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Interview: Winnie-the-Pooh expert Brian Sibley

Author and broadcaster Brian Sibley has had a life-long love of Winnie-the-Pooh. The 2006 edition of his book "Three Cheers For Pooh" celebrates 80 years of the teddy and his friends from 100 Aker Wood. ICONS spoke to him about the best bear in all the world.

Brian Selby
Brian Sibley
© David Weeks
Can you remember your first experience of Winnie-the-Pooh or AA Milne?

I first encountered Winnie-the-Pooh when I was three or four years old and my parents used to read me the stories about Pooh Bear, along with the books of verses about Pooh's good friend Christopher Robin. My family didn't have very much money, so we couldn't afford to buy books – but a kindly neighbour lent us some of the books that her children (by then grown up) had read when they were very young...

I loved them from the first: Pooh's funny hums with silly rhymes; his courage in saving Roo from drowning and helping to rescue Piglet when he was Entirely Surrounded by Water; and his helpfulness in discovering the North Pole, finding Rabbit's friend-and-relation, Small, when he was lost and locating Eeyore's tail when it was mislaid.

Best of all, I loved his hopelessly muddled adventures, especially when he goes hunting Woozles (or, as they might be, Wizzles) or tries building a trap for Heffalumps...  I also loved EH Shepard's illustrations that perfectly and lovingly capture the personality of the characters, as well as the detail of their woodland world. When we moved home, the books had to be returned to their owner, but I rediscovered them again, years later, and it was like meeting old and much-loved friends...

Pooh and Piglet lost in the snow
"Tracks," said Piglet. "Paw-Marks." He gave a little squeek of excitement
© Estate of E.H. Shepard and Egmont UK Ltd.
I set out to discover more about Pooh and his creators and got to know Daphne Milne (the widow of AA Milne), Christopher Milne (the original Christopher Robin) and illustrator EH Shepard. I edited two books, The Pooh Sketchbook and The Pooh Book Of Quotations, gave talks and made radio programmes about the Bear of Very Little Brain - and even got to shake the paw of the Great Bear Himself on one of his visits to England when I helped him plant a commemorative tree in the real 100 Aker Wood, the Ashdown Forest...

My book, Three Cheers For Pooh, is the result of a friendship that began all those years ago when my mother first read those famous opening words: “Once upon a time, a very long time ago now, about last Friday, Winnie-the-Pooh lived in the forest all by himself under the name of Sanders.”

Which character from 100 Aker Wood is your favourite and why?

Anyone who knows me will not be surprised to find out that Eeyore is my favourite character in the 100 Aker Wood. True, he is probably a little gloomier than I am, but I share his habit of expecting The Worst and, as a result, never being TOO surprised If and When It Happens!

Eeyore loses a tail
"Well, either a tail is there or it isn't there. You can't make a mistake about it, and yours isn't there!"
© Estate of E.H. Shepard and Egmont UK Ltd.
One of Eeyore's most Useful Phrases is "That Accounts for a Good Deal. It Explains Everything. No Wonder."  I particularly like Eeyore's sarcasm, which is often lost, of course, on The Others.

Have you ever played Poohsticks on Poohsticks Bridge?

I've played Poohsticks on Poohsticks Bridge several times, the best occasion being on Winnie-the-Pooh's 50th birthday in 1976, when "it rained and it rained and it rained". 

On that occasion, I played the game with my friend the actor and teddy-bear collector, Peter Bull (himself a wonderful English character), as well as several other Very Important People. I can't remember who won, but I was definitely described - in a national newspaper - as lying down on my tummy (so as to be able get under the bottom rail of the bridge and play the game in the same way that Piglet and Roo play Poohsticks) but which is totally untrue!

What do you think about Disney taking rather large liberties with the world that Milne set up in the 1920s? 

Many people have been upset by the Disney studio's "Expotitions" into the 100 Aker Wood and it is certainly true that Disney's Pooh is, in many ways, quite different from the Bear of Very Little Brain written about by AA Milne and drawn by EH Shepard... But the films and all the many merchandising spin-offs have probably introduced Pooh to millions of people all over the world who might, otherwise, never have met him.

Kanga and Baby Roo
"And as he went up in the air he said 'Ooooooo!' and as he came down he said 'Ow!"
© Estate of E.H. Shepard and Egmont UK Ltd.
It’s my hope that the fans of Winnie the Pooh (with no hyphens) Movie Star will discover the original books, meet Winnie-the-Pooh (with hyphens) and realise exactly why Christopher Robin calls him the Best Bear in All the World!

Do you think the Winnie-the-Pooh stories shape the way foreigners view England?

Inevitably, the Winnie-the-Pooh stories have helped shape people's perspective of England as a place of mildly eccentric characters living in a country with extreme weather conditions - including rain, floods, winds and snow ("Tiddely-pom") and where the main topic of conversation - when it's not the weather - is FOOD and when it is next time for a little smackeral of something!

Why do you think Winnie-the-Pooh and 100 Aker Wood have endured through time?

The reason Winnie-the-Pooh and the 100 Aker Wood have endured and continue to appeal is because they are superbly crafted stories written by a writer who was an accomplished playwright and so understood the importance of character dialogue. The adventures are "child-sized" exploits set in a world children can understand and identify with and the young reader (or listener) is always allowed to spot Pooh's awful mistakes just before he spots them himself.

Playing Poohsticks
"I think we all ought to play Poohsticks"
© Estate of E.H. Shepard and Egmont UK Ltd.
AA Milne's genius was in writing these tales with the added dimension of adult wit that makes them a pleasure to read to a child and offers an added reward to the child when he or she revisits the stories as a grown-up...

But above all, and quite simply, the characters are all people we know: bossy Rabbits, pompous Owls, bouncy Tiggers, nervous Piglets, motherly Kangas, irrepressible Baby Roos, desperately gloomy Eeyores and, of course, often muddled but always loveable Poohs...

Would Winnie-the-Pooh be your icon of England if you were asked to nominate one?

Why not? I say "Three Cheers for Pooh" because Winnie-the-Pooh is truly a Bear for All Seasons... He is a poet, a philosopher and a bear-of action; he is brave, loyal, generous and totally dependable. 

Three Cheers For Pooh by Brian Sibley, Egmont UK Ltd, £9.99.