Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Birthday: Mr Milne said, "Rivers know this: there is no hurry. We shall get there some day." Then he invented Pooh Sticks.


Alan Alexander Milne (1882-1956)
Author, playwright

“Blue,” his friends called him, after his piercing eyes. He was quick-witted, lithe and athletic, a great cricketer who played on a national amateur team with Conan Doyle and J.M. Barrie. One of his schoolmasters was H.G. Wells.

Milne took a degree in maths at Trinity College, Cambridge and joined the staff of Punch, the venerable- and dated- satirical rag. He enlivened its prose, rising to an editorship. He spent four years on active duty in World War I. He had no truck for religion, either:

“The Old Testament is responsible for more atheism, agnosticism, disbelief — call it what you will — than any book ever written. It has emptied more churches than all the counter-attractions of cinema, motor bicycle, and golf courses.”

In postwar Britain he became a successful playwright and writer, producing 18 plays and three novels by 1925. One book, The Red House Mystery, is still reckoned one of the best murder mysteries ever.

In 1920, the Milnes had a son, Christopher Robin. They wanted a daughter, called him Billy, and shunted him off to a nanny. He grew up under a schedule that left his socialite parents free to be out on the town, while reserving a tightly-regulated sum of quality time with one, then the other.

Milne was a facile writer, and soon began publishing poems here and there about a boy called Christopher Robin. Those expanded into stories, and books in which the boy’s toys came to life and had adventures in The Hundred Acre Wood, a forest near the Milnes’ country house. The first appeared at Christmas, 1925. By 1931 Pooh was a million-dollar-a-year business.

The Winnie-the-Pooh stories were a smashing success- too much, in the end, for either father or son. Blue thought the frenzy over them drowned out his other writing. And while, for a time, Christopher Robin enjoyed being famous, it was not so long before  being a media child began to take its toll. He was a household name at the age of four. Schoolmates mocked him with the poems his dad had written, preserving him forever as a six year old with a pageboy haircut. By 1931, Parents Magazine in America ranked him one of the five most famous children in the world, along with Prince Michael of Rumania, the child actor Jackie Cooper, the violinist Yehudi Menuhin, and Princess Elizabeth of York, now the Queen of England.

Having written a pacifist book denouncing the Great War in the 1930s, Alan Milne tacked hard right to avoid the backlash when World War II began. He led the campaign to tar his once-friend, P.G. Wodehouse for a traitor’s noose after the latter’s ill-advised radio broadcasts while under German internment. Wodehouse- probably the least-malicious man who ever lived- once released and established in American exile, got his own back by working a series of wickedly saccharine parody children’s verses in his postwar novels. To his death he insisted on his continuing admiration of Milne’s work.

Christopher Robin followed in his father’s footsteps, reading maths at Trinity, then graduating in English after World War II. His war experiences helped him sort through his conflicted feelings over having become a money-spinning cardboard character for his father, and, after the war, set his own, decidedly independent course in life. He married a cousin over his mother’s pitched opposition (she detested the girl’s father). Bested, she cut off contact with her son for the last fifteen years of her life, refusing him even a visit at her deathbed.

His father, a Home Guards officer in World War II, drifted into a cramped, irritable old age, and died in 1956. Behind him lay 33 film scripts, two dozen plays, seven novels, five nonfiction books, and eighteen collections of poetry, stories and Punch columns.

Christopher and Lesley enjoyed a 48-year marriage. They moved to Dartmouth, where he ran a successful bookshop despite his mother’s withering comment that he never had a head for business and would hate having to deal with Pooh groupies. In the 1970s he wrote a series of critically and commercially acclaimed memoirs, and sold his share of his father’s residuals to the Royal Literary Fund, using the proceeds to set up a trust for his disabled daughter. He gave his childhood toys- on whom Pooh and his mates were based- to his New York editor, who, in turn, gave them to the New York Public LIbrary. They attract 750,000 visitors a year.

Christopher’s mother sold her share of the royalties to a friend who flipped them to Walt Disney, who spent decades patiently stalking the rights to British children’s classics. That gave Disney the foothold needed to monetize the stories as only Disney could. In 2001 Disney bought out the rest of the royalty holders for $350 million dollars- a pittance against the $6 billion a year the worldwide sale of Pooh products generates today.

After a lengthy illness, Christopher Robin Milne died in 1996, a committed atheist, without saying his prayers.

#HenryBemisBooks #LiteraryBirthdays #WinniethePooh

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