“All children, except one, grow up.”
It celebrates its 100th anniversary this year, but PETER PAN hasn’t aged a day. JM Barrie’s children’s classic originated with a story published in ‘The Little White Bird’ in 1902, made its debut as a play in 1904, and finally appeared as the beloved book in 1911, under the title PETER AND WENDY.
As the author of a couple of hard-boiled crime novels, I occasionally get asked about my favourite novel. PETER PAN, I say, and brace myself for the inevitable squinty-eyed glare from under a raised eyebrow. Am I being ironic? Did I mishear the question? Have I gone senile, and am I reverting to infantilism?
No, no and not quite yet. There’s no other way of putting this, so I’m just going to go ahead and say it: PETER PAN is the best novel ever written, bar none.
Why so? Well, first off it’s a rollicking tale, as you already know. Boys and girls who fly off to a magical islands, there to encounter fairies, pirates and Red Indians, wild beasts for the hunting and a ticking crocodile, and an anarchic band of lost boys led by the irrepressibly brave swashbuckler, Peter himself, nemesis of the unspeakably evil and sadistic Captain Hook. It’s funny, dangerous and tragic; it features betrayals and outrageous reversals of fortune, the poignancy of loss, death and even a resurrection.
There’s a good chance, of course, that you know the story from the 1953 Disney cartoon, or from the countless adaptations of the book, or contemporary movies such as ‘Hook’ (1991), ‘Peter Pan’ (2003) or ‘Finding Neverland’ (2004). If that’s the case, you won’t know that the novel itself is exquisitely written by a writer at the very top of his game. Stuffy literary types arguing that James Joyce’s ULYSSES, say, or Tolstoy’s WAR AND PEACE, are better written, neglect the scientifically proven fact that PETER PAN is one million times more enjoyable than WAR AND PEACE, and just under one trillion times more comprehensible than ULYSSES.
Furthermore, neither WAR AND PEACE nor ULYSSES, nor any other novel to the best of my knowledge, have been central to the funding of a children’s hospital, as is the case with London’s Great Ormond Street Hospital, which has been in receipt of the royalties from PETER PAN since 1929. It’s a particularly poignant relationship, given that the Peter Pan story Wendy’s mother knew as a child was that Peter went part of the way to heaven with children who died, so that they wouldn’t be frightened on the journey.
It’s no small coincidence that one of the heroines of PETER PAN is called Tiger-Lily, and that my own daughter is called Lily. So you can imagine my delight went I arrived at the crèche last week to find one of Lily’s carers reading PETER PAN aloud to a small circle of bowed heads, all utterly rapt.
I’d presumed Lily was still too young for PETER PAN - it gets quite dark in places, after all. But no. In the car on the way home, I asked about Captain Hook. “He’s scrummied up in the crockdile’s tummy, yum-yum!” she crowed.
One hundred years on, the tale of the boy who never grew up is still wowing children all over the world. More importantly, perhaps, it’s helping sick kids to get better and grow up at Ormond Street Hospital.
This year, do yourself a favour and treat a kid you know, perhaps even your own inner child, to PETER PAN. Would that we all stayed so young with such grace.
“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.