When We Were Very Young – An Irishman’s Diary on Christopher Robin Milne
AA Milne, with his son Christopher Robin, and the teddy bear that inspired Winne-the-Pooh, at their home in east Sussex in 1926. Photograph: Howard Coster/Apic/Getty Images
The 2017 film Goodbye Christopher Robin tells the life story (or some of it, at least) of Christopher Robin Milne, son of writer AA Milne and his wife Daphne. AA Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh books and poems, based on Christopher Robin’s childhood and the toys he played with, have enchanted generations of children. The film-review site Rotten Tomatoes said of the film that it “offers valuable insight into the darkness shadowing the creation of a classic children’s tale”.
Christopher Milne’s childhood seems on the face of it to have been idyllic but the fame brought by his father’s books and poetry served to indeed darken his life and his relationship with his parents.
He was born 100 years ago on August 21st in Chelsea and was an only child. His nanny, Olive Brockwell, was his main carer during his first 10 years and he was very close to her. She was the “Alice” in his father’s poem “Buckingham Palace” and Christopher Robin dedicated his memoirs to her, where he described her as “Alice to millions, but Nou to me”.
On his first birthday, he received a Farnell teddy bear, which he afterwards named Edward; Eeyore arrived at Christmas, and Piglet shortly afterwards. Edward and a black bear at London Zoo called Winnipeg became the inspiration for Winnie-the-Pooh.
His father bought Cotchford Farm near Ashdown Forest in East Sussex in 1925 and the family spent weekends and holidays there, while still living in London.
The nearby landscape inspired the Six Pine Trees, Pooh-sticks Bridge and Pooh’s House where Pooh, Eeyore, Piglet, Owl, Rabbit, Kanga, Roo and Tigger all came to life and had their adventures. Winnie-the-Pooh (1926), The House at Pooh Corner (1928) and a second book of verse, Now We Are Six (1927), featuring Christopher Robin, his teddy bear and other toys, were huge commercial successes and made the boy famous all over the English-speaking world.
But fame had a price. In May 1930, a few months short of his ninth birthday, he started boarding at Boxgrove School near Guildford and it was then “that began that love-hate relationship with my fictional namesake that has continued to this day,” he wrote in his memoirs.
He was bullied by some of the children at Boxgrove because of being so well known and when he moved to Stowe School, having won a mathematics scholarship to it, the bullying became much worse, which caused him to later observe: “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 the empty fame of being his son.”
He studied mathematics in Cambridge but his studies were interrupted by the war.
He joined the Royal Engineers, was commissioned and was wounded in Italy in 1943.
After the war he did a degree in English literature at Cambridge.
In 1948, he married Lesley de Sélincourt, a cousin on his mother’s side, and cut himself off almost completely from his parents.
He and his wife moved to Dartmouth in 1951 and opened the Harbour Bookshop. They had a daughter, Clare, who had severe cerebral palsy.
He developed a particular interest in the natural world and in animals, which he wrote about in The Open Garden (1988), but as his obituarist in the Independent of London remarked, “he never found another subject as interesting to his readers as his own life”.
He occasionally visited his father when he became ill but never returned to Cotchford Farm after his father’s death in 1956.
His mother had little further contact with her son after that, did not see him for the last 15 years of her life and refused to see him on her deathbed.
Christopher Robin wrote the first volume of his autobiography, the best-selling The Enchanted Places, in 1974 and described each session at the typewriter as “like a session on the analyst’s couch”.
It helped him come to terms with his father’s legacy to him. He said that the book “combined to lift me from under the shadow of my father and Christopher Robin, and to my surprise and pleasure I found myself standing beside them in the sunshine able to look them both in the eye”. The Path Through the Trees (1979) was the second volume of his autobiography.
He died in April 1996 at the age of 75, having been a successful writer and bookshop owner, a devoted and loving husband and father and active environmentalist. His father’s writing on his son’s childhood caused him later pain but the final chapter of The House at Pooh Corner, which is entitled “In Which Christopher Robin and Pooh Come to an Enchanted Place and We Leave Them There”, testifies to both the integrity of childhood and the need to bid it farewell.