My first book - although not my first published - was my version of Kenneth Grahame's masterpiece The Wind in the Willows. Much as I had always loved Toad, it occurred to me one Sunday afternoon that if you looked at him through jaundiced left-wing eyes (God forbid!) he might turn out somewhat less lovable. I did, and he did too. A fat and jolly plutocrat, more money than sense, with friends who lived lives of idleness and eternal pleasure. From there, it was a small step to redreaming the villains of the Wild Wood as sturdy, starving heroes of the rural proletariat. (My God, we really need an exclamation mark there!)
It wrote itself, practically, and as I recall it, only took three weeks or so. The wonderful Willie Rushton agreed to do the illustrations, and it has been in print, on and off, ever since. Willie and I were working on a kind of follow-up before his sad, untimely death. Here is the moment, in Chapter Seven, when my hero, Baxter Ferret, meets his nemesis. He is in a steam traction engine, with his fellow farmhand Tetley, going to pick up the wreck of their boss's motor lorry, a Throgmorton Squeezer.
We had rounded the bend. Determined to try and hear the end of the tale I had clenched my fists and kept my eyes on Tetley's clattering dentures rather than look up. Now I did. Alongside the dismal wreck, peering into the cab, was a figure.
"Thieves!" shrieked old Tetley. "Robbers! Villains come to lay hands on gaffer's stuff."
He banged open Old Betsy's throttle another fraction with a handy wrench, although she was already giving her very best speed. His free hand waved above his head till it contacted the whistle wire, on which he dangled frantically, one booted foot hovering in the air. A hoarse blast of sound and steam rent the clear and frosty morning.
The figure looked up, apparently not in the least alarmed. He moved to the front of the Squeezer in fact, and lounged on the sagging bonnet, about where the mudguard should have been. He was waiting for us.
As we lumbered forward, it appeared that there was another vehicle parked beside the lorry, which we had not been able to see at first. It slowly came into view, took shape and colour. I felt my stomach begin to flutter, my fingers to tremble. It was a motor car. A battered motor car. A very severely battered motor car.
Old Tetley drove the last few yards in the grim silence of concentration. He eased the steam back, judging his distance to a tee. The huge engine ground and grunted to a halt only inches from where the Throgmorton's radiator used to be. There was a moment of absolutely uncanny quiet after the din, until the engine settled down to a contented and familiar hissing as she built up pressure.
The black-coated figure pushed himself upright with a leather-gauntleted paw and walked towards us.
"Hello, you chaps," he said at last. "What a splendid day."
It was Mr Toad.
After that, my story follows the lines of the original with remarkable closeness. Except that all the things we know and love about Mr Toad's life and adventures are seen through different eyes, at different angles. Toad Hall is renamed Brotherhood Hall, and all the River Bankers' triumphs - including the final great assault which clears the denizens of the Wild Wood out of Toad's home lock, stock and barrel - are revealed to be a dreadful sham. Toad, inevitably, does not seem to understand a single jot of it...