The Mid-Life Marvel of The Peter Pan Sculpture in London’s Trendy Hyde Park – and what it means. By Peter Lyle.
There are no edifying ways to be a man in the modern world. You can basically be a compliant, right-on, super-sensitive, shit-taking pussy, and hate yourself for that, or you can be an overbearing, self-gratifying, Machivellian egomaniac, and have more fun but do more harm too, and eventually feel at least as revolting and ashamed. But the point is, either way, you're trapped inside a gender that surrendered all its fading claims to a distinct, important earthly purpose a good three or four decades ago.
As a boy, I tried to adapt to this indubitable and inglorious truth by reminding myself that I was a boy, and that was different. The downside of that was that I started mourning my lost childhood before it was even over. Melancholy, sometimes sentimental, artworks about the irretrievability of youth and the inevitable rubbishness of the adult male (typically represented by a well-meaning buffoon of a father) became a serious preoccupation. The original, perfect “National Lampoon's Vacation”; the mighty Tove Jansson's “Moominpoppa at Sea”; Jeffrey Eugenides' chorus of heartbroken Virgin Suicides narrators; Oscar Wilde's fairy stories; the Borribles, Michael Barry's London street kids who never grew up, and “On the Nickel” a Tom Waits song about tramps in Downtown LA that always makes me cry snot and adopt the foetal position before the second bar's over.
The little daddy of all these lost boys is, of course, Peter Pan. And the daddy of all those flaccid, silly-sad father figures is Mr Darling, father of Wendy. J.M. Barrie, the author who birthed all three of them, commissioned this sculpture by Sir George Frampton in 1912, 10 years after the very first Peter Pan story he ever wrote. It was to sit in Kensington Gardens, a skipping stone's throw from the Serpentine, where I like to go to watch the migrant birds return for summer, and marvel that they get to escape to African skies instead of being stuck with the cloistered, lustless London winter.
Frampton's design was recast to identical sculptures that still stand in six other cities, including Liverpool, Brussels and Toronto. I've not seen any of the duplicates, nor do I imagine any of them would hold much magic for me - as a statue, as a bronze representation of an important figure, Frampton's sculpture is rather underwhelming. The figure itself is a lithe, graceful, but rather anonymous boy in a mildly twee Snap, Crackle & Pop-type outfit - Barrie later admitted that it "doesn't show the devil in Peter." Since 2000, that absence of danger and dynamism has been shown up by another London statue, commissioned by Great Ormond Street Hospital and created by Diarmud Byron O'Connor with the intention of capturing Peter's love of mischief and mayhem.
In Frampton's Kensington Gardens sculpture, the macabre, firestarting, anarchic aspect of Peter's character is better represented by the monument's impressive base, which is riddled with bronze rabbits, mice, creepy crawlies and all the other things little boys are really made of. For me, the lack of life in Frampton's Peter, whom tourists queue to take a picture with all day long, is redeemed by the seething, secret, earthy and alive world under his feet that goes all that ignored.
Ultimately, though, this statue is not special because it is a special statue. It is special because Barrie had it built on the exact spot where Peter landed after escaping the nursery in his very first appearance in that very first story. That's why it deserves to be on a pedestal. "What becomes of all the little boys who never comb their hair?" Tom Waits asked in “On the Nickel”. When I stand near Frampton's sculpture, close enough to feel close but not so near that I'm in danger of compromising the latest Europhoto opportunity being taken at its feet, I feel better about those little boys and am consoled by the thought that, even if only for a fleeting moment, they can still find places to call their own.