Peter Pan and the could-have-beens

Charles Cowling

George Llewelyn Davies

George Llewelyn Davies

Posted by Richard Rawlinson

The two-minute silence, the candle-lit vigil and the ‘lights out’ remembrance ritual have all played a part in World War One centenary commemorations this year.

The Great War’s anniversary topicality has also sparked interest in its history, whether reading, or visiting the extremely well-curated centenary exhibition at London’s Imperial War Museum.

It was Stalin who stated of death: ‘one is a tragedy; one million is a statistic’. Individual stories do indeed make it easier to empathise with universal suffering and sacrifice. Shame they failed to move the Soviet sadist.

While researching the life and death of a relative killed, aged 24, in the trenches of at St Eloi on 14 March, 1915, I stumbled across the fact that George Llewelyn Davies, one of the brothers who inspired JM Barrie’s Peter Pan and the Lost Boys, fell on the same day at the same place, and also as a result of being shot in the head.

George, pictured here in his final year at Eton in 1912, was by now being fostered by Barrie, who had become his guardian on the death of George’s mother in 1910. George had lost his father in 1907, and was close to ‘Uncle Jim’, exchanging letters regularly while he was away at school.

Barrie began writing Peter Pan when George was 10. In response to Barrie’s tale about babies who died and went to live in Neverland, the boy reportedly inspired Peter Pan’s memorable line, ‘To die will be an awfully big adventure’.

Had George lived, he might, conceivably, have started a family around 1920. His offspring might have started families of their own around 1950, meaning this generation would be around retirement age right now. They in turn may have had children around 1980, meaning George’s great grandchildren could be 30somethings now, and producing their own bundles of joy. 

So it goes on, this awfully big adventure of life and death. One death has prevented others from themselves experiencing life and death. And we, of course, might have been ‘could-have-beens’, too, had a direct descendant died earlier. It goes without saying that if our grandparents hadn’t had our parents, neither they nor we would be around either.

This leads to a flight of fancy almost worthy of Peter Pan. For millennia, people have believed in life after death, but it’s less common for human imaginations to dwell on the possibility of there being a life of some kind before conception and life on earth? We need to live to die, but Fate ensures millions miss out on this living and dying thing.

A moment of silence or applause, or light a candle or raise a glass, to those who went before, those who are here now, those who are yet to come and those who could have been but weren’t.

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Jonathan Taylor
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Jonathan Taylor

Would I have not been,
would I have been another,
would someone else have been me,
could we have been and not been,
still be,
yet to be,
each other?

We do not know.
We don’t even know what means we,
let alone I,
and if my parents had been born to others
who were killed in a war before their birth,
where and what and who would I be now,
would I be now,
would I be,
would I,
would…
?

Kathryn Edwards
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Kathryn Edwards

Nice one, Richard: a gentle nudge into existential reverie.

Kitty
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Kitty

Richard – this is a wonderful post, thank you. Individual stories really do bring home the tragedy of war.