Psychotherapy, warts and all

9th January 1998 at 00:00
COUNSELLING FOR TOADS. By Robert de Board. Routledge Pounds 7.99

Kenneth Grahame may not have realised Toad was manic-depressive, but with hindsight, all the signs are there. By turns boastful, sullen, impulsive, vengeful, extravagant and lachrymose, the volatile owner of Toad Hall is a case history waiting to happen.

The Wind in the Willows leaves Toad triumphant, restored to his ancestral acres. Chapter I of Counselling for Toads finds him in a suicidal pit of self-loathing, hiding in squalor from his old friends Mole and Ratty. That Chapter II is entitled "With Friends Like These . . ." gives some indication that de Board's sympathies lie closer to Toad than to the heroes of the original book, whose predictable response to Toad's depression is an attempt to jolly him into snapping out of it. It is, of course, Badger, shown up here for the genial old bully he really is, who orders Toad to undertake counselling.

Counselling is suffering from a poor press - not entirely surprising, given that you can get counselling if your Tamagotchi virtual pet pops it clogs. But Toad's counsellor, Heron, is a psychoanalyst who, over a series of carefully graduated meetings, introduces Toad to various aspects of his personality - the parent, child and adult ego states - and gently but firmly educates him into analysing his own emotions.

Toad's first lesson is that the therapy will be useless unless he comes of his own free will, rather than to please Badger. Initially resentful, he learns he must answer his own questions as, in the long term, responsibility for sorting himself out is his alone.

While Toad gets in touch with his inner tadpole, as it were, we discover the details of his woeful background. Toad is not landed gentry - his grandfather founded the family fortune in brewing. Toad's father, an authoritarian figure, expected his son to take over the firm. His mother, initially dominated by her father, the Bishop, later by her husband, withheld affection for fear of antagonising Toad Senior.

A more or less obligatory thigh-squeezing uncle lurks in the background, but it becomes clear through Heron's kindly but persistent probing that Toad is the damaged product of a loveless upbringing, consumed with internalised anger directed not at the perpetrators of his unhappiness but at himself.

By learning to recognise and understand his emotions he emerges at the end of the 10 sessions (no Woody Allen, he) a happier, wiser amphibian.

If this sounds like the humourless ruin of an ill-used classic, rest assured. It is not only an instructive hand-book for those in any way contemplating counselling - although necessarily simplified - it is warmly funny and respectful of the spirit of Grahame's novel. If he had written his own sequel he might have ended it like this one.

The new improved Toad reveals to his astonished friends that he is getting a job - a partnership in up-market estate agents, Knight, Toad and Frankly. Rat is retiring to the south coast to run a book shop, Mole plans to convert Mole End into a restaurant, and Badger, benevolent despot and one-nation Tory, is to stand for Parliament.

In The Wind in the Willows we scarcely notice the incongruity of small animals driving cars and swapping clothes with humans. With comparable panache, de Board persuades us to accept the anachronisms of Toad's television set and his schoolboy attempts to impress his masters with a Bohemian taste for recordings of Berg and Stravinsky. Just what one might have expected, like his wasted years at Cambridge, where he flirted with aesthetics but not barmaids. The Id never was much in evidence on the Riverbank.

Jan Mark

Jan Mark's latest book is 'God's Story' (Walker Books)

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