Some Books: Dixon Scott’s ‘A Fresh Wind in the Willows’

This is an occasional series, about books I read many years ago, usually but not always from Didsbury Library, that I seek out to re-experience, to see if the things that appealed still affect me the same way, and to measure the change in myself between then and now.
The copyright law in the UK and across most of the world is that copyright in a work endures for the author’s lifetime plus seventy years, after which it, its contents and characters go into the Public Domain.
This wasn’t always so: until 1985, the rule was life plus fifty years. And the law was changed for the benefit of Great Ormond Street Children’s Author. The playwright and author James Barrie had willed to Great Ormond Street the royalties on his massively popular work, Peter Pan, amounting to a vast income down the years.
But Peter Pan was shortly to come out of copyright and, so as to preserve that income for a foreseeable period, Parliament enacted the change. It was for a good cause and I’m not about to debate the wisdom of the step.
Peter Pan wasn’t the only popular Victorian book whose copyright was on the point of expiring. In fact, The Wind in the Willows, that wonderful children’s book written by Kenneth Grahame, my childhood copy of which, a gift from my parents, I still have, dropped out of copyright in 1983.
And to greet that moment of release was A Fresh Wind in the Willows, written by one Dixon Scott. Intrigued, and less concerned in my twenties with Literary Necrophilia, I bought it. Now I’ve bought it again, out of curiosity.
According to the author’s blurb, Scott was an already published author whose first novel (left unnamed, but it’s called Jolly Jack Tart), published in 1974, was about his wartime experiences in the Navy. He’s also described as a Wind in the Willows lover who himself lives by a river. This is all we know about Scott: everything else must be gleaned from the book itself.
The copy I’ve acquired is the paperback version published by Armada. It’s a slim book, 128 pages, illustrated by Jonathon Coudrille in a charmingly Edwardian style, consisting of six unnumbered chapters.
Unlike the later, official sequels, four of then, produced by William Horwood, Scott’s book is simple, straightforward and surprisingly effective in giving us just a few more adventures of Mr Toad, the Water Rat, the Mole, the Badger and the Otter. Scott is indeed a lover of the original book, and this shows in every line. He does everything he can to create and maintain a light, consistent atmosphere, showing these familiar characters in the same light as Kenneth Grahame, and at no point did I feel anything approximating to a wrong note (whereas with Horwood’s first attempt, The Willows in Winter, I thought the first chapter got things so badly wrong that I refused to read any more of the book or any of its sequels).
A Fresh Wind positions itself over the summer following the original book. The six chapters are themselves discreet, but the middle four are linked by the common theme of Toad’s newest obsession. Not his only obsession: Scott begins with Toad taking up cricket, an idea that could have been tailor-made for me and which still feels like a complete natural for the ever-eager Mr Toad, but then he goes on to show Toad enthusiastically taking up the ambition of flight: first by covering himself with chicken feathers, then ballooning – which also captures Moley’s fancy – then stealing an actual aeroplane and, quite possibly, flying the channel.
All of this takes place across one of those glorious Edwardian summers of legend, days of warmth and dryness, of sun and the river and the daily indulgence of these insouciant creatures, broken only by one dramatically conceived storm. This is Scott’s set-up for a very different closing chapter, in which Ratty senses a great rain coming in December, not merely rain but flood, life-threatening flood and, with the aid of Badger and the Wild Wood denizens, builds an ark to save life and limb, if not homes and furniture.
Touchingly, if momentarily, it also gives Toad a chance to shine, to for once rise above his self-centredness and put himself unhesitatingly at the succour of not just his friends but those stoats and weasels and ferrets that, in the first chapter, he has so deeply offended by calling them oiks. It’s a warming development, that brings all the animals of the Riverbank and the Wild Wood together: not for long, we suspect, for Toad is still gloriously Toad and this is merely a Crisis and his selfless response little more than a cliché, the one about hidden depths being brought forth in adversity, but it’s a nice cliché and, in this simple sequel, one that this reader at least is happy to welcome.
A Fresh Wind in the Willows is no more than a minor work, lost and forgotten. The extending of the copyright law killed it, and only those of us who were there at the time remember it. It is a much shallower book, a playtime story by a fan content to immerse himself for a time in the world Kenneth Grahame created, and spend that time padding on the surface without troubling the depths that Grahame so lovingly explored. There is no fear, no danger, no excessive emotion here. Mole alone in the Wild Wood, Toad in prison, Mole’s need for his old home, Rat’s compulsion towards the sea and certainly nothing at all to match ‘The Piper at the Gates of Dawn’. It’s a children’s book, and very little more.
You could call the book unambitious, but in the end it satisfies its author’s intentions, to enter Kenneth Grahame’s playground and spend an Edwardian afternoon there, under the sun of a world that doesn’t exist any more. And I am happy to visit that playground once in a while. I shalln’t divest myself of this book a second time.

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