Why we've all got Badger on the brain

19th December 1997 at 00:00
Caroline St John-Brooks notes its effect on kitchen planners

Children's stories we read long ago cast a special spell over the memory. And the most seductive elements are not always details of plot or character, but the atmosphere: the cosiness and moral intensity of the lives led by the Little Women; the freedom and frank practicality of the Swallows and the Amazons; the spooky quality of Rupert Bear's rhymed adventures.

Such books remain with us for life, not only as explicit memories but as part of our unconscious internal landscape. They may help to construct the consciousness and ideals of a generation - or even a nation. What effect did it have on British society when generations of middle-class men had read the same Greek and Latin texts at school, imbibing not only the words but the values they embodied? Sometimes a single image can stand for a whole range of emotions made tangible. And one of the most resonant, surely, is that of Badger's kitchen in The Wind in the Willows.

For children, the image of the small frightened animals - Mole and Ratty - lost in the terrifying Wild Wood is compelling: "They were aching with fatigue and bruised with tumbles; they had fallen into several holes and got wet through; the snow was getting so deep that they could hardly drag their legs through it, and the trees were thicker and more like each other than ever. " Then they discover Badger's underground house when Mole falls over the door scraper and cuts his shin on it. Rescue is at hand.

Ratty and Mole enter a scene which has inscribed itself on the subconscious of generations of readers. Badger opens a "stout oaken comfortable-looking" door, and the animals find themselves in "all the glow and warmth of a large fire-lit kitchen. The floor was well-worn red brick, and on the wide hearth burnt a fire of logs . . . Rows of spotless plates winked from the shelves of the dresser at the far end of the room, and from the rafters overhead hung hams, bundles of dried herbs, nets of onions and baskets of eggs".

Such a room, for many of us in the fast-moving, highly stressed 1990s, is still the ideal: warmth, safety, food and companionship. Eat your heart out, Elizabeth David - it's not the French country kitchen we yearn for, but Badger's.

But that's not the only idealised yet concrete vision Kenneth Grahame has laid down in the depths of our minds. What does this passage remind you of? "It seemed a place where . . . two or three friends of simple tastes could sit about as they pleased and eat and smoke and talk in comfort and contentment. The ruddy brick floor smiled up at the smoky ceiling; the oaken settles, shiny with long wear, ex-changed cheerful glances with each other . . . and the merry firelight flickered and played over everything without distinction."

Released from the constraints of polite society, relaxing with friends "without distinction". Where can this haven be? It is, surely, the perfect pub. We have been trying to create it ever since.

Caroline St John-Brooks is editor of The TES

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