How does a nation pull itself together again after a disaster? How do we move on from overwhelming experiences? There was no doubt in AA Milne’s mind that the First World War was a disaster. On the Somme, he’d witnessed “a lunacy which would shame the madhouse”. One Austrian archduke had been killed, he said, and this “resulted directly in the death of ten million men who were not archdukes”.
Before the war, and long before he was writing stories about his son Christopher Robin and his bear Pooh, Milne (1882-1956) had enjoyed a star turn at Punch under the editorship of Owen Seaman. Seaman was a gloomy character who was partly the model for Eeyore, Winnie-the-Pooh’s miserable donkey. He was also an enthusiastic publisher and perpetrator of the kind of patriotic doggerel that cheered those ten million up the line to death. Milne was painfully aware of the part that culture played in soliciting sacrifice. “Wars are fought for economic reasons,” he wrote, “but they are fought by volunteers for sentimental reasons.” Seaman whipped up a lot of sentiment.
Milne had been a pacifist since 1910. Seeing the jingo-machine close up must have left a bitter taste. But the force of it may have been partly why, despite his pacifism, he decided to sign up in 1915. Of course he didn’t know then that this was only the first of the world wars. He had every reason to believe that this was “the war to end war”, a phrase coined by HG Wells, who sometimes played for the same cricket team as Milne.
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The Great War did not end all wars, and Milne learned this early on. In “The Honour of Your Country” he said that, after the Somme, “all the talk in the Mess was of after-the-war”. He goes on to describe a conversation with a colonel whose “idea of Reconstruction included a large army of conscripts”. The more Milne debates with him, the more it becomes clear that nothing that happened on the Somme discredited the idea of war as a tool of diplomacy. The wittier Milne’s responses become, the more obvious it is that war will continue to be part of the way we do things.
The cricket team Milne and Wells belonged to also included – at various times – JM Barrie, Rudyard Kipling, Arthur Conan Doyle, PG Wodehouse and GK Chesterton. It was Barrie who formed the team and named it the Allahakbarries, thinking he was playing with a phrase that meant “God Help Us” (“Allahu akbar” actually means “God is Great”), because he himself was such a bad player. So bad, in fact, that he banned the team from warming up at away grounds because the sight of them in action would only add to the opposition’s confidence.
As it turns out, Milne’s “after-the-war” was a streak of enormous luck. Despite seeing active and highly dangerous service as a signals officer, his later posting – on the Isle of Wight – somehow left him time to start writing plays. His first was for the children of his colonel. He wanted to give them something amusing “at a time when life was not very amusing”. Which is a decent enough mission for any writer, and certainly a better one than stirring up jingoistic sentiment (Milne’s definition of a patriot was someone who accuses other people of being unpatriotic).
He moved away from Punch, ready to start his career on the West End. As a successful playwright he would often earn £500 a week at a time when the average wage was about £4. He’d been lucky and he knew it: the American edition of his autobiography was called What Luck. The sense of being lucky gives the pieces he wrote about domestic life – about sorting out his books or redecorating the bathroom – the glow of unstated gratitude. He was lucky to have books to sort out. Lucky to be alive. Lucky to have survived the war without ever having to fire a shot in anger. Lucky, therefore, not to have had to compromise his pacifism.
Luck carries with it a sense of responsibility. Lucky survivors often feel they’ve been saved for some great purpose, or at least that they should make the most of their opportunity. You can sense this in how hard Milne worked to give those pieces their hospitable ease. Nothing is harder than making things look easy. If you read “On Writing for Children”, you’ll see he had no patience for any writer who was “not bothering”.
Of a poem that was then a nursery favourite, “The Diverting History of John Gilpin”, he says “there are 63 verses in it; it should have taken him a month of the hardest work within the capacity of man. When we read it, we know why it did not take him a month.” He was a fierce and fearless critic. In one very funny piece he takes a Sherlock Holmes story apart to demonstrate that it cannot be re-assembled because it was only held together with chewing gum and Sellotape. I don’t think I’ve ever read a more insightful or bracing piece of criticism than his piece on Lewis Carroll and why the “it was all a dream” ending is such a betrayal. His friend Frank Swinnerton said that Milne “combined a gift for persiflage with the sternness of a Covenanter”, and it shows in the sheer work ethic he brought to the task of making it look like he was doing nothing.
Of course, no Covenanter is going to be satisfied with “merely” being amusing. One of the most moving and tortured pieces in Happy Half Hours, a new selection of his non-fiction, is “The End of a Chapter”, his account of why he has to stop writing about Christopher Robin. It’s part excuse-note, part examination of conscience. He admits that Christopher Robin only got his name because the Milnes wanted their son to be a great cricketer and great cricketers – like WG Grace – have initials rather than names. He jokes about the writer’s jealousy of his own creation:
Imagine my amazement and disgust, then, when I discovered that in a night, so to speak, I had been pushed into a back place, and that the hero of When We Were Very Young was not, as I had modestly expected, the author, but a curiously named child of whom, at this time, I had scarcely heard. It was this Christopher Robin who kept mice, walked on the lines and not in the squares, and wondered what to do on a spring morning; it was this Christopher Robin, not I, whom Americans were clamouring to see; and, in fact (to make due acknowledgement at last), it was this Christopher Robin, not I, not the publishers, who was selling the book in such large and ridiculous quantities.
Overwhelming success is harder to deal with than failure. At least failure has an element of hope in it. Success asserts a huge gravitational pull from which it’s almost impossible to achieve escape velocity. Look how Conan Doyle struggled with Sherlock Holmes. How Steve Coogan keeps going back to Alan Partridge. How JK Rowling keeps returning to the Harry Potter universe. Milne never returned. His refusal to dilute the Winnie-the-Pooh legacy is partly why the colours of the Hundred Acre Wood are still so fresh. He walked out of the trees, up to Galleon’s Leap, and out into the world. Then he tried to stop a war.
The man who invented Pooh said the book he was most proud of writing was Peace with Honour – an anti-war polemic written in 1934. Nowadays, the whole idea of campaigning for appeasement in the 1930s has such a bad reputation that it’s easy to forget that Milne was not the only one to argue against going to war with Nazi Germany. The book was a bestseller. You can sense how passionately he felt about this issue just by looking at the sheer rhetorical firepower he brings to the field: scenes, sketches, aphorisms, statistics.
It’s a compelling read not least because Milne is genuinely wrangling with his conscience, trying to find a way of squaring his love of his country with his hatred of war. Of course, by the time the true nature of Nazism became clear, he had to renounce – or modify – his pacifism in the book’s sequel, War with Honour (1940). Clearly there’s something ridiculous about performing such a flip-flop, but you have to admire the honesty and energy with which he tried to think through his change of mind.
War with Honour is an angry, hectic book. Reading it is like watching a smartly dressed gent desperately wrestling with a well-oiled snake, while trying to keep his tie straight. This is a book calling for peace in which the harshest words are aimed at conscientious objectors and the most hope is pinned on the atom bomb. “The only logical protest for a conscientious objector who refuses to take part is suicide; preferably at sea, so that the war effort shall not be interrupted by the need for burying the body.”
The atomic bomb, on the other hand, fills him with hope of a better world. Part of the thrill of the book is reading a man, whose urbane voice normally comes at us from the nursery or the Garrick Club, wrangling with an unusually apocalyptic version of nuclear deterrence. In the 1920s, he says, everyone was a pacifist. He talks about the optimism of the League of Nations and votes for women, for peace under the banner of hope. Here, he is holding out for peace under the banner of planetary destruction. What Milne is really struggling with is the clash between crisp, clean principles and the murky, tempestuous nature of a fallen world. What can a writer bring to it?
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Milne had already answered that with the Hundred Acre Wood. Children’s books of the 1920s are thronged with characters who never grow up, following, of course, Barrie’s eternal Peter Pan. But Christopher Robin is different. In the Hundred Acre Wood, he is the grown-up, dispensing wisdom and help, solving problems, putting things right. He’s a boy at the very end of childhood, aware that this is soon going to end. That’s why everything shimmers with its own transience.
In the difficult, distracting, dangerous world into which he is heading when he walks beyond the wood (and, in the end, the real Christopher Robin Milne was off to another war), the best the writer can do is to bring the good things to our attention, to help us hold them in our hearts and memories, so that, when we need them, those little things – sorting out your books, picking a new bathroom, the honey and the humming – can be our stepping stones through the bad times.
The joke in Milne’s poem “Vespers” is that the little boy who is supposedly praying is in fact distracted by everything from bath water to dressing gowns. But another way of looking at it is to say the boy was sure that everything from bath water to dressing gowns was important and had its place in the mind of God, or the universe. Everything matters. Everything in life is worth looking at. Milne’s gift of writing amusingly about the most trivial things is far from trivial. It’s a kind of blessing – the kind that can put you back together again when all else fails.
“Happy Half Hours: Selected Writings of AA Milne” is published by Notting Hill Editions
This article appears in the 24 Mar 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Spring special 2021