Back when the world was young and journalists worked in Fleet Street…


Back when the world was young and journalists worked in Fleet Street, drinking two hour lunches at El Vino – called El Vino’s by them even when sober – I met some interesting people.

One of them was the late Kinglsey Amis. I often stood or sat side by side with Kingsley and listened to him brag about his collection of 18th Century snuff boxes.

He had many ccurious notions, not all of them inspired by drink.

I recall once, seated at the first table in from the front door, Kingsley getting exceedingly cross about The Wind in the Willows. Kenneth Grahame’s children’s classic was first published in 1908 and has been loved by one and all ever since – except for Kingsley.

My readers in Rostov-on-Don, Tokyo, Calgary and maybe even Dodo, Australia, may not know or care about The Wind in the Willows.

It, along with Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, is essential if one wishes to be on a first-name basis with English as she is written.

Even if one has not had a lower upper middle-class English childhood one can still read The Wind in the Willows at any age and enjoy it.

Ratty and Mole and Badger become close friends, presented to you in Kenneth Grahame’s wonderful style; and E.H.Shepard’s superb illustrations.

But the greatest hit of the book is Mr Toad. He leaps out of the page. He is rich. He lives in Toad Hall. He takes up pursuits, like rowing on the river, caravanning, or driving a motor car with insane enthusiasm, which is quite funny.

When my youngest son was in prep school I used to take him out for weekend treats on the Thames looking for Toad Hall – the house Shepard used for it. Eventually, after a year or so of searching, we found it.

All my sons have been taken to the theatre to see Toad of Toad Hall, A.A.Milne’s excellent comedy. Contemporary morons have turned their backs on Toad of Toad Hall; preferring, I suppose, to murder Shakespeare in modern dress.

But I must return to Kingsley. I sat wondering why he hated Mr Toad. Then I took a good look at him. He was Mr Toad. His bragging about his collection of snuff boxes is just what Mr Toad would do.

Now, of course, almost every man is Mr Toad. I know one writer who has changed the name of his house in the country to Toad Cottage. Most men, however, don’t realize how much Mr Toad they are.

I recall leaving Punch magazine one night to go to the theatre and someone said, “You’re actually going to see Toad of Toad Hall looking like you do?”

I was wearing a tweedy suit of a rather excessive heather mixture and my neckwear was perhaps a trifle ear-splitting.

I did not mind the remark; at the theatre I saw a number of Mr Toad’s in the audience.

But Kingsley was too vain, he could not stand looking in the mirror and seeing Mr Toad.

An old lady enters the blog and says:

“Young man, what has this to do with publication of your wonderful novel, The Summer Stock Murders?

“Nothing whatsoever,” I am forced to admit.


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