May 16 2013
I’m not sure how many paddlers on the American side of the Pond have read Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows. Not many, I imagine. Perhaps a few had it read to them when they were young, however, and others may have seen the movie. Disney first attempted to commodify the story in 1949, reworking a smattering of threads plucked from the book into a hodgepodge of an animated film (The Adventures of Ichabod and Mister Toad) and then building a “dark ride” around the film’s theme. The movie crops up now and again in Disney Classic packages, and the California ride is still operating, but there really isn’t much of the book in either the film or the ride. Happily — there’s an anodyne for all distempers, if you only know where to look — Grahame’s tale has also been adapted for radio and television many times in Britain, and most of these adaptations have kept faith with the original. I don’t know if any of them have drifted across the Atlantic, though.
But this much is certain, at any rate: There isn’t a canoeist, kayaker, or sailor anywhere who isn’t familiar with at least one phrase drawn from the pages of Wind in the Willows. Who among us hasn’t heard someone speak of “messing about in boats”? There’s even a monthly magazine by that name, a rare (and welcome) print survivor in our pixelated age of digital ephemera. In fact, the “messing about” catchphrase has now reached the status of a cliché, something that careful writers take pains to avoid. Well, you can call me careless, if you want, but I’ve invoked it on more than a few occasions, and so has Tamia, and no one seems to be any the worse for our transgressions.
Anyway, here’s the moment when “messing about in boats” entered the language:
“This has been a wonderful day!” said [Mole], as the Rat shoved off and took to the sculls again. “Do you know, I’ve never been in a boat before in all my life.”
“What?” cried the Rat, open‑mouthed: “Never been in a — you never — well I — what have you been doing, then?”
“Is it so nice as all that?” asked the Mole shyly, though he was quite prepared to believe it as he leant back in his seat and surveyed the cushions, the oars, the rowlocks, and all the fascinating fittings, and felt the boat sway lightly under him.
“Nice? It’s the only thing,” said the Water Rat solemnly, as he leant forward for his stroke. “Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing — absolutely nothing — half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats. Simply messing,” he went on dreamily: “messing — about — in — boats….”
Few paddlers would disagree with the Water Rat, though fewer still would own up to even a nodding acquaintance with what is, after all, a children’s book, and one that’s over a century old, into the bargain… Read more…
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