I first met The Wind in the Willows in primary school, when I was nine. Our teacher was a severe, yet kind and enlightened, maiden lady called Miss Annie Cox. Every Friday afternoon she used to read aloud to us from a children’s classic. We had some say in her choice of book, for she would suggest a title and we could either approve or veto it. None of us had ever read any of the books beforehand – ours wasn’t that kind of district – but we applied a simple test: did the title promise plenty of action? We firmly rejected Little Women and A Little Princess, which we were sure would be soppy, but we all voted in favour of The Jungle Books and Treasure Island.
When Miss Cox proposed The Wind in the Willows, there was a general groan. Not much excitement in that, we thought. She dropped the idea; but a few weeks later, when the choice of title came round again, she cunningly suggested reading to us from The Adventures of Mr Toad. We liked the sound of that much better, and assented happily. The result was a huge success; and I still recall that gasp that ran round the class when it was revealed to us at the end that we’d been listening to The Wind in the Willows after all.
I was so impressed that I saved my Saturday penny for weeks on end to buy a copy of my own. It was the first real book I ever owned, and I have it still; a slim, brown-backed volume in the Methuen Modern Classics series which cost, in those far-off, pre-inflationary days, one shilling and sixpence. It must be the best bargain I ever made.
A. A. Milne, who adapted The Wind in the Willows for the stage, described it as a Household Book: `a book which everybody in the household loves and quotes continually ever afterwards.’ That is what it became when I grew up and had children of my own. By now, I know it so well that it is hard to look at it critically. The Wind in the Willows isn’t something to be weighed and assessed: it is simply there, a part of the everyday furniture of the mind.
Like most good fiction, it creates a world; and the world in this case is divided into three parts. There is the River Bank, which is a good place and is the home of the Water-Rat and Mole and Toad and Otter. There is the Wild Wood, inhabited mainly by untrustworthy animals such as weasels, stoats and foxes, and avoided by the River-Bankers. And beyond the Wild Wood is the Wide World, which, as Rat tells Mole, is `something that doesn’t matter, either to you or me. I’ve never been there and I’m never going, nor you either if you’ve got any sense at all.’ Only Toad is silly enough to involve himself with the Wide World.
The book is loosely-structured, casually-balanced and easily paced. In the early chapters the emphasis is mainly on the River Bank animals and their august friend, Mr Badger. The central character here is the Mole, who has given up his underground home to join with Rat in a life of good fellowship and `messing about in boats’. These are the chapters that set the idyllic tone of the book and suggest to a modern reader that atmosphere of endless golden afternoon which we (mistakenly) tend to think of as symbolizing Edwardian England.
The Toad theme enters in the second chapter, with the destruction of Toad’s horse-drawn caravan and his infatuation with the motor-car that did the damage; but after that come three chapters with only a passing reference to Toad. Only in the latter part of the book does the Toad story gather pace, to end with the climax of the recapture of Toad Hall from the stoats and weasels.
The odyssey of Toad is what most children – and probably, if they are honest, most adults – like best. The triumph lies partly in the character of Toad himself: a grown-up, rich, irresponsible child, boastful and silly, softhearted and good-natured, ever ready to repent yet all too ready to break out afresh when the occasion arises. And the actual incidents are so memorable. Everyone who has ever read the book must remember Toad sitting among the wreckage of his caravan with a placid, satisfied expression and faintly murmuring ‘Poop-poop!’
Then there is Toad’s trial, at which he’s found guilty of stealing a car, driving dangerously, and (worst of all) cheeking the police, and is afterwards dragged away protesting to become ‘a helpless prisoner in the remotest dungeon of the best-guarded keep of the stoutest castle in all the length and breadth of Merry England’. There’s Toad escaping in the guise of a washerwoman and getting a lift on a steam train, only to be pursued by another engine, crowded with `ancient warders, waving halberds, policemen in their helmets, wearing truncheons, and shabbily dressed men in pot hats, obvious and unmistakable plain-clothes detectives even at this distance, waving revolvers and walking-sticks; all waving, and all shouting the same thing: “Stop! stop! stop!”‘ There’s Toad being flung into the canal by a barge-woman, making off with her horse and selling it to a gipsy for six shillings and sixpence and all the stew he can eat. There’s Toad triumphant, planning the celebratory dinner: `Speech… by Toad; Address… by Toad; Song… by Toad; Other Compositions… by Toad’. And there’s Toad a reformed character at the end; but reformed, we may wonder, for how long?
There is yet a third strand to The Wind in the Willows, besides the nostalgia of the River Bank and the mock-heroic epic of Toad. This consists of the two highly-poetic chapters, `The Piper at the Gates of Dawn’ and `Wayfarers All’, which Grahame apparently inserted into the book at a late stage. In the former of these, Otter’s child Portly is missing, and is found by Mole and Rat safely asleep between the hooves of Pan, the great demigod who is the helper and healer of animals. This, one assumes from the exalted, mystical tone of the writing, was regarded by the author as the high point of the book. In `Wayfarers All’, the Water-Rat encounters an old sea-rat, and is tempted by vibrant descriptions of distant shores to leave his own home and voyage south. Mole intervenes just in time, and holds Rat down until the fit has passed and the cure (that is the author’s word) can begin. It is a strange and rather disturbing passage: is the call of the far horizons really so bad a thing, and did not Mole himself give up his former way of life for ever?
These two chapters, and to a somewhat less extent the River Bank ones, are charged with poetic diction of a kind which is now out of fashion. Sometimes it is well done; other times, even allowing for changing tastes, it is surely overdone, and sometimes it is both well done and overdone in the same paragraph:
At last, over the rim of the waiting earth the moon lifted with slow majesty, till it swung clear of the horizon and rode off, free of moorings; and once more they began to see surfaces – meadows widespread, and quiet gardens, and the river itself from bank to bank, all softly disclosed, all washed clean of mystery and terror, all radiant again as by day, but with a difference that was tremendous. Their old haunts greeted them again in other raiment, as if they had slipped away and put on this pure new apparel and come quietly back, smiling as they shyly waited to see if they would be recognised again under it.
More perhaps to children’s taste, there is a good deal in The Wind in the Willows about feasting and fellowship. An interest in food is one of the things that make it, on balance, a genuine children’s book. Children have a proper respect for their stomachs. Mole’s first encounter with Rat results in a picnic, with a luncheon-basket containing cold chicken and also ‘cold-tongue coldham coldbeef pickledgherkins salad frenchrolls cress-sandwidges pottedmeat gingerbeer lemonade sodawater… ‘ Badger’s kitchen and Mole’s rediscovered underground home are the scenes of hearty companionable suppers before roaring fires; when Toad is in prison the gaoler’s daughter woos him first with fragrant bubble-and-squeak, then with `a plate piled up with very hot buttered toast, cut thick, very brown on both sides, with the butter running through the holes in it in great golden drops, like honey from the honeycomb’.
It is not only their diet that reminds us that Grahame’s characters, though supposed to be animals, are really people. (They have presented some problems of scale to successive illustrators: is Toad, for instance, the size of a toad or of a washerwoman?) Their animal characteristics are few. As a child I thought it only natural that such unlovable creatures as weasels, stoats and ferrets should be the baddies. It did not occur to me that the River Bankers were obviously a leisured class and that the Wild Wooders were the underprivileged, or that the author might be unconsciously expressing a fear that the lower orders might get out of hand and dispossess their betters. These inferences have since been duly pointed out. Jan Needle’s Wild Wood, which appeared last year, is a version of the same story told with a good deal of conviction from the point of view of the Wild Wood animals. To those interested in a detailed discussion of many aspects of Grahame’s masterpiece, I would recommend Peter Green’s biography, Kenneth Grahame, published in 1959.
Grahame died in 1932, and his books come out of copyright this year. I understand that several new editions are planned. I look forward to seeing them, but I don’t think I shall be in the market to buy any. So far as I am concerned, The Wind in the Willows is still a slim brown battered book, thumbprinted and smeared and stained and read almost to pieces, but capable, I hope, of lasting out my lifetime. I wish for no other copy.
John Rowe Townsend was one of the first to identify the need for children’s books with realistic contemporary urban settings. He also did something about it himself. Gumble’s Yard, his first book for children, written out of his contacts with the poor and socially disadvantaged, appeared in 1961. Since then he has gradually given up journalism (he started work for the then Manchester Guardian in 1949) and concentrated on writing and lecturing.
Until 1978 he was children’s books editor of the Guardian where he initiated the Guardian Award and achieved a coverage for his subject all too rare in the national press. His writing about children’s books: Written for Children and A Sounding of Storytellers, is always stimulating and informative. His novels have a variety of themes and settings. Hell’s Edge (1963), a runner-up for the Carnegie Medal, is set, like Gumble’s Yard, in the industrial north, but its main characters are fifteen. The Intruder (1969), a powerful and disturbing book about identity, has won international awards and with Noah’s Castle (1975) – a compelling and thought-provoking story of Britain a few years hence in the grip of economic disaster and food shortages – has been serialised on television.
Just out is A Foreign Affair, `a Ruritanian extravaganza’. Kate, our heroine, bewitched (but not totally blinded) by the charms of Prince Rudi, gets embroiled in an amazing series of coups and counterrevolutions in the tiny country of Essenheim. ‘The story has no message and no hidden meaning,’ says the author. ‘It’s for fun.’ Also this autumn comes Clever Dick whose anti-hero, says John, ‘may be the most obnoxious boy in fiction’.
And next year’. ‘There’s another serious one: it’s about a child in search of a family and is called, at the moment, Dan Alone.’ Look out too for The Islanders, published last year, which tells how the inhabitants of a remote island who live by a rigid code of law, react to the arrival of two shipwrecked young people from another island society. John Rowe Townsend thinks it has been under-noticed here (though it was chosen for Children’s Books of the Year). ‘Heaven knows the author is not always right, but my own belief is that it’s one of my best. However I can well understand that nobody gets very excited about one’s seventeenth book.’
Written for Children Pelican, 0 14 02.1920 X, £2.25
A Sounding of Storytellers (An expanded and re-worked edition of A Sense of Story) Kestrel, 0 7226 5599 1, £4.95
Gumble’s Yard Puffin, 0 14 03.0299 9, 95p
Hell’s Edge Puffin, 0 14 03.0342 1, £1.10
The Intruder Oxford University Press, 0 19 271304 3, £3.25
Puffin Plus, 0 14 03.1373 7, £1.10
Noah’s Castle OUP, 0 19 271381 7, £3.25
Puffin Plus, 0 14 03.1294 3, £1.25
A Foreign Affair Kestrel, 0 7226 5780 3, £5.95
The Islanders OUR 0 19 271449 X, £5.25
Clever Dick OUP, 1 19 271462 7, £4.95