Sunday mornings the same players are drinking bitter ale and standing round the shove ha’penny board in the Crooked Billet pub near Henley-on-Thames. Ted Carter the scrap metal dealer is playing Dick Adams the longtime civil servant, and their conversation is about such men, women and monuments as Harold Wilson and Raquel Welch—and The Book.
The book is Watership Down, and 54-year-old Richard Adams wrote it. The book has changed things in his life, but only just a little. “The bitter is still the best for miles and miles,” says the author, “and we still fancy Raquel Welch. But I took early retirement from the Ministry of Local Government in January. I couldn’t believe the book would do so well.”
Watership Down is the name of an unspoiled section of English countryside not far from the country cottage where London-dwelling Richard Adams and his family spend every weekend. In the book it is also the destination of a band of rabbits who flee the warren where they were reared because of the threatened encroachment of a housing development. The saga of this raggle-taggle horde and their literally hair-raising adventures is Adams’ first book. And it is already a big success, marching in a few weeks to the top of the U.S. best-seller lists.
It is a rousing adventure tale lifted above its class by its larger picture of a world man dominates and threatens. Watership Down, like George Orwell’s Animal Farm, is a parable about decency and democracy—but, unlike Animal Farm, a parable in which democracy triumphs. What chiefly informs and inspires Adams’ work is a deep love of the flora and fauna of the English countryside (he freely credits R.M. Lockley’s classic The Private Life of the Rabbit for most of his technical information). This passage, about the near death of “Bigwig,” the hulking strongheart of the group, catches Adams’ nonsentimental style:
“By an effort of courage against all instinct, Hazel forced himself forward into the gap, with Fiver following. A terrible sight lay before them. The rotten leaves had been thrown up in showers. The earth had been laid bare and was scored with long scratches and furrows. Bigwig was lying on his side, his back legs kicking and struggling. A length of twisted copper wire, gleaming dully in the first sunlight, was looped round his neck and ran taut across one forepaw to the head of a stout peg driven into the ground. The running knot had pulled tight and was buried in the fur behind his ear. The projecting point of one strand had lacerated his neck and drops of blood, dark and red as yew berries, welled one by one down his shoulder…”
Adams is an Oxford-educated gentleman who has been marinated in English literature his whole life long. He will recite Cowper, Gray or Keats at the drop of a ha’penny, and Shakespeare is his other Bible. So imbued is he with the Elizabethan bard that he and his wife Elizabeth named their two daughters Juliet and Rosamond.
Watership Down had its origin in a series of stories Adams spun to beguile his children as the family drove up to Stratford-on-Avon to take in the great Shakespearean productions.
Pink cheeked, his laconic speech and usage upper class, Adams has just spent a few weeks in the U.S. making radio and TV appearances to promote his book. “Shocking hucksterism,” he cheerfully calls it. “It’s been grand, really, even though the air in your Central Park could do with a cleaning, some days anyway. And I still haven’t met Raquel Welch.”