Memories are strange. When I look back on my childhood, I remember scenes from books as potently as the real, mundane things that happened to me, as if I lived them with the characters, walking a few steps behind. The groves of Middle Earth. The coal-dusted backstreets of Swadlincote. I swear they were on the same map, and I wandered in and out of both. I recall the smell of them both, how things tasted, the quality of the light.
Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows is a book that I now realise had a big, big influence on my life. It was less the story of Mole, Ratty and Toad, I can see now, and more the world they inhabited. A rural idyll long-lost to the modern industrial world, a bucolic landscape where it was still possible for the uncanny to exist only a step or two away.
And the key chapter was The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, where (and…sigh…spoilers) Pan appears to the animal characters.
‘Oh Mole! the beauty of it! The merry bubble and joy, the thin, clear, happy call of the distant piping! Such music I never dreamed of, and the call in it is stronger even than the music is sweet!…’
The Mole, greatly wondering, obeyed. ‘I hear nothing myself,’ he said, ‘but the wind playing in the reeds and rushes and osiers.’
As a child, I found that chapter haunting and strange. Strange because it had absolutely nothing to do with the story, and yet there it was. And strange because even though it was a narrative cul-de-sac it affected me so deeply.
Animals had their own gods?
And yet it wasn’t even that oblique revelation. It was the feeling that magic could intrude on the world I knew. That it was there, in the woods, under the hedgerows. A power in nature. Something very old, and alien, and entrancing, and sometimes frightening.
I’ve lived in a lot of cities, and I enjoy the urban life. But I still get a frisson when I visit the wild, as I regularly do. The moors, the coast, the mountains, even the lanes that wind around my home. Those are my cathedrals.
And clearly I wasn’t the only one to recognise the power in that chapter. At infant school, when our class read through The Wind in the Willows, we skipped The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. My nine-year-old self was baffled. I tried to get some sense out of my teacher, a man who loved books and encouraged my wider reading. He hinted at the reason, but seemed incapable of giving me a full explanation. Now I realise it was a Church of England school, a state school where the church was allowed some influence in the education. The Church didn’t want the children reflecting on that chapter at all. I guess, in their own muddle-headed way, they were right: words have an alchemical power.
But I do wonder if we hadn’t skipped that chapter, and if it hadn’t been flagged up to me that here was something potentially…dangerous?…the Great God Pan might have stayed with Mole and Ratty.
As it was, those authorities made sure his voice rang through clearly. And I can still hear the pan-pipes today.