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Christopher Robin's Obituary

Christopher Robin Milne, bookshop owner, died on April 20 aged 75. He was born on August 21, 1920. CHRISTOPHER ROBIN MILNE was the reluctant possessor of one of the most evocative Christian names in Britain. Immortalised by his father, the writer A. A. Milne, as the gingham-smocked companion of Winnie the Pooh, he struggled throughout his life to rid himself of the bothersome legacy of his fictionalised childhood. The little boy with the golden hair who "was saying his prayers" ­ and has continued to say them in practically every English nursery for the last 70 years ­ no longer had anything to do with him, Milne would protest. He, like his father, was an agnostic, and the poem Vespers was a "toe-curling, fist-clenching lip-biting" source of shame. Diffident and thoughtful in character, with a gentle nature and a precise love of words, Christopher Milne would become as gloomy as the moth-eaten old donkey Eeyore when the subject of his father's books was broached. His father, he said, had climbed on his infant shoulders and filched his good name. "One day I will write verses about him and see how he likes it," he once declared. Christopher Robin Milne was born in Chelsea, in a genteel street of bay-windowed cottages where fuchsias and geraniums flourished in fastidious front gardens. His father, despite the affability which his children's books suggest, was distant, though amiable, with his one and only son. Warm, but with a thin lip and ice-cold eye, "his heart remained buttoned up all through his life", Christopher Milne later wrote. As a young boy he passed most of his time with his nanny in a nursery on the top floor of the house. He was taken formally downstairs three times a day to visit his parents: in the morning, when breakfast was nearly over, after tea, when he could scramble around on the drawing room ottoman, and in the evening shortly before he went to bed. His mother, however, unpreoccupied by writing, was less remote than his father. "Just as Rabbit said to Owl: 'You and I have brains, the others have fluff', my mother had fluff," Milne later said. Her essential value to her husband was that she laughed at his jokes, and sometimes in the evenings she would play games with her young son in the darkness under the dining-room table. Milne's childhood companion was a girl called Anne. His parents always hoped he would marry her one day. The two children went to kindergarten in Tite Street together ­ leaving Pooh and Anne's monkey, Jumbo, behind ­ and their nannies would take them on excursions around London ­ including, of course, to watch the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace. Some of the events recounted by his father were indeed true, but the trouble was, Christopher Milne was often to say, he himself could no longer remember exactly what was fact and what was fiction. He never knew, for instance, whether it was he or his father who first invented "pooh-sticks", though after the publication of the stories he did remember playing the game, standing on a wooden bridge and dropping sticks into the stream which flowed through the Ashdown Forest in Sussex, where the Milne family had a country home. Small, shy and unselfpossessed, Christopher Milne was clever with his hands. He loved sewing, knitting and making tapestry pictures. By the age of seven he had bestowed upon himself the title of "chief mender" of the family ­ he took clocks and locks to pieces, rigged up burglar alarms, and even turned a toy pistol into a dangerous weapon. It was always to rankle him that, in the poem The Engineer, about the train with the brake, his father made him say: "It's a good sort of brake but it hasn't worked yet." If he had made a brake, it would definitely have worked, he said. Milne was sent to boarding school at Stowe. There he learnt to box so as to defend himself from the gibes of his classmates. But he did not even try to shine as a cricketer as his father, a frequent visitor to Lord's, had hoped. From Stowe he won a scholarship to read English at Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1939. However, at the end of his first year, he did not return to university but enlisted instead in the Royal Engineers. He served until the end of the war with 56 Division in the Middle East and in Italy, where he was wounded. His war service began the severance of his links with his father ­ with whom his relations became increasingly strained. This process was furthered when, having returned to Cambridge and obtained a degree in English, he decided in 1951 to leave London. He moved to the village of Stoke Fleming and set up a bookshop in nearby Dartmouth, almost, it might seem, in defiance of the damage which books had done him. For twenty years he ran the shop together with his wife, Lesley de Selincourt, a cousin whom he had married in 1949, despite his parents' hope that he should marry Anne, his childhood friend. At first it was a struggle to make ends meet, but later the business flourished, a transformation largely brought about by the thriving schools' library service which Milne helped to build up in the county of Devon. As he sat behind the counter of his bookshop, Milne was constantly pestered by matronly clients bringing in their progeny to shake hands with "the original Christopher Robin". He would do so with a wanly polite smile. For a fee of £10 ­ donated to the Save the Children Fund ­ he would also sign one of his father's books. He also later took advantage of his unwanted fame and fronted a campaign to save Ashdown Forest from the ravages of oil prospectors. The area was not just the home of Owl and Rabbit and Roo, he said, but one of the few areas of outstanding natural beauty in the vicinity of London where city people could come to breathe fresh air. In 1974 Milne broke a lifetime's habit of reticence and published the first of three autobiographical books, The Enchanted Places, an account of his childhood and its disturbing aftermath. The book ended much speculation on the relationship between the exploited child and the parent who was too busy writing to pay attention to his son. "When I was three, my father was three. When I was six, he was six . . . he needed me to escape from being 50," Milne said. He admitted that in leaving London he had been running away, but that in branching out he had found his true identity and finally become independent, both psychologically and financially. In 1979 he followed this book with The Path Through the Trees, and in 1982 he published The Hollow on the Hill. It was only after finishing these autobiographical works, he said, that he could finally look his dreaded namesake in the eye and feel less embarrassed by him. Milne is survived by his wife Lesley, and a daughter who has cerebral palsy. Milne found an outlet for his natural aptitude for carpentry by making special furniture for her.

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