Watch out for Weasels

Children’s classic The Wind in the Willows is also a fable for adults.

Listener: 9 January, 2010.

Keywords: Literature and Culture; Macroeconomics & Money;

The “Poop-poop” rang with a brazen shout in their ears, they had a moment’s glimpse of an interior of glittering plate-glass and rich morocco and the magnificent motor-car, immense, breath-snatching, passionate, with its pilot tense and hugging his wheel, possessed all earth and air for the fraction of a second, flung an enveloping cloud of dust that blinded and enwrapped them utterly, and then dwindled to a speck in the far distance, changed back into a droning bee once more. . there was a heartrending crash – and the canary-coloured cart, their pride and their joy, lay on its side in the ditch, an irredeemable wreck. The Rat danced up and down in the road, simply transported with passion. “You villains!” he shouted, shaking both fists, “You scoundrels, you highwaymen, you – you –  roadhogs!”

Although The Wind in the Willows immortalises “roadhogs”, apparently author Kenneth Grahame initially wrote “stockbrokers”. Children may not have understood Grahame’s concern about the invasion of the countryside by the finance industry – he grew up in rural tranquillity on the banks of the Thames at Cookham, which is now part of the urbanised “stockbroker belt” of London. But his earlier term gives an interesting interpretation of the children’s classic.

Unlike Ratty, Toad was not angered by the first automobile he ever met causing his beautiful caravan to overturn. He “sat straight down in the middle of the dusty road … stared fixedly in the direction of the disappearing motor-car. He breathed short, his face wore a placid, satisfied expression, and at intervals he faintly murmured ‘Poop-poop!'”

This dedicated follower of fashion chased after cars in a wildly picaresque journey of dishonesty and damage that ended in prison. Deceit and generosity of friends enabled him to escape, but the Toad Hall he returned to had been taken over by the crude denizens of the Wild Wood. In a scene paralleling the homecoming of Odysseus, Badger, Ratty, Mole and Toad reclaim the Hall by driving the weasels out. For all their bombast, the Wild-Wooders prove shallow and ineffective.

From this perspective The Wind in the Willows is a story of modernisation in which the Edwardian life Grahame so valued is being transmuted by technology and by those with shallower values than Toad’s friends. As it turns out, it is the prudence of Toad’s father, who put in the secret passage, that enables the friends to spring the surprise attack. Whether the Wild-Wooders were mere roadhogs, stockbrokers or even the working class (as some commentators suggest) is unclear. Toad’s apparent submission to his friends’ values at the end may be yet another of his deceits. The reader is left with the expectation that come the next fashion, Toad will be off again.

While he was writing the book, Grahame was the secretary of the Bank of England, the UK’s central bank. It was a senior role involving maintaining the records and the correspondences of the institution before computers, or even typewriters, took over. Fortunately it was then a gentlemanly pursuit and gave him the time, while conserving his energy, to write the nostalgic novel.

You may think the job was routine or even boring. Maybe. But a few years before Grahame retired, a madman broke into his office and fired three shots, which fortunately for him –  and lovers of his book –  all missed.

Central banks, including the Reserve Bank of New Zealand, still have these secretaries. As a general rule they don’t write novels, but they are likely to concur with at least one of The Wind in the Willows’ messages: the world is changing; the much loved environment of your childhood is evolving; the society in which you grew up is passing.

As the Prince told his nephew in Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s novel The Leopard, “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.” But the fundamental values of friendship and common sense – and perhaps scepticism towards fashion – are still of immense relevance, especially for dealing with unprincipled roadhogs, financiers and Wild-Wooders.