“The primroses were over. Towards the edge of the wood, where the ground became open and sloped down to an old fence and a brambly ditch beyond, only a few fading patches of pale yellow still showed among the dog's mercury and oak-tree roots. On the other side of the fence, the upper part of the field was full of rabbit-holes. In places the grass was gone altogether and everywhere there were clusters of dry droppings, through which nothing but the ragwort would grow.”
Richard Adams, Watership Down
I have been terrible at blogging the past year, but I always do a post for World Book Day – so I want to keep up with tradition. It’s nice to look back and see the books I chose before. 2012 was Nineteen Eighteen-Four (and how many times has that book been mentioned in the last year?), 2013 was Gone with the Wind, 2014 was Elizabeth Barrett’s Sonnets from the Portuguese, 2015 was The Go-Between, and last year was Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
A couple of days after Christmas last year, I heard the news that Richard Adams had died on Christmas Eve. He was 96. At the bottom of this post is my copy of Watership Down, which my mother bought me in John Lewis on Oxford Street, back in the 1980s when its children's department included books. Richard was the only person I really wanted to write a fan letter to…but I never knew what to say, so I didn't. I know he had loads of fan mail, so mine wouldn't have made much difference to him, but I felt a huge pang of regret on the 27th of December. 96 is a fantastic age to live to, but death is loss no matter what age, and I think the little girl in me imagined he was as immortal as Father Christmas. I had read interviews with him after his 90th birthday and a couple of years ago, and he was as sharp and eloquent as ever.
I read Watership Down after seeing the 1978 animated film. I fell in love with both. As cute as he was, I was never a fan of Thumper from Bambi; sarcastic rabbits like Bugs Bunny and intelligent, kickass rabbits like Bigwig and Hyzenthlay were more my scene. There was also something Rick and Ilsa from Casablanca about the last two. Now when I watch The Walking Dead, so much of that epic, apocalyptic story reminds me of Watership Down – the constant vigilance against danger, being cautious but hopeful when meeting new characters, the deaths and losses, and the blood. I used to hide behind the curtains the first few times I watched the final showdown between General Woundwort and the dog in the film. Similarly, I used to hide behind my hands when I first watched the zombie scenes in the TV show, before I got used to them.
“When you’re little…you don’t distinguish between fiction and reality,” Richard said a few years ago. “It’s all reality. And thank goodness for that. I do not believe in talking down to children. Readers like to be upset, excited and bowled over. I can remember weeping when I was little at upsetting things that were read to me, but fortunately my mother and father were wise enough to keep going.”
His daughter Juliet urged him to write down the epic rabbit story he’d told her and her sister during long car journeys, and eventually he started writing every evening. ‘Asked if he enjoyed writing it, his response is quick and pithy. “No, I hated it. To be quite frank, writing is bloody hard work. But I did enjoy that I had the guts to persevere with it.”’
I am so glad he did.