Richard Adams, author of the timeless Watership Down, has died aged 96. Born in Newbury, Berkshire, to Evelyn Adams, a surgeon, and his wife Lilian, he was educated at Bradfield College. Encouraged by one of his masters, he went on to study at Oxford University. His unusual style, as well as his engagement with his material, will ensure that he is remembered and that his novels remain classics read by people of all ages.
The 200,000 word manuscript for Watership Down was initially rejected by seven major publishers, as well as many of the smaller houses, before it was accepted by the independent Rex Collings.
It became a bestseller soon after its publication and at one point held the record for the highest sum paid for paperback rights. Although published as an adult book, it won the two distinguished children’s book prizes, the Carnegie medal and the Guardian children’s book prize. Indeed, the ideas for the cult story originally came from tales the author wrote to entertain his two daughters on car journeys, and the tales were based on the rabbits he used to watch from the train on his commute to work. The fame of the book grew further following its 1978 adaptation to an animated film.
Adams, however, never categorised the work as a children’s novel. Set in the Berkshire Downs, the work perfectly portrayed the English countryside. In his autobiography, The Day Gone By (1990), Adams described how his heart was lost twice in the course of his life: first to the River Kennet, then to the Downs. He said of the latter: “I can’t remember ever to have done anything – anything at all – more delightful than walking on the crest of the Downs, looking away to the purple, heat-rimmed edge of the horizon.” Such a love of the countryside was given to him in part by his father, who taught him “to flyfish and birdwatch, about nature and walks.” Adams would later recall: “he was also the one who taught me about animals”
“I can’t remember ever to have done anything – anything at all – more delightful than walking on the crest of the Downs, looking away to the purple, heat-rimmed edge of the horizon.”
Adams combined an ardent passion for the subject of his books with an academic interest in wildlife. He took much influence from R. M. Lockley’s The Private Life of the Rabbit (1964), a study of groups of the animals. Through the characters of Fiver, Bigwig, and Hazel, he explored political leadership and society in a way that has allowed the book to endure. In 1980 Adams was invited to become president of the RSPCA, although he resigned soon after in protest that senior members of the charity were more concerned for their own careers than for the work of the charity.
Adams continued to write after the success of Watership Down, publishing Shardik in 1974, The Tyger Voyage in 1976, and The Plague Dogs in 1977. None were as successful as his first work, although he would later describe having a “particular fondness” for The Plague Dogs.
Although he did not begin his career as an author until the age of 54, the academic approach Adams took to the writing of literature can perhaps be attributed to his time at university. Whilst still at Bradfield College, a master recognised his potential and pushed him to apply for a scholarship at Oxford.
“I’d never really worked hard before and had been rather a slacker, doing nothing very much, but I was as surprised as anyone when awarded the scholarship”, he would later reminisce. Of the master who coached him he remembered: “He taught me how to work hard. He was a tyrant but a nice tyrant, and certainly launched me on my career path.”
After winning a scholarship to study modern history Adams took up his place at Worcester College. “I never regretted reading history,” he said. “I’ve got history in my fingertips. It’s a very good mental discipline because it deals in demonstrable fact, but also it was what I enjoyed.”
“The good thing about Oxford was that there was plenty of time to read so I read all the classics while I was there, and I loved swimming, jumping in at Folly Bridge and swimming down to the weir.” An Oxford Blue for two years, he always recounted his time in the city with pleasure.
“The good thing about Oxford was that there was plenty of time to read so I read all the classics while I was there, and I loved swimming, jumping in at Folly Bridge and swimming down to the weir.”
Such tranquil days were soon disrupted. He was sent off to fight in the Second World War from Oxford in 1940. In interviews given during his lifetime, Adams was often keen to avoid glamourising warfare, or the part he played in it.
In the Army Air Corps as a parachutist he was sent in to liberate Singapore. As one of the first ones into the Prisoner of War Camps in Singapore he described how “we saw terrible things, terrible, but I don’t want to talk about that. Put it this way, there were three types of chaps there, men who would die very soon, men who would be permanently affected for the rest of their lives and those that might survive.”
He served for five and a half years and would later describe in an interview: “I never fired a gun at a German or anyone else for that matter and I wasn’t being brave. I just did what I was told. I certainly wasn’t a hero. There were many men braver than me.”
In 1946 Adams was sent home to England. After docking at Southampton he returned straight to university, a period he described as “amongst the happiest times of my life.”
With the end of war came the sad realisation that many of the friends he had made at Oxford had been lost. Speaking later he recalled: “I just missed the company and the chaps. It took a lot of getting used to. I was bereft without my comrades and the officers’ mess. I had to acclimatise.” He eventually joined the civil service, specialising in housing and local government and marrying Elizabeth Acland in 1949. They had two daughters, Juliet and Rosamond.
A lively character with a passion for his work, Adams continued to write and attend book signings well into his nineties, remembering how at his first event, he stayed until 4 am: “To be honest I just like being the important person in the room.” In 2017 the BBC plans to release a new adaptation of Watership Down, further proof of the endurance of Richard Adams’s work.
On Watership Down’s website, the statement announcing his death quoted a section of the work:
“It seemed to Hazel that he would not be needing his body any more, so he left it lying on the edge of the ditch, but stopped for a moment to watch his rabbits and to try to get used to the extraordinary feeling that strength and speed were flowing inexhaustibly out of him into their sleek young bodies and healthy senses.”
“‘You needn’t worry about them,’ said his companion. ‘They’ll be alright – and thousands like them.’”