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Early cover for The Wind in the Willows

The Wind in the Willows author Kenneth Grahame was obsessed with recapturing the magic of his childhood in Berkshire.

Who among us has not read, and /or seen some film production of, The Wind in the Willows by British author Kenneth Grahame? The memorable children’s classic was inspired by two enchanted years of Graham’s own childhood. During those magical years, he lived a remarkably free and unfettered life at the rambling home of his Granny Ingles in Cookham, a tiny village nestled in the lovely Berkshire countryside. His uncle introduced him to boating on the nearby river. He roamed the surrounding woods and farmland at will letting his young imagination run wild.

Grahame treasured those special years and the experience became lodged in his mind as the high point of his life. He longed to recapture the nuanced feeling tone or subtle mood associated with them. At twenty, he began to write stories and books drawn from his youthful adventures, a classic case of an artist driven by the hunger to relive a lost yet cherished feeling tone. Many artists produce their works for precisely this reason.

He began by writing a number of short essays, eventually collected and published as Pagan Papers. Then came The Golden Age and its sequel Dream Days, the two later titles featuring stories that were a mythologized blend of children’s fiction and Grahame’s reminiscences of his own fondly remembered childhood. These books earned him a fine reputation.

Nevertheless, for Grahame, reliving those incandescent two years through fiction would not do. He had to have actuality. Besides, he wanted his son to experience the same joys and come to savour them. While succeeding in his career at the Bank of England, Grahame pined for a return to Berkshire. When promotion to high office in the firm made him prosperous, he returned to Cookham and purchased a house, the improving railways making the daily commute into London a workable proposition.

Unfortunately, he had not reckoned on the Berkshire mud. Cookham was distant from the rail line and getting to and from the station along unpaved roads in the English rain proved a challenge. The heavy local soil even made country walks awkward and life in such an out of the way village offered few diversions. His performance at work declined so badly, the bank directors dismissed him. Being an adult in rustic Berkshire with the responsibilities of a wife and child – and a London job to get to – was nothing like being there as a light-footed carefree boy. The longed for return to the bucolic Berkshire paradise became an ordeal.

With the exhausting commuter grind eating into his time, Graham’s sole writing accomplishment of this period in his life was the penning of The Wind in the Willows, the book based on tales he told his little son, “Mouse.”

The depressing stint in Berkshire finally freed Grahame of the enchantment tag associated with living there. The sour experience dispersed the magical feeling tone linked with his two childhood years at Granny Ingles’ old house. After selling their large impractical farmhouse, he and his wife resettled in a more-populous tourist-oriented town on the Thames and began spending much of their time happily travelling in warm sunny Italy.

Grahame’s life is a cautionary tale. While it is true that the desire to recapture specific nuanced feeling tones or subtle moods often spurs artists of every kind, it is not wise to allow the regaining to become an obsession. However, should that happen, what we see here is a fine example of the wisdom of finding one’s dreams and obsessions and living them out. The experience can be cathartic and, ultimately, liberating.

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