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.

Richard Adams, as remembered by his family

Jan 3, 2017

Miranda Johnson, a granddaughter of Richard Adams, has produced two articles exploring Richard’s life and works.

How Watership Down was written - The Economist’s ideas, culture and lifestyle magazine, 1843

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”…

Lord of the rabbits - The Times

Rabbits do not live very long, and in the wild they last perhaps three years. Richard Adams, my grandfather, was far more fortunate: he was 96 years old when he died. His family miss him, just as all families love and mourn those who have gone at Christmas…

Requiescat in Pace

Dec 27, 2016

Richard Adams

Richard’s much loved family announce with sadness that their dear father, grandfather, and great-grandfather passed away peacefully at 10pm on Christmas Eve.

‘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.”’

Richard George Adams, 9th May 1920 - 24th December 2016

Enduring Winter

Dec 16, 2016

A rabbit enduring the cold of winter

Twilight at four o’clock, dark by twenty to five. Cold, too. I’m delighted to find that a sentence from ‘Watership Down’ appears in The Penguin Dictionary of Modern Quotations. ‘Many human beings say that they enjoy the winter, but what they really enjoy is feeling proof against it’. Yes, indeed. Glad I’m not a rabbit at this time of year.

A murmuration of starlings in Whitehall

Dec 1, 2016

Starlings flocking

Before becoming a full-time author, Richard worked for many years in the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, later subsumed into the Department of the Environment. He worked on some interesting stuff, including the Clean Air acts and the Thames Flood Barrier; nevertheless, he wasn’t really cut out for working in an office in London, and over the years the Big Smoke took its toll on this countryside-loving man. Here’s a telling little piece he wrote about one of his experiences there:

‘Some years ago, when I used to work in Whitehall (where there wasn’t all that much nature to be observed) I used to enjoy seeing the flocks of starlings coming in to roost at sunset. Attracted by the warmth of central London, they would arrive from the country in thousands, and strut and tussle along the office buildings for their pendent beds and procreant cradles for the night. One evening I was standing near a window in the Old Treasury Building near Horse Guards Parade, discussing some civil service matter with two people from another Department whom I didn’t know very well. Suddenly the starlings began to arrive. The air outside became darkly alight with wings and with squabbling and cackling, but after a few minutes, while our talk continued, things became a bit quieter.

‘I like to see the starlings come in, don’t you?’ I remarked to one of my companions.

‘Starlings?’ he replied, puzzled and slightly put out, for I had broken his train of thought.

‘Several thousand starlings,’ said I, ‘have just alighted rather noisily within a few yards of us.’

‘Oh - really?’ he replied, and for a split second he and the other fellow caught each other’s eyes. Then he resumed where I had interrupted him.

I must add that we weren’t all like that. A colleague once dumped six different kinds of fungi on my desk and asked rather dauntingly, ‘Can you identify those?’

(He could.)’

Open Country

Nov 28, 2016

A 2012 radio programme, marking the 40th anniversary of Watership Down, explores the novel’s inspirational setting and the issues it faces in the 21st century.

“Helen Mark visits the Berkshire site made famous by author Richard Adams in Watership Down. Development is now planned in Sandleford near Newbury. A planning application to build 2,000 homes has met with opposition from the local community. However, West Berkshire Council says it needs to build more due to a housing shortage.

To explore the issues and mark the 40th anniversary of the book’s publication Helen retraces the landscape that follows the Berkshire/Hampshire border.”

Listen now: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01fjx6m

Open Country Thumbnail

One for sorrow, two for joy...

Nov 22, 2016

A magpie

Very high wind again - a nor’wester this time, howling on into the night. The magpies (plentiful as tabby cats, in point of fact, too many) seem undeterred by any amount of wind. They take to the air in the gale, balancing with the help of their long tails, which they can partly open, and raise or lower almost to a right angle. I don’t care for them - raffish, predatory creatures; ‘can’t sing either.

I turn to my old friend John Clare, that great poet, for a bit of a lift:


I love the fitfull gusts that shakes
 The casement all the day
And from the mossy elm tree takes
 The faded leaf away
Twirling it by the window-pane
With thousand others down the lane

I love to see the shaking twig
 Dance till the shut of eve
The sparrow on the cottage rig
 Whose chirp would make believe
That spring was just now flirting by
In summers lap with flowers to lie

I love to see the cottage smoke
 Curl upwards through the naked trees
The pigeons nestled round the coat
 On dull November days like these
The cock upon the dung-hill crowing
The mill sails on the heath agoing

The feather from the ravens breast
 Falls on the stubble lea
The acorns near the old crows nest
 Fall pattering down the tree
The grunting pigs that wait for all
Scramble and hurry where they fall.

Watership Down on BBC Radio 4

Nov 13, 2016

A new 2-part radio production of Watership Down is now available for listening on BBC Radio 4, produced by Gemma Jenkins and Directed by Marc Beeby.

“Richard Adams’ award-winning novel from 1972. Fearful that their home in Sandleford Warren is to be destroyed, a band of rabbits begins an epic and perilous journey to Watership Down.”

Listen online now: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08298xw

Listen to Part 1: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b081tpw0
Listen to Part 2: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0829dcv

Watership Down Radio 4 Thumbnail

Armistice Day

Nov 11, 2016

In his autobiography ‘The Day Gone By’ Richard muses on Armistice Day, as it was when he was a child in the twenties:

‘I remember the annual Two Minutes’ Silence on 11 November. I dare say that anyone who hasn’t experienced it as it was kept in those days will find it impossible to imagine. Whatever day of the week 11 November happened to be, the Silence was observed on that day. In London and the other main cities of the country, guns were fired on the stroke of eleven o’clock. Elsewhere, the wireless sufficed, or signals were given by the police, or by soldiers firing blank. Thereupon everything and everybody, wherever they were and whatever they were doing, stopped exactly as they were for two minutes, until the guns fired again. It was more than impressive; it was overwhelming I suppose there can ever have been anything like it: streets, cities full of people standing perfectly still and silent. Anyone who was driving a car, taxi or ‘bus stopped the engine, got out and stood in the road with bowed head and hat in hand. In the shops, the assistant who was tying a parcel laid it on the counter and the lady who was paying for it put down her purse and stood opposite. Often, one saw tears on the faces of grown-up people…

This universal observance (and enforcement) was based entirely on public feeling (and guilt for being alive). I doubt whether most people nowadays realize how enormous and appalling a shock the Great War was - and was universally felt to be. With the possible exception of the Black Death, it was by far the greatest disaster which has ever befallen this country…

My generation grew up in the shadow of the Great War. Before I was nine I knew virtually all the significant place names - Ypres, Albert, Thiepval, Bapaume, Delville Wood, Vimy Ridge and so on. as I grew older I came to realize that the world has not been the same place since that war. In what respect? In a word, a universal sense of insecurity. Before the Great War, British people for the most part trusted their leaders, were proud of their country and believed in progress. Not any more. The general notion that leaders (and experts) are not to be trusted on any account, and that catastrophe is ever at hand, goes back not to the atom bomb but to 1914-18. I absorbed it unconsciously as part of growing up.’

Richard and Elizabeth watching Strictly