With all this talk of toads in blogland at present - as instanced by my striking Marianne Moore quote yesterday and Rachel Fox's recent tribute to Philip Larkin - I'm coming round to thinking the common toad has had quite an unfair literary press.
Just consider the most famous literary toad - Mr Toad, Toad of Toad Hall, in Kenneth Grahame's immortal children's book The Wind In The Willows. He's conceited, vain, egotistical, pompous, reckless, lacking in common sense, foppish and insufferably rich - a warty but lovable rogue, a kind of post-Lottery-winning Del Boy of the amphibian world.
Then we have Larkin's famous poem Toads itself, as referenced in the last line of Rachel Fox's poem, Larkin Is Home. Larkin's poem begins: Why should I let the toad work/Squat on my life?/Can't I use my wit as a pitchfork/And drive the brute off?/Six days of the week it soils/With its sickening poison -/Just for paying a few bills!/That's out of proportion.
I'm sure most of us have experienced to a greater or lesser extent the desperate tedium of working for a living - but it's a biological fact that the toad's poison neither soils nor sickens. The relatively mild toxin in its skin is of little harm to humans. Indeed, sadly for the toad it's often of little harm either to its chief predators, the grass snake and the hedgehog, who regularly make a meal of poor toad with few harmful after effects. Yet, despite these demands of the food chain, toads may commonly live for 40 years or more if left unmolested.
A far cry from the bombastic creature of Kenneth Grahame's imagination, the toad is actually quite a shy beast, fond of burrowing down into garden compost heaps and quietly retiring there for long periods (please bear this in mind, everyone, when airing your own compost heaps with a fork this spring).
So I make a heartfelt plea for the common toad. Though it has a warty skin, there's no truth in the rumour it can give you warts too. That's an old wives' tale. It won't scare the pants of your nervous wife by leaping up her skirt, as is the tendency of the mercurial frog - toads' legs are shorter, and toads crawl not jump. Have pity on and repect for the humble toad. It's harmless, it's undemanding, it's meditative. It's not going anywhere fast. And it may live longer than you.
Writers and poets - a challenge. How about a pro-toad-ode for a change?