Reviewed by Claire/The Captive Reader
When you are the inspiration for one of the most famous and best-loved children’s books of all time, how do you grow up? How do you set up an identity of your own and get people to see you as the person you are rather than the fictional child they know so well? It is a question Christopher Milne, son of Winnie-the-Pooh creator A.A. Milne (henceforth A.A.M.), struggled with for much of his life – a struggle he documented in the memoirs he wrote in his middle-age. While the first volume (The Enchanted Places) deals with his childhood and adolescence, it is in the second volume, The Path Through the Trees (1979), that the reader sees Christopher really begin to come into his own.
When the Second World War began, nineteen year old Christopher was beginning his first year at Cambridge. He had inherited his father’s love of mathematics but, like his father, Christopher’s love was extinguished by too much study. After a dismal first year, Christopher left university to join the army. For a young man who had once, again like his father, been an avowed pacifist, it might have seemed a strange choice. But both Milne men felt strongly that the war against Hitler was morally necessary and Christopher’s military ambitions were fully supported by his father. Christopher’s heart was set on joining the Royal Engineers and so his father set out to help him as best he knew how: by writing letters.
He gave me his fullest support and encouragement both then and in the months that followed. And when I say this I don’t just mean that he said, ‘Your decision receives my fullest support and encouragement’, and then left events to take their course. He never left events to take their course if he could help them on their way; and helping them on their way meant going straight to the top. Sir James Grigg was Under Secretary of State for War. My father wrote him a letter… there was little enough else that a middle-aged author could do to help win the war, so my father probably welcomed this opportunity to exert himself on behalf of his son.
A.A.M.’s letters yielded results and before too long Christopher was a sapper, just as he’d desired. His introduction to war – an idyllic wander through the Middle East – in no way prepared him for the horrors of the invasion of Italy. To me, Christopher’s experiences in Italy and his writings on war are the most compelling aspect of this book. They are visceral and upsetting and terribly honest. What had begun as an exciting adventure had become a life consumed with fear and fatalism:
…our encounters with fear passed through three stages. In the first, we barely noticed it: war was an adventure and excitement dominated our emotions. In the second state the excitement had worn off, fear was present but we were able to control it. In the third state the strain began to tell. War was now no longer a game, nor could we fool ourselves that it was a party. It was just thoroughly stupid and thoroughly bloody. At the start, filled with confidence, we had walked upright, chin up, chest out, like soldiers on parade. Later we had developed a permanent stoop. We walked with knees bent, eyes to the ground, measuring the distance to the nearest hollow, ready for an instant spring. In the end we didn’t bother. It wasn’t worth it. If you’re going to hit me, do it now, for Heaven’s sake, and get it over…
After the war, Christopher floundered about a bit, unable to find work that he felt suited for. He felt vaguely that he might like to write and had in fact had some success writing short humourous pieces for radio but he was not yet ready to make a career of it. Eventually, he and his wife Lesley settled on a plan: they would open a bookshop. They found the perfect place in Dartmouth and, with much hard work and a great deal of luck, made a success of it. Christopher goes into great (sometimes tedious) length about the more technical details of running this sort of business: what is needed in a good shop assistant, what it was like to supply schools with books, how he and Lesley managed their schedule while caring for this severely disabled daughter, etc. If you have ever considered opening a bookshop, these are chapters you absolutely must read.
In truth, this feels like two equally interesting books with two distinctly different tones. One is a war memoir and it is excellent. The second is the story of a quirky bookshop and the young couple who run it. What does unify the war and post-war sections is Christopher’s feeling that he needs to distance himself from his father. During his youth, particularly his teenage years, Christopher had been unusually close to his father. They had been best friends, doing almost everything together and knowing one another better than they knew anyone else – including Christopher’s rather superficial mother, Daphne. Then, during the war, Christopher consciously began distancing himself from his father. He did not love him any less and there was not violent break between them, which almost makes it crueler. Christopher felt like he needed to assert his independence and that is what he did. But, having read so much by and about A.A.M. over the past few years, it hurts to know how alone Christopher left his introverted but loving father, especially when A.A.M. had done so much to encourage and support him over the years. A.A.M. had two close companions in his life – his brother Ken when he was young and Christopher when he was older – and Christopher’s withdrawal left him without anyone in his final years.
This is a beautifully and thoughtfully written memoir but Christopher’s attitude towards his father makes it difficult for me to like him. I can like the book, yes, but not the man.
Claire blogs at The Captive Reader and was a very compliant convert when Shiny New Books editor Simon was looking for someone to introduce to A.A. Milne’s non-Pooh works. He was so successful at this that one of her greatest desires now is to see A.A.M.’s stories about The Rabbits published in a complete edition.
Christopher Milne, The Path Through the Trees (Bello, London, 2014). 978-1447269854, 304pp., paperback.
Read Five Fascinating Facts about A.A. Milne in BookBuzz.