Griff Rhys Jones: My love affair with Ratty and Mole

TheWind in the Willows offers humour and escapism but above all Kenneth Grahame’s classic is a hymn to the joys of childhood, says Griff Rhys Jones

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Dear Gyles Brandreth once grasped me fervently by the paw. “There,” he said, with not exactly well-suppressed excitement, “you are touching the hand that touched the hand of the man who wrote Winnie the Pooh.” (Or was there another hand in between? That sounds more likely. “You are touching the hand that touched the hand, that touched the hand of the man who wrote Winnie the Pooh.” Hm. Yup, even less enthralling.)

I have never been engaged by Pooh and Poohishness, nor by the appeal of AA Milne (a somewhat calculating stiff by most accounts). But, then, we failed to be a proper middle class household. Oh yes, we read Narnia and Ransome and thick expansive children’s sagas in many volumes, but moved swiftly on to Hammond Innes and James Bond. (Like watching HBO – big repeatable, absorbing chunks of vaguely menacing stuff.). We craved  expansiveness, and missed out on “Christopher Robin” and “The Wind in the Willows”. Both are, after all slim, precise and slightly demanding volumes. Both of them, like those other classics, “Alice in Wonderland” and “Peter Pan”, are a lot more fascinating now, to grown up me than they were then. They are windows into a certain mature, over-developed vision of childhood - complex literary compositions: satirical, humorous and allusive. Is that why they last, why they lodge with some adults for ever?

In 1908 Arthur Ransome, himself trying to join the Fitzrovian, writerly bohemian scene, and shortly before escaping to Russia to transcribe fairy tales, was invited to review Kenneth Grahame’s new book. He found it, like many contemporaries, disappointingly unfocused. It “fell between two stools”. Was it for adults, or was it aimed at children?

Others pointed out that it is a broken backed story - with a chunk of Mr Mole and then a bit of Toad and then everything thrown together for a hurried denouement. And it was, in truth, constructed backwards out of a series of bedtime stories. Nobody except Syd Barratt has ever had much time for “the Piper at the Gates of Dawn”, (the extra chapter Grahame added late in the composition period, with its hushed mystic encounter with a hairy-legged, but neutered, satyr).

And yet, when I got involved with Toad at the RNT twenty years ago, in Alan Bennett’s adaptation of the book for the Christmas show that ran and ran, I was intrigued by the ardency of its fans. And by the way Alan could use it as a free-wheeling template for sly jokes about a certain boyish gay bonding. The book, like many classics, easily stood up to re-interpretation.

You might imagine that that sort of take would have shocked Grahame, but I’m not sure. Grahame was a respectable Secretary of the Bank of England. He seemed to live a Moleish life: seeking out well-appointed burrows in comfortable Cookham Dean or Kensington. But he also revelled in unconventionality. Arnold Bennett described him standing on the fringes of the Yellow Book soirees with an expression of startled fascination on his face. This desk-bound banker associated writing with a liberation of imagination. He venerated an ideal of idleness - the loafer.

Jerome K Jerome had set the pattern, lolling down the Thames, and challenging the furious busy-ness of the late Victorian British Imperial remit. This ideal of a gentleman slacker, spurning the demands of getting and spending, to indulge in picnics and “imagination” was an English, buffered, well-mannered response to the genuine French Bohemian item. Instead of absinthe there was a decent pint of foaming beer - instead of sex there were hearty walks, and instead of Rimbaud, children. The Imperial, bureaucratic, British horrified writers from Tawney to Wells. They all hated the deadening uniformity of the Industrial age. But few were proposing dissipation as an alternative. Neither were they old fashioned romantics. There was no Sturm and Drang in this vision of the pastoral. There were rolling roads and well trimmed hedges, picnics, nicely ordered fields, boating expeditions and cosy burrows in polite rural landscapes.

Commentators have worried. The characters in The Wind in the Willows have no jobs. They seem to be on holiday all the time. They have no sexual urges. Badger is clearly a high Tory squire. Mole is Pooteresque. But he is swiftly encouraged to lay aside his spring-cleaning and seek idleness with poetical Ratty, who frets and fusses but has artistic leanings. But look more carefully. The “Nature” of the animals is carefully delineated. They have no sense of tomorrow, they live for the moment and they play. They are children.

Even the momentous battle to recapture Toad Hall is play-fighting. The lower orders are put in their place and made to make up the beds. But the fight is a ruck. The animals load up with weapons, like boys, charging off to tussle with another gang. And they eat before, during and after combat. The Wind in the Willows hardly stands up as a commentary on the social order; nor, as Jonathan Miller proposed, is it an anti-Semitic tract with Toad as put-upon nouveau. It is about childhood. Toad is the spoilt child of some noble family. Toad is the loose infant. Obsessed with toys and excitement. Was there a model? There have been a lot of guesses. Horatio Bottomley? Oscar Wilde? I think the story parallels the Boer adventures of the young Winston Churchill, who was, after all, himself the scion of a great house and had been imprisoned and escaped by train to huge self-regard not many years before.

Once we encounter him, we begin to see Toad everywhere. (It is rumoured that Jeffrey Archer actually offered himself to play the role of Toad in the National Theatre Production.)

But none of this feels right.

Nor is Toad, as some have claimed, a development of Falstaff. He has no leadership skills at all. He never commands the gang. He exasperates them. He is freighted with forgiveableness. “He is a good fellow”, deep down, as Badger and Ratty constantly remind us.

What Grahame created was a spoilt, infant brat. He was incorrigibly naughty, impulsive, boastful and hyper-active. At the same time he is wholly loveable because he is innocent. He bounces back and he is always forgiven. Imagine Toad as a five year old, your five year old, and you can understand the affection, the warmth and the joy.

Grahame himself had one son, after a late marriage by Victorian standards. He and his wife Elspeth lavished their attention on little Alistair and Alistair ran amok in Kensington Gardens. Alistair pulled girls’ hair. Alistair lay down in the road in front of cars. Visitors tried to avoid the precocious, spoilt Alistair. The Wind in the Willows is not an adult book, though it incorporates adult ideas. Grahame had already written a series of stories about childhood gathered into a book called “Pagan Papers”. That was fine adult writing and is written as such under the influence of the short stories of R.L. Stevenson. The Wind in the Willows, by contrast, has a playful, direct, hyperbolic urgency. Acutely conscious of a young listener, it continuously bangs the narrative ball onwards. It is a shared, breathless story with a quiet, Moleish lesson wrapped into its symbolism. It presents a catalogue of value. It emphasises the worthwhile things in life: the nature-worship, the boat rides, the warm fires, the companionship, and the arguments, fights and harmless play too. And most of all the idea of escape from the concerns of the real world. As Max Hastings says in a programme I have made with Ian MacMillan for ITV on Sunday night, it is “a comfort feast”.

Grahame himself offered very little critical guidance to his intentions. He told his ardent admirer, Teddy Roosevelt, that there “were no negatives in it.” He meant, I suppose, that it was designed to enthuse. When Badger starts to lecture, Ratty falls asleep. Only Toad encounters the foolish and the pointless – the prison and the courts and the railways, pompous uncaring human beings and bureaucracy - but that is because he ventures out in to the “wide world”, “where no animal should ever go”. For animal, we should read child.

Grahame’s successful and admired early writings had been an evocation of the imaginative freedom of childhood. Instead of empty, even dangerous, vessels, children were proper, imaginative people. They were freer and more honest than adults. Instead of simpering innocence, they were inventive and reckless. And this was something the Edwardian grown-up chap could rarely expect to be, except in the pages of Henty. It is hardly surprising that on the eve of the First World War adults were looking on childhood with nostalgia. The “Golden Age” of children’s literature, from Dodgson and Kingsley to Barrie and Grahame, reflects a deep change in attitudes to childhood and its possibilities. Today we have moved on again. Adults are infantile. The lines are blurred.

For all its Edwardian poetic pastoral sensibilities, The Wind in the Willows was a surprisingly twentieth-century book. It was an urban book. The countryside was presented as a paradisical playground, much as metropolitan preservationists like to see it today. Childishness and the child-like state of idle, greedy play are virtues not sins, an idea so commonplace now that we hardly recognise its radicalism in the immediate post Victorian era. It offers humanist forgiveness and redemption. And it’s funny, too. These are child-animals with adult responsibilities. Badger talks with his mouth full. Ratty has to be talked out of a sudden urge to go wandering. The self-importance of the book itself is constantly pricked. It’s the absence of that that makes the Piper chapter rather dull, in fact. If you haven’t read it in a while “The Wind in the Willows” comes across as surprisingly anarchic.

It also reflects a sad biographical irony. But if you want to find what that was, and what happened to Alistair, then you might have to watch “Perspectives”. “The Wind in the Willows” is worth investigating.

Perspectives: The Wind in the Willows with Griff Rhys Jones, 10.15 pm, Sunday 29 April 2012, ITV1