The sad tale of Christo­pher Robin

A new Dis­ney film fea­tures Christo­pher Robin as an adult. His true story, says Roger Lewis, is one of bul­ly­ing, sup­pres­sion and tragedy

The Oldie - - CONTENTS - Roger Lewis

Win­nie the Pooh, the mus­tard-coloured teddy, Piglet, the mal­formed hog, Eey­ore, the sui­ci­dal don­key, and the rest of the menagerie from the Hun­dred Acre Wood con­sti­tute the most valu­able fic­tional char­ac­ter fran­chise in the world, next to Mickey Mouse.

That’s good news for the Walt Dis­ney Com­pany, which is now re­leas­ing Christo­pher Robin, star­ring Ewan Mc­gre­gor as the grown-up boy re­con­nect­ing with his child­hood toys.

The ‘bear of very lit­tle brain’ and his chums are big busi­ness – and were so from the out­set. When Win­nie-the-pooh (hy­phen­ated orig­i­nally) was first pub­lished by Methuen in Oc­to­ber 1926, there were im­me­di­ate sales of 32,000 copies.

Read­ers al­ready knew what to ex­pect from Milne. His poems for chil­dren, When We Were Very Young, which had ap­peared two years pre­vi­ously, sold 43,843 copies within weeks, and 260,000 copies were in print within the fol­low­ing 12 months. Com­mer­cial records would sim­i­larly be smashed with Now We Are Six (1927) and The House at Pooh Cor­ner (1928).

This quar­tet, to­talling no more than 70,000 words, or the length of a sin­gle novella, is Milne’s claim to im­mor­tal­ity; and if he was the sub­ject of mock­ery and dis­par­age­ment by his lit­er­ary peers – ‘Makes me want to set fire to or­phan­ages, strike crip­pled news­boys’ (Dorothy Parker) – it is only fair to say that Milne him­self sin­cerely dis­liked be­ing dis­missed as or rel­e­gated to be­ing a chil­dren’s au­thor.

‘I gave up writ­ing chil­dren’s books,’ he as­serted in 1939. ‘I wanted to es­cape from them… In vain.’

His son, too, the real-life Christo­pher Robin, hated be­ing re­minded that he’d once in­spired the lanky, droopy Christo­pher Robin of the E H Shep­ard draw­ings – a kind of ju­ve­nile Ru­pert Brooke or sex­less Tadzio from Death in Venice.

‘He needed me,’ said the em­bit­tered boy of his fa­ther when he was at last grown-up, ‘to es­cape from be­ing 50… My fa­ther had got to where he was by climb­ing upon my in­fant shoul­ders… and had left me noth­ing but the empty fame of be­ing his son.’

It is sim­i­lar to the com­plaints made by Pi­casso’s chil­dren, or Chap­lin’s or Peter Sell­ers’s. Try as they may, the off­spring of a star, brought up in some com­fort usu­ally, never man­age to eclipse or live up to the achieve­ments of the il­lus­tri­ous par­ent. Though Milne, as a proud par­ent, had fan­ta­sised that Christo­pher Robin ‘looks like a crick­eter’, in fact the poor boob stut­tered and stam­mered, was bul­lied at school, and ended up in trade, run­ning the Har­bour Book­shop in Dart­mouth, where in 1987 I bought Edith Sitwell’s The Queens and the Hive. Did Christo­pher Robin him­self and in per­son take my coins and place my pur­chase in the bag? He died in 1996.

Milne was fa­mous as a hu­mourist and au­thor of what he called ‘deckchair or rail­way-car­riage read­ing’ well prior to Pooh. As long ago as 1910, in­deed, J M Bar­rie had told him, ‘I see no one among the young peo­ple with so light and gay and happy a touch as you show.’

Five years prior even to that en­dorse­ment, at the age of 23, Milne had been ap­pointed as­sis­tant edi­tor of Punch, the weekly mag­a­zine that was the sta­ple read­ing mat­ter of vicarages, of­fi­cers’ messes, the ve­ran­das of the Raj, den­tists’ wait­ing rooms, club­land and any­where the white mid­dle-class fore­gath­ered.

Milne claimed, ‘I know no work man­ual or men­tal to equal the ap­palling heart­break­ing an­guish of fetch­ing an idea from nowhere.’

But, still, he be­came a dab hand

at turn­ing out 1,000 whim­si­cal words on lost hats and um­brel­las, ten­nis, dogs, faulty gey­sers, dotty maids who, de­spite be­ing asked, serve un­salted in­stead of salted but­ter, women load­ing film in a cam­era, the English ob­ses­sion with rank and ti­tles, cheap cigars, and any amount of life’s other lit­tle dif­fi­cul­ties.

Milne, a kind of Bernard Levin or A A Gill of his day – and surely Adrian Gill called him­self A A in homage – was praised by E V Lu­cas, the chair­man of Methuen and a mem­ber of the Royal Com­mis­sion on the His­tor­i­cal Mon­u­ments of Eng­land, for be­ing able to carry out ‘with ap­par­ently ef­fort­less ease and the ut­most gai­ety’ ar­ti­cles no­table for their ‘en­chant­ing in­ge­nu­ity’.

Christo­pher Robin was born in 1920 and, if his mother, Daphne, was in­dif­fer­ent (she vowed never to en­dure the agony of preg­nancy again), as a fa­ther, Milne was be­sot­ted. The pam­pered son and heir was show­ered with gifts, in­clud­ing the Har­rods teddy bear, tiger, kan­ga­roo, rab­bit and so forth.

Win­nie-the-pooh was man­u­fac­tured from bed­time sto­ries, though Milne owed at least as much to E H Shep­ard’s il­lus­tra­tions as Roald Dahl would to the sketches of Quentin Blake. It’s per­haps the draw­ings one thinks of first, as with Ten­niel and Alice.

If Pooh rep­re­sents a naive, solid, un­flus­tered wis­dom, Piglet em­bod­ies sweet timid­ity, Tig­ger is an agent of ir­re­press­ible high spir­its, and Eey­ore is lim­it­lessly lugubri­ous.

Milne was re­duc­ing peo­ple to nurs­ery archetypes – in the same way as Lewis Car­roll in­ter­preted the world as a pack of play­ing cards, Beatrix Pot­ter painted us as the crea­tures loi­ter­ing in streams or un­der rocks, and Ken­neth Gra­hame turned the home coun­ties into a play­ground for ver­minous con­gen­i­tal bach­e­lors.

(Milne’s only re­mem­bered play is his Christ­massy adap­ta­tion of The Wind in the Wil­lows – though even Toad of Toad Hall, first seen in 1930, has now been sup­planted by a ver­sion com­mis­sioned for the Na­tional Theatre from Alan Ben­nett.)

In these clas­sic works, chil­dren are treated not as po­ten­tial adults but as sep­a­rate lit­tle crea­tures; al­most a sep­a­rate lit­tle species.

A child’s funny ways, duly turned into stuffed an­i­mals’ funny ways, or ob­served di­rectly in Christo­pher Robin, are ex­actly what Milne recorded and put un­der the bell jar: ‘But now I am six, I’m as clever as clever. / So I think I’ll be six now for ever and ever.’

It’s hardly sur­pris­ing, as he grew up, and went through ado­les­cence, that the ac­tual flesh-and-blood Christo­pher Robin found this in­suf­fer­able. He was bul­lied at school, es­pe­cially when the press kept dub­bing him the most fa­mous mop­pet in the world, next to chubby vi­o­lin prodigy Ye­hudi Menuhin, Princess El­iz­a­beth, and Jackie Coogan, Chap­lin’s co-star in The Kid.

The Milnes, who kept sep­a­rate bed­rooms, lived in Mal­lord Street, Chelsea, and at Cotch­ford Farm, near Ash­down For­est, in Sus­sex. In the coun­try, Milne said he could be found ‘think­ing, see­ing, lis­ten­ing, feel­ing, liv­ing’. This is the lo­ca­tion for the Hun­dred Acre Wood. The house was later owned by Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones who, in 1969, drowned in the swim­ming pool.

It is a sign of how suf­fo­cat­ing the at­mos­phere was at Cotch­ford Farm that Christo­pher Robin was very pleased to en­list in the Royal En­gi­neers when the Sec­ond World War broke out – as he was able to break away at last. Milne didn’t much like hear­ing, in let­ters home, about girl­friends and other adult de­vel­op­ments.

‘Only to a child is pure hap­pi­ness pos­si­ble,’ he rea­soned.

To Milne, adult­hood was a process not of ma­tur­ing but of fail­ure and de­cay. The breach was in­ten­si­fied when Christo­pher Robin mar­ried his cousin, Les­ley de Sélin­court, in 1948, and had a daugh­ter with cere­bral palsy.

When Milne suf­fered a stroke in 1952 and lin­gered as an ir­ri­ta­ble in­valid in a Tun­bridge Wells nurs­ing home, Christo­pher Robin saw his fa­ther only twice more be­fore his death in Jan­uary 1956. He saw his mother at the fu­neral – and then never again. Daphne died in 1971.

As Tol­stoy said, ‘Each un­happy fam­ily is un­happy in its own way.’

‘Christo­pher Robin’ is re­leased on 17th Au­gust

Ewan Mc­gre­gor in the new movie Christo­pher Robin – with a Dis­ney­fied Pooh

Pooh­sticks: Pooh, Piglet and Christo­pher Robin, The House at Pooh Cor­ner (1928)

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