sat 19/08/2017

Richard Adams: 'If I'd known how well I could write I’d have started earlier' | reviews, news & interviews

Richard Adams: 'If I'd known how well I could write I’d have started earlier'

Richard Adams: 'If I'd known how well I could write I’d have started earlier'

The author of 'Watership Down', who has died, explains the book's deep roots in his childhood

Richard Adams, high priest of anthropomorphism

Richard Adams, who has died at the age of 96, was the high priest of anthropomorphism. Much his most famous and loved novel is his first, Watership Down, published when he was in his early 50s and so instantly successful that he was able to give up his career in the Department of the Environment to write full time. Hazel, Fiver and Bigwig, the floppy-eared freedom-fighting heroes of Watership Down, kept him in comfort for the rest of his life.

The genesis of Watership Down is now almost as familiar a fable as the novel itself. In the late 1960s a career civil servant began entertaining two young daughters on the school run from Highbury to Highgate with vibrant stories about a warren of rabbits. Its harder-edged successors Shardik and The Plague Dogs were not oral narratives, and found less favour with the reading public.

I went to meet Adams at his home in Hampshire twice. On both occasions I encountered a beady old owl with a feathery plume of white hair who seemed blissfully connected to his distant childhood (far more than to the literary world in which he always felt an outsider). His failed viva as a historian at Oxford was fresh in his memory. "As somebody said afterwards, ‘We gave him a long viva in the hope of pulling him over the line but he wouldn’t really hit the ball.’ I couldn’t hit the ball because I didn’t know the answers to a lot of the questions.” He talked about his time as a non-combatant in the Royal Army Service Corps, his love of Beatrix Potter and his appreciation of Waugh and Greene (though he was no fan of their Catholicism). But mostly we talked about those rabbits, who have long since taken their place in the lapine literary hall of fame alongside the Br'er Rabbit, the Velveteen Rabbit and, his favourites, Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail and Peter.

It’s a conception of mine that a book is a book is a book, and you write what has got to be written to tell the story properly. I never consider the readers

JASPER REES: Before we talk about Watership Down, could you paint a portrait of your childhood?

RICHARD ADAMS: My father was a country doctor about on his rounds a good deal. There were two children considerably senior to me. Then there was a third child Robert, who died. I was born in 1920 and I suppose I was a replacement for Robert, really. As a little boy I had a lot of time to myself. We had a lovely house in the country outside Newbury with a big, big garden and beyond that was open country. Nobody really much minded a small boy trespassing. And I made up a kingdom of my own. I was king of it. And I had several devoted followers and we did all sorts of things together. It was all imaginary. I think being on my own, and being responsible for making up my own amusements, and the stories and my followers, I remember them very well. Well, they’re still around of course. By the time I was seven I could read virtually anything.

I was allowed to read anything I liked when I was little and I liked all sorts of things that I shouldn’t have been reading. One of the things that made a great impression on me when I was about eight or nine was Edgar Allan Poe. Now, boys of eight or nine really shouldn’t be reading Edgar Allan Poe, or The Hound of the Baskervilles come to that. I think I was introduced to or stumbled upon frightening literature, too frightening for a child. I can remember once having read Algernon Blackwood’s well-known long short story "Ancient Sorceries". I read it in bed and then I lay down to go to sleep and I couldn’t go to sleep. It’s not a ghost story, but by the time my mother came up to bed I was in a sorry state and I don’t know why I didn’t come down. Nobody would have been cross. I can honestly say I suffered a good deal.

Do you think the enlargement of your gothic imagination emboldened you to put things into Watership Down, a story told to your own children, not to hold back?

It’s a conception of mine that a book is a book is a book, and you write what has got to be written to tell the story properly. I never consider the readers. The readers can be anybody. That’s why I think some children have taken a bit of a knock, not only with Watership Down (Penguin paperback cover, pictured below right). The Plague Dogs (cover pictured, bottom right) has a lot of cruelty in it. I remember when I was eight years old I went bananas for Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

You told the story to your daughters on the school run. Did the structure of the narrative take shape in your head in such a way that you could deliver it orally?

Yes, I did. When I was lying down to go to sleep in the evening I would think out the bit of story I was going to tell the girls the next day. The stories I told in the car had nearly always been shaped and cut and edited by myself for oral narration.

Did you feel you were joining a long literary conga line in the oral tradition?

I was proud to be a storyteller even just to two little girls. I always enjoyed stories, both hearing them and telling them, and I did take quite a lot of trouble with the oral narration even if it was something like Cinderella or Jack the Giant Killer. I could have dropped the children off with neighbours or people who were going up anyway but I didn’t do that because I wanted to be in my children’s company. I’ve got a thing about that. Parents ought to spend a lot of time in their children’s company. A lot of them don’t, you know. That’s very important.

Are there autobiographical characters in Watership Down?

Oh yes, every work is autobiographical. If you’ve ever written a novel you know this.

Could you point at a character and say, "That’s me?"

Yes, I probably could if I poked around.

Are you Fiver?

Yes. Rather timid and not much of a fighter, I’m prepared to admit, but able to contribute something in the way of intuitive knowledge.


How did Watership Down turn from a treat for your daughters into a bestseller?

There came a time when I’d told most of the story of Watership Down and Ros and Juliet said, "You ought to write that down, Daddy, that’s too good to waste." I demurred for some time. I was hard-worked at the Civil Service at the time, had quite enough on my plate. But in the end I did give in and wrote it down. And having taken all the trouble to write it down I wasn’t expecting a large sum for it but I did think that in view of all my work in writing it down I could expect to get a bit of money. It was rejected again and again.

Were you disheartened by its repeated rejection?

Yes, I was, very much. So much so that I couldn’t bear to take the copy away from the publisher. Elizabeth [Adams's wife] used to go and collect the rejected stuff. But I never gave up hope. I always thought that somebody somewhere would publish it. I knew its merits, you see. A lot of publishers have their own hobby horse. I went from one publisher to another and then of course I met this friend, Rex Collings. I read an article in The Spectator about Richard Jeffreys. Richard Jeffreys was a journalist and a nature lover who lived and worked about 100 years ago. He wrote a book called Wood Magic which had never been reprinted until Rex Collings published it. I thought perhaps he might be interested in my book. I rang him up and we agreed to lunch. I had already sent him a copy. We went round the cold collations and as soon as we sat down he said, “I like your book and I’d like to publish it.” This blew a trumpet in my heart. (First edition cover, published by Rex Collings, pictured above left.)

What a wonderful image.

And I could get on with Rex Collings. I certainly don’t want to run down Rex Collings. I think the world of him. But he was an eccentric. I have a nervous character, I don’t have to be told that by anyone. All through my school days… “Old Adams, he’s a really nervous character, you know.”

Did the story get darker when you wrote it down?

I don’t think it got very much darker. I can’t think of any passages in Watership Down that are very horrible. There is no cruelty. There is the cruelty of nature.

Were you aware of your daughters being frightened?

I think I was, really.

Did you mind or were you pleased?

I think it’s going a bit far to say I was pleased. But perhaps I didn’t water it down enough. When I’ve written a story I feel tremendously proud of it, probably unjustifiably, but I don’t want to alter it in any way and I’ve always felt that a completed book is there and anybody can read it. I don’t care. If some of them get hurt, well that’s more or less what happened to me as a child, and I don’t feel much the worse for it.

When you took the leap to retire from your day job, did that take nerve? Or did critical and commercial success embolden you to take the risk?

I think that’s quite true. I never really liked the Civil Service. I could do it. Actually I quite enjoyed it. The senior Civil Service, it’s very interesting. You’re dealing with topical affairs all the time and meeting ministers who are responsible for the affairs. I thought, this is all right, I can live with this, but I wish I was trout-fishing or something like that. As soon as I’d got enough money to make retirement possible I leapt at it. I did 25 years and I could have done 50 but I was glad I didn’t have to.

Did you have much time for trout-fishing once you started writing, which expands to fill the time?

Oh yes, I had enough time for trout-fishing because once you’re self-employed you can take what time off you’re like. If you have a good week and realise that you’ve accomplished so much and more than you’d planned, you don’t have to ask anyone’s permission. You can go off and do your trout-fishing. Being self-employed is much the best state of mind for anybody as long as it’s enough to live on. Some people want to make a fortune. I never wanted to make a fortune. It just fell in my lap.

The initial print run sold out very quickly. How old were you?

52. I’m sorry I didn’t do it earlier. It’s a silly way of putting it but if I had known earlier how frightfully well I could write I’d have started earlier.

Watership Down sits atop your oeuvre. Has it cast too long a shadow?

I do feel that, yes. But I’m not the only man who has – I wouldn’t say suffered – had to put up with his first book. Kenneth Grahame wrote plenty of other things but they’re under the shadow of Wind in the Willows.

The millions who read Watership Down will have been waiting for something similarly life-affirming and they didn’t quite get it with Shardik (cover, pictured left). Are you fond of it?

Yes.

Do you think it had a fair hearing?

No!

Why not?

Well, they were expecting something like Watership Down, you see, and they didn’t get it. They got this rather difficult and savage novel. Shardik is a hard book to read. A lot of people have said that. They had to struggle with it.

Were you disheartened?

I wouldn’t say disheartened, no. Annoyed is more like it. But I like it and often read it.

Did you feel part of a literary establishment?

I’m a very naughty boy in that respect. I don’t really live in the literary world. I mean I ought to know them all but I don’t. They don’t know me very much. Real authors are continually meeting each other, aren’t they? They have parties to which you go.

Might I ask about the experience of entering your 90s?

I do feel old, and I know I’m going to die. But I try not to let it make me unhappy.

Does considerable age bring considerable wisdom?

Well, I’d be boasting if I said yes. I like to think I’ve profited by experience and know a thing or two, as they say.

Do you subscribe to the view that things ain’t what they used to be?

No, just the reverse. I think things have been improving all the time. Even for a non-combatant the war wasn't much fun. You were living where you didn’t want to live and associating with people you didn’t want to associate with. But after the war was worse really. The shortages. It was a miserable life. There was nothing to burn, nothing to eat, nothing to drink. Everything was short.

So you were cold and hungry and thirsty.

Yes, you bloody well were.

In what way has it improved?

It’s much freer society to the point where one might feel this has gone a bit too far. I certainly think things have gone a bit too far. Before the war you were expected to behave yourself sexually. You don’t have to now. Do what you blooming well like, and people do. And I think that often has very, very bad results. For example the divorce rates. People just married, now if they want to get divorced, they do. This leaves children in a sad state.

Do you fear the end?

We all do, don’t we? As you get older I think you get afraid of death. Don’t talk about it. Deeply religious people, clergymen and so on, may look forward to death as coming into another world. But I don’t very much. I don’t want to die.

@JasperRees

Deeply religious people may look forward to death as coming into another world. But I don’t very much

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