When we are castaways
LIKE many of us, I’ve wondered what book I would take to my desert island. Currently, my choice is a compendium of Winnie the Pooh stories.
I love the characters, most based on stuffed toys owned by Christopher Robin, the son of the author A. A. Milne (1882– 1956) (Country Life, October 12, 2016). Milne has managed to include recognisable human traits in these animals to the extent we call real people after them. I know a Tigger, who’s so full of enthusiasm and energy that I’m rather surprised he’s not running the world. He’s actually known as Tigger to his colleagues, who watch him warily.
And, yes, I know a female Eeyore. You approach her with what you think is a spiffing idea and she’ll look at you for a long while with a downturned mouth before producing her catchphrase: ‘The problem with that is…’ It’s no help that she’s often right.
Pooh is more endearing, a bear of very little brain. We’ve met those, too. He was named after a Canadian black bear called Winnipeg, but the drawings of Pooh by E. H. Shepard (1879–1976) were based on his own son’s bear, Growler, who was later chewed up by Shepard’s neighbour’s dog and is no more. Shepard, who also illustrated The Wind in the Willows, was awarded the Military Cross at Passchendaele, where ‘his courage and coolness were conspicuous’.
Drawings by Shepard of Pooh made £1.2 million at auction in 2008 and merchandising of the famous bear raised $6 billion (£4.6 billion) in 2005. This was only beaten by Mickey Mouse, but I know which of the two I’d rather snuggle up to in bed. Christopher Robin’s real toys— Piglet, Eeyore, Kanga, Roo and Tigger—are, shamefully, kept in a New York museum, which 750,000 visitors a year visit to keep the faith. They should, of course, be in England.
But what of the author, A.A. Milne? What do we know about his life? Precious little, apart from his name. He was Alan Alexander and the son of a man who ran a London school. One of the teachers who trained him was H. G. Wells—a good start for any author. Surprisingly, Milne read maths at Trinity before becoming assistant editor on Punch. At the same time, he played cricket with Conan Doyle and J. M. Barrie—sherlock Holmes and Peter Pan being almost as iconic as Pooh—but I would have neither author on my desert island.
Milne was injured at the Somme before being diverted into intelligence, where he wrote propaganda (it’s hard to think of Pooh and propaganda from the same pen). In the Second World War, he was in the Home Guard in a kind of Capt Mainwaring role. Although, like any writer, he had hopes of immortality, he can’t have expected it to be Pooh that granted his wish.
While I’m on the subject of forgotten authors, how about the writer of Albert and the Lion, which is recited every time Hew and his brothers get together. Most of us know Stanley Holloway’s monologue in a fruity Lancashire accent, but who’s heard of its writer, Marriott Edgar (1880–1951)?
Edgar had an illegitimate stepbrother, who was none other than Edgar Wallace. Albert’s lion was also called Wallace, although there’s no proof of a connection. Instead, Wallace was apparently named after the first African lion (1812–38) bred in Britain.
Marriott was a prolific scriptwriter and, at one point, the BBC ran a series called Marriott’s Monologues. These were read by Thora Hird, Les Dawson, Roy Hudd and Roy Castle, among others, as well as Holloway. Perhaps they should be revived, along with Marriott’s fame?
In fact, let’s dig out our forgotten writers from the archives. I bet we could think of more.
‘Milne played cricket with Conan Doyle and Barrie