WE begin with a candid confession. This morning, I got up to start work – or at least this column – in the usual brisk and efficient manner but, taking my Kenneth Grahame books and biographies off the shelf, found myself plunged into my past when, heavily influenced by The Wind in the Willows, which I loved beyond words, I spent my days seeking out green places within walking distance of my concrete abode.

I owe my bucolic yearnings to Grahame as much as to Tolkien. They took me out of a world of tenements and traffic.

You will know Kenneth Grahame as the author of The Wind in the Willows, that seemingly most quintessentially English of books. But Grahame was a Scot, one indeed whose family lineage might be traced with sufficient determination to Robert the Bruce.

He grew up to be Secretary of the Bank of England, an unlikely post for the author of a children’s book about Mole, Toad, Rat, Badger and Otter.

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Grahame was born on 8 March 1859 in Castle Street, Edinburgh (delivered indeed by Dr James Simpson of chloroform fame). There’s a plaque there that I like to stare at until moved on by the police. Kenneth himself was only there a year before being moved to Ardrishaig after his advocate father had been created a sheriff-substitute in Inveraray.

Though you’d think Kenneth rather young for such inclinations, biographer Peter Green says it was in the woods and fields around Loch Fyne that he discovered solitude. “Here the young boy found what he was always in after-life to cherish: tranquillity.”

His mother died when he was five, whereupon his heavily drinking father sent Kenneth and siblings to live with their grandmother in a big old house in Cookham Dene, Berkshire. It’s thought the woods and river (Thames) here inspired the setting for The Wind.

After excelling at St Edward’s School, Oxford, Kenneth’s hopes of attending the city’s university were dashed for financial reasons and he found himself working in a bank. This is exactly what happened to that other foremost master of English, PG Wodehouse. Strange.

Before embarking on The Wind, Grahame wrote mainly light essays and children’s adventures, then much loved, now largely forgotten. His essays had titles like ‘The Lost Centaur’, ‘Loafing’, and ‘The Fellow That Walks Alone’, and it’s fair to say that back then he wrote with a lisp: “It hath been ofttimes debated whether the morning pipe be the sweeter, or that first pipe of the evening, which ‘Hesperus who bringeth all good things’ brings to the weary with home and rest.”


He found writing “a pleasurable agony”, suffered in the hope of writing one “noble sentence”.

The Wind in the Willows is full of them. Published in 1908, it began life as bedtime stories read to his son Alastair.

The Wind is a story of companionship, the glories of nature in its milder variety, the folly of fads and, er, the violent putting down of a lower class insurrection. You’ll recall that the Wild Wooders, always depicted with Cockney accents, took over and effectively nationalised Toad Hall.

Toad, for his part, had brought this on with his upper class foolishness and an excess of leisure time and money. Grahame was writing at a time when there was widespread fear of the mob, of anarchism and socialism, among the bourgeoisie. As a young socialist, I struggled with this and indeed wrote a full-length spoof of the book (unpublished, though someone did try flogging it at the Frankfurt Book Fair) to get it out of my system.

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The Times disliked The Wind, finding its contribution to natural history “negligible”, an assessment akin to lamenting a lack of car chases in The Lord of the Rings. But AA Milne and President Roosevelt liked it, and that was enough to send it on its way.

By the time it was published, Grahame had just retired from the bank on grounds of ill health or possibly a personal falling out with one of the bank’s directors. If ill health, it did not help to have been shot at three times by a deranged visitor.

Fondly we imagine Grahame escaping the stuffy old bank and swanning off to stroll the South Downs alone and free. He said of walking that it “set the mind jogging” and, as for being alone, he found company in “sun and wind, the white road and dusty hedges, the spirit of the season, whichever that may be, the friendly old earth that is pushing forth life of every sort under your feet”.

Biographer Patrick Chalmers described him as “sufficient unto himself”, with few close friends despite being “the most companionable of men”, a lover of laughter but essentially a loner. He married the daughter of a Scots inventor, but it was not a comfortable union. Their only son, Alastair, who suffered from ill health and blindness in one eye, committed suicide.

Though conventional in most respects, a pagan theme runs through Grahame’s writings. Indeed, a collection of these went under the title Pagan Papers. You will perhaps remember ‘The Piper at the Gates of Dawn’, not just a Pink Floyd album (founder Syd Barrett being much influenced by Grahame) but a chapter in The Wind in the Willows where the presence of Pan (the piper under advisement) can be felt.

On 5 July 1932, aged 73, after spending the previous afternoon by the river at Pangbourne, Berkshire, Kenneth Grahame died in bed of a cerebral haemorrhage. A copy of Walter Scott’s The Talisman lay on the floor beside him. Peter Haining, in his introduction to the collection Paths to the Riverbank, said: “No one I know has ever read The Wind in the Willows and been quite the same person afterwards.”

Grahame himself said that, as life progresses, we return to the same handful of books and, for many people, including this aspiring scribbler, The Wind in the Willows will certainly be one of these.

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