The children emerge from the collision at a point of better understanding the older generations concerns; the parentsand even the stodgiest of bank officialsdiscover the joy of taking the family kite-flying. In the background those indigent and indomitable chimneysweeps dance on their way, forever the fiddlers on Londons rooftops.
But on second analysis, the Mary Poppins story mirrors the story of the English nation: An uncertain people take refuge on a drab little island on Europes fringe, too close for comfort to the continents titanic upheavals. Theirs is a fractious house, never very unified within its own walls, where Anglo-Saxon overlords struggle endlessly to keep lively Pict and Celtic minorities bludgeoned into line.
It is also a house that, more than once in the dark hours of its history, is visited by a Faerie Queene who inspires her people to just enough determination and unity of purpose (not to mention luck) to sustain them through the valley of danger. From those shadows, like a kite rising fragile and unsteady on the spring breeze, they eventually go on to the broad sunlit uplands as historys greatest empire.
The house of the Faerie Queenes never ceases to be fractious and contradictory within itself, constructing the coalmines and dark satanic mills of the Industrial Revolution as soon as medical and agricultural advances let the population explode; populating two-and-a-half continents with their convicts and religious outcasts, who then largely exterminate indigenous races and wreak environmental havoc.
At one time they promote slavery and child labor; later on they almost single-handedly halt the slave trade worldwide. At one time they go to war to force narcotics on a reclusive trading partner; at another they stand up to the Nazi juggernautand at yet another time they yield the bulk of their empire peacefully to the persuasion of a nonviolent ascetic populist, an act of collective conscience unparalleled in history.
Britannia is nothing if not fractious, and yet woven through the empire has always been a certain enthusiasm, a certain loyaltyjust enough to hold them together. Just enough to make their frenetic internal competition carry them forward, rather than backward as competition so often does.
And this is the message that the person of Mary Poppins and the mirror of Englands history whisper into a childs lifelong memory: Its the concept that through all the conflicting storms it is still just possible to get along. It says that goodness is always goodness, and the individual can recognize it no matter how forceful the authority suppressing it. It means that there can be such a thing as her majestysseemingly oxymoronicloyal opposition.
Its the idea that you are not just a cog or a number or a garbage-in-garbage-out processor; that your worth is not defined by how well you keep your nose always at the grindstone; that you need not hurt others as they have hurt you; that whatever the simplistic rule du jour is, there is more to life than that.
The aptly named Mr. Banks can say,
A British bank is run with precision; a British home requires nothing less . . . Tradition, discipline and rules must be the tools; without them . . . youve a ghastly mess!
Yes but . . .
Just a spoon full of sugar helps the medicine go downin a most delightful way (Mary Poppins).
. . . they should feel the thrill of plotting up a balance book; a thousand ciphers neatly in a row . . . Tomorrow just as you suggest, pressed and dressed, Jane and Michael will be at your side! (Mary Poppins)
All around the cathedral the saints and apostles look down as she sells her wares. Although you cant see it you know they are smiling, each time someone shows that he cares: Feed the birds, tuppence a bag . . . (Mary Poppins)
Yes but . . .
. . . Alright father, you can have my tuppence (Michael Banks, having caused much grief by refusing to start a bank account).
With tuppence for paper and string, you can have your own set of wings: with your feet on the ground youre a bird in flight! With your fist holding tight to the string of your kite . . . (the newly unemployed Mr. Banks)
(Oh, Mr. Banks, father may have died, but dont be sorry. He died happyI never saw him laugh so hard in his life! By the way, theres an opening for a new partner . . .)
And what wisdom do the chimneysweeps offer amid all this contradiction?
Never need a reason, never need a rhyme; take your leave and step in time!