Monday, October 29, 2007

The goldfish bowl

One of the many questions asked by Jeremy Paxman in his book “The Political Animal” is what effect standing for Parliament has on the lives of your children. Living in the public eye, of being some kind of exemplar of proper living to the community, can affect every moment of a child’s life and colour any interaction they have with other people. Paxman gives the example of one spawn-of-MP who wrote to discourage other parents from standing.

I thought of this as I made my way through “The Enchanted Places”, an account of the real people and places that informed the writing of Winnie the Pooh, and of the impact the Pooh books had on those same people and places. It’s a rather meandering and melancholic book, and the saddest thing about it is that its author is a grown-up Christopher Robin.

Christopher Milne was 54 when he wrote the book, running a small bookshop where he felt both obliged and embarrassed about stocking his father’s books. He’s frank about not caring that his old toys were sold off to America, and told a family friend he had no interest in having back the letter he’d written her when he was 12.

Milne’s disquiet with the adventures of his alter-ego are complex, and must be teased from his accounts of the houses he lived in, of his nanny and of the parts of the wood where he played. It’s no help in sorting fiction from reality that the two are so intertwined. Photographs show the meticulous care EH Sheppard took to portray the Poohsticks Bridge correctly, as well as how accurately he depicted Christopher Robin’s girlish haircut and clothes. And Milne admits he couldn’t have been happier in his days playing at Cotchford Farm.

A shy boy, Milne still enjoyed taking part in the pageants and recordings where he had to perform as himself. But it’s his subsequent life, as a bullied and teased schoolboy, that seem to have taken their toll. He has inherited his parents’ attitude to the fan mail, requests and questions (his mother referred to this blanket non-response as “Wol”, since Wol says wisely that doing nothing is “the best thing”). The book, says Milne, might placate some of those who’ve written, and maybe explain why he will not respond.

There’s a strong sense that Milne has been victimised because of his childhood role in a fairy tale. He remains cross, after some forty years, that a journalist once fabricated his words to make him more precocious. He is annoyed that his own childhood and relationships are so picked over, and by the assumptions strangers make of him. He cluckingly tells of a visitor to his bookshop thrilled to see him writing, a thrill he punctures because he’s merely writing an invoice.
“If my father had a talent for writing, my mother had an un-talent. Why should people assume that I ought to have inherited the one rather than the other? If talents always dominated un-talents we should today be a world of Newtons, Shakespeares, Leonardos and saints. Blessed are the untalented!

“Writing (so it seems to me) is a combination of two separate skills: the ability to use words and the ability to create with words; rather in the way that building a house demands two separate skills, the bricklayer’s and the architect’s. A writer, in other words, is simultaneously a craftsman and a designer.”
Christopher Milne, The Enchanted Places, p. 135.

But Milne’s past is not only difficult because of the attention of strangers. His relationship with his father is cordial but guarded, and his own struggles to find a role for himself as an adult coincide with his father’s diminishing career. He says he’s unsure how much his parents sieved and edited the requests for appearances, but to a modern reader their attitude to all they put their son through seems at best na├»ve. He’s also guarded about exploring their thoughts and motives, admitting worry about what he might find.

Milne also seems to suggest that he disappointed his parents. He seems to have been an awkward and timid only child. His mother hoped he would marry the “Alice” who accompanied him to the changing of the guard in the poem – the same Alice to whom the book is dedicated. (There’s no reason given why he didn’t marry her.)

By the time he writes the book his parents have died and the old house and toys have been sold off. He doesn’t even mention the sale of film rights to Disney, or the peculiar film that resulted in which a posh boy somehow lives in a jungle with real (not stuffed toy) bears and tigers. (Which is especially odd, because that first film rather deftly makes it part of the plot that this is all happening inside a book... )

Often Milne is hazy on dates and details, so that things happen in a jumbly fog of upbringing. I found myself wishing a ghostwriter could have contributed a little basic research. There are just three sources: AA Milne’s own autobiography; a transcript of that single letter written by 12 year-old Christopher Robin; and his own memories as an adult. Milne resents the conjurings that surround his family’s life, based on guesses and speculation. But his loose and woolly reminiscences don’t exactly dispel any myths.

It struck me that rather than some insight into the writing process or the effect of childhood fame, this is a memoir of lost innocence, just as is “The House at Pooh Corner”. Milne himself argues that that book is as much about his father’s own childhood and loss as it is about his son’s. Both books tantalise adults with longing for those long-lost sunny days. Yet Christopher Robin’s own account – and despite its title – denies us the consolation that somewhere,
“a little boy and His bear will always be playing.”

11 comments:

Rob said...

Have you ever seen "Dreamchild"? It's a movie about Alice Liddell's trip to New York when she was 80, and her difficulties of living with her 8-yr-old fictional persona. There are flashbacks to her childhood, and character sequences (using Jim Henson puppets) which are suggested as dreams or fancies by Alice as she is prompted to re-visit her childhood and re-evaluate her whole life.

If you've not seen it, you must. But it's not available on DVD, allegedly because of the fairly unavoidable subtext of Alice's relationship with Dodgson (played by Ian Holm), who cuts a fairly tragic figure. The theme is certainly not side-stepped, with Alice's mother (Jane Asher) visibly wary of Dodgson.

Alice at 80 is a prissy, repressed old English dame who is bemused and irritated by her fame - and being addressed by her forename by young American journalists. Her memories are clearly confused and sometimes uncomfortable. But there's a sort of happy ending, in that the experience seems to help Alice reach a kind of closure with her past. She appears to conclude that, warts and all, her relationship with Dodgson was ultimately a positive thing.

To me, it seems is likely this conclusion alone would make the film too "controversial" today. That's because people are twats.

IZP said...

One of the great 80s Dennis Potter works Dreamchild (loosely based on his 60s play Alice responsible for us getting Debbie Watling in Victorian garb, but he wasn't to know) and it's got Ken Campbell in it too!

I've got in on VHS if by some accident you've not seen it.

Does CR Milne mention the Pertwees at all? Jon Pertwee's Moonboots and Dinner Suits mentions playing with Milne and reveals Eeyore to have been a real donkey (making the detachable tail even more Pooh Perplexing).

0tralala said...

No, I've not seen Dreamchild, which sounds marvellous.

No, Milne mentions thee not the Pertwees. But he does mention a sulky real donkey who used to sit down in the middle of your riding him. This and a rather overly loved soft -toy version were what gave rise to Eeyore.

Rabbit and Owl, though, they were made up From Scratch.

IZP said...

Bung me a "where I live now" email, and I'll send you the VHS.
I suspect it's Sydenham, it usually is, but I also suspect that may not be enough...

0tralala said...

Ooh! Service!

Rob said...

Dennis Potter?

Either I didn't know that, or I'd forgotten.

Do we know anyone good at video capture who can make an AVI out of Ian's VHS?

uussakw - weren't they an American Indian tribe?

Anonymous said...

Random fact number 12.

There are about twenty five houses in the UK all caled Poah Corner. The most expensive is half a Million quid. So now you know.

Ever helpful,

O

deejsaint said...

By a remarkable coincidence, just a couple of weeks back I read "Beyond The World Of Pooh" (no sniggering) by the same writer - a late-in-life autobiog which I think acts as a compendium of some of his earlier work, including the one you're describing. It does have a little more detail on his own emotional life and career than you suggest is the case here, if you fancy filling in a gap or two. But yes - the lack of sentiment attached to the toys themselves by the actual boy who owned them is a remarkably interesting thing.

There is more than one bookshop in Weymouth devoted to Milne (senior), and I assumed (wrongly) that that was where he came from. But not even Milne (junior) was based there, being some distance up the coast. I wonder what the reason is? But I shall probably never ask anyone who knows...

Got to go. I hear they're changing guard at Buckingham Palace, and I don't want to miss that.

D x

Robert said...

I used to work with someone who had a Winnie the Pooh tie. Every day that he wore it to work, he would rub the tie and say 'oh no, I've got pooh on my tie'

That is all.

0tralala said...

Good grief, I think this is my most celebrated post yet...

Yes, I know AVI-dextrous personages. And yes, I am interested in the book, Deej (though I have a great spire of books to get through already; it looks like the spaceship in State of Decay, with houses and vegetation growing from it).

No idea why Weymouth would latch itself to Pooh. The Milne's house, Cotchford Farm, was about a mile from Hartfield (which has a museum and does maps and things), which is not too far from Tunbridge Wills and DWM.

Thanks for the top fact, O. Are you looking to buy. And if I had a Pooh tie I'd make the same joke as Robert's colleague.

Robert said...

In a previous job, another colleague had a Marx Brothers tie and was always heard complaining he couldn't get 'these Marx' off his tie.

I've had a full and varied life...