Just once in my life, very briefly, I was tempted to commit a heinous
I was visiting the children’s branch of the New York Public Library in downtown Manhattan, and there in a quiet corner was an amazing display — five elderly stuffed toys.
And these were not just any stuffed toys. There was a depressed-looking donkey, a wide-eyed tiger, a sweetly smiling kangaroo, a small and rather tubby little pig … and, sitting magisterially on a plinth above them all, a grand teddy bear with wonky ears.
These were the most famous toys in all literature, and cinema too: Winnie-the-Pooh and friends. They are part of our national heritage. And I am launching a campaign to bring them back home … if not permanently, then at least for a holiday.
In the children’s branch of the New York Public Library are Winnie-the-Pooh and friends (above). They are part of our national heritage. And I am launching a campaign to bring them back home … if not permanently, then at least for a holiday
I hadn’t stumbled upon the display by accident. On the contrary, back in the early Nineties, I crossed the Atlantic especially to find Winnie & Co. Button-holing a librarian, I explained I was a friend of Christopher Robin — the young boy who is one of Pooh’s best friends in the books — a claim which was met with no little disbelief.
But once I had convinced the custodians that I really did know Christopher Robin Milne — whose father A.A. Milne wrote the Pooh Bear books and based his fictional boy on his son — the cabinet was unlocked.
Gently, and indeed gingerly, I cradled the ursine character Milne described as ‘a Bear of Very Little Brain’ in my arms.
Reader, I gave him a cuddle, because it seemed to me that he had been wanting one for a very long time. And it was at that moment that a guilty urge to run entered my head.
I am no Olympic sprinter. But I thought I might be able to out-run a posse of librarians, at least as far as the sidewalk where I could hail a yellow cab.
I am an honest fellow, and my thoughts tend to travel across my face, as legible as ticker-tape. The chief librarian must have guessed what I was considering, because she prised Winnie out of my arms and replaced him firmly in his display cabinet.
On my return to England empty-handed, I reported sadly to Christopher Robin that the New Yorkers were not likely to hand back his childhood companion.
‘I never thought they would,’ he said.
‘We’ve got to try,’ I told him. I’ve never forgotten my vow to Christopher.
I have long abandoned any wicked ideas of bear-snatching, of course. I now favour a diplomatic approach … and I believe I have a solution that will benefit the Americans at least as much as it pleases Britain.
In fact, apolitical Winnie-the-Pooh is about to be pressed into action as a post-Brexit ambassador for Anglo-U.S. relations, as I shall explain.
But first, how was it that the priceless symbols of a much-loved childhood classic ended up in the Big Apple rather than the Big Smoke anyway? It dates back to the Forties when Winnie-the-Pooh started to become a superstar in the States.
In 2024, Winnie-the-Pooh will celebrate his centenary, 100 years since the publication of the book of poems, When We Were Very Young. Pictured, an illustration of Pooh Bear by E.H Shepard
A.A. Milne permitted his son’s toys to go on an American tour — from which they never came back. Milne gave them to his agent, who gave them to his publisher, who eventually (in the early Seventies) gave them to the New York Public Library. There they have remained ever since, delighting generations of young American bookworms.
Like practically everyone in Britain, I count Winnie as an important part of my childhood.
My parents lived in the London Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, close to the Milne family home, and though I was a generation younger than Christopher Robin, I imagined I might step outside and bump into them all on their way to the Hundred Acre Wood. I had my own bear, named Growler. I loved Rupert Bear (really a boy with a bear’s head).
In short, I was a junior arctophile — the scientific name for a devotee of teddy bears.
When I went up to Oxford, I didn’t take Growler with me, but only because I was afraid people would think I was copying Lord Sebastian Flyte in Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited (his bear, as every arctophile knows, was called Aloysius). So I was delighted to then discover that adults were allowed to love teddies too.
The revelation came from a conversation with an old actor named Peter Bull (he appeared in The African Queen and Dr. Strangelove), who looked rather like a bear himself and who had a marvellous collection of Steiffs — the Rolls-Royce of teddy bear makers — and other Teds.
I was inspired. Soon, Growler had a host of new friends. And when people heard about my obsession, they gave me their own bears for safe-keeping … including some very distinguished toys.
Today my collection totals 1,000 specimens, including Dame Barbara Cartland’s beloved teddy The Prince Of Love, and Fozzie Bear, the original Muppet puppet created by Jim Henson.
I’d always imagined that I would bequeath my collection to my children. They let me down gently. ‘Dearest Papa,’ they said, because we are always quite Victorian in our formalities, ‘we love your teddies. But 1,000 is too many.’
A.A. Milne (pictured with Christopher and the original Pooh Bear) permitted his son’s toys to go on an American tour. Milne gave them to his agent, who gave them to his publisher, who eventually gave them to New York Public Library
So, being conscious, like Dame Barbara, that stuffed toys tend to outlive their loving owners, I set about finding a home for them. One day I was filming for The One Show at Newby Hall in North Yorkshire, a small stately home designed by Sir Christopher Wren, where the Compton family keep a magnificent collection of dolls’ houses.
I told them about my plight vis-a-vis the bears, and they immediately offered them a home.
They even suggested building an extension so the teddies can be properly showcased.
My modesty is legendary, and some persuasion was necessary before I consented for this new wing to be dubbed the Brandreth Bear House.
And it is there that I one day hope to exhibit Pooh and his friends to a British audience.
This month would be Christopher Robin’s 100th birthday. And in 2024, Winnie-the-Pooh will celebrate his own centenary, 100 years since the publication of the book of poems, When We Were Very Young — including a verse simply called Teddy Bear — which featured the first illustrations by E.H. Shepard.
There could never be a better time for Winnie and his friends to take a holiday in Britain. And I have an idea that Fozzie Bear might enjoy a trip to the States too (you can take the bear out of New York, after all, but never New York out of the bear).
So I would like to propose a swap. Later this year, I will visit the Big Apple and I hope to meet New York’s mayor, Bill de Blasio.
‘You can borrow Fozzie,’ I shall suggest. ‘We would love to play host to Winnie-the-Pooh. I promise we’ll give him back at the end of his holiday. But please let him come and play.’