DJ Taylor: Born again

Will a sequel give Pooh Bear a timely makeover for the Noughties, or will he end up a honey-retching bulimic? Politics aren't what they were either, nor feminism ...
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The Independent Online

The worst piece of literary news this year surfaced on the cover of The Bookseller a few days ago. Here, under the heading "Return to the Hundred Acre Wood", and accompanied by silhouettes of some very familiar-looking fauna, came advance warning of "the authorised sequel to A A Milne's Winnie the Pooh stories", illustrated – hence the silhouettes – "by Mark Burgess in the style of the original E H Shepard illustrations".

Dear oh dear, I thought to myself, case-hardened veteran of the dreary continuation of great works of literature that I am, why are they doing this? The answer, alas, is all too straightforward. A A Milne died in 1956; his books will go out of copyright in a scant 17 years, and his estate has decided to embark on the kind of forward planning necessary for what is known as "brand survival".

Then, seeing the name of the proud author at the bottom of the ad, I cheered up a bit. For David Benedictus, unlike most of the fresh-faced neophytes enlisted in the cause of sequel-writing, has a bit of previous. In fact, his career goes all the way back to the very early 1960s when, as an icon-busting 24-year-old, he produced a fictional exposé of Eton, The Fourth of June, in which a "guinea-pig" new boy from a middle-class home gets beaten up by a couple of outraged young gentlefolk. There followed You're a Big Boy Now (1963), which scandalised library borrowers from the era of the Chatterley trial by its direct references to impotence, and a variety of other left-field productions, including an engaging refraction of Sixties counter-culture entitled The Guru and the Golf Club (1969), in which an oriental swami fetches up at ... well, you guessed it. Heaven knows what a writer with this form book behind him will bring to the world of Eeyore, Piglet and Kanga, but at the very least I shall expect Pooh to be a honey-retching bulimic and Christopher Robin to be hauled off to the child psychologist as a bad case of arrested development.


Teaching a seminar the other day at the University of Ulster, I was asked what, to anyone over the age of 40, will seem an extraordinary question. We were talking about Orwell's famous essay "A Hanging", an account of an execution at a Burmese gaol in the 1920s, when a girl sitting at the end of the row put up her hand and politely enquired: "Could you explain this 'left-wing/right-wing' thing? I don't really understand politics." Normally one would mark this down as deeply incriminating evidence in the "What is going on in our universities these days?" debate, but the hand-raiser was, in all other respects, as sharp as a tack and I decided that, from her particular vantage point, the question was a perfectly reasonable one.

To any bright teenager with a dim memory of the Major administration and a slightly stronger recollection of the Blair government that followed it, "politics" must be a source of constant bewilderment. The history books you are bidden to read are full of stark ideological separations, sharply opposed social classes, ever-contending notions of how the world, or the country, ought to work, yet all that seems to matter to the consumer-electors of the 21st century is economic management. Naturally, governments have always been judged, to a greater or lesser extent, on their ability to fill plates and inflate bank accounts, but it would make a nice change sometimes if people – substantial numbers of people, that is – voted for a particular party because they thought it stood for something, rather than for its sleight of hand in papering over the fiscal cracks. No one, meanwhile, should fool themselves into believing that, if David Cameron gets in next year, it will be because people approve of him or like his policies. It will be because they think him, as someone remarked of Bill Clinton in 1992, the least worst choice in a bad year.


Staying with the "Whatever happened to ...?" line for a moment, one radio series that caught my ear in recent weeks – the final tranche was broadcast last Tuesday – was Radio Four's Call Yourself a Feminist. Split into three episodes, and featuring such survivors of the barricades as Beatrix Campbell, Linda Bellos and Lynne Segal, this attempted to chart the movement's course from the heady days of 1960s bra-burning through the reverses of the Thatcherite 1980s to the "New Feminism" (to borrow the title of Natasha Walter's book) of the 1990s and beyond.

The general feeling, unless I gravely misinterpreted it, was that feminism was having trouble making itself felt in this brave new universe of ours, and that, although a lot of women were doing well in it, they tended to be doing so at the expense of other women. There are, I think, two reasons for this. One is that most of the civilised world's bizarre acceptance of the idea that the women thrown up and duly exploited by mass culture are somehow "self-empowered". The other is feminism's chronic, and wholly understandable, reluctance to join forces with the ancient strain of English Puritanism that regularly surfaces in the red-top newspapers.

Curiously enough, the words "Whatever happened to feminism?" were uttered in our front room only the other week, when my wife wandered in to find the children gawping at the usual collection of dancing TV lovelies waggling their, no doubt empowered, backsides. She was enraged by the spectacle of human beings being treated, in effect, as pieces of meat for the gratification of a (mostly) male audience. I was more annoyed by the kind of worm's eye view of sexuality it seemed to promote. Modern feminists would have a much better chance of getting their point across if they could sink their differences with the Daily Mail and deploy themselves along a joint front. They would probably argue that the Daily Mail's view of women is pretty awful as well, but there are some battles in which one's allies are probably less important than the chance of victory.


Of all the accounts of the death, by suicide, of Nicholas Hughes, son of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, by far the most arresting came from The Independent's Christina Patterson. Ms Patterson spent a good 700 words not only attacking the romanticisation of suicide ("There are enough myths surrounding the most famous literary couple of the 20th century ... and the world doesn't need any more") but also, by implication, criticising the romanticisation of art. "This horrible, premature death of a brave, troubled man has nothing to do with poetry, nothing to do with art," she resoundingly concluded. "Life, as Hughes knew, but Plath, tragically, didn't, matters more than art."

She could have gone a bit further and criticised the romanticisation of the way in which art gets produced, that hint of divine afflatus that hangs over practically any books-page interview with a "serious" novelist. Most books, it can't be too often stated, are written for very mundane reasons and in very mundane ways. The interrogative dialogue of Alexandre Dumas' novels, for instance, is a direct result of his being paid at so many centimes a line. Although they never got around to applying the theory to Ted and Sylvia, the Marxists were right: culture is "ordinary".


The film Lesbian Vampire Killers has not, as they say, managed to attract uniformly respectful notices. In fact, judging from a trawl of the websites I conducted earlier in the week, it seems to have garnered the worst reviews of any homegrown comedy since Sex Lives of the Potato Men. Here in Norfolk, on the other hand, the complaints are levelled not so much at the film's undoubted awfulness as at its cheery stereotyping. "Cragwich", where most of the mayhem takes place, may not be found on the local Ordnance Survey map, but, as more than one contributor to BBC Radio Norfolk's breakfast debate on the subject pointed out, the producers have gone for a weird, end-of-the-line hybrid, with an accent to match, offensive to residents of Norfolk, Cornwall and north Wales alike.

That said, Norfolk does have a sinister and faintly ominous quality that is all its own, made up of wide horizons, rook-bound trees and solitary figures marching along the skyline. The crimes committed there resonate for decades: even today there are books being written about the vanished schoolgirl April Fabb, an enduring figure from my childhood, whose bicycle was found in a country lane near Cromer in 1969.

Going back to "Cragwich", Norfolk has quite enough myths to be going on with, thanks very much, from the ghost dog, Black Shuck, to the headless smuggler of Cart Gap, and the last thing we need is a clutch of lesbian vampire killers to swell the tide.