At home with Mr Toad

19th December 1997 at 00:00
Kenneth Grahame's classic The Wind in the Willows celebrates its 90th birthday next year. Melvin Burgess tells why he would rush into a burning building to rescue it

I was browsing through a car boot sale a few weeks ago when I came across a copy of The Wind in the Willows. It was the same edition I had when I was small - a neat brown hardback with an impressive list of re-prints. It's a bit like looking back through a tiny window into a great, distant building.

The Wind in the Willows is the first book I fell in love with. I used to sit for hours, picking out my favourite bits. I took it to school for the teacher to read aloud. I remember sitting proudly, expecting everyone else to be as entranced as I was. And I remember my disappointment at what I considered the teacher's irreverent treatment of the book. Poor Mrs Trayner was bound to fall short, unless she'd contrived to burst into tears when she had to put it down.

My parents were so impressed by my devotion that they had a friend paint me a portrait of my favourite character, Pan. Since then there have been many books, but I've never been such an unabashed fan of anything else.

Like all holy things, not all of it is. These days I adore Toad, but at the time I found him unconvincing. I was one of those people William Horwood refers to in his introduction to the HarperCollins paperback, who fall in love with certain chapters. For me, it was "Dulce Domum" and, in particular, "The Piper at the Gates of Dawn", that really did the business.

I would read that last chapter over and over again, and it gave me goose pimples every time. It was just so reliable. Ever since then, stories with Pan appearing in them have appealed to me. The picture my parents had painted for me was of a rather debonair god with freckles - not at all how I had imagined him. Even so, the painting was my most treasured possession for ages.

Pan is magic, but the great theme of the book is home. Mole leaves his home and finds another one with Ratty. Mole gets lost in the Wild Wood and finds sanctuary in Badger's "great house". Toad's adventures are in contrast to this, but even they climax with him coming to his senses and taking Toad Hall back. Even the Piper is there to return little Otter back home. Then there's "Wayfarers All", in which Ratty has a nervous breakdown and tries to run away.

The theme of home finds its strongest expression in the chapter "Dulce Domum", in which Mole rediscovers his own little place. Again, I could read that endlessly. It never failed me - the way Mole's cold, deserted little house slowly opened up and welcomed him and filled up with goodness.

On this reading, Mole and Ratty make up a nice little family. Rat is your favorite fantasy uncle, and the Mole, of course - well, Horwood was wrong in his 1993 follow-up, The Willows in Winter, to give the Mole a nephew. Mole is the child, despite the waistcoats and fusty suits. He's a solid, careful child - a bit of an anorak, perhaps - and a home-body like most kids.

Home - so safe and welcoming. But where are all the women? You'd have thought Mother would be lurking there somewhere. All safety, all comfort and reassurance here is solidly male. It's boys playing house. Now, why should that be? It might be as simple as boarding school - maybe homeliness was a place without women for well-off boys in those days.

But two thoughts. One - there's no danger of being told to wash behind your ears. Mothers do spoil things sometimes, don't they? Not that Ratty and Mole ever have to do any cleaning, but who hasn't wished their mother could be conveniently invisible? And the other, inevitable thought - no sex either.

Only one complaint in a spellbinding book - the way Grahame makes Toad change character at the end. Why should he want to make the hapless creature turn into someone else?

The answer of course is that bad characters, even funny ones like Toad, had to be punished or redeemed in those bad old days. I like to believe that Grahame lost interest at this point, which would account for the odd, off-hand ending. To do that to Toad of all animals! If it wasn't for the fact that I didn't really care what happened to him anyway, it could have put me off for good. It made me resolve not to have mandatory happy endings in my own books.

u The Wind in the Willows with new illustrations by Kenneth Percy is in the Pavilion Classics series, Pounds 4.99 u A 90th anniversary conference, "Reconstructing the Riverbank: The Wind in the Willows and After", will take place at the University of Reading on April 25. Details from: Tony Watkins, director, Centre for International Research in Childhood: Literature, Culture, Media, English Department, University of Reading, PO Box 218, Reading RG6 6AA Melvin Burgess won the Carnegie Medal for his novel Junk earlier this year. His latest novel, Kite, is published by Andersen

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