A eulogy to Richard Adams

Jan 16, 2017

Richard Adams

The following eulogy was delivered at Richard’s funeral on the 13th January by his son-in-law, Dr. Peter Johnson.

Good morning everybody. Thank you for coming today to pay your last respects to Richard.

Without wishing to be irreverent, but knowing that Richard always liked a bit of showmanship and drama, I can easily imagine that he felt quite chuffed to be sandwiched between George Michael and Carrie Fisher when he died at Christmas.

What’s more, if we assume that the gates to Heaven are fairly up-to-date from a technology point of view, he probably thought that squeezing in between George and Carrie would be rather like nipping into the speedy boarders’ queue when you catch a flight.

As Richard waited his turn, I am sure he would have enjoyed talking to George Michael: Richard knew a lot about music and, when he was young, he was a formidable ballroom dancer.

Similarly, he wouldn’t have been stuck for words talking to Carrie Fisher, since in middle age he had again taken up his interest in stars and planets, buying a telescope so big it blocked the route to his dining room.

Eventually, I suppose, he reached the top of the queue, for that awe-inspiring encounter with St Peter. Again without wishing to sound disrespectful, it strikes me that the great saint, in evaluating the merits of Richard’s life, might have been interested in Richard’s answers to a small number of important questions.

  • What was distinctive about Richard and the life that he led ?
  • What had he done for others during his life?
  • And finally perhaps, what lessons might others draw from his example?

So, turning to the first question, what made Richard special? The question makes me gulp – any number of things, you might say. Ask any of Richard’s family or friends and they will each recount some unusual aspect of his character or an interesting activity that he engaged in.

Here though are a few threads:

Hobbies. Richard liked all kinds of games, playing them at home, in the pub or on his travels. The more obvious ones were backgammon, cribbage, dominoes, and chess but there were some more obscure ones such as shov’ ha’penny, piquet - a favourite of Jane Austen - mah-jongg and go.

He also loved fly-fishing, particularly for trout, but at times he almost gave me a heart attack by mischievously switching from dry flies to nymphs in order to get what he thought was his fair quota of fish.

Music was also a deep love throughout his life, particularly classical music, opera and folksong – he even learned to play the recorder and the guitar. Then there was his garden - remember those dahlias!

Energy and enthusiasm were his trademarks, manifest in his engagement with new things. For instance, I remember well mixing large numbers of Harvey Wallbangers, a fiendish concoction, after Richard had encountered the cocktail on a promotional visit to the United States.

Then there was my visit on Richard’s behalf to Fribourg and Trayor, historic tobacconists on the Haymarket in London. I did n’t have much to buy - only each of the TWELVE different types of snuff he had put on his list – Black Rapee, Kings Plain, Nut Brown, Old Paris come to mind…

Later, in the early 80’s Richard, then merely in his sixties, sought adventure by extending his nature walks under the sea. He qualified as a scuba diver, and subsequently took us all for a fabulous underwater visit to the Great Barrier Reef.

Richard displayed an astonishing knowledge of literature, history, music, folk song, flowers, birds and animals – all could have been his possible choices for Mastermind. Many things he could recite by heart. This meant, of course, he was not much fun to bet against, but it clearly helped him with the familiar morning ritual of 7 down five letters, begins with B, clue Macbeth’s eyesight….

Richard excelled in his ability to make people happy, whether this was playing games, conversing generally, or telling stories and jokes. Some of you may remember the speech he gave as the bride’s father in PIDGIN ENGLISH at our wedding. Richard was also the only person I have ever met who never told me the same joke twice, not even once in all the hundreds he told me. He seemed to have a fathomless well of humour on which to draw. He was also an Ace of Praise, generously lauding in a warm fanfare the achievements of others.

So we see there’s lots on the personal credit side of his ledger, but what could Richard say that he had done for other people?

Well…. First of all, one could argue that the number of Londoners he saved either from drowning, because of the Thames flood barrier, or from suffering pneumonia because of the Clean Air Act - which stopped Londoners burning coal as they still do in China - one could argue this number is actually greater than the number of people who have read his books. His 25 years as a civil servant weren’t a waste of time.

Nor should we overlook the serious role he played in the War, first in the RASC, and then, as a consequence of his petitioning, as a Captain in the First Airborne parachute Division. This, in spite of his nervous disposition.

More obviously though, his wonderful portfolio of books and stories has given untold pleasure to millions of people of all ages, dispositions and languages across the globe.

These works will endure, and Watership Down will be celebrated by his grandchildren’s grandchildren. He continued writing to the end of his life, including most recently a children’s tale he made up when Juliet and Rosamond were still young. In the not too distant future, the BBC will show a new four-part computer-generated production of Watership Down. It’s a shame that he did not live to see it.

Turning to the last of St Peter’s questions – what lessons may we learn from Richard’s life that may be of lasting value to our own?

To me, having known Richard for over 40 years, three things stand out that we may all take away with us.

First, the importance of engaging with, and being open to, younger people. Richard always had a tremendous rapport with the young. I remember very vividly the pictures taken of him and the cast of Watership Down at the Watermill Theatre in Newbury only last year. He was able to listen and empathise with the generations that followed him. It is very important, given the intergenerational problems and stresses we face now and in the years to come, that the old are able, and willing, to talk to the young.

The second counsel that we might take from Richard emphasises our important proximity to nature. Through his love of walking, knowledge of birds and plants, Richard was able to bring home to me and many others the wonderful beauty and complexity of the world in which we live. He was not simply passive in his interaction with nature however, campaigning fearlessly for the rights of animals, in particular leading protests to prevent the needless slaughter of harp seals. His life reminds us that we need to immerse ourselves in this world – the world will do us good. And knowing this, we need to take care of it.

Finally, Richard recognised the importance of family. He was fortunate enough to see one great grandchild born, and was looking forward to the birth of a second. His engagement with his daughters and their families on an intimate and recurrent basis is an important moral for us all.

I sense that Richard’s conversation with St Peter will have gone well.

In conclusion then, we can see that Richard led a long, interesting and fulfilled life, which we are here today to celebrate. In doing so, however, let us not lose sight of the fact that he could not have done this without the magnificent and unstinting support of others, especially in the latter years of his life.

I would like to use this occasion to give special thanks to Sara Jane Harvey, Maxine Neve, Liz Jones, Jane Clacy, Barbara Nayyar and Sarah Shaikh who took great care of him in difficult circumstances.

We must also recognise the huge burden borne by his wife and daughters throughout this period.

Lastly, may I take this opportunity to thank the Mayor, and community of Whitchurch for facilitating this funeral, and making the past thirty two years very happy ones for Richard and Elizabeth.

Farewell Richard. May you rest in peace.