Katherine MacAlister speaks to Watership Down author Richard Adams

Richard Adams, the nonagenarian author, responsible for Watership Down, one of the most famous animal stories of all time, is sitting comfortably in his living room, dressed in cords and a jumper.

He boasts a full head of white hair, his clear blue eyes, narrowing as he scans his vast memory for a particular anecdote or memory, surrounded by his family — Elizabeth, his wife of 65 years, and one of his daughters, Juliet.

He is a man still very much at ease with himself and it is a privilege to be granted an audience with the 94-year-old, albeit on the premise of his most famous novel being reissued alongside Sharlik, with two more books in the pipeline next year.

A book tour also beckons which will be bring him back to his beloved Oxford, and he is really enjoying his renaissance. His daughter tells me he loves meeting his readers and fans and listening to their opinions, as if, despite a lifetime of worldwide sales and notoriety, he still can’t quite believe that people actually read his books.

However, despite his vast library of work, it’s Oxford I want to talk to him about, because it was here that he won a scholarship to study modern history, and here, in his nice study at Worcester College from whence he was sent off to fight in 1940 in the World War Two arenas, returning afterwards a survivor, and a very uncomfortable one at that.

And while happy, keen even, to reminisce about his halycon university days, he is adamant that I don’t glamorise the part he played in the war, even as a parachutist in the Army Air Corps sent in to liberate Singapore: “We were the first ones into the Singapore POW prisons,” he says pausing. “And 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 says his eyes misting over in quiet contemplation. “You can’t imagine what it was like.”

In uniform for five-and-a-half years, he adds: “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.”

But let’s go back, to a time when Richard Adams was a small boy at Bradfield College, earmarked by a master for academia. Still bemused by the attention after all these years, and at being singled out, the teacher identified Adams’ potential early on, pushing him to take the Oxford University scholarship and coaching him to get it. “He taught me how to work hard. He was a tyrant but a nice tyrant,” Richard Adams smiles “and certainly launched me on my career path.

“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 and I never regretted reading history. 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.”

Not English Literature then? “No, but 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.

His parents must have been pleased? “My father wasn’t at all keen for me to go to university. He was a surgeon and thought that, after secondary education, you should go off and get a job, yet when I asked him what job he didn’t have any ideas. I was very fond of my father, he taught me all sorts of super things like how to flyfish and birdwatch, about nature and walks. He was also the one who taught me about animals.”

Demobbed in 1946, he was sent home on a ship “which was amongst the happiest times of my life,” finally docking in Southampton and going straight back to university.

Once the war finished, however, Adams struggled: “It took me a long time to adapt. I’d made some very good friends at Oxford and sadly many of them died in the war. I could reel off a long list of names right now if you wanted me to,” he says sadly. Perhaps he was traumatised by his experiences, I ask? “Nonsense, 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.”

The Oxford Times:

Acclimatise he did, however, going into the civil service, specialising in housing and local government because it was better paid than teaching, getting married to Elizabeth “a great physical beauty, people would stop and just look at her,” he says proudly. “Luckily she knew what she wanted too”, settling in Belsize Park and then Whitchurch, where they still live, and where Watership Down is set “well south of Newbury anyway” and starting a family of two young girls.

It was his girls to whom he started telling bedtime stories, making them up as he went along. They were so good that when he finished they begged him to write them down. “I didn’t want to. Too much like hard work,” he chuckles. But eventually he did and, 18 months later, Watership Down was completed, barely recognisable from the original story.

Seven publishers turned it down before it was taken up and was an instant success. “When they said they wanted to publish my book I went all trembly and couldn’t eat my lunch, because I felt very keenly that Watership Down was good. I always had faith in it.” The Americans liked it even more than we did and turned it into a film.

Shardik followed and was almost as successful at which point Adams realised he could give up the day job and become a full-time author, a role he has enjoyed enormously for ever after. He was 54.

So what took him so long? “I know, it’s funny isn’t it, because I never even wrote for the student magazines before that. I loved reading what other chaps wrote but when it came to me I just didn’t have the self-confidence. I just didn’t think I’d be any good.”

A victim of his own success, he then had to debunk with his family to the Isle Of Man for several years during the “creative tax period” when his wages were going to be docked by 98 per cent. “It was quite exciting, really, because, apart from the fantastic bird-watching, my neighbours were Status Quo, Nigel Mansell, and the Bee Gees,” he remembers, only returning when the tax laws changed.

Since then he has written constantly, his later books never attaining the same success as his early ones, although his personal favourites is The Plague Dogs of which he is “very fond”.

Does he mind? “Not at all. I’ve always seen me as me and the public as something quite different. I’ve always written what I wanted to. I write because I want to write. And I made enough from Watership Down for the rest of my life.”

Currently toying with penning a book on a boy in the Spanish Armada, he’s still as busy as ever, writing all the stories in his head before getting them down in longhand. “It takes possession of you. Never had writer’s block, just a few writer’s pauses.”

So is he looking forward to the book signings? ”Very much so. I remember my first book signing in New York in a massive gymnasium and by 7pm there were still hordes of people waiting so I stood up on my chair and said ‘I won’t go home until I’ve seen each and every one of you’.” What time did he finish? “4am. To be honest I just like being the important person in the room,” he chuckles.

Watership Down and Shardik are published by Oneworld and Richard Adams will be signing copies of both at Blackwells on Broad Street on Saturday at 3pm.
01865 333623 or events.oxford@blackwell.co.uk