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 naïve. 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.”