Has anybody read the Winnie The Pooh stories? Not the Disney abominations, but the wonderful originals published by A A Milne in the 1920s.
I was brought up on them as a kid – we had the 1958 edition – and I still remember being taught how to play Poohsticks, a charming kids’ game where you drop two sticks off the upstream side of a bridge and then rush across to the other side to see which drifts by first, now played by university teams. (Ok, I know that today ‘charming kids’ games’ usually involve online virtual chainsaw massacres, zombies, taunts and such like, but Milne’s 1920s were a deliberately gentler time, and with good reason.)
Recently I picked up a copy of the original 1928 version – the 1944 Australasian Edition. Milne’s style reminded me of the fact that writing rules are made to be broken, providing you first know what you are doing.
What gives Milne’s stuff such charm is the package. It’s not just his creation of endless proper nouns out of ordinary words – ‘a Very Good Idea’, or ‘because I have One Or Two Things To Do’; or the hilarious conversations consisting entirely of fillers and the elidations of social convention. There’s also Milne’s creative use of language. Consider this line from ‘In Which Tigger Is Unbounced’:
“One day Rabbit and Piglet were sitting outside Pooh’s front door listening to Rabbit…”
At first sight it looks like a noob error – I mean, you can’t have the speaker listening to themselves. Should Milne’s editor have slashed it out and ‘fixed’ the problem? Actually, no. There isn’t a problem. What Milne does here is to tell us, in just one word, an awful lot about Rabbit’s sense of self-importance – one Milne explores in this and other stories.
The tales are full of this sort of thing, all of it very carefully calculated. And what it does is add an adult layer of meaning to stories that also appeal to kids. It was possible because Milne had complete control over his language – words were his servants. That’s a skill that comes with practise.
But enough about that. I’m off to the nearest river to play Poohsticks.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015