Andrea Kuhn meets an author and philosopher who finds himself strangely in tune with the 'Bear of Very Little Brain'
©Western Morning News, Saturday December 20 2003
It is a clever skill to appear rather vague while concealing a shrewd mind. And who of us realised that Winnie-the-Pooh, a bear who claimed to have very little brain, was just such a character.
Yet John Tyerman Williams, the Cornish-based author did. Eight years ago he wrote a successful series of books which showed how AA Milne`s clever creation was, in fact, a philosopher, a psychologist and indeed a magician. They have sold more than half a million copies worldwide and have been translated into Korean, Estonian and Hebrew.And this year they have been reissued in the UK by Egmont Books.
In his Cornish home, perched on a hillside not far from the spectacular cliffs at Tintagel, John deprecatingly admits that he and the stout one may indeed be kindred spirits.
He accepts he is vague and even concedes to being massively impractical- so much so that when his wife went away for a week recently she asked a friend to keep an eye on him, fearing he would burn the house down.
"I have always got on well with people and with animals, but I don`t get on very well with things," he sighs.
His wife, Psychologist Dr Elizabeth Mapstone, agrees: "If there is a possible way of interpreting something in the wrong way, then John can. I have never known anyone so skilled in misinterpretation. I worry about him burning the house down. He wouldn`t even notice the smoke."
Now 83,the former actor, schoolteacher, writer, theatre lecturer and Doctor of Philosophy has packed a lot into his life but for a child who was reading the works of the philosopher Kant by the age of 14 that`s not really a surprise.
"Right from the beginning I was rather divided whether I wanted to be an actor or a writer," he says."My father would read Shakespeare to me from a very early age, so it was never a foreign language. He would also read a chapter from the Bible every night.
"After seeing Richard III, my favourite line was: "The field is won. The bloody dog is dead" and I would storm around the house waving my toy sword. And I remember one maiden aunt saying rather disapprovingly; "This child will come to a bloody end!"
Fortunately she was proved wrong.
But it was his love of stage that led him to take part in a successful record-breaking attempt at the Oxford Union for the longest- ever debate. He proudly shows me a certificate signed by the then president of the union and now charismatic Tory MP, Boris Johnson.
Having returned to study there aged 65, John spoke for three hours continuously but adds: "Anyone who knows me will agree that it wasn`t so difficult. But my favourite bit is where it says 'occasional sobriety'", he twinkles.
Like Pooh, (though physically much trimmer), he enjoys life`s luxuries but does his best to avoid excesses-which can get any bear into difficulties. " I describe myself as a Manichean hedonist. The body can be a bit of nuisance, you know. There are so many things that can go wrong with it.
"Overall I think I am a pessimist who gets pleasure when things go right."
His first acting break was while he was still a teenager. After taking elocution lessons, he went for some small roles in theatre including a stage version of Emil and the Detectives with Cecil Trouncer playing "The man in the bowler hat" where John played the role of a villainous newsboy. As a result he was selected for the lead in the film version at the age of 13 where he recalls having only two Sundays off in eight weeks of filming.
He later had spells at Stratford and at the Old Vic, most memorably with Alec Guinness whom he recalls as being particularly gracious, even to a young minor actor.
"It was rather strange during the war. Everybody thought that London was going to be bombed imminently. There was a time when I quite literally didn`t know whether the theatre was going to be there or not."
In 1940 he went up to Balliol College, Oxford, to study history but after five terms he was called to do national service. That too was to be short-lived as an accident in training led him to be invalided out and he was sent to work in a lathe factory.
But it led him into teaching, where he met his first wife, Mary Starling, and on into Cornwall as she suffered badly from rheumatiod arthritis. Sadly she died in 1975.
"I could have become a writer then, I suppose, but I wasn`t sure I would be able to earn a living being a writer. There is a big difference between finding out what you want to do and what people tell you to do," he says.
Instead he taught at the local school and became a keen supporter of the countryside. When he returned to Oxford at the age of 65,to study philosophy, he wrote about hunting. His thesis was entitled
"Bearers of Moral and Spiritual Values: The social roles of clergymen and women in Britain,
circa 1790 to circa 1880 as mirrored in attitudes to them as foxhunters." Although he no longer rides, when the subject is raised, it is the only time, his otherwise genial air disappears: "I have a very gloomy feeling that it will be banned eventually. I have had more qualms about eating meat because of the way some animals are treated than I have had about fox-hunting."
It was sometime afterwards that idea of the Pooh books came to him. Having recently mused over Popper`s theory of falsifiability, he was struck by how clearly the Bear of Little Brain was able to work in the best tradition of the great empirical philosophers. He explains: "Pooh goes to the cupboard. He sees the pot is there. He looks in the "hunny" pot. He tastes it. He has to eat it all to make sure its honey at the top and cheese at the bottom."
Childishly simple logic.
John is now working on a new book which will reveal that PG Wodehouse`s loveable Bertie Wooster was not in fact a bumbling oaf of the highest order but really a Very Deep Person.
Such is the gift of John Tyerman Williams; not only is he clearly exceptionally wise but, at the end of a conversation, he has the happy effect of making his guests feel a little less dim.