City of Literature: Kenneth Grahame
As the world's first UNESCO City of Literature - honoured for the sheer quantity of literary figures associated with the city - Edinburgh is commonly associated with figures like Robert Louis Stevenson, Walter Scott, and (more recently) Irvine Welsh and JK Rowling. But one figure not often associated with the city also has his origins here.
Kenneth Grahame, best known for the classic Edwardian children's story The Wind in the Willows was born in the heart of Edinburgh's New Town, on Castle Street, in March 1859.
He only spent the first year of his life in the city, before the family moved further north to Loch Fyne. Grahame's mother died when he was just five years old, and Kenneth and his three siblings passed into the care of their grandmother in Berkshire.
It was as a child in these quiet rural villages, with cobbled streets and old stone houses, and the River Thames running nearby, that Grahame would first become acquainted with the rich pastoral imagery which dominates his most famous book.
After failing to get into Oxford University, Grahame found himself working at the Bank of England, and would rise to become secretary of the bank before retiring in 1908.
The circumstances of his retirement aren't fully understood - rumours abounded of a disagreement with one of the directors, which may account for the fact that Grahame only received a fraction of the full pension he should have been entitled to. Five years earlier Grahame had been involved in a strange incident in which he was shot at by a 'madman' with a pistol - he was unhurt in the attack, but along with the circumstances of his retirement it suggests a kind of harsh, unsafe, unpredictable 'Wide World' experience which is a far cry from the safe, peaceable, bucolic world of The Wind in the Willows.
Grahame had written short stories and had a degree of success as a published author with stories such as The Reluctant Dragon, but he had had nothing in print for a decade before The Wind in the Willows was published, just four months after his retirement from the bank. During these years Grahame had married and had a son, Alastair, known in his family as 'Mouse', who had been born prematurely, was blind in one eye, and was frequently sick throughout his childhood.
During his son's bouts of illness, Grahame would spin bedtime stories for him, and wrote letters to him, featuring the animal characters who would later fill the published story.
The book was a major success with the general public, and attracted fans as lofty as the then-president of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt. The story was adapted by creator of Winnie the Pooh, AA Milne, as a stage play entitled Toad of Toad Hall, and the story remains popular, with new stage adaptations and film versions capturing the imaginations of new generations of children over a century after it was originally written.
Today the building on Edinburgh's Castle Street where Kenneth Grahame was born is a cocktail bar and restaurant named Badger and Co, after the characters from The Wind in the Willows.
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