Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Pooh versus the Prince

When I was 14 and knew everything, I was surprised to hear a friend of my mother’s – an English teacher, and a funny, intelligent woman whom I much liked – say that she couldn’t stand Winnie-the-Pooh.

I thought I must have misheard at first. It just did not compute. Not – like - Winnie-the-Pooh? It was as unthinkable as not liking chocolate, or Morecambe and Wise, or fresh air. She must be referring to the Disney cartoon, I decided, but she insisted otherwise. “But,“ I spluttered, “how can you not like it?” I tried, none too articulately (it’s hard to find arguments for the self-evident), to explain the many things that made Pooh irresistible. The humour of course, the playing with words, the adorably simple yet accidentally profound conversations of Pooh and Piglet, Rabbit’s bossiness. Tigger’s bounciness, Owl’s sententiousness, Eeyore’s eeyorishness... How could anyone fail to love all these and still be a member of the same species, let alone teach English literature for a living?

When I finally drew breath she told me what had put her off the book. In short, she found it to be saturated in a middle-class, southern English cosiness that might be appealing as a nursery fantasy if you happened to be a middle-class, southern English reader (here she fixed me keenly), but that excluded her, a working class girl from Northern Ireland. There were no Peace Walls in the Hundred Aker Wood.

I can’t remember what I said in reply. I’ve a nasty suspicion that (being afflicted with teenage omniscience) I thought this merely showed her lack of empathy and imagination. Yes, she might have grown up in the middle of the Troubles, but the magical thing about literature was that it could lift you out of your own life into those of other people. With the help of A. A. Milne she could soar across the Irish Sea to Sussex on the viewless wings of poesy – to a place where everybody knows your name (as long as it’s Christopher Robin) and there’s always hunny still for tea.

These days I’m no longer quite so sure I know everything, and although I still love the Pooh books I understand how somebody else might not. More importantly, I’ve come to terms with the fact that the book hasn’t been written (and never will be) that everyone will like. There is no Platonic Book – the book all other books are striving to be and beside which all others must be found wanting, the book that would bring an end to literature if it were ever written because no one would want to read anything else. Instead, there's an ever-growing Library – a Library in the form of a forest that is perpetually sprouting new trees, new branches, new leaves for new readers. Isn't that a more liberating way of thinking about it?


As a matter of fact, there are plenty of classic titles that I don’t particularly care for. Take Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince. More than once I’ve had people clutch me by the arm to tell me it’s their favourite book, a miracle of style, magical, profound, a philosophy of life as much as a story. And I nod, and smile, and say, “I’m so glad you like it.” The fourteen-year-old me is still there, yelping all the reasons why The Little Prince is a twee borefest, but I keep these thoughts under wraps.

In the Forest of Literature everyone is entitled to their own Hundred Akers.

17 comments:

Anne Cassidy said...

When you were 14 you knew everything. reminds me of a Bob Dylan lyric - I was so much older then I'm younger than that now. Can't remember which song but it sums up adolescence for me - the certainty that you know everything. Winnie the Pooh? Isn't that the Martin Jarvis thingy on Radio four?

Stroppy Author said...

I agree with the older you. But isn't it strange (to be provactive for a moment) who it's fine for someone to say they don't like Winnie the Pooh because it's so white, middle-class and English (and full of male characters except the domestic drudge, Kanga), but it would NOT be OK to say they don't like (say) Siobhan Dowd because all the that Irish stuff is irrelevant to them? As you say, literature can show you what's alien to you, broaden your experience and insight. I don't like Black Beauty - not because it's not relevant to me what it's like to grow up as a horse, though.

Sheenagh Pugh said...

I don't think her reasons were good. Lack of imagination and lack of realisation that books are meant to be windows, not mirrors. It's interesting that George Mackay Brown, who could hardly have been further away from the world of the English public school, was, in his Orkney childhood, crazy for Frederick Farrar's sentimental fantasies "Eric" and "St Winifred's", precisely because to him, they were like tales of the Far East...

JO said...

We all have books we just don't connect with. Maybe it's to her credit that she thought out why - and her reasons made sense to her. Better that than flinging the book aside.

Having said that, I'm glad your omniscient 14yr-old asked the questions (albeit clumsily). We all need adolescents to challenge us occasionally.

Katherine Langrish said...

I loved Winnie the Pooh as a child. Or - well. I certainly liked it. Even liked it very much. Now, though, I feel no desire to go back to it; I'm not sure why, since I reread most of the books I've ever read. Perhaps I should take another look! Thanks for the challenge, Cathy!

John Revty said...
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CatherineAnn Minnock said...

I hear a lot of this said about Winnie the Pooh, Harry Potter etc... I think the truth is people write what they know most of all, and if they don't know any different, they can't help that. I for one love delving into a new book to find the setting unique to the author and their life experience... I'd reccommend "Bog Child" by Siobhan Dowd to suit your mother's friend :)

Catherine Butler said...

Anne, that Bob Dylan lyric was going through my head as I wrote the post - along with the line often attributed to Mark Twain: "When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years."

I don't know if her reasons were good or bad, but I think the difference between my attitude now and then is that I'm far less proselytic and doctrinaire about what a "good book" is and how people ought to feel about it. I also think it's only natural that where people come from and their experiences will affect the extent to which and/or the way they enjoy a book, and the route they take to enoying it, if they ever do. I had (have, to an extent) a similar block - though that's too strong a word - about fiction set in gritty northern towns. I know it's my loss, but no amount of admonition will make me love them: I have to find another way. (I wrote a little about that here: http://steepholm.livejournal.com/123735.html.)

fionadunbar said...

Anne, that's a great lyric, one of my favourite lines: it's from My Back Pages. Stroppy, that's a very good point. I do wonder if the person in question isn't attaching these reasons for disliking Pooh retrospectively; we all have dislikes for this book or that author that don't have any sound basis: we just_don't_like_it. It's fine to be at odds with the majority, simply because *you* find the main character irritating instead of endearing or whatever; better in my view to admit to that, than to give such an inverted-snobbish response.

Mary Hoffman said...

I think books should be both Mirrors AND windows. It might not be possible for one book to be both - which is why we need such a lot of them.

officeprojects said...
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officeprojects said...
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Anonymous said...

The thing is, what do those of us who *are* (through no choice of our own) white, middle class and south-of-England, do? Hate our "own" literature? I loved "A Wizard of Earthsea" as much as I loved "Winnie the Pooh"... and neither of them had characters I as a disabled woman could identify with. Indeed the books that did have disabled girls in were very often abject failures in the identification stakes...
Jane Stemp

Catherine Butler said...

Jane, I don't see that as an implication. I certainly don't feel that my friend's dislike of Winnie-the-Pooh means that I have to love it any less.

The reasons people love books, or sometimes bounce off them, are complex; and while I'll never get tired (I hope) of discussing them, I don't feel the urge I once did to keep on at people to like the same books in the same way I do. On the contrary, the diversity of tastes is as much to be celebrated as the diversity of books catering to them.

CatherineAnn Minnock said...

Can I just say, I'm really enjoying reading all these comments. The topics on the blog are fascinating and it's so nice to have a discussion going about these things! I also notice... is that THE Mary Hoffman on the thread? Huge fan.

officeprojects said...
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Emma Barnes said...

I've never managed to get more than a third of the way through Jane Eyre...