Review: Vivien Horler
Goodbye Christopher Robin – AA Milne and the making of Winnie-the-Pooh, by Ann Thwaite (Pan)
One of the first books I recall owning was a red cloth-bound copy of Winnie-the-Pooh, with a map of the Hundred Acre Wood where all the stories happened, marked: “Drawn by me and Mr Shepard helped”.
I loved it. Years later, in matric, I rediscovered the book and realised for the first time how funny it was. For instance: “Next to (Piglet’s) house was a piece of broken board which had “TRESPASSERS WILL” on it. When Christopher Robin asked Piglet what it meant, he said it was his grandfather’s name, which was short for Trespassers William. And his grandfather had had two names in case he lost one – Trespassers after an uncle, and William after Trespassers.”
Many years after that I took my own three-year-old son to play Poohsticks at the bridge in Ashdown Forest in East Sussex.
This is not a new book. It is based on Ann Thwaite’s biography of AA Milne: AA Milne: His Life, which won the Whitbread Biography of the Year in 1990. In 2017 came the film, directed by Simon Curtis, accompanied by this book. In her introduction Thwaite says it is “not just a cut version of the biography. It is the full story of how AA Milne came to write the four great children’s books and how Christopher Robin became one of the most famous children in the world.”
I enjoyed the film although didn’t much like the talking bear; this book is much better than the film. Unlike the film it’s not whimsical – apparently a word Milne grew to hate – but straightforward and honest.
In his preface Frank Cottrell-Boyce, co-writer of the screenplay, wrote: “AA 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’.”
And Cottrell-Boyce adds: “The only thing that’s changed since 1952 is that ‘almost’ is no longer needed.”
The great tragedy of Milne’s life was to become famous for writing “four trifles for the young” rather than for his serious West End plays, books and columns for Punch. Or as Cottrell-Boyce puts it: “You want to be Hamlet but you’re hailed as a clown. And now you can never be any kind of Hamlet.”
Another tragedy was the damage caused by the books to the relationship between Milne and his son. When Winnie-the-Pooh was published in 1926, Christopher Robin was just six years old, and he, along with his bear, was wheeled out at launches and functions to celebrate the book. Blessed with a fine singing voice, he later made a record of some of the poems in When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six, recordings that came to haunt him when he went to boarding school.
The recording of Vespers was particularly terrible for the older Christopher: “Hush, hush, whisper who dares, Christopher Robin is saying his prayers.” Boys in the next study played it remorsely over and over. Christopher Milne later wrote that eventually, when the record wore out, “they handed it to me and I took it and broke it into 100 fragments and scattered them over a distant field.”
As a boy Christopher Milne was known to his family as Billy Moon, “Moon” being his own childish pronunciation of “Milne”. In his autobiography AA Milne wrote that he had been astonished to discover, when When We Were Very Young was published, that the hero of that book of verses was not, “as I had modestly expected, the author, but a curiously named child of whom, at this time, I had scarcely heard”.
So while the whole world matched the character in the book to the author’s son, Milne writes: “To me he was, and remained, the child of my imagination. When I thought of him, I thought of him in the Forest, living in his tree as no child really lives; not in the nursery, where a differently named child (so far as we in this house are concerned) was playing with his animals…. All I have got from Christopher Robhin is a name which he never uses… However, the distinction, if clear to me, is not so clear to others…”
After World War II, when Christopher Milne was finding it difficult to get a job, he wrote: “…it seemed to me, almost, that my father had got to where he was by climbing upon my infant shoulders, that he had filched from me my good name…”
Despite his resentment though, he stocked the four Christopher Robin books in the bookshop he and his wife ran in Dartmouth. But he never took the share of his father’s fortune he inherited – it went into a trust for his disabled daughter, and to this day supports disabled people in south-west England.
I read Goodbye Christopher Robin in virtually one sitting and loved it. Had I known it existed when it was published two years ago, I would have reviewed it then. But when I found it in a bookshop this month, I fell on it with delight.