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Kenneth Grahame

The line of the horizon was clear and hard against the sky, and in one particular quarter it showed black against a silvery climbing phosphorescence that grew and grew. 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.

Fastening their boat to a willow, the friends landed in this silent, silver kingdom, and patiently explored the hedges, the hollow trees, the tunnels and their little culverts, the ditches and dry waterways… Then a change began slowly to declare itself. The horizon became clearer, field and tree came more into sight, and somehow with a different look; the mystery began to drop away from them. A bird piped suddenly, and was still; and a light breeze sprang up and set the reeds and bulrushes rustling. Rat, who was in the stern of the boat, while Mole sculled, sat up suddenly and listened with a passionate intentness. Mole, who with gentle strokes was just keeping the boat moving while he scanned the banks with care, looked at him with curiosity.

“It’s gone!” sighed the Rat, sinking back into his seat again. “So beautiful and strange and new! Since it was to end so soon, I almost wish I had never heard it. For it has roused a longing in me that is pain, and nothing seems worth while but just to hear that sound once more and go on listening to it forever. No! There it is again!” he cried, alert once more. Entranced, he was silent for a long space, spellbound.

“Now it passed on and I begin to lose it,” he said presently. “O, Mole! the beauty of it! The merry bubble and joy, the thin, clear, happy call of the distant piping! Such music I never dreamed of, and the call in it is stronger even than the music is sweet! Row on, Mole, row! For the music and the call must be for us.”

This passage of romantic writing is taken from The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame – from a chapter entitled, “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn”. First published in 1908, and the author’s best-known book, The Wind in the Willows, tells the story of Mole, Water Rat, Badger and Toad – four animal friends who find themselves caught up in a series of adventures that take them along a river bank, deep into a wild wood, and into a final battle against an uncouth brigade of weasels and stoats that seize Toad’s beloved ancestral seat, Toad Hall. But in the chapter from which I have just quoted, the timid Mole and his adventurous chum, the Water Rat, have an altogether different kind of adventure, for this is the moment in the story when the author allows himself to slip into a strange, mystical reverie, and take his animals into the bright, brief, terrifying presence of the great god, Pan. From the everyday sounds of the riverbank at dawn, comes the faint, other-worldly music of Pan’s pipes, and the Mole and Rat are drawn into the presence of the great pagan rural deity.

A charming children’s story no doubt, and it is – although I plead guilty to being one its grown-up admirers! However, the slightly disturbing appearance of Pan, and the intense, rapturous, descriptions of the animal’s surroundings, make The Wind in the Willows into something altogether more important than a simple story for young readers – an anthropomorphic version of Three Men in a Boat. Here we find ourselves face to face with an author who seems to belong to the Nature-worshipping traditions of writers such as Richard Jefferies, or indeed of those Victorian painters whose English landscapes revealed fairy processions – an author who immersed himself in the quiet depths of the countryside in order to gain some sort of religious or supernatural experience, and who saw the woodland, river inlets and marshy islands as a realm in which all care, all normal everyday experience and concern would dissolve. So in order to understand something of this remarkable writer, and what inspired his pagan flights of fancy, allow me to provide something of a glimpse into Kenneth Grahame’s life and world.

Although now associated with an upper-middle-class Edwardian Englishness, Grahame was actually a Scot – the son of James Cunningham Grahame, an Edinburgh lawyer with a somewhat hedonistic disposition. Kenneth was born in 1859, one of four children. His mother – Bessie – died from scarlet fever in 1864, the five-year-old Kenneth also catching the infection. Whilst the boy recovered, Cunningham Grahame plunged into a crisis. Never a particularly practical or self-reliant man, Bessie’s death caused Cunningham to sink into an alcoholic oblivion in which the care of children became impossible. And so, Kenneth and his brothers and sisters were sent to live at The Mount, Cookham Dene in Berkshire, the home of their grandmother (their mother’s mother), Mrs. Ingles.

Peter Green, perhaps the best-known biographer of Grahame, suggests that life at The Mount, whilst not emotionally warm, and certainly not luxurious or wealthy, was a generally happy time for the children. And Green writes:

“What was it about The Mount which affected him so powerfully? Certainly not (except in the adverse sense) his long-suffering relatives; more probably, following the best romantic tradition, it was the place itself and the countryside round it. All through his adult life, this exiled Scot never strayed far from the soft hills and rich soil of Berkshire [although Grahame, it must be said, did travel extensively in the Mediterranean world – I’ll make mention of this later on], so different from the sea-lochs and granite he had known as a child in the Western Highlands. It was as if he deliberately sought out the warm, friendly, tolerant south as an antidote to that repressive Puritanism he always associated with his own background.”

The young Kenneth loved the house and its garden, and although the “golden age” of childhood – with its imaginative life, nourished by storybooks – sustained him, the boy felt a sense of loneliness and betrayal – the loneliness and betrayal of being without a father, and of being at the hands of the irrational grown-up world. This was the world of the so-called “Olympians”, the name given to mothers, fathers, uncles and relations in the famous book that first made his name, The Golden Age – a series of stories from the lives of children: of the Argonauts, whose vessel was a pig trough, and of an encounter with a modern-day knight on a downland Roman road.

At one point, an attempt was made by Cunningham Grahame to look after the family, once again, in Scotland. Yet in the time which had elapsed since the beginning of the Berkshire sojourn, the father’s ability to cope with day-to-day life had declined at an alarming rate. The attempt at resurrecting family life proved a disaster. Unable to respond to the demands of work, and now widely known to be largely incapable, Cunningham left the country for France, and spent the rest of his life living in a guest-house in Le Havre – a pitiful shadow of his former self – the witty, good-living Scottish lawyer, known for his beautiful wife and lavish, French style of entertaining now exiled, forgotten, and all but ruined.

Another brilliant Grahame biographer, the superb, informative, and entertaining Alison Prince, writes of this time:

“Ripples of resentment spread even to Cunningham Grahame, alone in his great house by the Loch at Inveraray. There is no correspondence to suggest that he was urged to take up his fatherly duties, but within a few months of the move he wrote to Mrs. Ingles and offered to have his children back. For Kenneth it raised wild hopes. Half-forgotten memories surged up in excitement as preparations for the journey were begun, and his general oblivion was penetrated by the long train-trip and the ‘brown leaping streams and purple heather, and the clear, sharp northern air which streamed in through the windows.’ Cunningham’s last effort to draw together some shreds of self-respect failed abysmally, and the children saw, in helpless bewilderment, that their father was lost in dissolution.”

(The beautiful description of Scotland’s “brown, leaping streams”, incidentally, comes from Grahame’s Pagan Papers – from Romance of the Rail.) It was therefore left to Mrs. Ingles and Kenneth’s Uncle John – a practical, moral man who disliked extravagance and wild dreams – to look after the children, and ensure that they were properly educated.

Kenneth was sent to St. Edward’s School in Oxford, which by all accounts seemed a harsh, cold, decrepit place. But despite the privations of life at St. Edward’s, Kenneth’s love of books and his romantic nature remained undimmed. In fact, he achieved a reasonable academic standing, passed his final examinations, and nurtured the dream that he would enter the university – becoming a true Oxford man and part of a glorious institution. However, Uncle John, ever mindful of money and the dangers of bookish and artistic people, had a different idea, and despite his nephew’s desperate pleas and promises to do well, decided that Kenneth should go to work. This decision proved to be almost as shattering as the loss of a father, and stands out as perhaps the most bitterly disappointing moment of Kenneth’s entire life. And again, I would like to quote Alison Prince’s description of this great turning point in the young man’s life:

“Grahame had expected to become part of this kaleidoscope of learning and pageantry and eccentricity, and the news of his exclusion from it was as painful as a physical assault… The decision seemed designed to humiliate and, in his eyes, it confirmed the narrow-minded stupidity which characterized his elders.”

It often surprises people to learn that the author of The Wind in the Willows – the romantic countryman, restless wanderer and pagan-at-heart – spent most of his career as an employee of The Bank of England (he joined the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street in 1879); and was, on the face of it, the same as any one of thousands of late-Victorian middle-class, office-bound workers, and one who even excelled at his work, rising to become the Bank’s Secretary. At first, though, Kenneth worked for Uncle John’s firm, and led a generally dull existence in the dank Victorian metropolis, although he did enlist in The London Scottish Volunteers, and, as we shall see, find some stimulating company among the city’s bohemians. The young man who had loved the fragrant gardens of Berkshire, the old colleges and human-scale city of Oxford, saw in London a great, overpowering, and ruthless machine – a slave world, a treadmill, a crushing place of stone, soot and confinement, in which the only hope of seeing anything of the natural world would be to look up at the blue sky – assuming of course that a ghastly fog, or smog, had not blotted it out.

We can only guess at the ache in Kenneth’s heart as he pondered on what might have been – on the Oxford dream that, as the years dragged on and youth passed away, could never be made real. The seeds of escapism were firmly planted, and he sought out the natural, the wild, the untamed, the unusual, perhaps even the “anarchic”, wherever he could find it. Grahame expressed something of the quest for this happy and other-worldly dimension:

“Do but give a glance up, and you are whirled away from the roaring city as though it had never been. In the liquid spaces pigeons flash and circle, joyous as if they sped their morris over some remote little farmstead, lapped round by quiet hills; and as they stoop and tumble, the sunlight falls off their wings in glancing drops of opal sheen.”

I wonder how many of us have stood for a moment in the rush of the London commuter hour, and watched the sun setting over the whole surging, relentless scene – thinking that this same sunset is being watched by someone sitting on their boat in Fowey harbour! Yet it is, perhaps, not quite right to say that Grahame retreated from London, or ever became deeply hostile to it as many ruralists and escapists do. Instead, he began to settle into his routine, and had the self-discipline to maintain his duties. He longed for a little bolt-hole of his own in the city, a place in which he could surround himself with his books, and collections of this and that – and he did in fact find such a place in Chelsea, by all accounts a curious room right at the top of a house, but with magnificent views of the River Thames. And just like an adventurer in the countryside, he wandered out and explored the habitat around him. When the day’s work was done, Kenneth would navigate his way through the “city of dreadful night”, and one day, came across the village-like atmosphere, colour and bohemianism – tinged with continental and foreign flavour – of Soho.

The noisy, neon-lit, somewhat depressing Soho we know today offered, in those days, a far more subtle blend of literary, idealistic and artistic groups, all sustained by rich continental cooking and the flow of French wine. Grahame gravitated toward the district, and – perhaps forgetting his frustrations – fell in with these lively, unruly sects. One such meeting occurred with Frederick James Furnivall – editor of The New English Dictionary, friend of Ruskin, literary in-fighter, early Socialist visionary, and boatman and sculler of some considerable standing. Furnivall was very keen on good works, and belonged to that well-meaning band of upper-middle-class folk who tried to raise the educational and cultural standards of the working man and woman by lecturing, instructing and improving them – something that would be frowned upon in today’s atmosphere of edgy egalitarianism and “relaxed” lack of expectations. Kenneth admired Furnivall and his circle, and biographers have observed how this university-like band compensated the young man for the broken dream of life as an Oxford don. He even followed Furnivall’s enlightened, cultural and Christian Socialist spirit, and played a small part in helping at the Whitechapel Art Gallery and Toynbee Hall in the East End – in those days, a beacon and symbol of that earnest instinct to draw the working man out of his misery, and into a new society of dignity, learning and arts.

Yet the countryside and wild places were Kenneth’s true love, and in 1884 he visited Cornwall for the first time. The breathtaking cliffs and wide Atlantic views from The Lizard, and the free, seafaring and fishing people of the country made a strong impression on him. He experienced this first taste of Cornwall, not as a Victorian traveller on a British version of the Grand Tour – seeing quaint things from a distance – but as a true, genuine and well-liked participant in the refreshing, vital local scene. He was fascinated, excited and absorbed by sea-fishing trips, and even went out with the crew of the local lifeboat to a vessel in distress. It was often said of Grahame that he did not quite “fit in” in London – that he resembled a wild creature that had been taken out of his natural habitat, uncomfortably and awkwardly trying to make sense of where he was. But Kenneth had no such problems of belonging in Cornwall. Among the natural, non-industrialised, non-suburbanised people – the fishermen and the locals who lived along the coast – he blended in effortlessly, and there is one well-known story of the delight he took in being mistaken for a Cornish mariner. Apparently, he imitated the Cornish accent perfectly – one unfortunate visitor believing that he had actually spoken to a real, live Cornishman! The romantic Cornish coast, with its cliffs, secret inlets and deep harbours, was to be an influence upon him from then on.

In 1897, whilst visiting Onslow Square on official Bank of England business, Grahame met the woman who was to become his wife, Miss Elspeth Thomson. Elspeth was the stepdaughter of John Fletcher Moulton – a former Liberal MP – and the daughter of the Scottish inventor, Robert William Thomson, who conceived of the idea, although did not patent, the pneumatic tyre. Grahame’s future wife was very much a part of “society”, a competent organiser of social events, and possessed a strongly romantic, non-conformist streak – something which manifested itself on the day of her wedding at St. Fimbarrus, Fowey in 1899.

On that warm July morning, the bride appeared to the surprise of the wedding party, the very model of bohemianism, and complete with a daisy chain around her neck! Much has been written about the courtship and marriage of Kenneth and Elspeth Grahame, and I, for one, have never really liked discussing the personal failings or foibles of others. Yet it has to be said that the relationship was most curious – with Kenneth communicating with his fiancée and wife in a bizarre baby-language (which sometimes sounded quite slang-like and cockneyish – rather like Edwardian toffs enjoying the sensation of slumming it), and with Kenneth often being absent (much to Elspeth’s deep distress) – preferring instead the hearty, uncomplicated, carefree company of boating and literary chaps.

And in Fowey, Kenneth had discovered two first-rate chums, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch – the famous “Q”, author of the chronicles of Troy town – and the eccentric Edward Atkinson, one of the town’s foremost characters, commodore of the Yacht Club, wearer of foppish hats, and a man, described as “a nautical version of Quentin Crisp”.

One writer, Ida Procter – a contributor to The Cornish Review (which was edited by Denys Val Baker) – penned an interesting piece on Grahame’s Cornish life in the Winter 1969 edition of that magazine. In her piece, she makes mention of the boating and Quiller-Couch connection:

‘ “Q” himself a devotee of river life, took him sailing, lent him a boat, The Richard and Emily, and generally got to know him. In an obituary in The Times, his one-time host wrote of his friend 33 years later that – “Lazy afternoons at sea… made me acquainted with a man who combined all enviable gifts and yet so perfectly as to soften all envy away in affection. Noble in looks, yet modest in bearing; with flashes of wit… he seemed at once a child and a king. Withal he was eminently a ‘man’s man’ and keen on all manly sports.’

How could this ardent bachelor life be reconciled with the world of courtship and marriage? For a time, Grahame even began to give Elspeth various new names, all taken from various boats in Fowey harbour! And this was even after he had dispensed with the nickname, “Nannie”! It was almost as if she were not a real person at all to him, but merely someone upon whom he projected his own images and feelings.

It appeared that Elspeth had been the main force in bringing the marriage to fruition, with Kenneth adopting an almost terrified and resigned “oh, I suppose I shall have to go through with it now” attitude! In fact, just before the wedding day, Kenneth even suggested (in his secret, child-like language) that Elspeth continued to live at Onslow Square, whilst seeing him now and again!

“Darlin ow’d you like ter go on livin at Ons: Sq: and cum away wif me for weekends?”

Part of the honeymoon was spent in Fowey, and during this, and future occasions, Kenneth seemed only too pleased to be able to escape back into the world of messing about in boats, with “Q” and Atkinson, known to his close circle as “Atky”. Those who know The Wind in the Willows, must begin to see a certain connection here between the riverbankers – the generally contented animal-bachelors, led by the intrepid water rat (Ratty) – and Grahame and his summer, yachting, Fowey friends. Indeed, it is said that Edward Atkinson was the model for the water rat character; and that the woodland which embraces the quiet, tidal creek at Lerryn – a village that must be one of the loveliest places in all Cornwall – inspired “the Wild Wood”. The author loved this hamlet, and often rowed up to Lerryn, taking great care to observe the run and turn of the tide. I well remember an occasion, two summers ago, when my lack of attention to timing nearly caused me to be washed downstream – so strong is the current by the wild wood!

For a man such as Grahame – who enjoyed retreating from the anxiety of day-to-day life into a make-believe world, or at least into a world of eccentricity and innocence, the company of Edward Atkinson was a godsend. On visiting Atky’s house on the river, Kenneth was overwhelmed with enthusiasm, especially at his friend’s vast collection of toys, mechanical figures and other oddities; and at the fact that instead of conventional staircases, one could only reach the upstairs via rope ladders! But Elspeth did not like Atkinson one bit, and felt that his influence only contributed to Kenneth’s escapism and at times, infantile tendencies. At one gathering at Atky’s house, he reported to her:

“We found a drore full of toys wot wound up and we ad a great race tween a fish, a snake, a beetle wot flapped its wings & a rabbit.”

After the strange wedding and surreal summer days at Fowey, Kenneth returned to the Bank, and he and his wife took up residence at Campden Hill, just north of Kensington. The return journey to London must surely have been a depressing experience for Kenneth – a bitter farewell to an easier way of life, unencumbered by the difficulties and details of having to think of another person, and to attend to their needs. The sudden loss of the sovereignty and individuality associated with life as a bachelor, the passing of the summer, and the sense that the world was about to move into the unknown region of a new century, affected him greatly.

Despite what seemed the celibate awkwardness of their relationship, Mrs. Grahame was now pregnant, although biographers speak of the general unhappiness of that time, Alison Prince capturing the hopeless mood:

“The winter and spring in which a new century began saw no improvement in Elspeth’s relationship with Kenneth. He remained locked in a private childhood, and, as she prepared a nursery for the coming baby, she must have looked at her husband’s room full of toys and wondered how a forty-year-old boy would cope with a child of his own… “ and: “Landlocked in London, there was not even the escape route of the sea-going company of Atky and Quiller-Couch.”

Yet despite his love of all things nautical, Atky met his end in a tragic yachting accident in 1911 – drowning in stormy seas just off Fowey. Last summer, when exploring the local countryside, I discovered the quiet church of Lanteglos-by-Fowey, just a short walk from Bodinnick on the eastern side of the river. There in the churchyard I came across a larger-than-usual memorial, to one, Edward Atkinson – although I have not yet been able to discover for certain if the stone commemorates Kenneth’s well-loved old friend.

Yet there was a friendship of Kenneth’s in those early days of his marriage which did compensate, somewhat, for the suburban desolation of adult late-Victorian life. Living nearby was the artist, Graham Robertson – a fellow Scot, and a fellow romantic. This friendship cannot have given any reassurance at all to Elspeth, as her husband and his artist neighbour discovered that they were both firm believers in the fairy world, and spent much time discussing its inhabitants. They talked endlessly on the “manners and customs of that country”, the “proclivities and antecedents of its inhabitants”, with as much passion as if they were “speaking of Latest Quotations, Lunch Scores or Cup Finals.”

The birth of a son – Alastair – brought a brief interlude of joy for Mr. and Mrs. Grahame, and Kenneth immediately gave the wriggling infant the nickname of Mouse. Yet it was soon discovered that the boy could not see properly – and suffered for the rest of his life from a squint and imperfect eyesight. No doubt remembering the coldness of his own early life, and the ridiculous conventions of the grown-up world, Kenneth appeared to allow Mouse to do exactly as he pleased – the result being the gradual creation of a demanding and somewhat spoilt boy.

To quieten the noisy Mouse, his father would tell him long and fascinating stories – stories about a mole, and the mole’s friends who lived on a riverbank. It was from these tales that the story we know as The Wind in the Willows had its genesis. Alastair, though, was often sent away by his parents for long holidays, to Broadstairs and Littlehampton – something which actually replicated the parentless loneliness of Grahame’s early years, and even when separated from his exhausted parents, the boy wrote to Kenneth, often asking what had happened to Toad and all the other animals. As he grew older, Alastair often addressed his mother and father as if they were servants, demanding to know what his father was doing, and even referring to him as “Inferiority”. Elspeth believed her son to be a child-genius, and continued to indulge the boy in this way.

Kenneth, ever the romantic gypsy-wanderer, had always loved the downland countryside of Berkshire and Oxfordshire, with its sense of the ancient Saxon past; of Alfred and the Danes, of barrows, tracks and long-forgotten skirmishes on the chalk hills. Here, he wrote, “the loafer” could be alone, high above the “sordid” world of humanity and civilisation, with just “the windhover” (the kestrel) for company. With his career at the Bank of England coming to an early close – the new Governor, apparently, did not approve of Kenneth’s imaginative approach to timekeeping and attendance! – the countryside would again provide the necessary escape route from the everyday world.

In these, the years of Alastair’s boyhood, the family were living at Blewbury, a quiet and ancient village, hidden away from the new century, and a place still suffused with the rural simplicity, isolation and ancient feudalism which Kenneth believed represented the meaning of life. Yet all was not well with the self-centred and “artistic” Alastair, despite his parents having such great expectations of him. After prep school, he was sent to Rugby – a harsh and totally unsuitable place, in which he lasted just one term. He was then accepted at Eton, but again, his arrogant, solitary nature, and complete lack of interest in the sporting, physical life so associated with the English public school, caused him endless distress.

Eventually, thanks to much lobbying by Kenneth, the boy managed to scrape into Oxford – the academic dream that had been snatched from his father all those years ago. But again, life was not easy for Alastair, and it soon became clear that the intellectual brightness which his parents believed he possessed did not really exist. He faced, failed and retook crucial examinations, but simply could not apply himself to Scripture – an essential component for any successful Oxford career. Indeed, it seems that at this time of early manhood, Alastair was struggling with a personal religious maelstrom, quite apart from all the other emotional and physical frustrations which beset him. One evening in College, just after supper, he calmly ordered a glass of port, drank it, pulled himself together as if to go out for a stroll, and walked across the fields to the railway lines… The decapitated body of Alastair Grahame was later found by some railway workmen. He was just twenty years old.

From this moment on, Kenneth and Elspeth Grahame’s life changed utterly. They sold off their possessions, including the books, toys and curiosities which Kenneth had spent his lifetime collecting. Their baby-language abandoned, and Alastair now gone forever, the middle-aged couple advertised their home for long-term rent, and slipped away from England – to Italy, to the lands of southern pine, and fragrances and tastes of the Mediterranean world. Just like the wayfaring rat, who so beguiles Rattie in The Wind in the Willows with tales of distant lands, so Kenneth was now doing what he had always wanted to do – drift away into a world of his own, entirely footloose and far away from the cares of domestic life and other human beings. Rome was their first port of call – and Grahame at once lost himself among the romantic vistas, ruins, fountains, churches, stallholders, little restaurants and backstreets of the Eternal City. Everything he had once imagined during those long-ago days in Soho’s Italian cafes, was now real and living. Post-Great War England, with its painful memories of Mouse, and the lost, golden summers at Fowey, seemed very far away…

Yet Grahame and his wife did return to England, not to the sea-town of Fowey, but to Pangbourne and the Thames, where the spirit of Nature and The Wind in the Willows still haunted him. Forever associated with this unusual, evergreen, golden tale – which, without the existence of the somewhat irritable and demanding Mouse would never have been written – Kenneth Grahame ended his days as a white-haired, noble-of-presence, Toryish Englishman – half of him, the rural conservative squire; half of him, the bohemian, the wanderer, the innocent, the fervent, romantic visionary of a lost age. Many who knew him mentioned his large physical frame, his impeccable manners – manners that have, alas, been lost to our own age – and his boyish, enthusiastic, if somewhat startled face. Kindly, shy, an escapist, a bohemian, a conservative, an aesthete and, at heart, a pagan – just what is the legacy that Kenneth Grahame left behind at his death in 1932?

Through the reeds and in the shadows of the wild wood; through the carefree adventures of Ratty, Badger, Mole and Toad, lies a last representation of a countryside, of an England, that has either gone, or which is in fast decline. Many observers have noted how the final assault against Toad Hall, when the four chums clear the ancestral seat of an occupying, wrecking army of stoats and weasels, is an allegory concerning the hearties and reactionaries of the upper-middle-class restoring England to stability after an onslaught of anarchy. In fact, during Grahame’s time at the Bank, he became headline news throughout the land, following a bizarre and unnerving experience in which a “man of Socialist beliefs” walked into the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street, and drew a revolver. Kenneth kept a stiff upper lip and managed to bring the situation under control, and it is said that the incident suggested to him that our institutions were not as safe as they once were.

Yet Grahame often had a tongue-in-cheek approach to people and ideas, and did not mind making gentle sport of certain great English icons. In Dream Days (1898), a collection of stories, very much in the style of The Golden Age, we come across “The Reluctant Dragon” – a thoroughly fair-minded, free-thinking sort of dragon, who simply wants to be left to his own devices in his home high up on the Downs! St. George has been urged by the villagers to kill the great beast, but he, too, is entirely reasonable and fair-minded, and so the pair enter into an agreement to entertain the fanatical villagers with a realistic mock-battle, in which no-one is actually killed! The dragon has the prospect of continuing with his quiet life, and St. George rides into the sunset, his myth and honour still intact. An English gentleman’s agreement, for the sake of a quiet life!

There is also a “Green” message that sits alongside the “Conservative” message. Ten years ago, Eric Idle, John Cleese, Terry Jones, Anthony Sher, Steve Coogan, and Nicol Williamson as Badger (Nicol Williamson was, by the way, Merlin in a 1981 Excalibur!) starred in a film version of Grahame’s book. In this version, the stoats and their allies capture Toad Hall, and begin to destroy and industrialise the landscape – ripping up the trees, and in one scene, driving a huge trench through the fields. In one of those odd coincidences, this appalling destruction is what nearly occurred, here in the valley of the River Fowey! During the last war, when things were going badly in 1941-42, the Government was very worried about an impending shortage of tin, and a plan was put forward to block the course of the Fowey river, re-route its waters altogether – no doubt through some giant, glorified storm-drain – and exploit the deposits of tin which lie on the bed of the Fowey. Thankfully, this horror did not come to pass, but I wonder how heartbroken Kenneth Grahame would have been, looking down from heaven (or his Pagan heaven!) at his beloved river valley – now a series of craters, rusting excavators, “keep out” signs, barbed wire, and lorry tracks.

However, let us end with a memorable scene of a certain “little grey sea town”, from the chapter, Wayfarers All, from The Wind in the Willows. Here a nomadic sea-faring rat draws Ratty from the riverbank into his adventurous life:

“I take to the road again, holding on south-westwards for many a long and dusty day; till at last I reach the little grey sea town I know so well, that clings along one steep side of the harbour. There through dark doorways you look down flights of stone steps, overhung by great pink tufts of valerian and ending in a patch of sparkling blue water. The little boats that lie tethered to the rings and stanchions of the old sea wall are gaily painted as those I clambered in and out of in my own childhood; the salmon leap on the flood tide, schools of mackerel flash and play past quaysides and foreshores, and by the windows the great vessels glide, night and day, up to their moorings or forth to the open sea. There, sooner or later, the ships of all seafaring nations arrive; and there, at its destined hour, the ship of my choice will let go its anchor.”

Ladies and gentlemen, the extraordinary life and literature of Kenneth Grahame deserves to be celebrated. Cornwall, and Fowey in particular, provided a breath of sea air – the very wind that could be felt in the willows of the riverbank, and which inspires to this day, wayfarers all. It has been my privilege to stand before you today, and give you, what I hope, was a fair and detailed, if very personal glimpse into the life of an extraordinary writer.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. This essay was originally a talk, given at the Daphne Du Maurier Literary Festival, Fowey Town Hall, Cornwall, May 13, 2006.

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2 replies to this post
  1. What a truly splendid piece! Many thanks. I still find the Pan chapter jarring and rather inconsistent with the rest. Then again one can see why Grahame may not have been, to employ a scientific metaphor, the most stable element on the Periodic Chart. Do American children read this lyrical book?

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