To mark the sixtieth anniversary of the first appearance of A A Milne’s famous bear, Chris Powling offers an essay.
When did you last play pooh-sticks?
As you’ll recall, it’s not a complicated game. All you need is a bridge, a handful of twigs and a river whose speed-of-flow urgently requires testing. After this, Nature can safely be left to take its course. Like conkers, pillow-fights and seashore pebbles flat enough for skimming, pooh-sticks brings about a response so obvious nobody has ever spelled out the rules in any detail. Literary historians, however, being bores of little brain, may try to tell you it was invented by A A Milne and cite chapter and verse (or hum) to prove it. Well, that’s their story. His story is rather better. It simply documents a phenomenon that’s timeless and universal. Pooh-sticks has always existed.
Like Pooh himself, of course. Or Piglet. Or Rabbit. Or Owl. Or Kanga. Or Roo. Or Tigger.
Oh yes. Or Eeyore.
Who, except on purpose to establish essential Eeyore-ness, could possibly forget Eeyore? Haven’t we known him, or someone exactly like him, all our lives? For the Pooh-books introduce us to what’s already perfectly familiar, that’s all. Well, almost all. The permanence of Pooh is certainly rooted in recognition-at-first sight, but it’s the freshness built into every subsequent encounter by sheer literary craftsmanship which keeps us hooked. Take this, for instance:
‘Before he knew where he was, Piglet was in the bath, and Kanga was scrubbing him firmly with a large, lathery flannel.
“Ow!” cried Piglet. “Let me out! I’m Piglet!”
“Don’t open the mouth, dear, or the soap goes in,” said Kanga. “There! What did I tell you?”‘
All the Pooh stories have this luminous what-did-I-tell-you quality. They’re a celebration of the Obvious made suddenly less blinding. Yet, over and over again, the revelation is kept sharp by the author’s verbal deftness.
Of course, as the years go by we have to work a little harder at the text. Time casts a stumbling-block or two into the passage of most books and Pooh is no exception. The biggest obstacle here, undeniably, is Christopher Robin.
Was there ever a more insufferable child than Christopher Robin?
Every inch of him exudes smugness – from the top of that curious, bobbed haircut to the tip of those tiny-tot sandals (and the smock and shorts in between are just as irritating). Okay, so we shouldn’t take him at face value. Maybe there is deep irony in this twentieth-century version of the Victorian Beautiful Child. In Christopher Robin’s case, however, we must certainly heed the wise advice of Oscar Wilde that it’s only a superficial person who does not judge by appearances. With Milne’s prose reinforced by E H Shepard’s superb line-drawings, Christopher Robin must surely be just what he seems. And what he seems is a serious affront to anyone who believes children are simply people who haven’t lived very long. My favourite literary fantasy is a confrontation between Pooh’s celebrated owner and that alternative emblem of childhood, the hardly less celebrated William Brown – amazingly, in fact and fiction, some half-dozen years the elder. The outcome, as satisfying as it is predictable, might be summarised thus:
“‘How did you fall in Christopher Robin?” asked Rabbit, as he dried him with Piglet’s handkerchief.
“I didn’t,” said Christopher Robin.
“But how -“
“I was BOUNCED,” said Christopher Robin.
“Oo,” said Roo, excitedly, “Did somebody push you?”
“Somebody BOUNCED me. I was just thinking by the side of the river – thinking, if any of you know what that means – when I received a loud BOUNCE.”
“Oh, Christopher Robin!” said everybody.’
Actually, they said it to Eeyore but few adults today won’t relish my substitution.
Today’s children, on the other hand, would probably wonder why I’m making such a fuss. Like Heffalumps and North Pole Expotitions and Crustimoney Proseedcake and the ‘useful pot to put things in’ which grown-up critics now shrink from for fear of seeming to endorse nostalgia, Christopher Robin nowadays is self-evidently a period-piece – part of a continuing costume drama of no greater handicap than the Eton collars and gobstoppers and dinner-gongs in the early William stories. What still counts for youngsters, in my experience, is what should count for us: the toy-animals who are almost people. They’re far more important than the twee human who is nowhere near a child.
And it’s not hard to see why. That ‘almost’ is crucial. For Pooh and company are magnificently full-of-life only so far as comedy allows. They don’t grow, for example. That’s not their function. To grumble, as a recent critic has done, that ‘the narrative derives … from the conjunction and opposition of known qualities. No one, not even the comparatively imaginative Pooh, changes or develops’ is to miss the point by a mile. The same is true of William, Henry, Douglas and Ginger, over the course of three hundred-or-more Richmal Crompton stories. The known-qualities deployed by comedy are static because the pain of being otherwise would foul up the plot. Children are free to laugh at what happens to Eeyore precisely because they recognise at once there’s no need to feel sorry for him: he’s so good at feeling sorry for himself. None better, in fact -just as Rabbit’s bossiness can’t be topped, nor Piglet’s timidity, nor Tigger’s bounce, nor Owl’s pomposity.
Hence attention can be focussed right where Milne wants it – on a series of the most gentle come-uppances ever devised: ‘There! What did I tell you?’
The permanence of the Pooh-books, then, has nothing whatever to do with their psychological depth or the sharpness of their social comment or their status as morality. These don’t matter a jot. What’s important, through and through, is their success as storytelling. And this is a triumph. It survives shifts in fashion. It survives Christopher Robin. It even survives that odd tone-of-voice which, for all Milne’s simple language, never quite settles for a child audience. The world Pooh creates is completely unique and utterly self-sustaining. Yes, it is a world that’s very like ours … but much, much more like itself.
Chris Powling, a regular contributor to BfK, is no mean humorist himself. One of his most recent books for children, The Phantom Carwash in Heinemann’s Banana Books series, was included in the Smarties shortlist for the 7-11 category.
A Proliferation of Pooh
Winnie-the-Pooh first appeared in print in 1926 in the book which bears (sorry!) his name. Two years later came the second set of stories about Christopher Robin and his friends, The House at Pooh Corner. Those two books, discounting isolated and disguised brief appearances in verse in When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six, are the sum total of Milne-created Pooh literature. This year Pooh, in publishing terms, is 60. Birthday parties and bear rallies have been held across the country, Pooh has been presented with an OAP bus pass and been featured on the Nine o’Clock News; hype on a scale that could only be mounted on the back of a national institution. Those two modest books with their charming black and white Shepard illustrations are still in print. So also are over fifty other ‘Pooh books’ on the Methuen and Magnet lists.
You can have the stories themselves in hardback or paperback, full-colour or black and white, collected or selected, mixed or singly, miniaturised or individualised, boxed or packaged, in English or Latin. And then you can have all the spin-offs: ‘inspired b’. ‘based on’, ‘in the style of’, ‘after the style’ of’. There are two pop-up books ‘after the – style of E H Shepard. A very long way after! And with extracts from Milne’s original text edited to near nonsense. There’s an Alphabet Book, a Counting Book, Board Books with new titles (Pooh’s Rainy Day). a Painting Book, a Song Book, a Craft Book. a Recorder Book and no less than four cookery books (a bit tactless to put the Risotto with bacon in Piglet’s section of The Pooh Corner Cookbook).
You can have a pooh Frieze, or Pooh Posters, a Pooh Address Book or Birthday Book. You can even get philosophical with The Tao of Pooh or tone up your muscles with Pooh’s Workout Book, paperbacked – this year because Now We Are Sixty. Apart from a few extracts from the genuine Milne the entire text of this last paperback is written by Ethan Mordden after the style of A A Milne – and if you want convincing that there is more to Milne’s deceptively simple style than meets the eye, read Ethan Mordden.
Specially for the birthday/Christmas season are some new publications: The Winnie-the-Pooh Journal, a book of lined pages each headed with a Pooh quotation ‘For Writing your Special Thoughts in Your Own Words’ (£3.95); four Pooh Sticker Books, containing a story and four pages of re-usable self-adhesive stickers to move around the pages (£2.95 each); and The Pooh Book of Quotations, compiled by Brian Sibley (£4.50) which should find a place on the bookshelf in anybody’s loo.
A special award to Methuen for making a little go a very long way! And that’s not saying anything about the Disney versions of Pooh – which is probably the best thing to do with them. Except to repeat the story of Suzanne told by Liz Waterland in the latest issue of Signal (No 51). Suzanne was watching the Disney Winnie-the-Pooh and the Honey Tree. ‘Half-way through she turned to her mother in indignation. “That’s not what really happened,” she exclaimed. “That’s not true.” “What did really happen? What is true?” her mother asked. “The book, the book is,” said Suzanne. “The book’s true. I know what happened. We read it.”‘
Pooh, confused by all this Proliferation, may well be cheering.
The books – from Methuen
0 416 39380 2, £5.50 hardback
0 416 23910 2, £1.50 paperback
0 416 16860 4, £7.95 colour edition
The House at Pooh Corner
0 416 34180 2, £5.95 hardback
0 416 22570 5, £1.50 paperback
0 416 78900 5, £7.95 colour edition
The World of Pooh
0 416 61050 1, £7.50 collected edition with 8 colour pictures