Sunday, May 28, 2023

'Toad Goes Caravanning': a Guest Post by John Howard

I can never be sure how much of a children’s book The Wind in the Willows (1908) really is. As many successful and enduring stories do, it works on more than one level. I did not read it until I was in my mid-20s and a student reading The Idea of the Holy (1917) by Rudolf Otto. In his book the German theologian and philosopher coined the term ‘numinous’, which he derived from the Latin numen – ‘divine power’. Examining the concept, our lecturer quoted Otto’s own description of the numinous as mysterium tremendum et fascinans – a mystery that is tremendous and fascinating. (It all seems so much more – well, tremendous and fascinating in Latin!) And then, almost as an aside, he went on to say that the best example of the numinous in English was to be found in The Wind in the Willows, specifically in Chapter VII, ‘The Piper at the Gates of Dawn'.

As soon as I could I bought a paperback copy. As I read that visionary chapter I realised how right our tutor was. I then read the whole book. It was familiar and yet entirely new; I seemed to know the characters well, and yet they had been strangers. I had no recollection of ever having read The Wind in the Willows in any edition or version. Possibly I had fleetingly come across cartoon or comic versions, and I must have heard of the play Toad of Toad Hall. And yet I felt – mysteriously and fascinatingly – that the book had already been, somehow, a deep part of me, and I was waking it up rather than encountering it for the first time. I have returned to The Wind in the Willows with a sense of homecoming several times over the decades, as I expect most of its readers have, no matter at what age they first encountered it.

One of the best pieces of advice for the habitué of second-hand bookshops is that if you can’t read the title on the spine of a book, find out by taking it from the shelf. I recently did this while indulging in some pre-public house book-browsing with my good friend M.J. In the local branch of one of his home town’s more book-friendly charity shop chains I noticed a slim volume wedged between two more substantial books. The book turned out to be called Toad Goes Caravanning. A quick glance through showed it to consist of a single chapter taken from The Wind in the Willows (Chapter II, ‘The Open Road’). Each page of text was accompanied by a full-page colour illustration and caption, 15 in all. These illustrations were photographs by Paul Henning, whose name appeared on the dustjacket with Kenneth Grahame’s. I riffled through the pages, closed the book and put it back, eager to resume scanning the shelf I had plucked it from. But moments later the sheer strangeness of the illustrations I had only glimpsed clearly settled into my mind, and I knew I had to purchase the book at the very moderate price asked.

Over beer and (eventually) a plant-based burger, I leisurely examined Toad Goes Caravanning. I discovered an acknowledgements page, which informed the reader that while the illustrations were photographs, they were not by Henning himself. He had photographed a series of scenes populated by dolls which had been ‘made according to his needs and directions’ by Luisa Barnay, his ‘faithful collaborator’. There was one further acknowledgement, to Ronald Shephard ‘for having lent the model railway used in one of the pictures.

It was with relief that I realised that the animals in their poses were not the products of taxidermy; but I could not dismiss the simultaneously amusing while yet disturbing aspects of the portrayal of animals as human. To see animals reproduced as such, even when reduced from the three dimensions of models to the two of photographs, seemed to verge on the voyeuristic and exploitative in a way more blatant than could, if desired, be perceived in drawings and paintings. Attitudes have changed, and this is not the place to explore further.

Toad Goes Caravanning had been published by Methuen in 1947. Presumably as it had appeared from the original publishers this extract from the book had gained the approval of the Grahame family or Estate. The dustjacket listed a companion volume, Sweet Home, another chapter extracted from The Wind in the Willows (Chapter V, ‘Dulce Domum’ – Edwardian children were surely expected to know their Latin tags). Some other volumes illustrated with photographs by Paul Henning were also listed.

The book was printed on thick, rough, greyish paper – there was no art paper found for the photographs. Although there is no declaration from the publisher that it was ‘produced in complete conformity with the authorized economy standards', the atmosphere of wartime and post-war restrictions pervades Toad Goes Caravanning – in contrast with the bright photographs and text that celebrated hospitality (sometimes lavish, with conspicuous consumption) and the maintenance of a peaceful and ordered world of plenty.

I imagine Toad Goes Caravanning and the other books being mainly intended for children but with an eye to their appeal for readers of any age. Perhaps they were published for the Christmas market, intended as gifts to bring a little pleasure and consolation during a dark time. In the Britain of 1947, the violence and upheaval of war was still a very recent memory. The Cold War was beginning to freeze into place. The winter of 1946-47 had been extremely harsh, with nationwide fuel shortages and disruption. The country was in the grip of post-war austerity, with many goods and services scarce or still being rationed. The political climate was lively – though perhaps full of foreboding for many. The reforming Labour government of Clement Attlee was implementing its programme of nationalisation and was soon to create the National Health Service; India, the ‘jewel in the crown’, was granted independence and partitioned. Many families were still broken and separated, with members absent through being away on service. There must have been empty places at numerous tables for those whose death, whether abroad or on the home front, had left space which at that time was only filled by grief. And some were simply ‘missing’.

In a cold room perhaps only fitfully illuminated by the dying glow of a few coals in the fireplace or a dim lightbulb, it could be that the well-loved text and cheerful coloured pages of Toad Goes Caravanning were able to give out, or even help to engender, something of a sense of warmth and comfort: the security of being with close friends in a good place, with the anticipation of a common and enjoyable enterprise.


  1. Interesting to note though that some edition omit The Piper at the Gates of Dawn chapter altogether. Perhaps because it is a tributary to the main flow of narrative.

    1. Interesting information, eyesboystation. I wonder if some adults omitted chapter 7 because it scared them a little. Pan might have seemed like the devil or something.

  2. There were evidently only two such books in this series. _Sweet Home_ came out in November 1946 at 5s. _Toad Goes Caravanning) came out in October 1947, also at 5 s.

  3. love this. The book and your commentary.What a treasure.