In the wake of 26 Wild, we’ve been asking you to share your favourite literary animals. Lisa Andrews and John Simmons caught up earlier this month to discuss theirs.
As you know, throughout August, 26 has been asking people to share their favourite literary animals. You have a cast of favourites I think, from one particular book… The Wind in the Willows. When did you first read it and what was it about Ratty and Co. that captured your attention?
It was such an important book for me. I was nearly nine and reading only comics – I never opened a book. Then my primary school teacher started reading The Wind in the Willows to our class towards the end of each day. I was entranced by these stories of a water rat, mole, badger, toad and other animals. I told my mum and she bought me the book for my ninth birthday. She wrote inside it and it’s my most treasured book still.
It opened up the world of books for me – after that I couldn’t stop reading. It was the ability of books to take you into another world, to be with other characters who were like and unlike you, to become enthralled by their lives. Even if they were animals, you related to them. Was it like that for you?
Absolutely, although Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland wasn’t my first experience of this. My earliest memory is of Dad reading Winnie the Pooh to my sister and me. I have definitely identified with Eeyore and Piglet in my time!
As an independent reader, the first book with animals that captured my imagination was The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. Alice came a little later. Thinking about it both Lion and Alice take you into these unnerving worlds where you don’t always know who is friend or foe – I suppose Lucy and Alice felt like my protectors helping me navigate the strangeness of real life.
There’s no doubt that as an adult there’s something comforting about falling back down the rabbit hole every now and then. Do you ever go back and re-read The Wind in the Willows? Do you find something new when you do?
I have re-read The Wind in the Willows several times, including reading it to my own children when they were young. More recently also because I was writing my novel The Good Messenger and Kenneth Grahame’s story became integral to the first part of the novel. In it a young boy from London is sent to stay at a grand house in the countryside; he’s being introduced to a different world and part of his exploration is through the book he’s asked to choose. You can guess which one. I then went further and decided that the narrative of my novel should mirror (loosely) that of The Wind in theWillows. I suspect most readers won’t notice this but it certainly worked for me as a writer.
When I first read the book I think it was the comedy of Toad that attracted me. Now I find him a deeply unsympathetic character, a Bullingdon Club blusterer. I’ve always loved Mole though, in every reading. And the chapter that went completely over my head at the age of nine – ‘The Piper at the Gates of Dawn’, in which Mole and Ratty find not just the missing young Otter but also the god Pan – is mystical, lyrical and psychedelic. No wonder Pink Floyd used the chapter title for their first album in the 1960s.
Alice, of course, has also inspired many creative reinterpretations in music, film, TV. How have you reacted to these?
You’ve made me see Toad in a whole new light!
I think my first entry into Alice was via Disney and I still have a soft spot for its old school animation and iconic voices like Ed Wynn and Sterling Holloway. I was excited when Tim Burton announced he was creating live action versions – I adore his films – but there’s a spark missing for me. They look astonishing, as you’d expect, but it’s almost like everyone is trying a little bit too hard to ‘act’ peculiar. As a consequence it loses some of the chaos that I love most.
I’ve also seen it performed as a ballet at the Royal Opera House, which was stunning, and have always thought it would be ripe for a little Matthew Bourne pixie dust.
My main passion is for unusual book editions. I have a pop-up copy (from my sister), a British Library version with Carroll’s original manuscript and – my absolute favourite – an edition with artwork by the Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama. I referred to this one a lot when I was working on my hazel dormouse centena.
That said, there really is nothing quite like John Tenniel’s original illustrations. I say original, Carroll actually drew 37 pictures for his manuscript. I’m fascinated by the deep tradition of fine illustration in those ‘golden age’ children’s books.
I think I’m right in saying that E H Shepard created the first The Wind in the Willows illustrations – equally iconic. When you think about Ratty and Toad is it Shepard’s images you see?
EH Shepard is wonderful and we also associate him with illustrations for AA Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh. It’s interesting how we remember the books through the illustrations, and I think I probably know Tenniel’s Alice illustrations better than the text.
The other illustrator of The Wind in the Willows that I really like is the Canadian Charles van Sandwyk. He wrote this about his work for the recent Folio Society edition: I’ve always loved literature that uses animals and/or non-humans for characters or subjects. It tends to get me out of the human-centric view of the world that every other species is there for our use and reinforces that all species have value.
That seems to me to be in the spirit of our 26 Wild project. And I wonder at the role of our early childhood reading in creating that sense of ‘all species have value’. Perhaps these books – and there are many more than the ones we’ve touched on – are important not just to build our love of stories but also our awareness of nature. I’m sure that was important for me as a boy growing up in the centre of London. I have a feeling that the connection also matters to you?
It does. I have always loved cities but have always sought out the green spaces within them, too. I sometimes wonder if that’s because my family lived in a very industrialised city in China in the 1980s. Later, I learned the terribly sad stories of Mao ordering all the sparrows be killed in his Four Pests Campaign (rats, flies and mosquitos were also targeted). It’s shocking, but you could argue that it’s no different from decades of pesticide use damaging honey bee populations. Of course, one feels more deliberate than the other, until you remember that we’re now in a position where we know what those pesticides do.
Nature and wildlife aren’t ours to bend to our will, we are a part of this enormous, beautiful ecosystem and we’ve lost so much already. But I think I’m right in saying that we’ve both learned from our involvement in the 26 Wild project with The Wildlife Trusts that we also have the capacity to change, that there are things we can do now to help our wild habitats recover. I hope the words we’ll be sharing throughout September will help others think about what they can do to make that change happen.