It was the moment when the Hundred Acre Wood became politicised. On the afternoon of Tuesday 3 October 2017, at the Conservative party conference, Boris Johnson launched an attack on the Financial Times for the alleged undue gloominess of its Brexit coverage. The paper’s coverage made “Eeyore look positively exuberant”, the foreign secretary said.
It has since become commonplace for pro-Brexit Conservatives to dismiss Philip Hammond, the chancellor, as an “Eeyore” because he is cautious about Brexit’s risks. The implication is that the donkey friend of Winnie the Pooh, Piglet, Tigger, Owl and the rest is a gloomy depressive, refusing to embrace the global opportunities of leaving the European Union.
I have taken these comparisons personally. I am a reporter for the Financial Times and no doubt the author of some stories the foreign secretary disliked. I too have often been described as having an Eeyore-ish personality.
However, my biggest irritation comes from the misunderstanding of one of the key characters in children’s literature. Eeyore is the most deeply contented animal roaming the Hundred Acre Wood. He accepts reality and eschews the flights of fancy that lead other inhabitants into scrapes. It is time for a country undergoing a great upheaval to reclaim him from those who would paint him as a doom-monger.
Such misunderstanding of Eeyore is typical of the adults who attempt to interpret AA Milne’s masterpieces. It is easy, when steeped in the hypocrisies of adult life, to accept the animals’ own estimation of themselves. Pooh is, as he regularly says, a bear of very little brain. Piglet is indeed scared of nearly everything. Tigger is joyful. Owl is wise.
Children make this mistake far less. For them, the pleasure of Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner is that the characters are, deep down, different from how they present themselves. Pooh emerges, despite himself, as smart and resourceful. Owl is more pompous than clever. Piglet rescues Owl when his house blows over, showing great courage. There is a profound sadness in Tigger when his exuberance runs out.
The same goes for Eeyore. If he were merely depressive, he would descend into deeper gloom when his birthday goes wrong. Pooh eats the honey he was bringing for him, while Piglet bursts the balloon. Instead, Eeyore turns to putting the burst balloon into the empty honey jar and getting it out again “as happy as can be”.
If the grey, lugubrious Hammond is indeed an Eeyore, it’s hard to imagine him as Eeyore when he is reunited with his lost tail. He is pictured turning near-cartwheels of joy. Perhaps this is how Hammond would be if he discovered some ruse that would truly slash the budget deficit without demanding tax increases.
Eeyore, granted, comes across as sardonic and downbeat. There is a self-protective defensiveness about his outward gloominess. Much of his behaviour comes across as a rather needy call for sympathy. I get annoyed with myself when I behave like him.
But Eeyore faces things as they are. While he finds joy in playing with his burst balloon, he doesn’t pretend it’s still inflated. When he falls in the river, he neither struggles to get out nor pretends he’s still on dry land.
This is, surely, the stance our nation, stumbling through troubled Brexit negotiations led by a minority government, needs to take. A blonde-haired Tigger might bound up the tree of free-trade opportunities, only to tumble into the gorse bush of contentious tariff quotas. An archaic Owl might get too worked up about the European Court of Justice. Life under the other creatures would surely end in tears.
But Eeyore – unflashy but loveable, a dispassionate realist, a creature without illusions – might get us through. We must transform him from our national punchline into our national role model.
Robert Wright is a political correspondent for the Financial Times