Obituary: Christopher Milne

Ann Thwaite
Tuesday 23 April 1996 00:02 BST

Christopher Milne was a re- markable man who trium-phantly survived a remarkable childhood, though not without considerable pain on the way.

He was born in 1920, the son of A.A. Milne, a rich and famous Punch writer and playwright, and his wife, Daphne. "May Billy be an everlasting joy to you," J.M. Barrie wrote, having been told the name the child was to use. As it turned out, he was not, but the fault was hardly his own. "We did rather want a Rosemary," Milne had written to another friend.

Christopher Robin, as he was actually named (he was never christened), had to wait a long time for his first haircut. But worse was to follow. In 1923, on a wet holiday in Wales, A.A. Milne started writing verse about his infant son. When We Were Very Young (1924) made Christopher Robin a household name.

The book was an instant best-seller. By 1928, it had been joined by the two Pooh books (Winnie-the-Pooh, 1926, and The House at Pooh Corner) and a further book of verse, Now We Are Six (1927) - all to repeat the first book's extraordinary success and all starring the boy and his teddy-bear. Milne tried to reduce the damage by vowing in 1928 never to write another children's book, but it was too late. He also excused himself by saying that Christopher Robin was "Billy" at home and hardly the same person at all. "I do not want C.R. Milne ever to wish that his names were Charles Robert." But it was inevitable.

When A.A. Milne went to America in 1931 it was Christopher Robin everyone was interested in. Parents Magazine named him one of the most famous children in the world, along with Princess Elizabeth of York, Prince Michael of Romania, Yehudi Menuhin and Jackie Coogan, the film-star. In 1974, Pendennis in the Observer wrote that Christopher "had spent over 40 years trying to get off his knees from saying his prayers. Perhaps the most famous of all tiny boys (by comparison Little Lord Fauntleroy was a mere starlet), A.A. Milne's golden-curled son grew up loathing the Pooh books."

This was not entirely the case. Indeed, at the time he told his father he thought Pooh "a good sort of book", and he wrote himself in 1973 that as a child "I quite liked being Christopher Robin and being famous. There were indeed times . . . when it was exciting and made me feel grand and important." "Alan's boy is quite unspoilt," his grandfather wrote in the year Winnie-the-Pooh was published. From all accounts he was a delightful child. It was only at Stowe and later, as he grew out of his part, that he came to resent the books so fiercely and to write: "It seemed to me almost that my father had got to where he was by climbing upon my infant shoulders, that he had filched from me my good name and had left me with the empty fame of being his son."

It was the Second World War - in which he was wounded in Italy as a platoon commander with the Sappers - that saved Christopher Milne from the burden of being Christopher Robin. Not long ago I met a man who had served with him in Trieste and had not known for a long time whose son he was. The war enabled Milne to become himself and eventually to break away and live his own life, marrying his cousin Lesley de Selincourt and cutting himself off almost completely from his parents.

But he saw life as circular - our journey one that should take us back close to where we began, to the child's indivisible world in which all creatures are equal, the world we left when we went to school, as indeed Christopher Robin leaves the enchanted place on the top of the forest at the end of The House at Pooh Corner. As a child he had felt (inspired by the Doctor Dolittle books) that he might learn the language of animals. In later life he remained passionately involved in the natural world, in creatures however small. He described in The Open Garden (1988) how he had once reared the four heatherbell-like eggs a fox-moth had laid on his finger. He was immensely pleased when he was told he looked the sort of man who would be interested in a caterpillar. He knew the difference between bugle and betony. He liked night-walking and knowing the names of the stars.

Christopher Milne was in many ways, as he admitted, extremely like his father and the strength of the bond between them made the pain of breaking it all the greater. They were both essentially private people, individualists, observers, humorists. They both read Mathematics at Trinity College, Cambridge. Above all, they were both extremely good writers. Christopher never found another subject as interesting to his readers as his own life. His autobiographical writing, particularly in The Path Through the Trees (1979), has a most attractive candour. He wrote the first volume, the best-selling The Enchanted Places (1974), for himself (contradicting what he said on that subject in the book itself). It was soon after his mother's death, long after his father's. Each session at the typewriter was "like a session on the analyst's couch". He wrote it hoping to pre-empt future biographers of his father, but it was the very act of writing it that eventually made it possible for him to agree to my A.A. Milne: his life. Having agreed, he made no conditions and did not see the book until it was published six years ago. His reaction relieved us both.

Writing The Enchanted Places enabled Christopher Milne to come to terms with what his father had done to him. Milne could never make similar mistakes with his own daughter, Clare, to whom he was as deeply devoted. His father had expected too much of him. Clare, a severely disabled spastic, "set us an example and taught us a philosophy that parents don't usually expect to learn from their children". He wrote "Lucky Clare to have such a mother" and we would say "Lucky Clare to have such a father". He had always been good with his hands and was able to design special cutlery and furniture for her. Once he brought home a little bank vole which amazingly entertained her for two years and eight months.

He sold his share in the future royalties he inherited from the Pooh books to the Royal Literary Fund (which already had a share) and, with the capital, set up a trust fund for her. Money never interested him and he gave much away, but he prided himself that he and his wife were self- supporting for over 20 years at the Harbour Bookshop in Dartmouth. The shy schoolboy who stammered, and who had been so unworldly that he thought you could send a telegram from a bank, became a successful bookseller and in the Sixties a passionate speaker on children and reading at meetings of PTAs and the School Library Association. Loving Dartmouth, he was for years Chairman of the Dartmouth and Kingswear Association.

In recent years he performed acts of filial piety, though pious was the last thing he ever was. He unveiled a statue of Winnie the bear cub at the London Zoo, and was involved in the restoration of Poohsticks Bridge and in the establishment of a memorial to his father and E.H. Shepard in Ashdown Forest. He took a leading part in the fight to save the forest from development and oil exploration - not so much because of Pooh but because of the forest itself. He said he took the playground of his Sussex childhood with him wherever he went - and it was his childhood as much as the good years of his devoted partnership with Lesley that enabled him to write in the preface to The Path Through the Trees that he had indeed had a happy life.

Ann Thwaite

Christopher Robin Milne, bookseller and writer: born London 21 August 1920; author of The Enchanted Places 1974, The Path Through the Trees 1979, The Hollow on the Hill 1982, The Windfall 1985, The Open Garden 1988; married 1948 Lesley de Selincourt (one daughter); died Totnes, Devon 20 April 1996.

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