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.