I see Richard Adams died over Christmas.
Watership Down, which I read at home in South Shields aged 21, just before I moved to London made a huge impression on me. For years I would cite it as my all-time favourite novel and it still to this day has the best-ever last line of any book, not just in my opinion but it frequently comes up in best last-line lists.
I went there once: to the real Watership Down. There is a map in the front of the book and you can use it to work out where the rabbits began and ended their journey. It is near Newbury in Berkshire, not far from Wash Common where Adams himself was raised. On the day I went, a midweek day like a Tuesday, there were maybe twenty other people wandering around who had made the same calculation as I had and climbed up the hill to retrace the rabbit’s steps.
What do I love about it? It is beautifully structured: the conflicts aren’t contrived; they arise from the natural course of the narrative, out of real life. There really would be tame rabbits fed by a farmer for food and there could be a river bridge that would fill a rabbit with terror at the prospect of crossing it. As Adams acknowledges in his Foreword, he owed a tremendous amount to The Private Life of the Rabbit [RM Lockley]: including Woundwort for one thing. The weakest section of the book, the raid on the farm and the cat is in fact pure imagination while the other events, the journey, the fights, the hierarchies, are largely taken from RM Lockley’s remarkable study. I won’t drone on about the poetry, the vivid imagining that lines like, The primroses were over brought to a townie like me but it is the language of the Countryside: it is that which brings the story alive and what makes the book a classic.
I never read anything else by Adams; never read Shardik or Plague Dogs. My loss, I guess.
And that last line?
‘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 . . .’