Ninety years ago today the British author Kenneth Grahame died. He was born on 8 March 1859 in Edinburgh, Scotland but in early childhood, after his mother died and his father began to drink heavily, he moved with his younger sister to live with his grandmother on the banks of the River Thames in the Berkshire village of Cookham in southern England. He was an outstanding pupil at St Edward’s School in Oxford and wanted to attend Oxford University but was not allowed to do so by his guardian on grounds of cost. Instead he was sent to work at the Bank of England in 1879, and rose through the ranks until retiring as its Secretary in 1908 due to ill health.
In addition to ill health, Grahame’s retirement was precipitated in 1903 by a strange, possibly political, shooting incident at the bank. At around 11 o’clock on the morning of 24 November, 1903, a man called George Robinson, who in newspaper accounts of what followed would be referred to simply as ‘a Socialist Lunatic’, arrived at the Bank of England. There, Robinson asked to speak to the governor, Sir Augustus Prevost. Since Prevost had retired several years earlier, he was asked if he would like to see the bank secretary, Kenneth Grahame, instead.
When Grahame appeared, Robinson walked towards him, holding out a rolled up manuscript. It was tied at one end with a white ribbon and at the other, with a black one. He asked Grahame to choose which end to take. After some understandable hesitation, Grahame chose the end with the black ribbon, whereupon Robinson pulled out a gun and shot at him. He fired three shots; all of them missed.
Several bank employees managed to wrestle Robinson to the ground, aided by the Fire Brigade who turned a hose on him. Strapped into a straitjacket, he was bundled away and subsequently committed to Broadmoor.
A year afterwards, Grahame began to write “The Wind in the Willows”. While it would be an over-simplification to draw too close a connection between the two events, there’s no doubt that the shooting incident affected Grahame deeply. It confirmed something that he had always suspected; namely, that the outside world was an unsafe and unstable place, full of brutish people doing horrid things to one another. In short, somewhere to escape from.
Het dient wel gezegd dat Grahame voordien ook reeds escapistische werken had geschreven: “Pagan Papers” (1893), “The Golden Age” (geestige studies van het kinderleven in een Engels dorp) en “Dream Days” (1898). “As a writer Grahme belonged entirely to the Nineties and the Edwardian era. (…) Grahame’s version of pagan pantheism was of its time: it belonged to the last period in English life when the rural idyll seemed achievable, the longing for it to be so sharpened by the sense of its imminent extinction.” (*)
“The Wind in the Willows” is een soort van parabel die het opneemt voor de zwakkeren en diegenen die niet in staat zijn om voor zichzelf op te komen. Alan Alexander Milne heeft het boek tot toneel omgewerkt onder de titel “Toad from Toad Hall”. In 1948 produceerde Walt Disney de tekenfilm “The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr.Toad”, een samenvoeging van “The Wind in the Willows” en Washington Irvings “The legend of the Sleepy Hollow”, met de stemmen van Bing Crosby en Basil Rathbone.
Twintig jaar later noemde ook Pink Floyd hun eerste LP naar een hoofdstuk uit “The wind in the willows”, nl. “The piper at the gates of dawn”. Het album verscheen op 5 augustus 1967 en het is wel typisch dat er in die periode ook een popgroep in de VS was, die zich gewoon “The wind in the willows” noemde. In 1972 was er een Engelse tekenfilm naar “The Wind in the Willows” van John Salway (adaptation by Paul Honeyman and drawings by John Worsley). Op de Internet Movie Database staan er nog tien andere filmbewerkingen, die ik echter (nog) niet heb gezien.
Grahame had married Elspeth Thomson in 1899, but the marriage was not a happy one. “He did not marry till he was almost 40 – and Alison Prince is certain he was still ignorant or innocent of sex. So was his wife, Elspeth Thomson, herself in her mid-thirties. They could only communicate in baby-talk – the letters they exchanged make embarrassing reading.” (*)
They had only one child, a boy named Alastair (whose nickname was “Mouse”) born blind in one eye and plagued by health problems throughout his short life. Alastair eventually committed suicide on a railway track while an undergraduate at Oxford University, two days before his 20th birthday on 7 May 1920. Out of respect for Kenneth Grahame, Alastair’s demise was recorded as an accidental death.
Kenneth Grahame died in Pangbourne, Berkshire in 1932. He is buried in Holywell Cemetery, Oxford. Grahame’s cousin Anthony Hope, also a successful author, 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”.
Ronny De Schepper
(met dank aan Wikipedia en John Preston voor de biografische gegevens)
(*) Allan Masie, Classic example of Nineties man, The Daily Telegraph, June 11, 1994.
P.R.Chalmers, Kenneth Grahame, Life and Writings, 1938.
Alison Prince, Kenneth Grahame, 1994.
The Englishman’s England, p.147.