I’m in the middle of Little Dorrit at the moment, as well as reviewing the new Melvyn Bragg for work. They are both, for totally different reasons, pretty intense – debtors’ prisons, peasants’ revolts, injustice etc etc. Honey won’t make any of these characters’ problems any more manageable; there’s not a tiddly-pom in sight. So this week I thought I’d tone it down a bit and look at Winnie, the bear of very little brain who’s been capturing imaginations around the world for almost a century. This December he’ll celebrate his 100th birthday, having first appeared in the London Evening News on Christmas Eve 1925, in a story called The Wrong Sort of Bees.
As a novelist, playwright, essayist and assistant editor at Punch, AA Milne wasn’t unknown before the publication of Pooh, but it was these earlier successes which enabled him to buy a nice big pile – called Cotchdown Farm – in East Sussex’s Hartfield. (This would later become Brian Jones’ home, where he died in 1969.) Milne and his family used the house as a weekend retreat, and the neighbouring Ashdown Forest became the inspiration for Hundred Acre Wood. Through exploring the countryside with his son, Christopher Robin Milne, the place became a symbol of adventure and imagination.
Christopher Robin was written into the stories; he wrote an account of his experiences in The Enchanted Places, describing his love for the forest but also referencing the unease of growing up as a sort of modern-day child celebrity, preserved forever as a work of fiction known around the world. (“the ordinary things that boys do who live in the country…this is the part of my childhood that I look back on with the greatest affection”). His favourite toy was also brought to life on the page – initially called Edward, the teddy was eventually named after a Canadian black bear the family often saw at London Zoo, Winnie, and Pooh, a swan who features in When We Were Very Young. There are many theories as to the name, but I don’t remember mulling the question over as a child. The explanation given by Milne in the first book seems, significantly for children, to be enough: “But his arms were so stiff… they stayed up straight in the air for more than a week, and whenever a fly came and settled on his nose he had to blow it off. And I think – but I am not sure – that that is why he is always called Pooh.”
Pooh’s adventures take place in and around Hundred Acre Wood. Milne draws on the original forest and transforms it: describing it through the eyes of a child, so we get, for example, “A Nice Place for Picnics”; “An area with Big Stones and Rocks”; “The Six Pine Trees”; “A Floody Place” and “The Pooh Trap for Heffalumps”. I went to visit at Easter this year – discovering at East Grinstead station that the forest dates back to Norman times, when it was used for deer hunting, and is now one of the largest free public-access spaces in the southeast of England. We jumped in a cab (decadent but it’s quite a schlep to the wood itself), our driver popped the dog in the front seat (he fell asleep and drooled on the gearbox) and then proceeded to mutter various racist opinions on the Pooh industry in East Sussex for the 20-minute journey.
We’re Londoners, so of course we got lost. Ashdown is a proper, living breathing forest, all tangled and mossy and boggy. Unspecified “things” scurry away from you in bushes as you enter clearings or round leafy corners. We set off at Wrens Warren Valley – or “Eeyore’s sad and gloomy place”, a deep and steep dip of beige grass and heather. It was silent, completely deserted – we had a picnic at Hundred Acre Wood, a clump of pine trees at the top of the valley. Then we wandered down to Gills Lap Clump (I love these strange, Anglo-Saxon names) or The Enchanted Place, and past the Milne & Shepard memorial (near the Heffalump Trap, where Piglet digs a pit for Pooh to dump the honey in). This memorial to both the writer and illustrator has been positioned in the spot Christopher Robin says AA sat and envisaged Pooh. It offers a view for miles around, a rare oasis of trees bending down and giving onto the slopes beyond.
We passed Roo’s Sandy Pit, actually a disused quarry but still pretty enough: the place where Pooh, Piglet and Rabbit planned to kidnap Roo in a plot to force Kanga leave the forest:
“Here-we-are,” said Rabbit very slowly and carefully, “all-of-us, and then, suddenly, we wake up one morning, and what do we find? We find a Strange Animal among us. An animal of whom we had never even heard before! An animal who carries her family about with her in her pocket!” Rabbit, the most calculating of the animals in Hundred Acre Wood, uses the others’ wariness of these creatures never seen before to encourage their expulsion from the wood. This, I think, is one of Milne’s most important stories: Kanga and Roo come to the forest, we’re told, “in the usual way” during chapter seven of the first book. They’re suspicious because they’re different – but when Piglet is substituted for Roo, Kanga pretends she doesn’t notice, and goes about the routine of Roo’s bathtime and medicine-taking as usual (with predictably hilarious consequences). Pooh and Rabbit come to realise that, though they’ve never seen animals like these, that’s no reason to exclude them – Milne doesn’t ram the “moral” of the story down young readers’ throats, but it’s there.
I was amazed when I realised there are only two dedicated Pooh books: Winnie the Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner (though he does feature in When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six). We heard the stories so often as children – having younger siblings means you get read the most popular stuff double, or in my case triple, the amount you would normally – and were so familiar with the characters, it seemed to me there must be many more. Mostly the stories are episodic and can be read independently of each other, but the characters remain largely the same. These are useful conduits for Milne, who was writing for and about children – the process of socialisation, solving problems together, and growing up. At the risk of sounding pseudo-analytical or sentimental, it’s significant that Piglet, Rabbit, Owl, Eeyore, Tigger, Kanga and Roo each represent a part of any one personality, an emotion or trait all children will identify with at one time of another: anxiety, intellect, sadness, over-excitment, the desire to nurture and the desire to have fun. The Pooh books also deal with separation and moving on – Christopher Robin leaves the forest (to go to school, though it’s not stated) and says a private goodbye to Pooh at the end of the second book.
We wandered round this quiet, untouched woodland, and on to the Pooh shop which was cute but not cutesy – not as Disney-fied as I’d expected. And then, finally, to the Anchor Inn, where we waited for the one bus back to the train station until the morning, and almost missed it.
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