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How Watership Down was written

How Watership Down was written

Behind his story of rabbits and their struggles to survive lay Richard Adams’s own life, especially his wartime experiences. Here his granddaughter looks back on how it began

Behind his story of rabbits and their struggles to survive lay Richard Adams’s own life, especially his wartime experiences. Here his granddaughter looks back on how it began

Miranda Johnson | December 28th 2016

Bustling preparations for a car journey take time: the need to check on children, belongings and provisions, to make certain of the route and the vehicle, and to calculate quite when to leave. In the 1960s driving from London to Stratford-upon-Avon took three hours. For two little girls, such a period could be delightful given that their father, Richard Adams, who was my grandfather, would come up with fantastical tales en route. “It was spontaneous,” he recalled, “but if you have to go a distance of any length in a car it is important to make children enjoy it.” Enlivening the day mattered; my grandpa wanted Juliet and Rosamond to learn to love both Shakespeare and Stratford. “I actually don’t think there are that many good stories in Shakespeare, and he borrowed a lot of them,” he added, “but the characters are so powerful”.

My grandpa’s greatest story, “Watership Down”, published in 1972, began on one such journey to Stratford. The book went on to sell millions of copies around the world. My mother remembers the tale of rabbits and their search for a new home as being far more simple, and anthropomorphic, in its early guises. Ancient lore dictated much of the creatures’ behaviour, such as the duty to welcome all strangers. The warren’s inhabitants appeared amid many creatures my grandfather commanded in a variety of stories. One such told of Rustem and Zeke, a pair of beetles who kept a market garden. Another revolved around Mouse and Edwin, and their attempts to ward off owls with a water-squirting umbrella. But the rabbits of “Watership Down” stood apart. “My daughters pestered me to write it down once I’d finished the story,” my grandfather said. “They thought it was too good to waste.” But he proved slow to do so. My mother and her sister used their pocket money on a holiday in the Lake District to buy a pad of paper specially to get him to start.

My grandfather honed his narrative skills as a somewhat lonely little boy. Born in 1920 to older parents, he was more than seven years younger than his two siblings. Doted on and indulged, his father would read to him whenever he asked. Fictional creatures, particularly those cared for by Doctor Dolittle, delighted him. But my great-grandfather would also lean on the rail of his son’s brass bedstead to tell him about those of his own creation. A favourite was a mouse who lived under Ham Hill, near the village of Martock in Somerset – where my great-grandfather was born in 1870. “The little mouse was a truant,” my grandpa explained sternly, “he ought to have gone to school but instead spent the whole day wandering around the wonderful countryside in that part of the country.” Upon evening, the hoots of an owl sent him scurrying home. Relating the tale is one thing, but telling it properly is quite another. Sinister hooting noises are a must: “my father used to make them through his hands, so that they sounded eerie and distant,” my grandfather recalled.

Working parents can struggle to return home in time to see their children to bed. Schedules and commutes keep the two apart. Storytelling, whether from books or brains, is a luxury for many. But bonding over tales, and the situations, dilemmas and personalities within them, remains a delight even in a world of screens. My grandfather saw fantasies as necessary to children’s development. Storytelling is essential “if we want to bring up children with good imagination and thinking power”, he argued. And tales weave together memories, from recollections of their telling to the events which they describe. They ensure the past is not forgotten, my grandfather believed, because a family often has its own stories, or ones that are important to the family, providing a shared sense of recreation across generations.

Not that my grandfather’s first creations were shared with anyone. On a late summer afternoon, across the dining room table, he admitted to me that he had never before spoken about his imaginary clan of friends. As a young boy he saw himself as king of a city called Bull Banks, located in the large garden of Oakdene, his family’s home near Newbury in Berkshire. His chief adviser was a youngster named Stonepath, who was good at running and could generally “do a lot of things that I couldn’t do”. Other trusted associates included Photel, “a tough, outdoorsy sort of chap”; Decité, “a wit and a wag”; Narsisus,“a terrific batsman”; and the rather unfortunate Ereos, who apparently “wasn’t particularly good at anything”. “I changed the spelling of Ereos and Narsisus’s names so that people wouldn’t think I’d cribbed them,” he said, “but of course I had!”

By the time my grandfather arrived at his preparatory school, his imaginative faculties were refined. Exploiting the lack of electric light in creaking dormitories, he became something of a celebrity for his candlelit stories after dark. Unsurprisingly, windy winter evenings saw some of his best performances, and his abilities meant real friends soon came to replace those he’d made up. On occasion, my grandpa would suffer for his art. After telling one Geoffrey Hunter a story after “lights out”, he received a teacher’s beating after owning up to talking. (My grandfather considered the silent Mr Hunter “a poor fish” after the episode.) Nevertheless, my grandpa carried on narrating and learned tricks he employed even while reading to me seven decades later.

At his next school, Bradfield, and at Worcester College, Oxford, my more mature grandfather had little time for storytelling. He was 18 years old when Neville Chamberlain came back to London waving his piece of paper. My grandfather’s calling-up documents then eventually arrived by post and he was ordered to report for duty on July 13th 1940, joining the Royal Army Service Corps. Over the course of the war, he found himself in Sierra Leone, South Africa, Palestine, France, Denmark and Singapore. The experience shaped “Watership Down”. “The Nazis came into my depiction of the Efrafa warren,” he said. “People who’ve been through the war never forget it.”

He also never forgot friends he made during his service. One in particular, Paddy Kavanagh, stuck with him for his fearless defence of the Oosterbeek perimeter as part of Operation Market Garden during September 1944. Paddy gave his life so that my grandpa’s platoon could escape. So my grandfather brought him back in the character of Bigwig in “Watership Down”, who stands alone to defend a tunnel in the rabbits’ new warren. Originally in the story, Bigwig also died. But my mother and aunt protested so much that my grandpa changed the tale. “We said nobody must die,” my aunt recalls, “except for Hazel, because it seemed an important part given his old age.”

My mother and her sister are part of “Watership Down”, two characters tucked into the book’s dedication. Its frame recreates the narrative relationship between them and their father from the Stratford journey. Despite public shock at the novel’s savagery after its publication, my mother and aunt approved of its events. “You have to tell children about suffering because they start to realise about it anyway,” my mother says. “You have to somehow explain the concept, without being too abrupt, because it is also a fact that everyone will die. Stories can help communicate those existential truths.” My aunt believes the vision of the novel, despite its ending, is dark. “I think we know it isn’t going to be alright. You would like it to be a happy ending, and that is why it is popular, but in reality the Watership Down Warren probably becomes a pile of rotting bodies too thanks to humans. This kind of destruction happens all the time but we choose to turn a blind eye to it.”

My grandfather worked for years, both as a civil servant after the war ended and then as a campaigner, to protect the British countryside from such destruction. But his work at the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, which ended only after the success of “Watership Down”, left him weary. Grey surroundings and dreary commutes wore down a man who remembered chalk dust flying up from cart-laden country lanes. He could confide as much in his daughters. My mother recalls how alienated he felt after a particular meeting during an autumnal sunset. Rooks suddenly filled the air outside on their way to roosts in St James’s Park, and the whole scene played out through the room’s large window. Afterwards he asked a colleague whether he’d enjoyed the spectacular view; the man replied that he had not even noticed the sun going down.

Storytelling, then, came as an opportunity to escape from daily drudgery. After the beginnings of the tale on the Stratford road, my grandfather finished it on morning journeys to school with his daughters. He’d find himself wondering in bed at night where he could possibly take the story next, terrified of disappointing his audience. “Excitement is the most important part of any story. So I made sure to leave off at the most exciting moment so that the girls would want me to go on the next day.” One of the best parts of my grandfather’s evening would be hearing them ask him to continue the tale the following morning. “A storyteller likes to be popular,” he admitted, “and their asking was a kind of payment. But I like it just as much that children around the world have enjoyed my stories too.”

My grandfather’s narration thrived under the pressure of performance. He tried to instil the art in his daughters too. Sometimes in the evening, snapping the head off one matchstick, he would then show just the ends of others to each person in the room, asking each to pick one. He or she who chose the headless match was then required to tell a story. The game was a difficult one, my mother recalls, but my grandfather was convinced it was good for their confidence: “oral narratives are one of the oldest art forms, venerable and ancient.” “I think he just quite liked putting us on the spot,” my aunt counters.

“Watership Down” has been reinterpreted countless times on screen and on stage; another vision of it will appear in a television series during 2017. Readers and viewers know moments they love, others they fear. In our version of the book’s tale, my grandpa remains the central character. The novel’s publication changed my family’s story. From a civil servant scraping by, he became an author famous around the world. He had tea with the Queen and lunch with Groucho Marx (“he was a very amusing companion and it was a pleasant enough occasion. But I don’t think either of us wanted to keep up the acquaintance”). Photographers hanging around outside the family’s home were treated to cups of tea by my grandmother, Elizabeth. My aunt also remembers being chased down the street by them.

These are stories of “Watership Down” that can never be read in its pages. But in our moments of shared recreation, as my grandpa and I talked, they were enlivened through our articulation. My grandfather hoped that one of his descendants would prove to be a storyteller. As a journalist, I am currently the closest to being one, but only in so far as I delight in writing for a living. In this instance, however, I hope chiefly to add one more tale to my family’s version of “Watership Down”. The novel was written “for the need for exciting stories”, my grandpa believes. This piece was written for the need for understanding how they come about.

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