Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Swapping the Moat House in Tamworth for
a summer picnic on the lawn at Toad Hall

Toad Hall … an ideal location for a summer picnic and Pimm’s by the willows and the water

Patrick Comerford

Last week, I changed the cover photograph on my Facebook page from a photograph of the Moat House in Tamworth to a colourful illustration of Toad, Mole, Rat and Badger enjoying a summer picnic by the willows and the river on the lawn of Toad Hall.

The exchange was interesting, for I have wondered sometimes whether the Moat House, with its setting among the willows by the banks of the River Tame, might have been an ideal location for Toad Hall until the surrounding Staffordshire countryside gave way to the expanding urban needs of Tamworth.

But the exchange of responses on Facebook to that image of Toad Hall was interesting too. On an evening that was marked by heavy August rains, I had asked whether this is what summer should be like, drinking Pimms on the lawn of Toad Hall with Toad, Rat, Badger and Toad, by the willows and the river.

One two-word reply called out Semper Buffo! I was impressed that someone in middle age could still remember Toad’s motto, although I descended to pedantry with classical pretensions when I pointed out that the spelling is Semper Bufo.

Someone else thought ‘No,’ this was not what summer was about, for Toad is ‘completely unreliable and has probably drunk all the Pimms before he goes off to crash his car!’ Another friend posted a warning to watch out for the stoats and weasels.

Others sentimentally recalled that The Wind in the Willows is ‘One of the best books ever written' or that it is 'one of my all-time favourite books.’

It all goes to show that The Wind in the Willows, known to many readers through theatrical adaptations such as AA Milne’s Toad of Toad Hall, is one of those classics of modern English literature that remains a firm favourite across the generations.

When I wrote my first book, Do You Want to Die for NATO?, over 30 years ago (1984), I dedicated it “to those children who bring light into my life: that nuclear war may never happen, and that they can tell their children about Mole, Rat, Badger and Toad.’

One of those children, one of my nieces, thought these were four nicknames I had conjured for her and her two brothers and sister. It was a joy to introduce yet another generation to The Wind in the Willows.

It is a children’s book that appeals to endless and successive generations of children and adults alike, and that is recycled time and again, over and over, in print, cartoon and cinema, even in the most unlikely places: Chapter 7, ‘The Piper at the Gates of Dawn,’ provided Pink Floyd with the name for their first album half a century ago in 1967.

When Boris Johnson visited Saint Mary’s Primary School in Battersea as Mayor of London in 2013, he asked a group of 10-year-old children: ‘What’s your favourite book?’

‘Harry Potter,’ said one.

‘Harry Potter? Nah,’ said Boris. ‘Come on, follow me, we’re going to read a real book.’

Perched on cushions in the school library, he read from The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame, which he said is one of his favourite childhood books.

‘It’s about a rat and mole,’ he began. ‘My particular hero is a guy called Mr Toad. His family motto is Semper Bufo, which means ‘Always a Toad.’ Mr Toad was a very keen motorist you see and also a Latinist,’ he explained.

The Moat House by the willows and the banks of the River Tame in Tamworth (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

The Wind in the Willows, first published in 1908, is a hymn to a long-lost England that may have never existed. It was an England that Edwardian society wistfully hoped could be conjured up but that could never be returned to.

I cannot imagine that Kenneth Grahame ever knew of the Moat House, the Comberford family’s former Jacobean townhouse in Lichfield Street, Tamworth, by the willows and the waters of the River Tame. But there was a Comerford family connection, for his first cousin was Sir Anthony Hope Hawkins (1863-1933), a son of the Revd Edwards Comerford Hawkins (1827-1906), Vicar of Saint Bride’s in Fleet Street, London.

As Anthony Hope, he was the author of another early 20th century Edwardian fantasy, The Prisoner of Zenda, and they were cousins too of the Irish rugby superstar and war hero Basil Maclear (1881-1915).

Kenneth Grahame (1859-1932) was introduced to the riverside and boating by his uncle, the Revd David Ingles, the curate at Cookham Dean in Berkshire. Cookham was also the home of the artist Stanley Spencer (1891-1959), who often used Cookham and the river as the backdrop to his religious paintings.

Grahame is said to have been inspired by the River Thames at Cookham to write The Wind in the Willows, as he lived at ‘The Mount’ in Cookham Dean as a child, and he returned to the village to write the book. Quarry Wood nearby in Bisham is said to have been the original Wild Wood.

Kenneth Grahame died in Pangbourne, Berkshire, in 1932. He is buried in Holywell Cemetery, Oxford. Grahame’s cousin Anthony Hope wrote his epitaph, which reads: ‘To the beautiful memory of Kenneth Grahame, husband of Elspeth and father of Alastair, who passed the river on the 6th of July, 1932, leaving childhood and literature through him the more blest for all time.’