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Goodbye Christopher Robin: A. A. Milne and the Making of Winnie-the-Pooh
Author:Ann Thwaite

Goodbye Christopher Robin: A. A. Milne and the Making of Winnie-the-Pooh

Ann Thwaite



Success simplifies.

Quentin Crisp famously pointed out in a lecture that if he were to bring a distinguished old Yorkshireman onto the stage, the audience might be perplexed. But if he brought a polished abstract sculpture with a hole in the middle, the audience would cry out, ‘Ah! Henry Moore!’ So A. A. Milne’s long career as poet, playwright, polemicist, peace campaigner and novelist is completely eclipsed by four short children’s books which – as he put it in 1952 – he created . . .

. . . little thinking

All my years of pen-and-inking

Would be almost lost among

Those four trifles for the young.

The only thing that’s changed since 1952 is that ‘almost’ is no longer needed.

We are a society obsessed by the pursuit and adulation of success. We want to know The Secret of Your Success. And very very few things have been as successful as Winnie-the-Pooh. Pooh is one of those tiny handful of creations that are so enormously successful that we forget the infelicity of their name – Boots, The Beatles, Star Wars, Winnie-the-Pooh. There are many books that tell us how certain successes were or can be achieved – How I Lost Weight / Became President / Won Gold – and How You Could Too. But very few that tell us what success feels like, what lies in its aftermath. One of the great Secrets of Success is that more often than not it is not quite the kind of success you were hoping for. You want to be Hamlet but you’re hailed as a clown. And now you can never be any kind of Hamlet. You want to move on but your global hit exerts all the gravity of a planet and you are trapped in its orbit. Failure at least has the comfort of hope. Milne’s life story – as told here so compellingly by Ann Thwaite – brilliantly illuminates what it feels like to be tested by huge, unlooked-for success.

It isn’t easy. Frankenstein was so eclipsed by his own creation that it has robbed him of his name. Milne had a long, successful career in the theatre – a world in which the writer gets used to a certain amount of petting and caressing. He gets to hear the audience call, ‘Author! Author!’ No one did that at Pooh events. They wanted to see the bear and – more troublingly – the boy. Milne isn’t of course the only writer to find himself swallowed up by his own creation. You could say Milne’s friend and hero J. M. Barrie wrote with great commercial success after Peter Pan, but what does ‘after Peter Pan’ mean? Peter Pan was, is and always will be. Barrie’s other works are of their time. The over-arching drama of the Sherlock Holmes stories is the great detective’s struggle, not with Moriarty, but with his own creator’s attempts to kill him off.

Biography gives us the chance to restore some human complexity to the icon, to see some of the shade and shadow hidden behind the glare of monstrous success. Milne’s career traces a path through the suave, seductive world of London clubs of the twenties, through the green rooms of Shaftesbury Avenue all the way up to the Disney section of the app store on my phone. It’s good to be reminded of just how long and demanding an apprenticeship Milne had served before he discovered Pooh. His peerless dialogue has its roots in his playwriting career. His study of classics and his work on Punch had given him the extraordinary ease and range he shows in the poems. Milne’s are probably the last poems written that really cry out to be memorised and recited. They float like a butterfly and sting like a bee. I can’t think of a poem more easily absorbed and enjoyed than ‘Disobedience’. I also can’t think of one that captures so perfectly one of the true terrors of childhood.

It’s good to be reminded, too, that Pooh was not universally adored, that writers who had admired Milne’s lightness of touch turned on what they saw as the mawkishness of Pooh. ‘Tonstant Weader’, said Dorothy Parker, ‘twowed up’. ‘Timothy Bobbin’, wrote P. G. Wodehouse, ‘goes hoppity hoppity hoppity hoppity hop’. Cruellest of all is Richmal Crompton’s brilliant skewering of the cult of Christopher Robin in the poem ‘Homework’ – ‘Anthony Martin is doing his sums’.

The adulation of the public is salt in the wound of the writer who has lost the admiration of his peers.

One of the unexpected treasures of this book is Ann Thwaite’s moving account of Milne’s relationship with his brother Kenneth. Milne’s letters to Kenneth uncover the well-spring of his creativity with all its childish joys, shadowed by tragedy. They are a real find. I was bewitched by this material when I read the book. Of course, when I was asked to write a film about Milne I left that out.

If success simplifies, film simplifies the simplification.

Or put another way, biography looks for what makes the individual different; drama looks for what we have in common. You can sell a million books if you write a good story well but a cultural phenomenon like Pooh needs something else. It needs to touch a raw nerve. That terrible review by Dorothy Parker also covered Christopher Morley’s children’s book I Know a Secret – which really is a pile of mawkish mush. There was a fashion for sentimentalising children on which people like Morley successfully cashed in. Milne on the other hand searched it for its source and found something true and terrible and enduring.

The House at Pooh Corner stands in a glade between two dark shadows – the aftermath of one war that had just finished and the dread of one coming. No one who fought in the First World War knew it was the First World War. On the contrary, they had been told that they were fighting the war that would end all wars. It must have been with the most bitter irony and failure, then, that that generation – Milne’s generation – watched their children march away to a war that they had been told would never happen. The Milnes received that dreaded telegram telling them their son was missing in action and presumed he was dead. This can happen to anyone. This is feared by everyone. It’s there – something you can build a film around. It’s the shadow that makes the carefree days in the Hundred Acre Wood tremble and shimmer with their own fragility. They are suffused with a sense that happiness is possible and valid even though we know it is short-lived. It’s a feeling that is expressed with peculiar intensity in the political situation of the between-the-war years but which applies to everyone, everywhere, all the time.