Horwood is disarmingly full of enthusiasm for his latest creation, and persuasive as only someone totally convinced of their own brilliance can be. In short, he's Toadlike - and that's a comparison he will take as a compliment, 'although there's a lot of Mole in me too'. He has little time for what he sees as the pretensions of the literary world. 'The best thing that ever happened to me was fluffing my interview to read English at Oxford. Instead I went to Bristol to do geography. That made me profoundly landscape literate. It also meant I could go on reading great classics without having to tear the texts apart. If I'd taken an English literature degree, I would never have written a decent novel.'
He toyed with teaching, then moved to the Daily Mail. He was 35 when the seed of the idea of Duncton Wood was planted by a memorable affair in the mid-Seventies with a Californian woman called Leslie, to whom the book is dedicated. 'One day we were having a lie-in and she said: 'I feel like a mole. I want you to write me a story about moles.' ' And that was it. 'It's the longest love-letter in the world. She's Rebecca. I'm Bracken. It's our story.'
There was another, sharper spur to writing the 'many-layered fiction' Horwood had dreamed of creating 'ever since we read The Secret Garden in class when I was 14, and I realised it wasn't just a story, it was a symbol'. When he was 32, his mother told him that he was illegitimate - one of the two of her five children who had been products of wartime extramarital adventure. Suddenly it made more sense that his legal father, an English literature don at Oxford, had sent his mother and the five children off to live in Deal when William was only a year old, turning up in Kent only occasionally to mark examination scripts and drink quantities of gin.
Bracken, the hero of Duncton Wood, is also a little pup lost who has to cope without a father, and who is constantly trying on different sorts of male authority - priest, warrior, lover, father, philosopher. He triumphs. So has Horwood. 'I see myself as Bracken, a shaman, making a kind of interior journey. I am prepared to leap out into the imaginative void and bring back a construct people can understand.'
Is The Willows in Winter (HarperCollins, pounds 12.99) that kind of construct? It opens convincingly enough in Mole's parlour, all glowing coals and wraparound armchairs, with hot toddy and memories of deeds of yore by the Famous Four being lapped up by a visiting nephew. The original plot is echoed almost exactly, though Toad steals an aeroplane rather than a car, escapes dressed up as a sweep instead of a washerwoman, and allows Toad Hall to burn down at Lloyd's expense instead of fighting a decent battle against the forces of disorder. All jolly good fun, and at times positively gripping. Patrick Benson's drawings are superb successors to those of E H Shepard.
But the effect is that of seeing someone you love in a fairground distorting mirror. The deliberately dated language is subtly wrong, genteel rather than gentlemanly. This is hibernal replay from Toad's point of view rather than sequel. As such it is not nearly as good as Wild Wood (Ad Lib pounds 4.99), Jan Needle's very funny 'alternative view of The Wind in the Willows', which retells the whole story from the point of view of the weasels and stoats.
What makes Horwood think that another sequel (John Dixon Scott also produced an airborne Toad in 1983) was necessary? He settles down to a litany of justification with all Toad's ingenuity. 'If I'd been born before Caxton, I'd have been the sort of chap who turned up at the campfire and got asked to tell stories. When you retell stories they change and continue - it's natural.'
And consider the mood of our times. 'This is the great age of sequels. People are harking back to the old favourites and asking what happened afterwards? I think it's because we're finally admitting to ourselves that we're sick and tired of all these clever clever talents that can't tell a decent story. We want to hear the old ones again, to retell them in terms of our times.'
In fact, he claims , the book was a 'genuine creative impulse'. He was just starting on a trilogy about wolves when he walked past a London picture gallery. In the window was an original E H Shepard sketch of Mole shivering in the base of a great tree. What could be more appropriate for a moleman of means than to buy it and hang it on the wall of his writing room? 'I began to see him as setting off on a journey rather than seeking shelter.' Add to that the coincidence that his parents were buried in the same churchyard as Kenneth Grahame and that he was born on the same day as Grahame's only son Alistair, and it became clear that the great White Mole in the sky was nudging him into action.
Horwood has little humility. 'The best reason of all for a sequel to Wind in the Willows is that Grahame's minor classic is a flawed book. It's too episodic, with two chapters - Wayfarers All and Piper at the Gates of Dawn - that don't fit. If you sent it to HarperCollins these days, they'd immediately come back at you and say, 'Can we take those two chapters out? They spoil the narrative line'. And it was totally wrong to end the book with 'He was indeed an altered Toad'. No one could possibly believe that.'
Totally wrong? Or wry Grahame humour? Certainly the venerable banker turned river-banker is on record as having said to friends that of course Toad never really altered. Nor does Horwood's solution to the 'technical problem' of the two erring chapters quite come off. Instead of leaving them to be skipped by those who couldn't understand them, he permeates the whole book with a misty pantheism that changes Mole, Rat and Otter from jolly independent fellows messing around in boats to rather solemn little seers plagued by recurrent intimations of immortality 'Beyond'.
The worst casualty is Badger, who is reduced to an irascible and ineffectual old codger, manipulated by Rat and Mole. All Grahame's elegant tensions between the domesticity of Mole End and the Water Rat's adventurousness; between Badger's formidable authority and Toad's irresponsibility, are lost. Toad is the hero: opportunist individualism has triumphed over an impotent little rural community. And there is more on the way. Horwood has laid clear trails in Willows in Winter for another book which will tie all three into a trilogy and, he revealed with relish, 'smash up the cosy clubland bachelor world good and proper by introducing women - large ones, at that'.