Wrapped in a blanket, my brothers and I used to sit by the radiator and listen to my mum read children's classics. My favourites were Winnie the Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner. I remember revelling in the stories of a clueless bear, accompanied by excited and reluctant friends, wandering around Hundred Acre Wood in the perpetual pursuit of honey.
This year, on the bear of little brain's ninetieth birthday, I decided to reread the Winnie the Pooh books. They were as I remembered: lively and playful, rich and humorous. Pooh remained clueless and the pursuit of honey paramount.
The reading, for the most part, evoked memories of the simplistic happiness of my childhood. As I reached the final pages, however, this happiness diminished. In contrast to my childhood memories, the book's ending is not one of living happily ever after. Indeed, for Pooh and his pals, it may not be one of living at all.
In those final pages, Robin explains to a befuddled Pooh that he can't play with him anymore because society doesn't allow one to indulge such frolicsome endeavours. 'I'm not going to do Nothing anymore,' says Robin, 'they don't let you.' Winnie the Pooh is the most tragic break-up story ever written. It's the most startling case of 'it's not you, it's me'. And the break-up comes from nowhere and shocks the credulous, once happy reader.
As with all great break-ups, Robin offers Pooh reassurance. He says that Pooh can still visit him on occasion and then offers one final request: 'You promise you won't forget me, ever.' A baffled Pooh agrees.
This notion of reconciliation is a childish fantasy that no adult in possession of critical faculties can accept. The idea that Pooh and Robin will continue on their adventures is a naked fallacy. We are all aware, as my rereading of this book exemplifies, that we have to grow up - indeed, society demands it - and Robin's childish imaginings - the backbone of this relationship - are lost in the process.
This break-up is all the more disturbing because, without such imaginings, Pooh is essentially lifeless. Robin's imagination is Pooh's life source - his élan vital. Robin, through his acceptance of social norms and his dissipating imagination, is responsible for Winnie the Pooh's demise. And with the demise of Pooh comes the death of all those folks of Hundred Acre Wood: Piglet, Tigger, Owl, Rabbit and so on.
Before placing Pooh in the dustbin of history, however, Robin cravenly beseeches him to understand. Pooh responds in his unnerving and beautiful credulity: 'Understand what?' 'Oh, nothing' Robin says, deciding that ignorance is preferable to the truth. This is Robin's final act of kindness in a cruel, cruel world.
The Winnie the Pooh story ends, like the world, not with a bang but with a whimper. This isn't to suggest the conclusion is tepid - far from it - but it ends with a literal whimper from the discerning reader. Revisiting Winnie the Pooh made me realise not only that adulthood is a baleful hellscape, but also that my childhood memories were a fantasy.
We will celebrate Pooh's ninetieth birthday this year. Some may opt for cognitive dissonance and persuade themselves that Winnie the Pooh is just a series of lovely books based on a harmless bear of little brain. They may choose to overlook the implicit horror: the demise of friends, the end of friendship and the passing of happy childhood memories.
I, on the other hand, will mourn. I will mourn Winnie the Pooh and his band of excited and reluctant brothers and all they came to represent. I will mourn Robin's transition from innocent child with a wealth of imagination into a man who turned his back on his friends. I will also mourn those lovely memories of childhood that, because of Robin's cowardice and my own transition into adulthood, are now lost forever.