The Hell of Being Christopher Robin May 24, 2013Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary , trackback
Your mentor – a father, a family friend… – tells you, and then writes a series of stories where you are the hero. You can’t help but notice, however, that said mentor spends more time at the typewriter than reading these stories to you: the first bad sign? Then the publications appear and you see you, but not you, in some crass illustrations in a 4×8 book. Then, Disney start negotiating over the films rights and the nasty boys and girls at school go to the cinema to see ‘you’ running off with the fairies or making a house in the Never Ever Tree. Bad days follow. For the rest of your adolescence every time that someone holds up one of those damn volumes you feel nauseous. Yet that is what you are and you nothing you do will allow you to cut the ball and chain of your childhood fame.
Put in these terms it cannot have been easy to be, say, Alice Liddell or Christopher Robin Milne. In the case of Christopher Robin at least we have a little window into the human test-tube: for CR wrote a book describing the hell of being Christopher Robin, The Enchanted Places (1974). In this book Christopher Robin describes how his father first wrote the poems and the books. The warning signs were there for all to see. It seems that writing the books was essentially an excuse not to be with his son, or perhaps better, to be with him in a different way.
Some people are good with children. Others are not. It is a gift. You either have it or you don’t. My father didn’t—not with children, that is… There are two sorts of writer. There is the writer who is basically a reporter and there is the creative writer. The one draws on his experiences, the other on his dreams. My father was a creative writer and so it was precisely because he was not able to play with his small son that his longings sought and found satisfaction in another direction. He wrote about him instead.
All this might have worked. The young Christopher Robin had a loving nanny and was amused to be in the newspapers under this or that headline as the stories became an international sensation. He helped his father with plot lines – there really is a Poohsticks Bridge; he put on a Pooh play with some children in the Hundred Acres Wood for his parents and assorted friends.
However, imagine his dismay at arriving at boarding school – a long way from Hogwarts unfortunately – and immediately being known as ‘that Christopher Robin’. A record had been made of A.A.Milnes’ poem Vespers and some of CR’s classmates took to playing it again and again in the evening:
Little Boy kneels at the foot of the bed,
Droops on the little hands little gold head.
Hush! Hush! Whisper who dares!
Christopher Robin is saying his prayers.
God bless Mummy. I know that’s right.
Wasn’t it fun in the bath to-night?
The cold’s so cold, and the hot’s so hot.
Oh! God bless Daddy – I quite forgot.
The shy and normally self-contained Christopher Robin took the record and smashed it into many small pieces. He can hardly be blamed.
Luckily, CR got on better with his father in his adolescence: both shared a love of cricket and of mathematics. But his extended adolescence ended with service in the Second World War: it can’t have helped that his father had to write two separate letters to a minister to make sure that his son got into the Royal Engineers. Then, there was a head injury in Italy and a spell at Cambridge where he got a third in the mathematics tripos. After his degree he spent a long useless time looking for a vocation.
In pessimistic moments, when I was trudging London in search of an employer wanting to make use of such talents as I could offer, 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 nothing but the empty fame of being his son.
CR rarely saw his father and only once saw his mother in the last fifteen years of her life: son and parents lived, for the record, three English counties apart; even in the 1960s you could do that in an afternoon. But then in the 1970s Pooh was forgiven. First, in 1971 CR and his wife received the royalties for the Pooh stories: something which made an extraordinary difference as a small bookshop they had founded was successful but not successful enough to support properly a daughter with cerebral palsy. Then, he went through the therapy and catharsis of writing Enchanted Places. Perhaps this money and his own success as a bookseller and, crucially, a father allowed Christopher Robin to get some perspective. In later years, he unveiled a statue to Pooh at London Zoo: note that this was the original Canadian Pooh. And he even joined in the successful campaign to save the Hundred Acre Wood from development.
Beach wants to know if this is a one off thing, with perhaps Alice Liddell in train, or are there other children literary heroes who come to resent their fame? Perhaps child actors are closest category: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com
30 May 2013: Rhys has this nice thought. The saddest example must be Peter Llewelyn Davies who was still an infant when JM Barrie began appropriating his name, first in The Little White Bird, then in Peter Pan. Like Christopher Robin Milne, Davies grew to strongly resent being associated with a fictional character. Unlike Milne, he never came to terms with it. After Barrie’s death, Davies received neither the rights to the work nor the fortune Barrie had amassed from it. He became an alcoholic and at sixty-three, committed suicide by throwing himself under a train. (A story I’ve never been able to confirm claims that Davies met an elderly Alice Hargreaves (nee Liddell) in 1932 at a celebration for the centenary of Lewis Carroll’s birth.) Another possible example is Kenneth Grahame’s son, Alastair. A partial inspiration for the character of Toad in The Wind in the Willows, he also committed suicide by train. Polly, meanwhile, sent in this brilliant but horrific link on Barrie. Finally Borky has this to say ‘I always say to my two and any other young people I might chance to interact with there’s a process we all have to go through which if we don’t usually proves utterly catastrophic namely we have to at some stage see through our parents and recognise their limitations and flaws as human beings then at a later point see back into them recognising how wise and virtuous in their own way they always actually were. Because if we don’t we end up like the sons of various famous individuals like Gregory Peck topping themselves because they couldn’t live up to their parents’ godlike standards or achievements or demands [this’s why I’m such a huge admirer of Michael Douglas for having carved out a movie career for himself on a par with daddy Kirk’s with a similar rota of archetypal characters andmovie moments which’s almost beyond belief though I do also wonder how much his pulling this off may’ve contributed to some of his own kids downfalls]. And speaking of pulling off at some stage though we have to have the humility to acknowledge just how indebted we are to our parents and how not everything they did was designed or intended simply to ruin or spoil our fun or even destroy lives otherwise not only’ll we succumb to the Atum psychosis of imagining everything we are or’ve achieved’s all purely a product of our own indescribable greatness but we’ll make exactly the same mistakes with our own kids our parents made with us.’ Perhaps in the end the parent by stealing the child’s identity blocks this process off? Thanks to Borky, Polly and Rhys!!!