Tuesday, April 12, 2016

How "messing about in boats" came to life

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

The Wind in the Willows is a classic, particularly for anyone who loves boats.  The oft quoted story is a mantra for boaters: “Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing - absolutely nothing - half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.” If you have a chance to visit Henley in the UK, go to the Rowing Museum where they have an amazing exhibit of scenes from the book in diorama style. Some are larger than life sized, others are miniatures. Do the audio tour and hear the story come to life before your eyes. It's well worth the time.


Kenneth Graham, the author of this magic tale, had a tragic life. He was born in Edinburgh, Scotland on March 3, 1859. When he was five years old, he and his mother contracted scarlet fever and his mother died. His father became an alcoholic and sent the four children off to Berkshire into the care of their grandmother. They were later reunited with their father for a short time. But after a failed year in Argyll, the children returned to Berkshire and never heard from him again. One of his brothers died at the age of fifteen.

Kenneth attended St. Edward's School and intended to go on to Oxford University, but his relatives wanted him to go into banking. He worked in his uncle's office in Westminster for two years and then joined the Bank of England as a clerk in 1879. He became the Secretary of the Bank at the age of thirty-nine and spent nearly thirty years there. He was even wounded in an attempted bank robbery. He retired early from the bank in 1908 to write and The Wind in the Willows was published shortly afterwards.

Grahame married Elspeth Thomson in 1899. They had only one child, a boy named Alastair whose nickname was "Mouse"; Alastair was born blind in one eye and was plagued by health problems throughout his life. The Wind in the Willows was based on bedtime stories and letters written to his son in which the characters Rat, Badger, Mole and Toad were created. The Wind in the Willows is a classic tale of life along a river. It is described as a children's novel.

Incredibly, Grahame struggled to find a publisher for Wind in the Willows but Methuen's decision to take it on paid dividends – by 1951, there were 100 UK editions alone. The 1908 first edition first printing has a striking frontispiece by Graham Robertson. The Wind in the Willows did not originally include illustrations but over the years many artists have added their interpretations of the tale. The most famous of these being the first illustrated edition by Wyndham Payne, the Ernest H. Shepard editions, and those drawn by Arthur Rackham.

AA Milne, author of Winnie the Pooh, produced a highly successful 1930 stage version called Toad of Toad Hall which thrust Grahame's story back into the public consciousness and helped to guarantee enduring success. Milne's stage play is still a favourite today. Grahame died on July 6, 1932.

As we walked along the streets of Henley, we stopped into antique stores and charity and shops and came upon some old copies of the Wind in the Willows. One lovely edition came home with us and will now inspire me to complete the stories of "Onyx, the Cruising Kitty". 














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