It's been almost 90 years since a rotund yellow bear with a penchant for honey first captured the hearts of children and adults alike. Now, A. A. Milne's much loved character is back and ready to star in four new seasonal stories, with a helping hand from his friends. Here award-winning author Jeanne Willis, who penned 'Spring' in The Best Bear in All the World, explores our enduring fondness for Winnie-the-Pooh.
And the winner of The Reading Agency poll for the children’s book character that has the most appeal beyond childhood is... Winnie-the-Pooh.
Hooray for Pooh! (Why, what did he do?) More than he knew is the quick answer to that.
The long answer (which Owl insisted on) is that aged six, I was so impressed by Pooh’s poetry skills, I was inspired to write my own. Mine weren’t nearly as good – still aren’t - but if it hadn’t been for Him and his Hums, I suspect I’d have followed a different and duller career path; brain surgeon, cage wrestler... who knows?
What I do know is that since the glorious day in 1965 when Auntie Kay gave me a copy of When We Were Very Young for my birthday, Pooh has loomed large in my life and I’m not alone. One is never alone with Pooh and I have proof. Only recently, I went to a wedding where the middle-aged bride read a poem called Us Two to the silver-haired groom, containing the following immortal lines:
“What would I do?” I said to Pooh, “If it wasn’t for you.”
And Pooh said, “True, it isn’t much fun for one but two can stick together...”
Which, in its charming simplicity, captures the true essence of friendship in a manner that Shakespeare could never quite master - he just didn’t have Pooh’s way with words.
The reason for Pooh’s unwaning longevity is surely that he appeals to both young and old alike. When I say ‘old’, I have a friend who is five years older than Pooh (He’s 90, remember) and after we’d shared elevenses and had a long discussion about whether it was Tuesday or Wednesday, she suddenly announced that whenever she walked in a London Street, she still couldn’t bring herself to tread on the pavement cracks- only the squares. I knew why and it was nothing to do with the fear of tripping and shattering her hip.
“Is it because of the bears?” I said. She smiled and nodded and we both yelled “Christopher Robin! Winnie-the-Pooh!” and she said, “Ah, Happy Days...” and although she remained unconvinced that it was Wednesday not Tuesday, she quoted Milne’s poem, Lines and Squares, in full, as if she’d learnt it yesterday.
That’s Pooh for you; he is the happy days of yesterday. No wonder those of us who knew him as youngsters cling to him long into adulthood.
Another case history: in July, I met up with an ex-boyfriend from my school days for a stroll around Green Park in the drizzle. After a mutual moan about the price of beer and Brexit, we became melancholy and remembered fondly how much simpler life was in the 70s (Acne and the threat of Nuclear War aside) and how as teenagers, we would curl up and read Winnie-the-Pooh to each other, doing the voices and laughing like drains.
Somehow, the memory of that joyful, innocent act reminded us of all that was right with the world, the sun came out and we went home happy.
Those in the know only have to pick up a Pooh book and they’re six again. For a few blissful chapters, they can forget about tax returns and the state of the nation because they’ve gone newting. Or they’re scaring dragons. Or discovering the North Pole.
Pooh never was and never will be just a silly old bear. He embodies the idyllic childhood we want to remember that never really existed, where an infant could wander freely in 100 acres of woodland with his faithful, fuzzy companion without the worry of being mugged, flashed at or catching Lyme Disease. We wish.
Knowing that I’m a big Fan of Pooh, imagine my delight when I was asked to write a story for a new book to celebrate his birthday. It gave me the perfect excuse to revisit the characters I’d grown up with and loved, but curiously it wasn’t just Pooh’s friends and Rabbit’s relations who turned up – it was mine.
It was as if all the Willis’s past and present had gathered together for a grand reunion; there was Dad, the scholarly Latin teacher, a little bit Owl, a little bit Eeyore. There was Mum, the firm but fair Kanga who fed me extract of malt like Roo and there was Piglet, my diminutive sister who somehow put the fear of Heffalumps in me. As for dear old Grandad, he always had the starring role. He played Pooh to my Christopher and a better companion no child could ever wish for.
On that jolly note, I’m off to play Pooh Sticks.
The Best Bear in All the World is published by Egmont Publishing on 6 October 2016. Winnie-the-Pooh's 90th anniversary is on 14 October 2016.
All images © Trustees of Pooh Properties, illustrated by Mark Burgess