What is truth?


I am not going to be photographed with that bloody bear!

Christopher Robin Milne, cica 1975, attrib.

Pontius Pilate famously asked 'What is truth?' and did not wait for an answer. Had he done so, he would have found that Christ's words were, in Latin (or possibly Greek) an anagram of the phrase 'It is the man you see before you.'

This information would be a good deal more impressive if not for the fact that I had learned it from the Puffin Book of Jokes.

'Puffin' books were, and for all I know still are, children's books, a sub-imprint of Penguin. When I was growing up they went to great lengths to instill a sense of brand loyalty and corporate identity in literate kiddies. There was a rather ludicrous Puffin club involving a cute enamel badge, a secret code and an annual exhibition where you could meet famous authors. I do not know the name of the author of the Puffin Book of Jokes, but he wrote it on my copy of the book. (Roald Dahl was there on the same day; if I'd joined his queue the book would probably be worth something.)

I don't know precisely what Greek anagrams were doing in a joke book. I think that 'jokes' were understood to include puzzles, riddles and word-games. The anonymous or at any rate forgotten author wanted to make the point that people (but only silly people, with tonsures, in the Olden Days) used to think that anagrams were a serious business; that they pored over sacred texts to tease out hidden meanings. 'I can't imagine how much time they used to waste on this' said the author 'There are an awful lot of words in the Bible.'

The Puffin Joke Book was pink. It isn’t on my shelves, so I can't look up what other gems of wisdom it contained. I can't remember any of the actual jokes in it, apart from the one about the Rary, a dangerous animal which can only be killed by tipping it off the summit of mount Everest. It's a long a way to tip a rary.

There was also a puffin book called King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table, which affected me profoundly. I liked the jousting and the dragons, but the Quest for the Holy Grail is what sticks in my mind. I like the fact that everything in the story led up to it--every time a knight chopped the head off a dragon, a little hermit would appear and say 'Well, this isn't as important an adventure as the one you'll have on the Quest for the Holy Grail.' But I also liked the very pious, very un-Protestant imagery associated with it. Every time the Grail popped up there'd also be an angel holding the holy spear that dripped Christ's blood, and another angel catching the precious drops before they hit the ground. I've always liked that image; I've always liked the Athurian picture of a Grail so Holy that, the moment the cloth covering it falls away, it vanishes. The book may have been by C.S Lewis's friend Roger Lancelyn Green, but then again it may not have been, since it seems to have vanished from my shelves as well. It's cover was purple.

Typical, really. I've still got all 26 Tarzan books and a complete, though rather battered run of the first 10 years of 2000AD. But not the pink Puffin joke book with the holy anagram, or the purple one with the Holy Grail.. It's a bad fan-boy habit to hang on to and catalogue all your old toys and comic books. It's a way of preserving your childhood and fossilising the 1970s. But when you actually want to un-shelve one of your memories it never turns out to be one of the ones you kept.

C.S Lewis buried his childhood toys in a mock funeral: he didn't want the real things to spoil his happy memories of them. The original Winnie the Pooh, on the other hand--a bog-standard Harrods teddy bear--is preserved in a museum in New York, a fluffy, musty holy relic. It must have returned to England at least once because I can recall seeing it in a glass case at the Victoria and Albert Museum. This would have been around 1970, I'd have been 6 or 7, my Dad often took me to museums on a Saturday. I liked the giant dinosaurs in Kensington best.

The difference between dragons and dinosaurs is that dinosaurs are true and dragons are only pretend. I became a purist on this point very early in my life. I remember being scared by a cartoon in which a museum curator was transported back to the time of the cavemen and menaced by a dinosaur. The idea of being chased by a dinosaur terrified me: but I checked with my mother--surely, there weren't really any dinosaurs by the time there were cavemen? So the story couldn't be true. So that was all right, then.

I was unimpressed by the elephants and the stuffed gorilla at the natural history museum: actually, I was rather annoyed by them--what were they doing in a museum of natural history when your could see live ones in the zoo and therefore they clearly were not part of history? But I liked the brontosaurus skeleton, huge and black and shiny and fragile and the partial skeleton of the tyrannosaur. I assume that these days the skeletons have been removed to make way for an official Disneyblair Macdonalds Animatronic Millennium Dinopark. We're told that this is more life-like and involving for the kids. Well, maybe: but for me, the fact that the museum was stuffy and that the paintings of the dinosaurs were faded and Victorian and markedly unexciting made the whole thing more real, more true. These were real dinosaurs in a clinical grown up environment: not garish scooby-doo ones. I liked the dinosaurs for being old and skeletal as much as for being dinosaurs.

I had a big book about dinosaurs, hardback, oversized, expensive, colour--although in a way I preferred my complete set of PG Tips Dinosaur picture cards. The card album laid the dinosaurs out, fair and square, numbered 1-50 with their names and essential statistics. The books tried to show me them 'as they would have been in real life', with swamps and palm trees and volcanoes. That seemed somehow unscientific; too like a storybook. I don't know what happened to the PG Tips dinosaurs album; it's stored away in my head along with the Puffin Book of Jokes.

The Winnie the Pooh exhibition at the V&A contained a lot of Sheperds original artwork, which didn't interest me in the least, and an enormous wall sized blow up of the map from House at Pooh Corner, which did. Like all middle-class children, I lived those books: the half dozen trees in the park by my school were referred to, throughout my childhood as the Hundred Acre Wood. I had a yellow teddy bear called Pooh. I took him to school to use as a prop when I played one of the Lost Boys in our production of Peter Pan, and he got lost between school and home, like so much of what is important in life. I can't remember clearly what he looked like: my father, suggested, kindly but not very helpfully, that perhaps he had gone back to the Hundred Acre wood

I distinctly remember the historical toys, the holy relics, sitting in a back lit glass case, not remotely resembling the illustrations in the books--except in so far as there as only so many ways that you can make a toy kangaroo. The original Roo, I understand, was lost by Christopher Robin and currently resides in the same place as my collection of dinosaur cards: the original Piglet was eaten by a dog. I recall standing on tip toe, doubtless hideously cute, and saying hello to Winnie the Pooh.

It makes a perverse sense, if you think about it. I was aware that these toys were the 'real' Pooh and Piglet, the ones which the real Christopher Robin had really played with. But I also had an imaginary friend called Piglet and a lost teddy bear called Pooh, and they were real, too. And there were also the characters in the stories which my father read to me incessantly, doing all the voices and they were the real ones. And there was the cartoon, and that was different again. And the characters in the books, and my toy, and this toy, were somehow all the same.

Come to think of it, I had a ginger kitten called Tigger. She got run over by a car.

Presumably, and assuming that St Paul didn't make the story up, Jesus really used a cup of some sort when he said goodbye to his friends in the upper room; and presumably, that cup was washed up and re-used and eventually broken and thrown away and just conceivably it might be dug up by archaeologists in the real--as opposed to the true--Jerusalem. So at some level there must really be, somewhere in the world, a Holy Grail. But the only Holy Grail anyone knows about or cares about is the one which contains the True Blood of Christ in Glastonbury.

What is truth?

It is the bear you see before you.