by Peter Hitchens

In a handsome street in the French Concession in Shanghai I once saw a stallholder kick and stamp a mouse to death. The action was pointless and could only have been done for pleasure. The creature, a mouse of the picturesque sort, clean, with large ears and visible whiskers, had just been passing by. The man put a lot of energy into it, as if he hoped that by doing so he could make the mouse even more dead than it was already. I know from my Bolshevik days that I am capable of cruelty and perhaps that is why I was angrier and more shocked than a gentle person could possibly have been. We do not like other people displaying things we hate in ourselves. I suspect a lot of us try harder to be kind once we have found out that we are capable of unkindness.

In any case, a sentimental view of animals is a deep part of the upbringing of the English middle class, at least in my own time. I think French children are much more matter-of-fact on the subject, perhaps because they are closer to the land. I must confess that I once enjoyed an afternoon spent ratting in the undergrowth with a farmer friend, many years ago, as the terriers massacred about a hundred of those widely unloved rodents in less than five minutes. But rats are rats, and even Beatrix Potter, while she makes her rats quite engaging, does not try to make them loveable. But the idea that animals are in a way our equals is a view I cannot escape. For me, it was Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in The Willows which instilled it above all things, especially the version illustrated by Edward (E.H.) Shepard. There is a world of imagination here. Shepard’s drawings link the book with the works of A.A. Milne, for whom he also brilliantly pictured one of the greatest characters in English literature, the wittily pessimistic donkey Eeyore. I was astonished to find that Shepard, a master of small-scale wit, associated forever in my mind with woodland peace and furry animals, was an artillery officer in the Great War, decorated for his courage in battle.

The setting of The Wind in the Willows, clearly the banks of the Thames near Pangbourne, connects it with Oxford and Alice in Wonderland, likewise filled with animals—from the scurrying White Rabbit to the sensitive Dormouse who cannot abide talk of cats, and the angry pigeon who mistakes Alice for a serpent. And all inevitably bring to mind Beatrix Potter’s astonishing little books. Let me confess here that as a literal-minded four-year old I was reduced to hopeless weeping when I read the words “His eye fell on a pig,” in The Tale of Pigling Bland. I thought the poor man’s eye had actually become loose, tumbled from its socket and landed on a pig, and I had to be calmed down with much soothing.

But when it came to The Wind in the Willows, I had no such problems. I knew nothing, when I first read the book, of Kenneth Grahame’s unsatisfactory life and the long tragedy involving his son (both now lie in one of Oxford’s picturesque graveyards, another connection between that city and the canon of English children’s stories). I think in those days we did not seek to know too much about authors, or to try to analyze them.

Nor did I mind about the way his animals were human at one moment, and inhuman the next. In fact I did not notice the problem until a modern author tried to write a sequel, in which he struggled to decide whether his characters should eat and drink the food of humans or the things which real moles and water rats consume. It is perfectly obvious from the vast Edwardian waterside picnic which Mole and the Water Rat consume (and from Toad’s glorious breakfast the day after he escapes from prison) that their appetites are adult and human, while their characters are at least partly wild. In the same way, they slip from observing Christmas, welcoming the field mice to Mole End to sing plainly Christian carols, to entering into the presence of that terrifying pagan deity, Pan.  From the very start I identified with Mr. Badger’s dislike of too much company, and envied him his vast subterranean house in the midst of the Wild Wood where he could avoid invitations to parties and such things, all the year round if necessary. I have no idea if badgers are like this, but I am very sure that some humans are, and I wish more people realized it.

But it is the story and the telling of it which always held my imagination. I loved the little green book with its title stamped in gold on the spine, and wore out its dust jacket after many readings. I enjoyed the immense peace of its world. I loved the canary-yellow cart, and I hated the motor car which drove it into the ditch. I adored the unmatched description of a walk through an English village on a winter evening, evoking a frosty delight I have been lucky enough to experience, but which may now have disappeared. The pursuit of Toad along the country railway line is one of the most brilliantly compact and exciting pursuit and escape scenes I have ever read, starting from the moment the engine driver hears faintly the noise of a following train, far behind, where no train ought to be.  It was, for many of my school years, a place of refuge. I put it to one side long ago, always promising myself I would read it again. And the other day I did so, perhaps for the first time in fifty years or more. All the paths were familiar. I knew as I turned each page what was coming next. I remembered Toad’s appalled discovery that he had neither pockets nor money, the significance of the squeaky board in the butler’s pantry at Toad Hall, the terrible conceited songs which Toad sang about his own courage, talent and wit. I recalled the incident of the door-scraper in the snow in the midst of the Wild Wood. I could, I think, answer a lengthy and merciless quiz about the entire story. And I enjoyed it all the more because I could now see with what elegance and lightness Grahame had written his book, and with what kind humor he portrayed Badger’s grand remonstrance about the dreadfulness of motor cars, and Toad’s insincere tears in response. This is a great moment in English story-telling.

And then I turned to the end-papers, adorned with Shepard’s attempt to imagine the small world of the Riverbank, all curving lanes, elm trees, hedges and meadows, boggy soil, unkempt woodland and browsing cattle. I do not think this troubled me much as a child because I knew such places, and the drawing might have been somewhere I had actually experienced. But I stared at it this time, overcome with that breathless drowning sensation which assails me whenever I glimpse the lost and unattainable. For that world, with is profound quiet and deep green shadows, has gone. Well, not gone. It has been actively ravaged and smashed and abolished. The great elm trees died half a century ago, and the gap they left has never been properly filled. The little roads are full of cars, driven by Mr. Toad’s grandchildren, with their unceasing grinding whining engines, their thumping music and their ugly artificial colors. The slow-sliding brown river is full of sewage. Ill-mannered new houses crowd down to the water’s edge where the old rough banks have been tidied into suburban neatness. Toad Hall is a hotel for businessmen, and the squeaky board in the butler’s pantry has been replaced with more durable, more practical flooring—and who could possibly need a secret passage in these safe and contented times? The way back is closed, as it always is. I wonder how many modern children can bear such stuff as Grahame wrote. But for all my days I will never see a badger, a mole, or a water-rat without my heart softening unreasonably, or glimpse a toad without for a moment picturing him at the wheel of a garish Edwardian motor car, intent on speed and danger.       

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