Pooh bear - 90 years young

Shirley Harrison's book about the real Pooh solves the mystery of A. A. Milne's last resting place

When We Were Very Young, Winnie-the-Pooh, Now We Are Six  and The House at Pooh Corner were first published in the years between 1924-8. Those books, their covers now a faded blue, their pages yellow at the edges, have been with me wherever I have been, all my life, ever since my father gave them to me in 1939.By a twist of fate, in 1962 my late husband, John, and I moved to the Sussex village of Hartfield, on the fringes of Ashdown Forest. Looking back, it is hard to credit that when we first arrived I did not realise that this was the home of A. A. Milne, his wife Daphne, their little son Christopher Robin and the real Winnie-the-Pooh. Our Forest was the original, inspirational setting for the magical illustrations of E. H. Shepard. Although the stories were already loved by children and adults worldwide, very few people knew that they were about real people and real toys, or that Pooh’s Forest was a real Forest. There were still no signposts, no mention of Pooh in local history books, no plaque recording that A. A. Milne lived here. The shop known today as ‘Pooh Corner’ was still the village bakery and the remote and crumbling bridge where Pooh and his friends played Poohsticks was a peaceful haven known only to local folk and seldom visited by them.  Tourists were rare enough to be stared at. This year Pooh celebrates his 90th birthday. His stories have been translated into over 40 languages including Latin. As Winnie ille Pu, he is studied on University courses. He has also been made an ‘Icon of the World’.  Where did it all begin?In August 1921, the unknown teddy left the Farnell factory in Acton, where he was ‘born’  with a van-full of assorted toys.  Their destination was Harrods, in Knightsbridge. This was the favourite haunt of  Daphne, wife of the already  famous author and dramatist Alan Alexander Milne.  That month in particular, she was shopping for a first birthday present for her son, Christopher Robin.  So it was that Pooh was chosen to return home with her to Chelsea and so on to fame and fortune. Three years later the couple bought Cotchford Farm in Hartfield. Pooh, in Christopher Robin’s arms,  was driven down to Sussex for weekends and holidays by Burnside, the family chauffeur.  There, A. A. Milne watched his son playing with Pooh and the other nursery toys, Piglet, Kanga, Roo, Tigger and Eeyore.  He watched them stomping amongst the bracken and gorse and the pine trees, losing themselves in the mist on the Forest, jumping into muddy pools and playing Poohsticks. He turned their adventures into stories and Pooh took his place in literary history.Many years later, in 1947,  A. A. Milne  wrote a ‘birth certificate’ for Pooh and sent him with his nursery companions across the Atlantic for a visit to his American publisher, E. P. Dutton. There were new excitements for the toys ahead touring the United States and appearing on radio and television.They never returned.In 1961, after her husband’s death, Daphne Milne astutely, if controversially, licensed the motion picture rights to the Disney Corporation. So began the transformation of the British teddy bear already wealthy from the sale of books and merchandise, into the multi-million pound a year juggernaut he has become. Like King Midas, everything Pooh touches seems to turn to gold and he is now one of the most successful fund-raisers for charity of all time. The brokers, Merrill Lynch, in New York estimated that the Disney-Milne-Shepard merchandising products alone raise around �3.75 billion annually. He is richer than Queen Elizabeth II herself.The great Disney take-over created a new character, sacrilege to many of Pooh’s devotees. The animations did not look like the original, innocent book illustrations and worse – they spoke American!However, it is undeniable that the Disney Pooh touches the hearts of a younger generation. They have come to love him and don’t much mind if he has strolled off the pages of a book or a cinema screen. In 1966, with a group of friends, I started a pre-school playgroup in the village and not long afterwards, when she was about to sell Cotchford Farm, I went to interview Mrs Milne for Sussex Life. I hoped, naively, that local people would like her to share the story of their furry local hero, Winnie-the-Pooh, before she left.But the elegant Mrs Milne was not particularly popular in the village. Daphne appeared remote and somewhat snooty. They didn’t mingle at fetes of flower shows, although their gardener, Tasker, was very proud of the flowers he exhibited from their garden.We walked around the garden watching real rabbits lolloping on the lawn, we sauntered among the bluebells and little streams that fed the river itself.  We sat in the comfortable, beamed living room as she talked enthusiastically about her role as the voice of Piglet.  “We had no idea then that these terribly English toys would amuse families so far away. But I suppose my husband’s dream characters have the foibles of all people whether they live in igloos or wigwams.”Today, Pooh lives with his friends, in rather threadbare retirement, in the Children’s Department of the New York Public Library. There have been several attempts by British MPs over the years to repatriate him but the authorities in America will have none of it.The years as a travelling celebrity around the United States have taken their toll. But he is still visited by a constant stream of wide-eyed, reverent devotees who ask to be photographed in his company. He has even been invited to witness the engagement of  young couples and  has a place on Hollywood’s Pavement of the Stars. In 1976  Pooh made a nostalgic return visit to Hartfield. He came to play with the Playschool children at the converted railway station, once used by A. A. Milne for visits to London.He was taken for a picnic to the Enchanted Place, where author and broadcaster Brian Sibley read Milne’s stories. He went to play Poohsticks on the newly restored Bridge. Finally he joined a monster teddy bears’ picnic as Teddies from all over Britain gathered  in the pouring rain to pay homage.Today Hartfield itself does not look significantly different from the village Pooh knew. But the shop where he and Christopher Robin bought sweets is now visited by thousands of tourists. 

The Life and Times of the Real Winnie-the-Pooh the Teddy Bear who inspired A. A. Milne, by Shirley Harrison, is published by Pen and Sword. RRP �18.99

Comments powered by Disqus