I was about to sit down and watch a film that came out recently, recommended to me by someone and which I assumed I would enjoy. It’s about the real-life Christopher Robin of Winnie the Pooh fame and, as a life-long major admirer of Pooh, I’d assumed it had my name all over it. However, when I read the reviews I got drawn into a long thread of people complaining that the film had distorted the so-called “truth” of the “real story” behind Pooh; and that “truth”, it seemed, was nothing like the reality we imagine when we conjure up a parent writing these stories for, and about, his child and his favourite toys. Of course, I’d heard something of the sort before; being that A.A. Milne was apparently very far from the ideal parent we like to imagine and that his son CR remembered a miserable, even abusive, childhood. However, in that way that new films coming out tend to stoke up, these informed opinions were now being vehemently rammed down my throat by an army of people indignant at this film’s attempt to provide “the back story” of Pooh yet, apparently, getting it so wrong. In other words, this discussion had been taken off into its own bar-brawl (as so many things do these days) and this had nothing to do with my own associations built on many happy hours of reading and fantasising about these characters. This film seemed to have a whole different flavour to it and I didn’t like it one bit.
Suddenly, all desire to watch the film dissolved away. Not only had “the truth” invaded my childhood-and-beyond memories around these favourite books, the same ones I still kept on my shelf at university and read to my small daughter, but the film itself was being called-out as a saccharine mistruth intent upon artificially softening the so-called reality of CR’s childhood in order to deliver a happy ending; people were demanding more graphic misery than it apparently contains. Yet why, in its own way, was this any different to when Disney inflicted their own distortion on this up-for-grabs little piece of perfection? After all, I remember my childhood indignation on discovering that Pooh and friends had been given American accents when I first encountered them on the screen and then the vivid colours of those movies never looked quite right to me, as though global warming had taken place or they’d all moved to California. As a youngster faced by Disney, it seemed like this most English of English stories had been shipped across the Atlantic to be filmed on a Hollywood film-set and those colourful backdrops never truly felt like The Hundred Acre Wood, everything was just so orange. Perhaps this was my first taste of how we pass around ownership of ideas that, truly, only matter at the personal level; where they first intersect with an aspect of ourselves and fall into a perfect position that has nothing to do with anyone else or their interpretation. Perhaps, then, we have to learn how to keep our own relationship with that thing pristine, if it really matters to us that much and, to me, this does. My relationship has always been directly with Pooh, with the lyricism of words on the page and the vivid descriptions left floating in my head, helped along by E. H. Shepherd’s stunning illustrations, which were the first pictures I put up on my daughter’s wall when she was born since they were, I felt, guaranteed to make her feel safe and welcome. These were the qualities that Pooh-ness had always represented to me, and still did as I considered watching this latest film-offering.
So, as I considered whether to go ahead, I saw all too clearly how it was a choice-point and, while I hesitated, my own relationship with Pooh was under siege. I knew that, if I was to watch the film and delve into any of this murky back-story, the so called “real truth” and the debate about what rotten parents the Milnes apparently really where to CR, my relationship with these characters would never be the same again. Imagine; bringing the idea of “abuse” into CR’s world…I struggle with this already, since the idea has already infiltrated, tarnishing the edges of what was otherwise pristine in my heart. Worth it? Not if what I relate to has nothing, really, to do with the “real” CR at all since the characters “I know” so well have taken on a life of their own in the almost hundred years since those stories were written.
The thing is, whether we are dealing with fiction or what is generally considered more “real”, life is never a single, simple thread; everything we release into it becomes woven into a dense tapestry of other people and events and yet only we each get to choose which is our still-relatable thread to follow. No one else can come along and unpick or reclaim that thread as more-rightfully theirs, or even snip it out as though it never existed or was “wrong”, which is how we mess-up when we attempt to post-mortem anything that happened “in the past”. As we pull away at “what was”, there is always the risk that unpicking one part of the tapestry to make ourselves feel better will cause other things to fall apart for others…perhaps necessarily so in cases where something continues to be harmfully distorted to this day, but quite unnecessary in others, so this need to be a very conscious and considered choice. This is something that far too few people seem to give consideration to when they take whatever the TV screen serves up to them without a moment’s pause to ask why they want to know this stuff or whether they need to hear it; since information cannot be unlearned and what we are being told may not be relevant or even desirable to know. It is the modern thing to assume that all information is “good” for us but, once out (though it can be tucked into recesses out of daily sight but we know none of that is healthy) to know something is to change everything associated with it forever. In this case, it was a trade off that, to me, represented a price too high to be paid, leaving my life-long fondness for this character in tatters. And after all, what could possibly matter more ~ to me ~ than the relationship we had forged together like old-friends of an entire lifetime. If there was a present-day wrong to be righted, if someone was in need of my help, if stirring this pot could help any of the real characters involved then things would be different; but none of this applied and often (even in matters more “serious” than Pooh) this is the case; we don’t need to wallow in half of the dirt or bad news that we are being encouraged to hear. No, most of the time, it is gratuitous curiosity to the point of voyeurism and a taste for juicy exposés and public humiliation that feeds box-office figures and the market for certain genres of book, news reports, “reality” tv and documentaries. This is a nosey-parker, dish-the-dirt, self-righteous, sanctimonious kind of urge that relishes the opportunity to nod oh-so sagely at the inevitable conclusion that this or that person was “flawed after all”. Well, aren’t we all? Why do we need to keep proving that over and over and over like the primary fixation of our times and when do we start to focus on all the good stuff people do?
A similar thing happened once before when I tripped upon a film about Enid Blyton, another pivotal childhood author of mine who, previously, stood like the tent pole at the centre of countless hours of pure, delirious escapism into the far reaches of innocence and imagination. Suddenly, there on the screen was this monster of a parent so flawed beyond belief in her own engagements with her children that, suddenly, the whole fabric of my childhood fantasy world (which, really, had nothing whatever to do with her) was left flapping like torn pieces of tent-fabric in a stormy gale. It was a cursory tale to do with “consider how much you want to know; and what will it add to your life to go there” – a consideration we would do well to ask in so many aspects of life in this information-ready world of ours. Sometimes, when we think we know too much “about a thing” we forget to know what that thing really helped us to know in the first place, which was really far more important and useful to us (which sounds exactly like the sort of observation Pooh might make).
“When you are a Bear of Very Little Brain, and you Think of Things, you find sometimes that a Thing which seemed very Thingish inside you is quite different when it gets out into the open and has other people looking at it.”
― A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh
So, we have this obsession, currently, with truth at all costs and exposure of all the darker corners and, yes, it can be refreshing to let air in to what once stood stagnant in order to cast vivid daylight into all those hovering dust motes…sometimes. A phrase comes to mind and its “baby out with bathwater”; in other words, where do we stop and what remains “sacred” in the sense that it is perfectly intact as it is. There’s some truth in the observation that many a genius has arrived in an extremely troubled package and, perhaps, never more so than during the twentieth century when the push-pull of masculine and feminine became almost psychotic. Some of the very jet streams of most-needed light came out into the world as the flip-side of characters who, in their daily lives, were the most shadowy and flawed of all and that was just the way it was, then, during such turbulent and messed-up times. Do we need to post-mortem that; to question what we saw when their light shone the brightest? What does it add to our world to keep raking over little histories, to keep finding the same theme…yes, often great beauty came gushing out of nowhere as the close bedfellow of something far less savoury like the very juxtaposition made it happen (well yes, it probably did…but that doesn’t negate the good stuff). We don’t have to repeat it, but nor do we have to over-analyse it. It was of its time. We are on the brink of something else…if we will let it happen without all this backward glancing.
“I’m not lost for I know where I am. But however, where I am may be lost.”
― A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh
Before this sounds like nothing more than a treatise on the sanctity of childhood stories, I have to say that I am seeing this same theme play out everywhere, at the moment, so that Pooh merely flagged up what feels like a running theme. We very typically see this dynamic play out in families; often when someone has died and a whole variety of different thus apparently conflicting “truths” about them come out of the woodwork. One person remembers someone as this way, someone else remembers them as something else completely…a monster, a horror. In my own life, curiosity has led me (many times) to delve back into parts of my life that I really didn’t want to be re-opening, with the effect of stirring up what had previouslt felt done with; as though the universe took this as a clear signal that I had unfinished business there. Sometimes, in retrospect, I knew I would have done better leaving some threads where they were, neither wrong nor right. What if no one has to be right; what if they were a bit of both? Does anyone’s personal history deserve to be shredded as though they imagined it all? We could spread this wider to include the world stage since the habit of insisting upon one definitive truth is rife, especially once “truths” get turned into cinema (and yet we all know how much license goes on there). Such a one-version-fits-all approach is only restricting our growth now and it is so, potentially, harmful to pack certain interpretations of “truth” into the mass consciousness dressed up as light entertainment only to be, most worryingly, accepted as gospel-truth because so many people believe what they see with their eyes on a screen. More people now remember some version of classic literature or history that they last saw in the cinema, with all its manipulations and convenient edits, over any original manuscript or first-hand accounts of what really happened; which is the pitfall when we allow the loudest medium of all to determine what people remember about something…and to have the last say as if its “a wrap”. When we delve into dirty laundry to make art of it, crystalising the least savoury aspects of our stories in mediums that have longevity, we risk allowing them to outlast the far better bits or more auspicious bits of where we have been; overshadowing the very treasures we brought forwards for future generations. Imagine if, on boxing day, we decided to preserve all the wrapping paper, the filler and the boxes only to throw away the gifts; that’s what this trend can feel like. When we make space for more paradox without need to over-analyse it and stop being so fixated upon the misdeads and mistakes of the past, this trend for focusing on the unsavoury holds far less sway over us; stops garnering all our attention or being entertainment. Nobody gets to dish the dirt, we each get to choose our own most relatable thread, no one is made wrong; since nothing was ever wrong nor was it right…it just was. Allowing this, and stopping from over-thinking everything, is how we heal. Letting go, above all, is how we heal.
“Think it over, think it under.”
― A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh
In the end, as with everything, it all comes back to personal responsibility and choice; where do we, personally, draw the cut-off line in the sand? How much do we chose to dissect, to dismantle, to probe, to rake, to pull apart, to make things our business, to defend very strong opinions that aren’t quite our own, to put on trial and to interrogate even our own earliest stand-point on what made us feel “truth” before some influencer came our way and made us feel differently. As ever, our own initial gut feelings are usually the only guide we need. Those feelings probably came though the clearest of all when we were children and were, thus, the least influenced by the opinions of others than we would ever be for the rest of our lives (or, at least, until we woke up to the many ways that distortion happens). And in Pooh, I found my first childhood philosopher, my friendly sage, a warm and infinitely flawed and thus relatable guide through the maelstrom of human experience. That was all that mattered then; is all that matters now and I hold that relationship sacrosanct over any temporary urge to watch the latest film or deep-dive into personal memoirs relating to people that had their own messy stuff (don’t we all), none of which had anything whatsoever to do with me.
We forget that creative people are also people – or we choose to forget – so that there’s almost a sense of glee at telling the ‘sordid’ truth. I love to know more about writers and artists’ real lives, but like you, I don’t want my enjoyment of a work destroyed by the ‘truth’. We build an individual relationship with a book, piece of art, movie, that is just ours alone and we’re entitled to want to keep that relationship whatever the truth of the person who created it.
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Glad to hear I’m not alone in this stance Andrea, its all to easy to get swept along by the (back) stories the media and entertainment industry insist on telling us as though we need to be shaken out of our naivity. Rather, there is a different kind of maturity to saying “no, I choose not to hear”.
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