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A. A. Milne And Me

A pathway to literature

Illustration by Fran Pulido of woman by window thinking what to write with book birds flying past window.

I discovered A. A. Milne later than most. I was a grown-up. Well, I was on the way to being a grown-up. I was eighteen — a new student at a new university. Fresh out of a Manchester convent school and boldly following what to me was the exotic path of the bourgeoisie, headlong into the late Sixties university scene. It was a circus. I tightrope teetered, precariously balanced between so many different worlds. In those days (imagine this!) students were funded to go to university, and Warwick University (it was never ‘uni’ back then) was a freewheeling sort of place where one spread one’s wings and gave little thought to grades or exams. At least, that’s what I did.

My tutor at the time was preoccupied with writing her seminal work, The Female Eunuch, and taking part in various happenings. Students just drifted about. Much of our time was spent protesting, discussing, having sit ins. We occupied the admin block because we felt we should have access to all our personal records, which were held on bits of paper in filing cabinets. We ‘liberated’ them.

In those days Warwick University was still being built. It had very few buildings and one car park (small). The English department was part of the library, from which a bridge led to the Computer Building. (The computer was housed in its own building!)

The path to the library was made of square paving stones that were still being laid. They led from the social buildings to the library. I always felt a little bit like Dorothy following the Yellow Brick Road. Of course, it wasn’t yellow, it wasn’t brick, it wasn’t really a road, and I wasn’t Dorothy. But there you are. I always like to imagine myself as the main character in a story.

One day, as I walked that path, I found that some joker had transcribed the opening chapter of the first Winnie the Pooh book onto the paving slabs. The lively miscreant had written it out rather well in a beautiful, clear typeface. It was a work of art, literature, revolution. And it was my introduction to A. A. Milne. I read it slowly as I ambled from Rootes Hall to the library. And I liked it.

I liked the gentle humour, the wistfulness, the whimsy, the Use of Capital Letters, the characters, the world and the wit. It was gentle storytelling from a gentle world. From another world, another class, another time.

By the time I made the return trip the Powers That Be had decided to deal with this situation. In those days there were clear lines between students and anything that smacked of authority. We were all rebels without a clue and eager for battle. The Powers obliged by opposing students whenever they could. The Times They Were a Changing and we were all adjusting one way or another. Revolution was in the Air, a Hard Rain was Gonna Fall, etcetera, etcetera.

So, teams of workers were set the task of picking up the flagstones, turning them over to hide the text or rearranging them. That meant you could no longer read the story in order and there were gaps, which made it somehow even more attractive. So, I spent happy times reading, square by square, putting the story into order and Making a Very Big Discovery.

It turned out I loved children’s books, even though I was a bit late to discover them. This experience was a powerful introduction to a classic. It was literally the first step on the path to my becoming a children’s writer, finding my way, earning my keep and making my name.

Hopping from square-to-square reading those fragments I was on the first rung of a discovery, not only of children’s classics, but also of childhood. I met a world of gentleness, green and pleasant, kind and thoughtful. A place where Small Things Were Important. And were Often in Capital Letters.

I liked it so much I wanted to read more. I actually bought (or shoplifted) the Winnie the Pooh books. It filled in the gaps in my childhood reading. It also helped fill in the gaps of my childhood, which had not been much like the world of children’s books. I had not lived in a pastoral paradise surrounded by a range of caring and well-meaning characters having very small adventures with quietly happy endings.

I realise that many people despise and disparage this Winnie the Pooh world. They find it sentimental and saccharine. Truth to tell, the Disney representation of the books is heavily implicated in the saccharine, but the antagonism towards Hundred Acre Wood and its denizens predates Disney.

I am a great admirer of Dorothy Parker but she, as ‘Constant Reader’, read the books and famously ‘fwowed up’. I admire and adore and agree with Ms Parker apart from this one article. But reviews must be written, bills must be paid, and attention must be grabbed somehow, eh Dorothy? No hard feelings.

Alan Alexander Milne did not always live in the sun-dappled world of Hundred Acre Wood. Born to a life of middle-class privilege he always felt that literary success was slightly out of his reach and longed for his other works to be accorded the love his children’s stories earned. Both he, and the illustrator E.H. Shepard, fought and survived the First World War, ‘that nightmare of mental and moral degradation’. They suffered just as much as you’d expect. Shell shock, trauma…but on return both chose to focus on the Hundred Acre Wood, populated by a well-meaning bear, a helpful piglet, a pretentious owl and a morose donkey, rather than the battlefields of the Somme.

Unlike his creations, Milne was never really happy or at ease with himself. Like ‘Constant Reader’ Dorothy, he also somewhat disparaged children’s books. He longed to be taken seriously. But despite numerous plays, novels and other writings he will always be remembered for the Bear. The Bear who both blessed and blighted his life and strained his relationship with his son, the real Christopher Robin.

A. A. died ‘very old and disenchanted’ in 1956, aged 74. The rights to his books were bequeathed to four beneficiaries — including the Royal Literary Fund. Their value remains high — in 2001 the Disney Corporation acquired the rights in one of the biggest deals in literary history. The Bear’s earnings even surpass those of Mickey Mouse; Winnie the Pooh has featured in Forbes. The books remain amongst those voted the most popular children’s books in the world.

Time passes. There have been just under a hundred years in the Hundred Acre Wood. I’m now a grown up. A real grown up. Practically dead. Certainly declining. It’s been a full life including many experiences — including having a child of my own. A son who had many delightful characteristics, habits, achievements and skills. Sadly, going to sleep was not one of them. I purchased, as you could in those days, a CD player, and the CD of Alan Bennett reading The Winnie the Pooh stories, and from that time on we slept. As the light faded and sleep tiptoed in, we heard Pooh wondering, Piglet squeaking, Owl or Wol (because he could spell his own name, of course) pontificating. Tigger was bouncing and Eeyore…mourning something or other. Said child, a grown-up himself now, has those stories embedded in his memory and in his heart and he has now shared them with his own child.

And I am an author for children, supported in part, via an RLF Fellowship, by Milne’s estate. He funds me now in a very practical way. He buys my groceries and pays for the heating. I have no idea of his motivation for this but I’m grateful. Thank you A. A. — you make a difference to me and thousands of others and long may you continue to do so.

Warwick University no longer has its Winnie the Pooh path but in Hollywood there is a different display of inscribed paving stones. This one is called the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Winnie the Pooh has a star on that famous path.

Michaela Morgan is a children’s author and poet. She has a large body of work which includes fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and picture books.

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