Curiouser and curiouser: From Wonderland to Glee, we're falling in love with our childhoods all over again

With Alice in Wonderland on the big screen, storytelling clubs for adults and exhibitions set up like playgrounds, there's never been a better time to revisit the golden days of youth. Nancy Groves joins in the fun
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The Independent Culture

What possesses a group of young London professionals to put on their pyjamas, dig out their teddy bears and join each other after work at a mysterious hotel on the Mile End Road? The answer, I discovered with some relief last week, is not a fetish night, but the latest in a series of literary pyjama parties attended by some of the city's clued-up culture vultures.

Lawyers, medical researchers, PAs, bankers, even a mum-to-be – I met them all at Whitechapel's 40 Winks. The women were wearing vintage nighties; the men wore striped pyjamas while clutching teddies like Sebastian Flyte in Brideshead Revisited. Plied with gin fizz, we were first read an Oscar Wilde story, then an extract from The Young Visiters by Daisy Ashford. Finally, we were treated to some ancient Greek myths from Xanthe Gresham of the Crick Crack Club. The lights dimmed, our blankets warmed and an air of soporific contentment fell over the room.

"It's the feeling of being taken back to your childhood," explained the organiser David Carter to me the next day. "Rediscovering a time when you believed in flying carpets, ghosts and wonderful tales of romance. Guests feel vulnerable to start with, sitting in their pyjamas next to someone they don't know. But it ends up being a really magical experience."

I smell a metaphorical madeleine. The quest for lost childhood – Proust's recherche du temps perdu – is a theme as old as the blue-remembered hills. There are moments, though, when it converges with the path of contemporary culture, and this appears to be one of them. From the growth of storytelling to the popularity of TV shows such as Glee, regression is the order of the day.

Forget 1 Corinthians 13, which I read at a wedding last month. I don't want to "put away childish things". I'd rather fall down Alice's rabbit hole. A happy coincidence, then, that next month sees the release of Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland. Featuring Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter, and Burton's wife, Helena Bonham Carter, as the Red Queen, this 3D spectacular is the latest in a long line of Lewis Carroll adaptations – and no wonder. Along with Peter Pan and The Chronicles of Narnia, Carroll's Alice books are literature's greatest parables of childhood.

As Carroll writes in his prefacing poem: "Alice! A Childish story take / And with a gentle hand / Lay it where Childhood's dreams are twined / In Memory's mystic band." Wonderland's appeal is obvious, particularly to Burton, a director whose back catalogue betrays an almost pathological obsession with coming-of-age, from his remake of Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to his own fairytale Edward Scissorhands. But Burton is not the only one. Two directors better known for their adult surrealism have also dipped their toe into the training pool of late: Wes Anderson, with his stop-motion version of another Dahl classic, Fantastic Mr Fox; and Spike Jonze, who, together with the author Dave Eggers, transferred Maurice Sendak's beloved picture book Where the Wild Things Are to the big screen. Both have PG certificates, but it was adults filling up the cinema when I went to watch them, the same adults who no doubt sobbed their eyes out at the ending of Pixar's Up, when Carl finally fulfils his childhood dream.

If audiences are feeling "forever young", so too is the industry. Pick up this month's Vanity Fair and you will see Burton's Alice, the Australian newcomer Mia Wasikowska, among the nine "fresh faces" featured on its Hollywood fold-out. The March issue is always a big seller, thanks to this annual cover shot of Tinseltown's next big things, photographed in the latest haute couture by Annie Leibovitz.

But what's this? In place of ball-gowns, bobby socks. Instead of Jimmy Choos, bowling shoes. Despite boasting an average age of 24, this year's ingénues are dressed less for the Oscars, more for their first day at prep school. Compared to the 2008 cover on which Anne Hathaway and Amy Adams were swathed in elegant folds of taffeta, satin and silk, this latest cohort is younger – Wasikowska is 20 years old and Twilight's Kristen Stewart is just 19. But don't tell me their fellow cover star, Evan Rachel Wood, dresses this way for her boyfriend, Marilyn Manson. In their freshly pressed cotton, their hair cropped à la Carey Mulligan or, in Anna Kendrick's case, neatly pulled back with (what else?) an Alice band, these "girls" are a Humbert Humbert fantasy.

Style-watchers are calling it the Alice effect, though it's hard to work out whether film is influencing fashion or the reverse. Stevie Brown, a fashion and beauty writer at Asos magazine, which pin-points Wonderland as a leading trend for spring, thinks both.

"Designers often look forward to what's going to be out at the cinema when their clothes go on sale and they would have known about Alice," she says. "Burton is always big news and you can't underestimate the draw of Johnny Depp. The white sunglasses he wore in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory went global."

That Alice is a perennial source of inspiration is due in part to the brilliance of John Tenniel's original illustrations. The British cartoonist Bryan Talbot's best-selling Alice in Sunderland wove them into the real-life history of Carroll and Alice Liddell, who both had connections to North-east England. Leibovitz's most visionary spread to date (for US Vogue) featured the model Natalia Vodianova opposite fashion designers recast as characters from Carroll's book. Tom Ford's White Rabbit wore Gucci; the milliner Stephen Jones wore one of his own creations as the Mad Hatter; Tweedledum and Tweedledee were played by the Dutch duo Viktor & Rolf, who are riffing on Alice for their spring/ summer 2010 collection.

At their essence, drawing and dress-up are child's play – different ways of telling the same story. Of his ongoing collaboration with Depp, Burton has said: "We have a big dress-up clothes trunk. We take it with us wherever we go." Notably, the director chose to premiere footage from Alice at Comic-Con, which, according to Vanity Fair, now beats Cannes as the film industry's must-attend event.

The rise in the visibility of comic books is further evidence that we are no longer afraid of seeming childish. January's Comica Comiket at London's Institute of Contemporary Arts saw the launch of Solipsistic Pop, an anthology pitched as a British alternative to Dave Eggers' McSweeney's. Meanwhile, the oral-storytelling scene is expanding exponentially. Spark and Crick Crack are telling tales all over London, and the Big Story Festival, which opens at Battersea Arts Centre on 2 March, will feature not only traditional storytellers but also the spoken-word artist Polarbear and the glorious Little Bulb Theatre. Three of London's most popular art exhibitions in recent years have all been interactive. Psycho Buildings had us rowing across the roof of the Hayward Gallery, while Tate Modern filled its Turbine Hall with the grown-up playground of Bodyspacemotionthings and Carsten Höller's giant slides. Höller described the experience as entering a "state of simultaneous delight and anxiety". Rather, I imagine, like sliding down a rabbit hole.

Ostensibly, "social" events are also encouraging guests to make believe. At Secret Cinema's pre-Christmas extravaganza, twenty- and thirty-somethings dressed up as characters from Bugsy Malone, the classic children's gangster film. After the screening, in London's Art Deco gem the Troxy, they danced the night away, all the while hollering the film's refrain: "We could have been anything / That we wanted to be."

Then there is Viktor Wynd's Last Tuesday Society, whose monthly Orphanage parties attract a similar crowd to west London as 40 Winks does in the East End. "Put on your dancing shoes, your three-piece suit, the pretty dress your mother wore when she was presented to the Queen," instructed the last invitation, provoking a dual nostalgia, both for the dressing-up box of our own childhood and the "good old days" in general. It smacks of the London party scene of the 1920s, memorably captured in Evelyn Waugh's Vile Bodies and more recently in D J Taylor's excellent social history Bright Young People: The Rise and Fall of a Generation. The stamina of socialites such as Elizabeth Ponsonby (the model for Waugh's Agatha Runcible) put Peaches and Pixie Geldof to shame. Rock aristocracy is no match for the real deal.

Ponsonby belonged to a post-war, Peter Pan generation who refused to grow up. It's telling that among their many fancy-dress events were a string of so-called Second Childhood parties in the summer of 1929. As Taylor reports, pictures of party-goers sitting in prams, dressed in romper suits and drinking from baby bottles caused one paper to brand it "the type of behaviour that leads to Communism". And while it wasn't the second childhood of Shakespeare's famous speech in As You Like It ("Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything"), their relentless hedonism did shadow the "last scene of all". By 1940, Elizabeth Ponsonby had died of alcohol poisoning.

It's tempting to draw parallels between the Bright Young Things and the current trend for escapism – 1929 was the year of the Wall Street Crash, after all – but they don't quite line up. The columnist Michael Bywater wrote of the infantilism of 21st-century society in his book Big Babies – Or: Why Can't We Just Grow Up? But we have grown up. If war, debt and climate change didn't do the job, recession has forced our hand. But for taking responsibility, we allow ourselves some light nostalgia in return. How else to explain the success of The Dangerous Book for Boys, which has sold more than a million copies worldwide and is now being made into a film. "Do you want to recapture lazy Sunday afternoons and summer days?" reads the blurb. Then buy this book.

Bywater's critique focused on the baby boomers, but those frequenting Last Tuesday or Comic-Con are more likely to be in their twenties and thirties, or, like Wes Anderson, Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers, hitting 40 soon. "If the children don't grow up / Our bodies get bigger but our hearts get torn up," sing Arcade Fire on the trailer for Where the Wild Things Are. And when Max's mother says, "I could really use a story," she speaks for all of us. The "wild rumpus" is ours and we've got the T-shirt from Urban Outfitters to prove it.

Similar reasoning might explain the popularity of Glee. Originally marketed as High School Musical with bite, Fox's series differs from the sugar-coated Disney franchise in showing the agonies and ecstasies not only of teenagers but grown-ups, too. In the pilot's opening scenes, the Spanish teacher Will Schuester gazes wistfully through the glass of the school trophy cabinet at his past, the Winner's Cup from the 1993 Show Choir Championships. His forehead crinkles and before we know it, he's relaunching glee club as New Directions. No one is fooled by the name-change, least of all his beastly wife, Terri. "I understand your interest in these kids, Will," she whines. "It's your way of recapturing your glory days. But I'm not the head of the cheerleading squad anymore and you are not the golden boy. We need to move on."

Mr Shue knows there is no real harm in glee, though. As another William wrote: "My heart leaps up when I behold / A rainbow in the sky: / So was it when my life began, / So is it now I am a man, / So be it when I shall grow old / Or let me die!" No longer the golden boy, Will still shares Wordsworth's optimism, as do we. Glee's UK premiere attracted 1.3 million viewers, E4's highest audience figures since the first season of Lost. Of course, that could just be because of its fabulous soundtrack, set to chart in the top five this Sunday. Either way, we don't stop believing.

"The Golden Age is always, really, us," argued Bywater in his earlier book Lost Worlds. "It's the memory of our own childhood, not that it was necessarily wonderful... Nobody can recapture how they thought as a child; how the world felt; how alert the senses were; how the world seemed to offer endless opportunity, unalloyed promised under the sun." But we will continue to try. And where is the harm in that? Freud warned of fixating on the past, but his fellow psychoanalyst Hans W Loewald wrote: "To be an adult does not mean leaving the child in us behind." This is Wonderland, not Neverland. A place we visit, rather than somewhere we stay trapped forever. "I am Peter Pan," Michael Jackson told the journalist Martin Bashir. "No, you're Michael Jackson," said Bashir. "I'm Peter Pan in my heart," Jackson replied.

Happily, we are neither Peter, nor Alice (even if we do dress in blue this summer), but rather Alice's grown-up sister who, at the end of the first book, closes her eyes and imagines herself in Wonderland, too, "though she knew she had but to open them again, and all would change to dull reality." Her final thoughts are of "how this same little sister of hers would, in the after-time, be herself a grown woman... and how she would gather about her other little children, and make their eyes bright and eager with many a strange tale, perhaps even with the dream of Wonderland of long ago."

Back at 40 Winks, it's bedtime. Reluctantly, we swap our warm pyjamas for work clothes and emerge into the rainy Whitechapel night to catch the last Tube home.

Forever young: five ways to indulge your inner child


The Alice in Wonderland Experience at Antony House in Cornwall, a key location in Tim Burton's film. Iconic scenes are brought to life at this fine National Trust property.


Little Bulb Theatre's 'Sporadical', a hit at Edinburgh's Forest Fringe, now part of Battersea Arts Centre's Big Story Festival. Expect sea shanties and cardboard storms.


To Karen O and the Kids. You've seen 'Where the Wild Things Are', now hear the soundtrack. Plenty of handclaps from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs frontwoman.


Walker Books Illustrated Classics, beautiful editions uniting the big cheeses of children's fiction with today's finest illustrators. Helen Oxenbury tackles 'Alice'.


True stories at Spark club in London's Little Venice. The next two themes are "Lost and Found" and "Home". Get in touch with reminiscences of your own.