Boys, Boats and The Bounty of Literature

‘Nice? It’s the only thing,’ said the Water Rat solemnly, as he leant forward for his stroke.  ‘Believe me, my young friend; there is nothing – absolutely nothing- half as much worth doing as simply messing, about in boats. Simply messing,’ he went on dreamily: ‘messing – about – in – boats; messing –’

Excerpt from Chapter One, The River Bank (p. 14-15) The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame
(1993, Wordsworth Classics, England).

And, that is just what I did in the last few days of this past summer vacation with one of my sons; we messed around in boats at two different river-side locations that I can only imagine resembled the place that inspired Kenneth Grahame, the author of one of my most beloved children’s books The Wind in the Willows. I say imagine, as I have yet to visit Cookham Dean in Berkshire where Grahame lived with his maternal grandmother from the age of five-years-old.

Born in Edinburgh, Scotland, Grahame moved with his parents when he was one-years-old to live at Argyllshire at Inveraray on Loch Fyne near the sea. Here, he happily grew up with three more siblings until his mother died of an illness when he was five and his younger brother was a baby. His father, who suffered from a drinking issue, handed the care of his children to Grandma Ingles who had a house by the river at Cookham Dean. Here their Uncle David, the curate at Cookham Dean Church introduced the children to boating and river life. This allowed Grahame to have a semblance of an idyllic childhood in contrast to the tragic circumstances of such a sad loss in such early childhood.

While The Wind in the Willows by genre is classified as a children’s book (or young adult in today’s publisher’s terms) I must say that while my sons enjoyed it in childhood, I equally enjoyed it in their childhood and I still do today in my continuing adulthood. Just thinking about the story makes me smile as I ponder how beloved the four central characters of the book have become to me over all these years.

I first read the book to my sons when they were all snuggled up in their beds in one small bedroom in the far away land where we used to live; at the time, the boys were aged between two and seven. During the first reading, for it has been read at least a dozen times out loud by yours truly, each son claimed an immediate infinity to the four friends in the book; Water Rat, Mole, Badger, and Toad. They found their antics most amusing particularly Ratty and Moley’s early escapade on the river and then, of course, the riotous amusingly naughty behavior of Toad. They were quick to champion their four heroes and their friends who won back Toad Hall against the weasels and the stoats from Wild Wood.

Kenneth Grahame is a gifted writer; his storytelling is a delight for the eye and the ear. His work is so vivid – and memorable – you can see and hear the whole story in the theatre of your mind. His sensory detail allows you to imagine authentically which is so very exciting for a child and an adult alike. The novel is ripe with specific detail so much so the story feels tangible and real. To study The Wind in the Willows is to study a master story craftsman.

And, to think this novel was originated by a man whose childhood origins were shadowed by such beginnings; of the loss of a mother; and what I can only presume were many other feelings of disorientation after his relocation and growing up without close contact to his very early childhood home. We can see here in the example of Kenneth Grahame’s childhood – and life, for his experienced many more challenges in the work place and in his family life – the potential of one man in the midst of so much benevolence and kindness in his early life; how the thoughtfulness and courage of his father (under trying personal circumstances) and the care and kindness of his grandmother and uncle along with Grahame’s association and relationship with the sea, and the river and boats was one of many helpful, inspiring and consoling influences on his young life. This early beginning perhaps gave him the strength to persevere as a young man into adulthood. The outcome gave the public many short stories in print and a book that has endeared itself to so many over so many generations since its inception.

The potential of man against the odds is evident here. Grahame’s life story could give hope to both the contemporary child and adult alike; those in a similar circumstance in life; as well as the writer seeking to console, inspire and lead by turning experiences and memories into life lessons. Literature gives something of worth to mankind through good examples, stories that allow both child and adult to dwell in the story while enjoying as well as learning something of value from the story; something of value they can integrate and apply in their own life.

The Wind in the Willows touches on many themes including friendship, loss, triumph against evil and truth and honesty above all. Who could not learn from such things?

Every time I selected The Wind in the Willows for my boys, nothing in Graham’s use of eloquent grown-up language fazed the young listeners I read to in early childhood; for while my children spoke English they did not learn to read and write English until I was able to make my birthplace London their home six years ago when they were aged 6, 8, 10 and 12. Even in the earlier days of their very young lives, when I came to a word they did not understand they digested the meaning then hurried me back to the story with eyes sparkling with wonder at what would happen next. When each boy could finally read The Wind in the Willows for themselves their eyes once again sparkled with joy from what was once again enchanting them on the page.

Last summer I purposefully took three of my sons to Henley-on-Thames in Oxfordshire for the first time. With the promise of a tasty picnic first, we enjoyed The Wind in the Willows exhibition at The River & Rowing Museum. Scenes from the book were brought to life by expertly crafted 3-D models of the characters from the book. Each scene designed and lit to illuminate details to draw us close and to humor us, and musical accompaniment for dramatic effect. We all enjoyed this original static theatrical offering.

Our lunch on the lawns in the park by the river was a great success with the boys relating which scenes from the book they liked and why. And, they hypothesis of how the prop makers constructed the 3-D characters and the scene sets. As I listened to the banter between the children the sun shone, the sky stayed blue and the time of our local boat ride beckoned for an hour’s trip down the river.

While the boys explored the cruise boat and made new acquaintances among other boys on the trip as boys do, rather comically, I found myself searching for Water Rat and Mole as we passed reeds in the water and little dark inserts in the river bank. Alas, I saw no twinkling eyes of Ratty deep inside some dark place just like Moley did. Instead, I just enjoyed the twinkle in the eyes of my sons who bounced back to me now and then to check I was still there which of course I was, sitting rather happily and peacefully on the deck under the lovely clear sky enjoying my sons enjoying each other’s company. There is nothing like observing content children from a safe distance.

I did relish the interludes of time alone to enjoy this boat cruise for Henley-on-Thames is a charming historic market town and has an attractive river side residential life. But my real interest was the river. Soon enough I was surmising which row boat Ratty and Moley would take if they could choose as we passed many moored two-seater row boats mostly colorful ones. I liked the simple wooden one with a navy stripe around the edge that also had a touch of a red thin line running through it and plump red cushions for comfort. That would be Water Rat’s preference, I decided. My sons who had joined me agreed and we connected once again thanks to Kenneth Grahame and his timeless classic story of life on the river for we were living it in England in 2016.

A year later, just last week with one son I resumed my connection with Grahame and the river friends. At Lee Valley and then Marlow the following day, my youngest and I enjoyed river walks and boat rides. While initially four miles per hour on the river was a little slow for both of us when we found ourselves alone on part of the river in Lee Valley, with the sun bright, and the sky blue and everything silent except the odd duck-chatter or bird twitter in the abundance of green foliage and woodland alongside the river bank, my son said: ‘This boat business is very relaxing Mummy, thank you. I like this messing around in boats, don’t you?

Of course, Kenneth Grahame was right there and I couldn’t help smiling. I said yes, and why not, we were having a splendid time of it in our little yellow motor-boat; equally so, how appreciative I was of my son’s realization of his own sense of happiness in a quiet moment in the midst of Nature on the river.

Now, thank G-d, this is a child that really (and selectively) enjoys reading and cooking and music and cycling and being with his friends in school and in the park where football is the preferred game of friendship; for this child never seems to stop being busy messing around with all sorts of things he loves to do and should be doing at school in class and in recess time in the playground. Yet, he enjoys messing around in boats too with his dear old ma; well, I am forty years older than him. And, I think that is rather splendid and I hope he always will along with his brothers, and their families one day and perhaps also my hoped-for-one-day grandchildren. And why not, a river is a splendid place for family life as well as special time with mother and son.

The river community is as friendly as Water Rat professed. Every boat we passed elicited waves and hellos and smiles. It really is a nice place to witness a pleasant camaraderie among all types of people of all different faiths and backgrounds.

‘I wish the real world was like his Mummy,’ my son said after a happy family passed by and the son on board had waved and said hello to my son. ‘But the truth is Mummy, who can you trust these days?’

I did want to turn away from my son at that moment and cry a little for he was 100% right but I did not do that. I just said: ‘This river community gives me hope of what is possible. If everyone in the world was like this we’d be living in a different world today.’

One does need to be careful today wherever you are in the world. While I feel, one must always place their trust first in G-d, we do owe it to ourselves and our family today to be responsible and extra-careful, to keep our wits about us, for while there is a very good chance all will be okay, there are no guarantees – as we all know now. For today, I think we all know at the end of the day, we are all in the hands of G-d, even though we have free will and can control our own destiny to a point, we have no control over the next person; that is why our lives are so vulnerable. It is not so simple today to know who to trust and who not to trust.

While I place my full trust in G-d for this gives me strength and my children follow suit and that empowers them too, I know some people struggle with a relationship with any sort of faith and trust.  Not everyone in the world shares the same trusting and peaceful perspective on life which I sense is the root of a lot of confusion and chaos. As a world population, there is much work to be done to unite us and free us from pain and suffering. I am just not sure how to come up with a solution to that issue. Being a person someone can trust and who is gracious, kind, inspiring and helpful seems like a good place for me to start; and each of my sons.

For that is the truth of it, isn’t it? All that matters surely is trust and peace.

However much I try to protect my sons from the media; we don’t even have a TV at home and we don’t take any media into the house, things get passed around at school and on their way even though all my sons are in religious schools where internet access and smart phones are forbidden on school premises. And, they have been educated to focus on good and positive things for the good of mankind and community life. Yet, however much I try and the children know how to filter out what is not good to see and hear, the world at large still seeps in like osmosis and the sadness and troubles of the world show on my children faces when they pray for peace in the world and the recovery of victims after tragedy or abuse or terrorism. And, they ask me questions I sometimes cannot answer.

Yet, on the river all my son saw was polite diplomacy and all different types of people from different faiths, waving and smiling and passing by with a good word about how lovely the day was and what fun this is, for we were all in the same boat, human beings sharing a common need; we were out in the sunshine enjoying what the beautiful English river life has to offer.

There was even a bit of theatre on the river; a boat with a mother and three daughters drew us to their conversation when the mother passed under a weeping willow and the breeze rushed through the willow and she exclaimed for all to hear and acknowledge with a smile and a nod:

‘Ah, girls, feel it, it’s beautiful, the wind is in the willows, just like in the book…’

And, she laughed and so did her daughters and so did we and everyone close by for we all knew and understood and it united us, just for a few seconds. To think, in August 2017 a book penned over a hundred years ago has the power to achieve unity in humanity. This mother’s seemingly superficial observation had the ability to connect about twenty people in an instant and manifest smiles and laughter; this mother was instrumental in bringing forth a little bit of joy into the world all in the merit of Kenneth Grahame’s memory.

Yes, it is quite amazing that Literature possesses the uncanny ability to bring generations together through the reading experience and in conversation. That is my understanding especially since my sons are getting older and I have more time and clarity of mind to look back at our own interactions and memories of literary experiences and discussions. Times also, when fiction enters our real world on a day-to-day basis, our world of reality which is, in essence, the realm of nonfiction.

Like when I was a little girl when one only saw expensive and attractive sports cars featured in films that told the fictional story of James Bond who had been created by the author, Ian Fleming. How different things are today much to my sons delight (for they are all fans of Top Gear and The Grand Tour and yes, there is no way to stop a boy falling in love with cars, I have tried and it is a hopeless pursuit) like when we stop at a traffic light and they find themselves surrounded like they did on one occasion by a dazzling white Ferrari, a sleek black Tesla, a jazzy yellow Lamborghini, a dashing custom-made champagne-toned Bentley and a sparkling clean forest-green Range Rover with not a smidgen of mud anyway to be seen (on this rural car that has become hugely popular as an urban mobile), there is no use trying to quell their highly passionate debates about the virtues of each car.

Boys will be boys even if they played with cars when they were toddlers or they hope of driving such cars in their lifetime or their own dreams. But boys will also discuss more pressing matters after seeing the new modern inventions. We should give our youth credit for their bright minds and good education. I love it when the boys see a Tesla because I know what will follow; a debate on what they would like to invent one day? Or a discussion on environmental issues or the pros and cons of hybrid intervention. Whatever the car I am okay with it now, I love what transpires in conversation after the fact.

Fiction allows child and adults to play, to explore, to dream on the page or the stage or the screen or in their own reality that they can color at any time with the stories they love and redesign with the power of their imaginations so their lives and others might be different or better or more brilliant.

Nothing is more reassuring in the spirit of shared joy and respect and appreciation for the storyteller than going, for example to the Warner Bros. Studio in the UK to explore the world of Harry Potter and friends. Both children and adults alike assume a most childlike persona and happy disposition as they walk around this thrilling educational studio exhibit. Often you will come across a family and more often two and often three generations allowing themselves to be charmed and drawn into the magical world through play and pure excitement on each new discovery in each new part of the exhibit and in the opportunities to participate: watching a grandfather and grandson and father queuing to get on their broomsticks to simulate the Quidditch game was a sight to behold.

Fiction has the power to unite the family; bring joy and peace into the home; give a child and an adult alike an opportunity to relate and share experiences with their friends and family of all ages in positive and inspiring and educational ways. If that is the only reason fiction exists and is appreciated, that seems like a very holy valid reason to me. Collectively, all the leaders in the world could not hope to achieve this goal. The grace of G-d dwells in the hands of a worthy writer. To achieve such results from fiction gives fiction a whole new purpose and role in society.

Literature comes to life for us in all sorts of ways whether it is at Beaulieu House in Hampshire, New Forest where my sons came into direct contact with the cars driven in the James Bond films, to messing around in boats at Lee Valley or Henley-on-Thames or Marlowe, the world today provides the possibility to bring fiction to life and for life to transmit into fiction for all the right reasons as well as playful and happy ones too.

The stories we love can accompany us from childhood to adulthood and the stories we tell and the stories we write can become our legacy after we have gone.

Living authors my boys enjoy reading include the Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling, Charlie Higson’s Young James Bond series, and Anthony Horowitz’s Alex Rider Series.

While my teenage children today only invest a very small amount of their 168 hour week in reading secular literature – for most of the time their heads and hearts are in religious texts – they are always keen to find books to read that are perfect for boys. The market for modest and meaningful and hero-led literature is open to any writer, new and experienced.

I can also report Roald Dahl (1916-1990) was equally enjoyed by my sons for he has also visited our home when my boys read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (and gained invaluable social lessons from the psychology ly-astute personality profiles of each child that accompanied our humble and endearing Charlie) and one of them read Matilda (with the comment, ‘How did she get away with that, we would never do any of that in our school?’ ringing out as a sort of review post reading.)

And, I am happy to say The Wind in the Willows is always a welcome guest; and I hope Kenneth Grahame will return again time and time again when I read to my grandchildren or I accompany my sons and their family to the seaside or on boat trips and picnics by the river on sunny summer days and the conversation about messing around in boats will enlarge into discussions and debates about all sorts of things in life that perhaps may allow me to include literature which is a great love of mine, but not as great as my love for my boys.

Photograph credit: Kenneth Grahame

Recommended resources:

The Wind in the Willows at the London Palladium, in London since June 2017:

https://www.windinthewillowsthemusical.com/

Audio options of the book available at http://www.audible.co.uk

http://www.audible.co.uk/search/261-9278657-7450865?advsearchKeywords=the+wind+in+the+willows&sprefixRefmarker=nb_sb_ss_i_0_8&sprefix=the+wind 

The Wind in the Willows at the River and Rowing Museum, Henley-on-Thames, England.

http://www.rrm.co.uk/visit/

http://www.rrm.co.uk/visit/galleries/wind-in-the-willows/

Lee Valley Boat Rides:

http://www.leevalleyboats.co.uk/

Henley Boat Rides:

http://www.hobbsofhenley.com/

Beaulieu House in Hampshire, New Forest, England:

https://www.beaulieu.co.uk/

The Making of Harry Potter at Warner Bros. Studios, Leavesden, just past Watford, in England

https://www.wbstudiotour.co.uk/home

About Roald Dahl at:

https://www.roalddahl.com/

http://www.roalddahl.com/museum

 

 

 


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