Thursday, March 6, 2014

Mr. Grahame's Bad Day

So, the most recent issue of THE FORTEAN TIMES (or most recent I've seen) includes a section of "Stories from THE ILLUSTRATED POLICE NEWS", apparently an ongoing series of which this twenty-seventh installment features a long-forgotten incident in the life of a great writer.

As the ILLUSTRATED POLICE TIMES tells the story, on November the 24th 1903 a man entered the Bank of England, presented his card, and demanded to see the bank's Governor. Said official being busy, he was shown in to see the Secretary of the Bank, Mr. Grahame, handing him a paper on which were written the words All are concerned. What Mr. Grahame didn't know was that the paper was a test: if Grahame took it by one end, his visitor would know he was in the presence of one of the Good Bankers who looked out for the country. If he took it by the other end, it signified that Grahame was a Bad Banker who, as the article puts it, "hoarded the money of the poor in his bottomless vaults" [F.T. p. 78]. Unluckily for Grahame, he took the paper by the wrong end, whereupon his visitor pulled out a revolver and shot at him. It turned out the visitor was a man named G. F. Robinson, an anarchist and Boer War veteran who'd become unhinged during his time in Africa by the vast inequalities of what we'd today call "the 1%". His goal had apparently been to force the Bank of England to open its vaults and distribute the vast wealth within among those in need.

The rest of the story recounts how Grahame, who'd miraculously escaped injury (although an army vet of a brutal war, Robinson was apparently a bad shot), and his fellow employees fled, how Robinson wandered about shooting up the place for a bit, and how he was finally subdued with a fire hose, followed by a rush of men who restrained him; in the end, the only one hurt was poor Robinson himself, who was pistol-whipped during his capture. The ILLUSTRATED POLICE NEWS naturally focuses on the high drama of events: THE FORTEAN TIMES reproduces several dramatic drawings re-creating the episode.

The whole thing sounds all too familiar to present-day news stories -- traumatized war vet, shots fired in a public building at people completely unknown to their assailant, the whole sparked by some quixotic lunatic theory that values things over people.

But the reason this long-ago event is of interest to us today is that Mr. Grahame is best known to us today for having written one of the great classics of children's literature,  THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS.

What's generally forgotten, given that achievement, is that Grahame was not an author by profession but a banker; writing was his vocation. Most also forget nowadays that he was already a major author in the field when the book he's now remembered for came out in 1908, near the end of his relatively brief career* -- in fact, so ground-breaking and admired were his THE GOLDEN AGE [1895] and its follow-up book DREAM DAYS [1898] that the initial response to WIND IN THE WILLOWS was that it was a bit of a let-down in comparison. But that's not the verdict of history, and over time his final book has come to eclipse all the rest, with justice in some cases (e.g. such poor stuff as THE HEADSWOMAN, about a cute executioner, and PAGAN PAPERS, a collection of mannered little essays some of which first appeared in THE YELLOW BOOK, of all places, that scandalous journal that helped create the image of the 1890s as decadent) and not in others (DREAM DAYS and especially THE GOLDEN AGE).

So, while it's not true, as the FORTEAN TIMES pieces says, that Grahame "lost interest in banking and began writing stories for children" as a result of this incident (he already at the time of the incident being one of the best-known children's writers of his day), it does seem likely that having risen to high-level position as Secretary of the Bank of London, his early retirement was probably precipitated by this traumatic experience.

And so, in the end, we lucked out. Grahame only wrote one book in his retirement, but that one book was a masterpiece. Grahame cd easily have been killed by that maniac, and we'd never have had THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS.

No Mole of Mole End, no Ratty messing about with boats, no ever-dependable Badger, no excitable Mr. Toad.

Sometimes you have to be grateful for the ineptitude of lunatics. But that's not much of a moral; perhaps a better one wd be, let's be grateful for people who put their second chances to good use.

--John R.

*Grahame's active career as a writer lasted only about fifteen years; he wrote nothing the last twenty-four years of his life.

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