Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Will the real Winnie-the-Pooh please put up his paw? - Griselda Heppel

Right, people, a quiz question to get those sluggish winter brains going: which of these quotations is the odd one out?

  1. “Then would you read a Sustaining Book, such as would help and comfort a Wedged Bear in Great Tightness?”
  2. ... and this is what he wrote:   HIPY PAPY BTHUTHDTH THUTHDA BTHUTHDY.
  1. “If ever there is tomorrow when we're not together... there is something you must always remember. You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think. But the most important thing is, even if we're apart... I'll always be with you.” 
  2. When you are a Bear of Very Little Brain, and you Think of Things, you find sometimes that a Thing which seemed very Thingish inside you is quite different when it gets out into the open and has other people looking at it.
A Wedged Bear in Great Tightness
Yes, I’m talking Winnie-the-Pooh here. The most wonderful books for children ever written, not just because of their cute cuddly characters but because of their glorious, inimitable, uniquely subtle literary style. Analyse an A A Milne sentence and you’ll find a rhythmic build up of words that manages to convey meaning, warmth, character, emotion and a delightfully absurd humour that deflates pomposity in language in the kindest way. 

My generation seems to be the last for whom these rhythms and phrases are part of our DNA. ‘Astute and Helpful Bear,’ I might call my husband. ‘GON OUT BACKSON BISY BACKSON,’ he might leave as a message for me. And no greeting in a card can ever compete with Owl’s way of writing Happy Birthday.

It’s because we know these books so well - and their enchanting Ernest Shepard illustrations - that when something isn’t right in Winnie-the-Pooh world, it jars. As one of the quotations above does. Yup. It grieves me to say that the most often quoted lines from A A Milne, the ones you will find plastered all over the internet, that clearly warm the hearts of millions of Winnie-the-Pooh fans out there – these lines are not by A A Milne at all. If you haven’t spotted the imposter yet, I’ll give you a clue: no English writer in the 1920s would have used the word ‘smart’ to mean anything but ‘well-dressed’. Whoever – and I’m guessing it was someone at Disney – wrote ‘smarter than you think’ (No 3) was clearly not referring to the bear’s red jacket or his owner’s short-sleeved shirt and shorts. (Another clue – who is supposed to be speaking this drivel, Pooh or Christopher Robin? A A Milne’s dialogue is so well crafted you know at once which character is talking.)

Nor is this the only fake A A Milne quotation out there. The internet is awash with them. Winnie-the-Pooh has appeared in many different forms – films, television cartoons, dozens of spin-off philosophy and instruction books – and of course all of these will depict him in their own way, coining new aphorisms and images. There’s nothing wrong with that, as long as all origins are made clear.

The problem arises when these nuggets of sickly wisdom are blithely attributed to A A Milne, who’d have plunged his head into Eeyore’s Useful Pot to Put Things in before writing lines like ‘Sometimes the smallest things take up the most room in your heart’, or ‘Some people care too much. I think it’s called love.’ But Google either of those quotations and you’ll find them attributed to him over and over again because the vast majority of people don’t know his books and don’t bother to check. And when a highly respected organisation like English Heritage (who should know something about, er, English heritage) celebrates Winnie-the-Pooh Day by tweeting Quotation No 3, attributing it, yes, to A A Milne, the battle feels well and truly lost.

So we can now add #MockMilne to #FakeNews and #AlternativeFacts.  What next – #ShamShakespeare perhaps? How about:

   ‘This living or dying thing, I just can’t get my head around it.’
   ‘Romeo, Romeo, who the hell called you Romeo?’

    It’ll catch on.

Find out more about Griselda Heppel here:

and her children's books:
Ante's Inferno 
The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst


Dennis Hamley said...

How true every word here is. It's truly dreadful that the utterly inimitable, uniquely recognisable, profoundly satisfying words of this wonderful, wonderful writer have been allowed to sink into the morass of sickly cliche which is the clear sign of Disneyfication. I didn't know English Heritage had connived at this barbarism.It's enough to make me want to cancel my subscription. Reading Milne aloud to children is one of the world's great pleasures. Learning to 'read in capital letters'is a real acquired skill. Among many, many examples, my favourite is that Piglet speech when Kanga and Roo arrive. It begins with 'There's just one thing,' said Piglet,fidgeting a bit. It ends with, 'In which case "Aha" might be a foolish thing to say.' In between are about 100 words of sheer virtuoso delight.

Great post, Griselda.

Wendy Jones said...

L9ve this post. It can be so difficult to work out what is real and what is fake. The originals have certainly been played around with to such an extent that people no longer know what is true. I would expect English Heritge to get it right though.

Bill Kirton said...

Having once played Pooh at the Edinburgh fringe in a sketch wot I wrote, I felt a deep personal interest in this post. It's brilliant and beautiful and recalls the wonderful hours spent reading and re-reading the Milne books to my (now middle aged) kids. I'm especially glad that you called attention to the rhythms he uses - in both verse and prose. The evidence seems to suggest that younger generations are getting less exposure to his wonderful characters and wordplay. Lewis Carroll still seems to have a hold with his common-sense absurdities and linguistic tricks, but the gentle, hugely satisfying cadences of A A Milne evoke a magic we seem to have lost.
Thanks, Griselda, for a lovely post.

Ann Turnbull said...

I am appalled. I knew nothing of all this mis-attributing, but I know Winnie the Pooh, and I would never have believed for an instant that the fake quote was from A A Milne. How horrible. And how lucky I was to have been given the Pooh books when I was six.

Fran B said...

Even in their forties now, my children would never dream of calling an elephant anything other than a heffalump. And people who annoy them are often referred to as a bear of very little brain. And, when they get a new car, they revert to another much-loved children's author and cry Poop-poop the first time they drive it. What is childhood if it doesn't furnish us with such mantras to see us through adult life?

Anonymous said...

So glad this touched a chord with you all - it's great to know I'm not alone! Perhaps we should found a Campaign for the Real A A Milne, rather on the lines of the Campaigns for Real Ale and Real Bread which rescued both of those vital foodstuffs from ghastly tasteless mass-produced versions. Dennis, you're so right about learning how to read aloud in Capital Letters - one of the glories of A A Milne's style. Thank you for all these super comments.

Dennis Hamley said...

Brilliant idea. We could make it a joint AE and Writers in Oxford project.

Umberto Tosi said...

Pity the Pooh lovers, myself included. You've hit upon a pet peeve of mine: the misappropriation, distortion and outright faking of quotations from those whose works we cherish as much as we deplore their expedient dilution on social media. Mark Twain, Einstein, Gandhi, etc. It's perpetrated on the best of them. Bravo, Ms. Heppel!

Rosalie Warren said...

I agree so strongly! In fact I detest the whole Disneyfication of Pooh. The 'real' Pooh has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember and I am doing my best to introduce my little granddaughter to the original characters too.

madwippitt said...

Fab post. I was utterly shocked when I referred to a Heffalump in a book to have the publisher ask 'What is a heffalump please?' It should have been a warning ...