Imag­ine – no death, dis­com­fort or women

‘The Wind in the Wil­lows’ is a strange fan­tasy that says a lot about Kenneth Gra­hame, dis­cov­ers Anne de Courcy

The Daily Telegraph - Review - - BOOKS -


the bluff male com­pan­ion­ship of Mole and Ratty, the grav­i­tas and re­as­sur­ance of Badger, the cheer­ful log fires and the large solid meals. For Mole and Ratty’s first pic­nic on the river, Ratty brings a fat wicker lun­cheon­bas­ket. “‘What’s in­side it?’ asked the Mole, wrig­gling with cu­rios­ity. ‘There’s cold chicken in­side it,’ replied the Rat briefly; ‘cold­tonguecold­ham­cold­beef pick­ledgherkinssal­ad­frenchrolls…’”

As for the need for ad­ven­ture felt by most chil­dren – and in­side his mind Gra­hame was a child – there is the con­ceited ebul­lience of Toad, the leather-gauntleted hero of the road, al­ways get­ting out of scrapes that only he would have got into, and given to child­ish ob­ses­sions. Who can for­get the im­age of Toad, eyes fixed on the dust cloud of a de­part­ing mo­tor car as he dream­ily mut­ters “Poop-poop!”

Gra­hame was born on

March 8 1859. A mere five years later, his 27-year-old mother Bessie died af­ter giv­ing birth to her third son. His fa­ther, punch-drunk with grief and al­ready given to tip­pling, took refuge in al­co­hol, his ca­reer trick­ling down the drain along with the dregs of the nu­mer­ous bot­tles he emp­tied. Soon he departed for Nor­mandy, where he stayed for the rest of his life. The young Gra­hames – the three boys had an older sis­ter, He­len – were given into the care of Bessie’s mother Mary Inglis, a sternly com­pe­tent widow of 67 en­cased in black silk moire, her mouth set in a dour gri­mace. Their fa­ther’s brother John took fi­nan­cial re­spon­si­bil­ity for them and, as Den­ni­son notes, in one of the vivid phrases scat­tered through the book, “took pains that lib­er­al­ity never over­mas­tered pru­dence”.

The loss of his par­ents, and the warmth and love that went with them, was to colour Gra­hame’s whole life. As a child, his way of cop­ing with it was to tun­nel into – there is no other word – a world of make-be­lieve that would al­ways re­main with him. Fields, the river, toys, places rather than peo­ple, cast their spell over this imag­i­na­tive child and helped blot out the over­whelm­ing feel­ing of grief and loss. Board­ing school at nine, with its over­crowded dor­mi­to­ries, rudi­men­tary san­i­ta­tion and in­fes­ta­tions of rats, only en­cour­aged the with­drawal into this in­te­rior world.

His school was in Ox­ford, where he won scholas­tic prizes and ab­sorbed the beauty of the city’s mag­nif­i­cent col­lege build­ings, so that it was to the univer­sity of Ox­ford he longed to go. But his fu­ture had been de­cided years ear­lier by a con­clave of his Scot­tish un­cles; al­most need­less to say, it was to be one of re­spectabil­ity, pro­bity and so­bri­ety. Noth­ing could ful­fil those cri­te­ria more suc­cess­fully than the Bank of Eng­land, into which he was in­serted. Ox­ford would re­main a dream, longed for as he worked his way through the sur­pris­ingly rowdy lower ech­e­lons of the Bank – pass­books were hurled through the air around him, there were bets on il­licit dog fights and em­ploy­ees were reg­u­larly so drunk that they had to lie down on ta­bles to re­cover. And at the Bank he stayed, for year af­ter relentless year, slowly climb­ing up the lad­der of clerk­dom un­til af­ter 30 years he reached the dizzy heights of sec­re­tary, one of the Bank’s three se­nior po­si­tions. All the while, though, his real life was con­tin­u­ing, where it had al­ways been, in­side his head.

By 1882, aged 23, he had be­gun to write, steadily send­ing hand­writ­ten es­says to var­i­ous edi­tors. Fi­nally, in 1887, one was ac­cepted. Then, in 1890, Ernest Hen­ley, the ed­i­tor of the Scots Observer (later the Na­tional Observer), pub­lished the first piece Gra­hame sent him, Of Smok­ing.

It was the break­through. Over the next four years, Hen­ley pub­lished 20 more of Gra­hame’s es­says; and he be­gan to con­trib­ute

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