Jonathan Stedall in his new book, An Enchanted Place, wonders: What sort of a person Winnie the Pooh would be like if he became a human being? Would he still write poetry, and still be fond of honey? He wouldn’t be slim! And would Piglet be someone who continued to see danger round every corner, and Eeyore be as gloomy as ever? And what about Tigger? Maybe his Indian roots would surface in the form of an interest in karma?
These are some of the playful questions he has been living with over the past year, while writing a story in which A. A. Milne’s much-loved creations do indeed find themselves alive and well and living in the village of Hartfield on the edge of their old stamping ground, the Ashdown Forest. Yet none of them have the slightest awareness of their similarities to Milne’s original creations – not even Sheila, an Australian single Mum with a somewhat obsessive devotion to her small son, Joey.
Their beloved forest is under threat from a proposed bypass. To oppose the scheme an Action group is formed under the leadership of the formidable Bunny, a much-respected citizen of Hartfield, with a reputation for getting things done. Her main ally is Bertie, a dreamer and an idealist, with a deep interest in what he calls ‘a bigger picture’. And yes, he does write poetry, keep bees, and is friends with everyone.
As the saga unfolds, a distinguished member of Bunny’s Group, known to everyone as the Professor, is suddenly faced with a serious illness. The situation leads to discussions about mortality, with Bertie trying to communicate his strong sense that our existence continues beyond death. The Professor has no such faith.
‘I don’t want people bringing me grapes and books about the afterlife’, is his initial response to Bertie’s offer of help.
In fact their relationship has always been overshadowed by the Professor’s irritation at Bertie’s belief in all sorts of ‘mumbo jumbo’, and by his friend’s concern at our increasing addiction to technology. Only recently this scholarly and somewhat reclusive figure – who no longer lives in a tree, but in a proper house called The Cedars – has taken a certain pleasure in showing Bertie an article about some scientists in the Netherlands who are in the process of developing bee-like drones. These gadgets would be capable of pollinating plants in preparation for the day when real-life insects will have largely died out owing to the excessive use of pesticides.
But attitudes do gradually change, and all the characters – even the Professor – start to reveal more thoughtful aspects to their natures as they begin to do battle with the unseen giant that threatens to invade their forest, as well as to accept and appreciate each other’s eccentricities. As a result, even Bertie’s timid friend, Peggy, begins to find the courage to talk about her past and the roots of her nervousness. Meanwhile Sheila’s new lodger – an actor affectionately known as Bouncer, whose grandfather was a famous Bengali poet – brings his enthusiasm and humour to the challenge they face.
The title of the story – ‘An Enchanted Place’ – comes from some lines that A. A. Milne wrote at the conclusion of The House at Pooh Corner:
‘Where?’ said Pooh.
‘Anywhere’, said Christopher Robin.
So they went off together. But wherever they go, and whatever happens to them on the way, in that enchanted place on top of the Forest a little boy and his Bear will always be playing.
Jonathan chose to write about this colourful group of people not only for the fun of imagining Owl as a university professor, and Tigger as a gay actor who’s afraid of wasps, but above all, “To celebrate my experience that people – including so-called ordinary people – are a lot wiser than appears on the surface. It may take some sort of crisis to wake them up, and in my story the threat of a bypass being built across what one cynical counsellor called ‘unused space’ does just that.”
Jonathan Stedall is an award-winning documentary film director who worked at the BBC for over twenty-five years. He has made biographies of Tolstoy, Gandhi and Carl Jung, and worked on films with John Betjeman, Alan Bennett, Mark Tully, Malcolm Muggeridge, Cecil Collins, and Laurens van der Post. His autobiography ‘Where on Earth is Heaven?’ was published in 2009. Karen Armstrong wrote: ‘A real quest, with outward work perfectly integrated with an inner search’; and John Cleese called it ‘the most annoying book I’ve ever read, as the author seems to have had a more interesting life than I’ve had.’