Soul Searching and Pooh the bear

I have been an avid reader of many authors from the beginning of the twentieth century, and Joseph Conrad, Thomas Mann, HG Wells, Henry James, Arthur Conan Doyle, Rudyard Kipling, J.M. Barrie, E.M. Forster, Somerset-Maughm come to mind, but there are many more. In fact, more than I could read, given the speed, or rather slowness, with which I tend to read. When I was working, I was grateful in some ways for the long drives across the country and for Audible, which gave me a wealth of authors and narrators to listen to. Since I no longer drive alone, or for long distances, I have returned to books and my Kindle.

One author has come to my attention, whom I previously only associated with Winnie the Pooh, for which I was grateful as an adult, rather than as a child. In fact, as a child I never took notice of him. But as rewarding as a meditation of the Pooh books are, I have realised that he had a (of course) a far larger repertoire, and I am grateful for a book that makes that clear to me.

A.A. Milne was a humourist, and played in a cricket team with HG Wells, which on and off also included J. M. Barrie, Kipling, Conan Doyle, P. G. Wodehouse, and G. K. Chesterton, who, no doubt gave him much to write about. But he was also a pacifist before WWI, up until 1915, when he was also drafted as a signals officer, and the American edition of his autobiography was actually called What Luck, which seems to express his feeling about surviving the war. Cottrell-Boyce comes to the conclusion that “Milne’s gift to write amusingly about the most trivial things is far from trivial. It’s a kind of blessing.” That certainly inspired an American author, Benjamin Hoff, to write a small book in commemoration of Milne, entitled “The Tao of Pooh”, in which he found similarities between the wisdom of Pooh and Taoism.

The book “Happy Half-Hours” is an interesting collection of essays, covering literary, married, home, public, meditative, and peaceful life. Some of them very thoughtful and critical, but mostly of a very witty mind considering things that we seem to take for granted, but which have an important lesson to teach. At the same time, his humour and self-criticism prevent one from thinking that he is being moralistic. The list of books he found muddled after taking up residence in a new house is even a source of bemusement, considering how some books found themselves to be neighbours with their opposites. For example, poems from Ella Wheeler Wilcox, who wrote such as this:

I am the refuge of all the oppressed,
I am the boast of the free,
I am the harbor where ships may rest
Safely ‘twixt sea and sea.
I hold up a torch to a darkened world,
I lighten the path with its ray.
Let my hand keep steady
And let me be ready
For whatever comes my way–
Let me be ready.

These were found next to “Anarchy or Order”, by the “Duty and discipline movement” in London, which was sent to him hoping that he would become a member of that movement. “What I Found Out, by an English Governess, shares a corner with The Recreations of a Country Parson; they are followed by Villette and Baedeker’s Switzerland.” He was also a biting critic of writing in which he had the impression that the author couldn’t be bothered, especially when writing for children, which he relished.

“‘Being the easiest way in which to write.’ That is the secret of nine-tenths of the Christmas Books – now so many that they demand a supplement to themselves. Inasmuch as the average father stops being a solicitor or a stockbroker (jobs at which he is an expert) in order to become, for the amusement of his child, an extremely indifferent actor, novelist or draughtsman, so is it assumed that, even in the more formal making of a book, this amateurishness, this sense of relaxation, is not only ‘good enough’ for a child, but is, in a way, a kind of guarantee that one really is amusing the kid, rather than exhibiting oneself priggishly, in one’s own special line, as an expert. For, seeing the author so much at his ease, nobody can fail to realize that he is writing ‘for the young’, and not, the selfish cad, for himself.”

The rights for Winnie the Pooh were eventually given to Walt Disney corporation, which made films, cartoons and merchandise on the character, but I felt that, as amusing as it may have been to some, Milne wouldn’t have liked it. The point of Pooh the bear was his naïve thoughtfulness, expressed in statements like this: “It is more fun to talk with someone who doesn’t use long, difficult words but rather short, easy words like “What about lunch?”, or “How do you spell ‘love’?” asked Piglet “You don’t spell it…you feel it.” said Pooh”

What else is there to say? I found the soul searching that goes on throughout Milne’s work is as discrete as Poohs’ outbursts of common sense, which are least common. It is refreshing to read someone who manages to mix such introspection with humour and wit.