Sunday, 7 June 2009

Why I like Jan Needle's Wild Wood

I read this book for the first time many years ago. It was recommended to me by a friend, which is always the best way with anything. He lent it to me which meant that I had to give it back afterwards and is part of the ongoing thought processes concerning the development of the Sole Trader Trilogy, I wanted to read The Wild Wood by Jan Needle again.

Getting hold of a copy proved surprisingly difficult. Amazon listed it but, on closer inspection, this proved to be an entirely different book altogether. In the end, I notified eBay that I was looking for one and after a few weeks found an original paperback complete with illustrations by Willie Rushton in good condition -- and all for the princely sum of 50p.

The Wild Wood retells Winston Grahame's The wind in the Willows from the point of view the working class stoats, ferrets and weasels.

I had often wondered what Ratty, Moley and the Badger did for a living. Toad was clearly gentry. Although he was a menace to everyone when behind the wheel, including himself, if ever there was an amphibian destined to ride in Nick Hob’s Wild Hunt, here he was -- Toad the Wild Hunter, Toad the cheater and death on the highway, Toad the arch enthusiast.

I never understood the way his friends treated him, either. If he was such a bad driver, wouldn't it have been a better idea to arrange for him to have driving lessons? Instead, they attempted to repress his enthusiasm and this left me feeling vaguely uncomfortable. In my darker moments, I wondered if The Wind in the Willows was not the depiction of some rural idyll that an attempt by Winston Grahame to close young minds against the glories of mechanisation. However, on rereading The Wind in the Willows I could tell that Winston Grahame felt the same way about cars as Toad. His descriptions of Toad's magnificent machinery -- the way the wheels ate up the miles – suggest that he understood what motivated Toad but also recognised how easy it was to get (literally) carried away by an overriding enthusiasm for the motor car.

Jan Needle seems to have understood this as well. I particularly identified with the central character, Baxter Ferret, who loses his job on the farm went Toad runs his Throgmorton Squeezer lorry off the road.

The Wild Wood is deliciously subversive. It turns around the story of The Wind in the Willows entirely. The stoats, weasels and ferrets are no longer sinister villains and thugs, they are a down trodden underclass existing on the breadline and the animals of the riverbank are completely heartless, selfish and oblivious to the plight of their neighbours and fellow creatures.

I loved the way Jan Needle set a different point of view on each and every event in the story of The Wind in the Willows. It almost answered a number of questions about this children's story that had been bothering me ever since I read it the first time.

Again, I believe Jan Needle understands the glory of the internal combustion engine just as well as I do. He goes a few steps further than Kenneth Grahame and that he gives the machinery names and identities, mapping out their technical details and brief specifications.

Jan Needle has written a number of children's books and although I haven't read any other of his works are delighted to find that he was the man behind Wagstaffe the Wind-up Boy, for I once saw a brilliant stage play of this title by the Kneehigh Theatre.

Apparently, when The Wild Wood came out, there were attempts by the Thatcher led regime to block this story from publication. I don't know if this is true but it has a ring of authenticity about it. This wasn't the first time that Jan Needle had been the focus of controversy. Other books of his had addressed even more contentious subjects such as the nuclear industry and the Falklands war.

And then there is still this funny business on Amazon, where you click on the cover to look inside or scroll down to read the descriptions and customer feedback and discover information about a book by Tamara Pierce. Is this deliberate? Or do people in high places still feel uncomfortable about children reading about social unrest and trying to assert their rights?

This is a book that deserves a far wider audience. It's funny that a joy to read.

But it's that dangerous word wild. Anything wild needs to be tamed, whether it’s Toad's enthusiasm, The Wild Wood or the Wild Hunt.

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