Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. I’m sure that you all sang that word as you read it.
It’s the chorus of a song that appears, alongside so many other musical and visual wonders, in Robert Stevenson’s film Mary Poppins, starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke.
Mary Poppins is set in Edwardian London, in the first decade of the twentieth century. One day, an umbrella glides in through the sky and holding onto the handle is Mary Poppins. Through her magic and her songs, Mary enchants Jane and Michael Banks, the children in her care, encouraging them to see the world through a child’s eyes rather than through the eyes of their father, the starched and domineering Mr. Banks. And yet it is Mr. Banks who is really the film’s main character, the one who has been lost and, at the end of the film, found again. His wife and children know how to see the world with wonder; but Mary Poppins teaches them how to teach him to look once more with the eyes of a child.
Nostalgia, melancholy, empathy. A smile that moves old wrinkles. It’s a children’s film, one that I saw as a child (it came out way back in 1964), and one that I have recently seen again as a father, with my children, during lockdown.
“There’s no pain greater than recalling happiness in times of misery.” This is not a line from Mary Poppins but from Francesca da Rimini in Dante’s Inferno, Canto V. She’s referring to happier times with her lover Paolo, with whom she now whirls about in the hurricanes of hell.
Now we are all thinking back with fondness and sadness on those happy days and evenings, so innocent and naïve: dancing, eating out, seeing friends. This will be the second Easter in a row that we will be unable to celebrate properly. ‘Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious’, the song that Mary and the chimney sweeper Bert sing and dance to while a horserace is going on around them, keeps coming back to mind.
This overly long word doesn’t make semantic sense, but it somehow makes itself understood in a different language, the language of the heart. According to Richard and Rob Sherman, the men who wrote it, the 28-letter word means “learning how to spread the word of fragile beauty”. And what buried meaning could be more wonderful than that?
“Learning how to spread the word of fragile beauty”. It’s all conveyed in that joyous and joyful rhythm that can’t help but put a smile on your face. It makes you want to take tea with our beloved nanny Mary Poppins and the cheeky, dishevelled chimney sweep (chim-chiminey, chim-chiminey, chim-chim, cheroo) in that perfect wooded parkland, at one of the wrought iron tables; and then leap into a cartoon to dance with penguins and dream our dreams of love.
What sets the human species apart from animals is the fact that we turn all our efforts, will and intelligence to the quest for happiness. We’ve always found it in the same places: in relationships, in being together. And even if we’re all exhausted and worn out by this pandemic, our instincts haven’t changed: we still look for happiness in love and friendships – it’s just that Covid has caused us to think about them differently, and not necessarily for the worse. No more can we throw massive parties, at which so many people drift away into their phones: now we can only come together in small groups, where feelings are nourished in a reciprocal way, fed by that “fragile beauty” we mentioned, elevated by the arts and the sensations that make life worth living.
So, these are our Easter wishes to you: happy supercalifragilisticexpialidocious to all!