Wars and Wisdom

A. A. Milne – Happy Half Hours (Notting Hill Editions)

A. A. Milne’s cricket team included Arthur Conan Doyle and P. G. Wodehouse. Milne knew H.G. Wells.

He was one of those people, stepping out of (and formed by) the Victorian and Edwardian era, into a shattering modernity. But he is not now known in the way many of his old author friends are.

Milne is best known for Winnie the Pooh and this is probably the main reason. He is filed under ‘kid’s books’, and there is much about the task of writing for young people here. The essay on children’s books is highly perceptive and illuminates why Milne was such a successful children’s author.

The fact that an adult can write in a chumpy, awkward way and offer that to young people doesn’t mean the eventual writing completes the science or art of composing for children. Far from it. This applies in 2020 as much as it did in 1920 and Milne communicates it clearly.

Milne’s essay on Robinson Crusoeisms in literature, included here, underscores his understanding further. The hundred acre wood – and we understand this without him ever writing it out explicitly – is a place cut off from adults where magical things can happen. Its isolation and its magicalness are one.

But this anthology opens our eyes to a much fuller A. A. Milne. Your common-or-urban psychogeographer could get much from the essay on Crusoeisms, and the book as a whole deepens all of our impressions of Milne as a person in history.

There are essays on cheap cigars and the pleasures of putting your books onto new shelves. There’s a charming piece on Oscar Wilde. This seems to prefigure John Sutherland’s humourous though forensic interrogations of literature. Milne speculates on the business of the railway network around The Manor House in The Importance of Being Earnest, as people come and go on a series of trains. Milne stacks them up outside the village of Woolton until they become the utterly improbable log-jam they are.

There is a piece on old age, and the uniqueness of London. London is assumed to need a cultural south and north bank of the river because Paris has too. ‘Bunkum’, says Milne, that it doesn’t have a south bank makes it what it is. He thinks copying other cities is foolish and spoiling. Oh man, how he would have hated the Blair era.

But the volume tightens politically towards the end. Milne was a pacifist, but not a conscientious objector. Apparently Milne’s editor at Punch was part of the inspiration for Eeyore. He wrote patriotic doggerel that propelled many to the trenches. Milne went into WW1 a pacifist and came out the other side arguing for pacifism in the face of Nazi advance. He wrote Peace with Honour in 1934 and then U-turned into 1940’s War with Honour.

Regrettable, in hindsight, perhaps, although understandable, and he served as a Captain in the Home Guard in WW2. Milne was also furious with P.G. Wodehouse for making broadcasts while captured by the Germans in France. He regarded them as borderline treason.

These later selections are very rewarding, in fact they press the same buttons for me that reading Orwell does: ‘Wars may be declared for economic reasons, but they are fought by volunteers for sentimental reasons’ Milne explains. Even ‘the most cynical statesman would hesitate to tell the young volunteer that his King and Country needed him in order to make a certain corner of the world safe for speculators.’ It is almost Marxism.

I looked up Milne in Orwell’s collected journalism and there is only one mention of his verse, as trite. A shame, because there seems to be much more sympathy between the two writers than I would have ever considered before reading this book.

Milne wrote that no statesman ‘has ever hesitated to lie if if the good of the state seemed to demand it.’ Sadly, in Boris Johnson we have a statesman who lies to evade the demands of the state upon his ‘statesmanship’.

It would be wrong to cast Milne as a relic from an earlier age. Milne thought the nuclear threat was essential to end ground war. As the accumulators of chance spin on – Milne is dead and I am not – I feel no comfort, but I cannot help but love the human being behind the words in this book. He hated the exploitation of the poor, brutality, pompousness and lies. He had a great sense of humour and entertained many thousands of young people.

Highly recommended.

Steve Hanson

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