KENNETH Grahame, the author of the quintessentially English children's fantasy The Wind in the Willows was actually a Scot, born at 32 North Castle Street, Edinburgh on 8 March 1859, the third child of his parents, James and Bessie. Within a year of his birth, Kenneth's advocate father had moved the family to Inverary when he was appointed to the position of Sheriff Substitute of Argyll.
Tragedy was soon to strike the family when Kenneth's mother died of scarlet fever, Kenneth himself barely surviving an attack. His father, a heavy drinker whose imbibing became worse after the death of his wife, was incapable of caring for his family properly, so the children were sent to live with their grandmother at Cookham Dene, Berkshire – a place that was to have a strong influence on later writings.
After completing what education his relatives could afford, which to his annoyance did not include university, he joined the Bank of England as a clerk. Although he rose through the bank's hierarchy to the position of secretary, Grahame was less than happy stuck in the rut of a 9-to-5 job.
Writing provided an escape from the drudgery of office work, and he soon began to have pieces published. His blighted childhood and love of nature were clearly both driving forces behind his work. His first major collections, The Pagan Papers (1893), The Golden Age (1895) and Dream Days (1898) were filled with escapist tales often featuring children living in much happier circumstances than Grahame had, or felt he had, experienced. Both The Golden Age and Dream Days were very successful, although they are almost entirely forgotten now. The plaque outside Grahame's birthplace formerly read "Author of The Golden Age" but has now been changed to "Author of The Wind in the Willows", no doubt because most people today have never heard of the first title.
Grahame married Elspeth Thomson in 1899. The couple had one son, Alastair, whose childhood tantrums and demanding behaviour served as an inspiration for a certain Mr Toad in what was to become Grahame's most beloved work. Another inspiration for his new book was the rural setting of Cookham Dene, where Grahame had himself "messed about in boats" on the river and explored the "wild woods" nearby.
His interest in paganism was also apparent and the Greek god Pan makes a brief, if memorable, appearance in the book that was originally to be titled The Wind in the Reeds, but was changed after learning the existence of a book of Yeats's poems of the same title.
The Wind in the Willows was finally published in 1908, and the charming (not to mention cautionary) story of anthropomorphic animals living a life of ease on the river (in between Mr Toad's adventures as a convicted road hog) again clearly echoed a lifestyle that Grahame craved for himself. Illustrated with the marvellous drawings by EH Shepherd, the book has become one of the most beloved of all children's stories, with adults probably numbering as many if nor more of its devoted fans.
The Wind in the Willows eventually became a huge bestseller and Grahame was able to retire and spend his remaining days living a version of the rustic lifestyle that his characters enjoyed. His son, however, had a less happy time of it. Seemingly badly spoilt by his parents, who, at the same time, expected great things of him academically (a symptom of his father's missing out on university perhaps), Alastair grew to be practically blind in one eye and had a squint in the other and found the mounting pressures of approaching adulthood hard to cope with. He seems to have had, among other things, contempt for his parents, referring to his father in letters as "Inferiority".
Sent up to Oxford University, Alastair struggled with the high standards of academic excellence and on 7 May 1920 was found dead next to a railway line. Whether he was killed accidentally or committed suicide was never established, but it blighted the remainder of Kenneth Grahame and his wife's remaining years.
Kenneth Grahame died on 6 July 1932 aged 73.