AA Milne is so much more than Winnie the Pooh

You can never be sure what history will remember you for - if, indeed, it does

Rosie Millard
Thursday 27 August 2015 17:42
Winnie the Pooh is next to get the Disney live-action remake treatment
Winnie the Pooh is next to get the Disney live-action remake treatment

It just can’t be helped. Even on holiday in Costa Rica, walking across a moss-garlanded bridge in a cloud forest, some wag piped up: “Imagine playing Poohsticks here.” It’s a peculiarly British tic, but I warrant that somewhere in the world there will always be a person wandering over a bridge doing the same.

This week an academic from the Royal Academy of Engineering, no less, revealed a formula for a winning “stick” in the game must comply with the dazzling, if inexplicable formula: PP = A x I. So Christopher Robin’s own stick, captured in an E H Shepard illustration of the child playing the game (and sold last year for £300,000), is too thin and weedy. Poor thing never stood a chance.

The person I feel sorriest for in this whole slightly fey, admittedly niche interest (there is even a book out about it) is the person who coined the mildly interesting contest of dropping sticks over a bridge into flowing water and seeing which comes out first. One A A Milne. The celebrated author, poet and playwright (18 plays, three novels, four film screenplays) was somewhat vexed that during his lifetime the brightness of his varied oeuvre became eclipsed by the two children’s books he wrote for his son, Christopher Robin.

However, since his death in 1956, Milne, who presciently wrote “I suppose that every one of us hopes for immortality; to leave, I mean, a name behind him which will live forever in this world,” has been entirely forgotten as a creator of anything else but Pooh Bear in general and Poohsticks in particular. Pooh is now a billion-dollar brand and the fictional Hundred Acre Wood where he and his friends once romped, a wholly cheesy tourist attraction in East Sussex where (of course) the “original” Poohsticks Bridge stands triumphant.

Poor Milne. It is, obviously, impossible to control one’s legacy after one expires; and while there will be many artists and writers who envy Milne’s immortality, (for surely commanding any memory is better than none at all), to have a life summarised by people lobbing sticks over a bridge does seem something of a travesty.

There are others whose lofty careers have, through no fault of their own, achieved unusual legacies that they can hardly have dreamed of and would probably never have desired; one thinks of Rudyard Kipling, easily the most famous writer of his generation, now probably best known as the inventor of Baloo the Bear, and by extension the jazz-loving King Louis; the august T S Eliot will go down in history mostly for bringing Cats to the entertainment world, and where would the revolutionary Che Guevara be, without that poster and that T-shirt, beloved by radical students the world over? Even the grand and feted William Gladstone, who at least still has a portrait hanging in Downing Street, or I hope he does, is now best known for that bag.

Even though there are those like the late Terry Pratchett, whose last novel has hit the bookshops, or Robin Williams, who died last year but will still apparently posthumously “release” four films, it is impossible to realistically control how – and indeed, if – your image, your work and your legacy are remembered when you are dead. That’s a lesson that fans of Stieg Larsson, whose series of novels has now been taken on by writer David Lagercrantz – with the permission of his estate but no agreement from the original author – are learning now.

I am sure Mozart would be astonished to see his portrait stamped on thousands of sickly chocolates across Austria, Bach nonplussed to find his “Air on a G String” used in advertising and Shakespeare amazed that his plots, quotes and characters have gone many times around the world and been transmuted into musicals, operas and – even – pornographic films. But at least if you march up to someone and say “Shakespeare” or “Jane Austen” or “Bach” to them, they will probably rustle up a connection for which that person might recognise as faithful to their aims in life.

Maybe it doesn’t matter. I refer you to the musings of Woody Allen, who when asked whether he was comforted by the fact that when the inevitable occurs, he will at least leave behind a sizeable body of work, said “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I don’t want to live on in the hearts of my countrymen; I want to live on in my apartment.”

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