First thing: this is not a list of ‘XX books you should read before you die’, rather a month-long meander through books of all genres and ages that make me think more, seek refuge in, and ultimately, helped shape the person I am.
Watership Down, Richard Adams, Rex Collings Ltd, 1972
A book about rabbits. Excellent. Where’s my Barbie? I think that sums up my reaction to my 8th birthday present from my Mum and Dad (1979).
I started reading, because that’s what bookish kids do. I didn’t like the frightened Fiver with his strange visions. His brother, Hazel, assumes (not quite so reluctantly) leadership of a small band of rabbits which escapes the destruction of their established warren, but as the journey to the ‘high, lonely hills, where the wind and the sound carry and the ground’s as dry as straw in a barn’ of Fiver’s imaginings results in the establishment of the Watership Down warren, he proves to be the one able to summon the best from each. Hazel is not the strongest, smartest, or most entertaining rabbit. Those honours go to Bigwig, Blackberry and Dandelion. His wisdom is questioned by the others when he befriends mice and the unforgettable injured gull, Kehaar. Hazel’s wisdom is not always explicit to the reader, either. To survive, Watership Down needs does. Yep, got it. Hazel sends Holly, Silver, Buckthorn and Strawberry to a big warren spotted by Kehaar as ‘ambassadors’, with a peace and love idea that they be allowed to take some does from the over-crowded Efrafa back to Watership Down … and plots a raid on Nuthanger Farm to free its thatched rabbits. Holly and the others escape Efrafa with their lives but no does and the farm raid is almost a disaster.
Efrafa with its marks, regimented eating and shitting times, wide patrols and all-powerful Council and Owslafa is as close to the existence of Orwell’s 1984 as an eight year-old is likely to come. A dark, fearful place for all except a chosen few, where the population accepts its fate, to remain meek and unquestioning under the tyranny of General Woundwort.
Rather than cheer the rabbits the night before another attempt is made to infiltrate Efrafa and escape with enough does to ensure the survival of Watership Down, Bigwig insists storyteller Dandelion relate The Story of El-Ahrairah and the Black Rabbit of Inle. It’s in the rabbits’ speech (Lapine, as distinct from the ‘hedgerow’ talk of other creatures) and their fables that Adams gives another gift: introducing a new way of speaking of the sun and telling time, an acceptance of strange words and phrases – ‘silflay’, ‘hrududu’, elil’, ‘ni-Frith’ – which later made me treasure Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange. Similarly, Adams introduces each chapter with the words of other great writers, from Aeschylus to Auden, Browning and Belloc. It is only in adulthood that I drew the meaning of these paragraphs to the chapters that followed.
All novels have a character which the reader relates to, or aspires to be. I did not want to be the leader. I admired the ingenuity of Blackberry, of course, but my heart was set on Thlayli (Bigwig) from the moment he agreed, as a member of the Sandleford warren, to take the inconsequential Hazel and his brother Fiver, with their warnings of impending doom, to the Chief Rabbit. As a frightened, damaged child who needed to survive my own Black Rabbit, Bigwig’s valour and unyielding strength lent me some. His heart, bigger than the strange thatch of fur on his head. His hot temper mixed with his tender care for Kehaar. His wild, unrelenting fury in the face of Woundwort’s assault on Watership Down. All of these things taught me to be hard even when I had nothing to hang on to, no one to speak to, only myself to lick my wounds.
I received my copy of Watership Down more than 30 years ago. It’s the book of my childhood, a book that with every re-reading, imbues it with new values and qualities. That loyalty should not be blind. That it is right to question convention. That no idea, potential ally or friend is too stupid or small … and sometimes, there are things that are not worth dying for, but worth fighting for with your life.
Until tomorrow …