No votes for Pooh
This has been the year when I finally learned the true meaning of insomnia: not, as I once innocently thought, tossing and turning for a couple of hours because of that ill-advised cup of coffee you drank after 6 pm; but actually taking three, four, or five hours getting to sleep; sometimes going the whole night without sleep; actually forgetting how to go to sleep; worse, having this evil part of your brain that waits until the very moment you're losing consciousness and then goes: 'No. No. You can't do that. You've got to lie awake, suffering. Because that's how it's going to be from now on."
And I know what's causing it, too, It's my sodding inner demons, who are punishing me for churning out too much journalism when I should be writing my next novel. But how can I afford not to do the journalism when I've got a £325,000 mortgage to support and school fees costing upwards of .E16,000 a year? Then again, how will I ever be able to drag myself out of this pit of wage-slavery other than by finding the time to write a bestselling novel? Truly, life sucks. Then your back goes (as mine has), your loved ones start contracting terrible diseases, your children abandon you, your friends become more successful, your enemies exult, and finally you die. There's material for a book in there somewhere.
Another reason I'm pissed off is that I wasn't included on the shortlist for the BBC's new best-loved novel series promoted by those hateful bookworms: The Big Read. Not that I expected to be. But then I don't imagine Louis de Bernieres or Sebastian Faulks expected to be included either, and if it's really that much of a lottery, well why not me too? I'm a sight more interesting and relevant than Winnie-the-Pooh, for starters. Where in A. A. Milne is there a single scene about what it's like to take Ecstasy? Or about wanking? And where is the boldly experimental, strangely lyrical passage at the end where the narrator drifts off in this drug-induced reverie and contemplates the misery of his pitiful existence so far?
Though I think that Jane Austen will probably win the competition — her, or J. R. R. Tolkien — I've a slight worry that Winnie-the-Pooh might sneak in through the back door thanks to a combination of the protest vote, national philistinism, nostalgia, post-Diana sentimentality, the power of branding, and ignorant schoolkids who've never read anything more difficult and probably never will.
Personally, I've never much liked Winnie-the-Pooh, and I'm a bit suspicious of people who do. (My father-in-law, for example, who I thought was a pretty sound, decent cove until he confessed his dodgy predilection over tea last weekend.) It's the stiltedness, the tweeness and above all the whimsy I can't stand. It reads like the work of a severely buttoned-up adult desperately trying to recapture his childhood mindset and not quite managing it. It's the sort of book your sinister Uncle Quentin thinks is a jolly good thing.
And the name's really annoying, too. No matter how familiar one becomes with the idea that this bear Winnie has the surname 'the Pooh', it's still quite impossible not to read it without having, at the back of your mind, the thought of, well, poo. Why did Milne do it? What kind of wilful perversity must you possess to choose, from all the billion and one possibilities, a name for your cute children's character only one letter away from a turd?
I hated Pooh even more once I'd heard the comedian Phill Jupitus trying to make a case for him on the BBC. He tried to have us believe that Milne's portrayal of owl and rabbit were some form of wicked satire on intellectualism; that the tiresome slapstick was a manifestation of comic genius; that the scene where Piglet almost drowns and Pooh has to rescue him by sending a message in a bottle (or something — I forget the exact details) was a moment of desperate high adventure. Then, when that failed, he climbed inside a giant honeypot and bobbed about in a river on a cold grim day, as if pleading for the sympathy vote. 'Bugger,' I'll bet he was thinking. 'If only I'd got to Captain Gareth before Clare Short, I'd have been sunning myself on an all-expenses-paid trip to Cephalonia instead.'
But I'm not sure I really give a toss what Clare Short thinks of Captain CoreIli, nor what Jupitus likes about Pooh, nor why Holden Caulfield spoke so directly to the young Ruby Wax. It's like being a member of a particularly irritating book group where all the other members are total wankers and you have to sit there drumming your fingers while they spew out their vacuous received ideas about what they think constitutes a good read and all you care about is the bit where you get to speak because the others just haven't a clue. They're like that, books. A very personal thing. I'd like to have seen Le Grand Meaulnes in there; and Robert Stone's The Dog Soldiers; and B.S. Johnson's The Unfortunates. But that's just me.