What kind of books did you read as a child?
Well that’s very interesting. I shall cast my mind back… Well certainly Beatrix Potter, my mother used to read me Beatrix Potter, and there’s a great deal of stuff there you know: 19 major works of Beatrix Potter, and four minor works. That’s a very considerable output, and it covers 20 years of her life. When I had my bath and supper, and had everything ready for bed, I used to sit on my mother’s knee and so that shows I must have been quite small: three years, four, five maybe? Not more. She read Beatrix Potter aloud to me, and it was the ideal way of getting it really, because sitting on her knee, you know, you could see the pictures. When I got a bit older I could sometimes puzzle out a word or two from what she was reading. I enjoyed those bedtime sessions of Beatrix Potter very much. There was a very popular book when I was little, I don’t know whether you have come across it yourself: Little Black Sambo.
Yes, I’ve heard of it.
And you know that Little Black Sambo has – ridiculous, absurd really – has come under a ban from certain people, because he’s black. Silly I call it, and I have taken every opportunity of saying so. There was a companion one too: Little Black Quibba, came under the same trouble. I remember both of them very well. Then when I got a bit older, there was Winnie-the-Pooh. Winnie-the-Pooh had a tremendous vogue you know. When We Were Very Young, you know the verses? That was very, very popular, in fact you could converse with people assuming that they did know the most popular items. ‘Changing guard at Buckingham Palace’, ‘The Three Foxes’… Winnie-the-Pooh is stories of course. I’m a bit critical of Winnie-the-Pooh because – it had a tremendous vogue, sold thousands and thousands of copies since 1925 or somewhere around that time. And When We Were Very Young which was followed two or three years later by Now We Are Six. Now We Are Six doesn’t have the same quality of childish-like verse of When We Were Very Young.
What was the first adult that you picked up? Did you like detective books, or…
No, I never cared for detective stories. Never could get interested in them at all. I preferred fantasy: The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. I don’t know old I was, I might have been five when that was read to me first. But the thing I remember most of in my childhood was Doctor Dolittle, and it has always struck me as odd that Doctor Dolittle hasn’t got a wider… well it is fairly well known, but I would expect Doctor Dolittle to sweep the board pretty well, but that is not so.
And why did you choose to study history?
Well the system at Bradfield [College] was like this: you did seven subjects until you got to taking School Certificate. I think School Certificate has been superseded by something else now hasn’t it?
By GCSEs and A-Levels, although it’s probably changed since I left!
Well when you were at secondary school, or public school as I prefer to call it, when you’re a new boy, and for upwards of two years, your sights were set on School Certificate, and the syllabus for the subjects you were taught were all done with the School Certificate in mind. It was my first academic success actually; I was put up for seven subjects for School Certificate, and got seven credits. I’ll try and remember what they were… Well there was English, History, Geography, French, Latin, Physics and Chemistry. I did seven subjects and got seven credits, and this was considered something of an achievement. Although I didn’t feel it so, I found the School Certificate papers quite straightforward.
But it was History that stood out?
Yes, well, English Literature as a subject for specialisation had only just come in and I thought it was not what I wanted to do because I reckoned I could do all the English Literature I wanted or needed in my spare time. It was what I enjoyed reading, and then it occurred to me that History would be a very helpful subject as a top-up to English Literature.
[Brief pause for tea]
We were speaking of your love of history.
Ah yes, Our Island Story! You know the book?
Well my mother used to read me that when I was quite little, I must have been five years old! You might have thought that would be too young for Our Island Story, but if you’ve got a kind and intelligent parent who is prepared to help you – and it is very good Our Island Story, I reread it recently and was surprised at how good it was, it must have set thousands of people off on a love of history. My mother was not a really well-educated woman, I don’t know if I’ve told you this – I don’t want to disparage my mother, she was a darling, I loved her very much – but my father was as I think I told you a doctor, a surgeon, an FRCS he was, and a damn good surgeon too – they thought the world of him at the Newbury Hospital – but anyway, what was I trying to say…
About reading Our Island Story.
Oh yes. Well my father of course was educated to become a doctor. Whereas other people would go to Oxford or Cambridge, my father went to Bart’s Hospital, and there he did very well and he set up in business as a doctor and surgeon. My father was a very shy, reticent man, and he’d had very little experience of girls at all when he was in his twenties and thirties, and I think I may have mentioned before, he had an old lady patient – of course they were all private patients in those days, paying patients as you know – and he had an old lady patient and he thought she would be the better for a resident nurse. So he rang up the hospital in Bath and asked them to send down a nurse. The nurse they sent down was a certain Lillian Button – and I don’t know much about this because my father and mother were very reticent about it – but they got engaged and then got married. I’m trying to remember in what year that would have been… 1910 I think would have been right because my sister was the first-born – Catherine – she was born in 1911, well that would mean their marriage in 1910, wouldn’t it. And then my brother followed in 1913, my brother John, the second child. Well then there was a third boy who died and this was never talked about… I’m trying to remember his name – Robert! Poor Robert. This made a gap: Robert’s birth, infancy and death. He was two when he died. My father felt it very deeply I know. I said to him once – I don’t remember how old I was – I said, ‘but of course daddy I’ve never seen anyone die’. I remember this very well, my daddy said, ‘No. I’ve seen all sorts of people die. And I’ve seen my little son die.’ I realised he was speaking under great emotional pressure, then he said, ‘and I’ve never seen anyone go easy yet.’ I think he modified this a little later. It was so long ago, but I do remember that: ‘I’ve seen all sorts of people die. And I’ve seen my little son die.’ That was poor Robert.
Do you think that has anything to do with the way that in your writing you don’t pull any punches when it comes to telling the truth of things like death?
You think so do you?
You do have a way of telling it honestly. Is that deliberate or does it just come through from the way you were brought up?
Both I should think. Certainly I was brought up in a family that didn’t shirk nasty bits, nasty stories. I suppose I got used to it, being in a doctor’s family. Distressing things were not ducked or dodged. From quite an early age I knew what it was to weep for someone else’s death.
So you finished your history degree, and you entered the Civil Service…
Yes… I was 18 in 1938 and I can remember the so-called Munich crisis very well – when Hitler demanded the return of Germany’s colonies which had been taken from her as a result of the First World War. This was when we, everyone in Europe, was afraid of Hitler. Hitler would say: if you don’t give me what I’m demanding I shall declare war and my troops will march on Friday week. Or words to that effect. And there was no doubt he meant it. Years later when I had a German friend, I asked him, ‘you were there, would he really have sent his troops in if he hadn’t got what he wanted?’ And this chap answered plainly, he said, ‘yes, we were all quite sure that he would, we were getting ready for war, we were afraid there was going to be a war.’ I can remember this crisis very well and I think there was no doubt at all that Hitler would have started a war over the so-called Munich Crisis. It was called the Munich Crisis because Mr Chamberlin flew to Munich to see Hitler and Hitler told him lies really, that this was his last territorial demand. What he was asking for was the Sudeten areas around Czechoslovakia and he swore blind that this was his last territorial demand, and we all believed him because we hadn’t had much to do with him up until that time. Then of course six months later the Germans invaded Czechoslovakia and took the whole thing over, and this was quite unexpected, and it was from that time on that we all became certain that sooner or later there was going to be a war, and that the next time Hitler demanded anything we were going to refuse him, and if there was a war then there was a war. Well the next thing he did, as you probably remember, was going into Poland. I remember this very well, it was the long vacation and I was living at home with my mother and father and I remember going down into the town on my bicycle to buy some gramophone records. I was very friendly with the manager of the music shop and he had the telephone off the hook to listen to whatever was coming through, and he told me that fighting has begun; the Germans were fighting the Poles on the border. I took my bike home again quickly and told my mother that war must have broken out, but it wasn’t confirmed until later in the day that Mr Chamberlin came on the wireless and said that he, well he delivered an ultimatum to Hitler and said that if he hadn’t heard anything from him by 12 o’clock that he would have no alternative but to declare war. He hadn’t heard anything by 12 o’clock and consequently, as he said on the wireless, we are now at war with Germany. I remember my sister clicking her tongue and casting her eyes up. She knew more clearly than I did what this was going to mean; how terrible the war would be. It was the end of the world that existed between 1918 and 1939, the world in which I grew up. It remains very vividly in my memory.
With your books it always seems like you’ve done a lot of research, there’s a lot of knowledge behind the text, even when it’s in something like Shardik. The research may have been done in your head, but a lot of world-building has gone on.
Shardik is a world of history really, only I’ve made up the history. It reads like a historical account, or at least it’s meant to. Although there’s a lot besides in Shardik. Shardik is about the growth of a religion. I always thought it was my best book, but no one else ever thought so. After Watership Down everything fell rather flat. Watership Down had a tremendous reception of course, and the public were all expecting something that would follow on logically from Watership Down, well what they got was Shardik and they didn’t like it. I don’t know that I blame them really although I think there’s a lot of merit in Shardik and I still do.
Was it a deliberate choice on your part to write a very different book?
Oh yes, I wanted to write something different. I simply let Shardik occur to me really. I didn’t go out searching for a subject at all. I don’t know what the source – probably something in my unconscious mind, I don’t know what the birth pangs of Shardik were, I just knew I wanted… I had the initial picture of the great bear dying, full of maggots, in a pit in the forest; the hunter coming upon it and recognising this as a fulfilment of a prophecy. The idea of an incarnate god. I didn’t want my incarnate god to be a human being because he’d get all mixed up with Jesus, and I didn’t want to get all mixed up with Jesus so it had to be an animal. But what sort of an animal? Well it’s not hard to think of a bear, the bear is a very appropriate animal. They’re funny things bears, you know that they have quiescent periods when people can go up to the bear and talk to them, pat them. Did you know this?
I didn’t, no.
Well that is the case. That’s why bears have always been popular in circuses. It’s possible for human beings to fraternise with bears. I’ve always thought Shardik was a damn good book, but they didn’t like it did they? They were expecting Watership Down and they didn’t get it.
Speaking of Watership Down, I suppose we rather glossed over that. We should probably go back and talk about a couple of things. You were telling the story to your daughters on a car journey?
And how different was the telling to the writing? How different was the story?
Oh, very different, is the answer. The story was more or less improvised, although I did think about it actually during the day before it was going to be told, but it wasn’t shaped or fashioned. A great deal of it was ad-libbed as they say. I realised that I was going to have to tell them another bit in the car going to the school, and I would prepare that in my mind, but I didn’t have any idea what was coming after that, and this developed bit by bit. Then of course it was Juliet who said, ‘you oughtn’t to waste that daddy, it’s too good to waste; you should write it down.’ At last I agreed to write it down, and I would come home from the Civil Service and see the children bathed and put to bed – they were quite little then – and then I would have supper and then after that I would sit down and write another chunk of Watership Down. When it was finished Juliet said, ‘you ought to get it published.’ I thought to myself, well, I think it deserves a modest edition in hardback, I’m not looking any further than that.
Little did you know.
Little did I know… It was rejected seven times by four publishers and three firms of authors’ agents, and they all said the same thing: they said grown-up people wouldn’t like it because it’s about rabbits – which they would regard as babyish of course – and children wouldn’t like it because you’ve written it in a very difficult adult style. I said, ‘well yes, I never write down to children. I write straight. They can either take it or leave it.’ Then the seventh chap I took it to was Rex Collings. Rex Collings, I saw in The Spectator, had republished a book which had first been published in 1881 and had not been noticed since then [Wood Magic by Richard Jefferies]. It was a book closely concerned with nature. I thought that maybe the person who thought fit to resurrect this book from 1881 might care for my book – I wonder who he is. I ran him down and discovered it was someone called Rex Collings, who didn’t appear to be very well known. I found out a bit about Rex Collings; he was a bit of a one-man-band, although he had a faithful secretary. I submitted it to him and I had to go away on work for the Civil Service I remember, I had to go away for about four days in the North, and when I came back Elizabeth said to me, ‘I hope I’ve done the right thing. That Mr Rex… whatshisname… Collings has been in touch and I’ve arranged for you to lunch with him at the Reform on Thursday.’ I thought to myself, well this doesn’t sound quite like all the other buggers… [Laughter] I duly turned up on the Thursday – we met at the bar – and I was determined that I was not going to be the chap who raised the subject of the book. We had a gin and tonic, and then went to help ourselves off the cold collation table and as soon as we had sat down and spread our napkins, Rex Collings said, ‘I liked your book, and I’d like to publish it.’ I was so affected I could hardly eat my lunch. [Laughter] Anyway we became very friendly. I was able to work closely with Rex Collings over the publication of the book. [He] altered bits and pieces, but not the actual thing. Well, you know the rest. I was bowled over by rave reviews. And then it went to America. In a way it came into England from America. It had success in England, but not wide sales, and then it went to America where it had huge sales. They had ten times the reading public for a start. It came back to England from America which was rather ironical, rather amusing. If it hadn’t been for the American edition I doubt whether it would have taken on quite so widely as it did in England.
And so then you travelled for a while. I believe you were a writer-in-residence at universities, is that right?
Yes that’s right. I was a writer-in-residence at two universities, one was the University of Florida at a town called Gainsville in the north of Florida, and I enjoyed being a writer-in-residence very much; you felt like Jesus and the Disciples. [Laughter] I had a group of students, male and female, who loved me and loved the work, the book. I thought, well this is fun, I’ll do it again, so I went to Hollins, which is a university in Virginia. Really you know to be quite honest, Hollins is a bit of a finishing school for wealthy girls. They were all wealthy girls, my disciples. I had a class of about twelve that I used to lecture on appreciation of English poetry. I used to take them through things like ‘Lycidas’ and ‘Gray’s Elegy’; the poems that have really belonged to the English public for the last few hundred years. They enjoyed this. I had another thing that I invented called the Tootsie Roll poem. I don’t know if you know this, but a Tootsie Roll is a little bit of toffee or something, something that a father brings home to give to his boys and girls. Well the Tootsie Roll poem was a poem of my choice that was read every morning before the proper lecture began. I used this to make them accustomed to things like ‘To Lucasta, On Going to the Wars’: ‘Tell me not, Sweet, I am unkind, / That from the nunnery’ or Gray’s Elegy, or… well, there are plenty of popular poems: ‘Winkin’ Blinkin’ and Nod’, that’s a poem all right, even though people think it isn’t. I used to give them a Tootsie Roll poem and read it to them and explain it a bit. My object is to get you to like poetry, I didn’t care about anything else. I had a very good duplicating chap who helped me, he would duplicate the Tootsie Roll poem or anything else I wanted duplicated, and by the end of the term they would have a little collection of something like 12 or 15 Tootsie Roll poems which they enjoyed very much. I’m trying to think of some of the others there were, ‘John Gilpin was a citizen. / Of credit and renown’ – I remember that one – ‘Winkin’ Blinkin’ and Nod’… anyway, they were the poems that you or I would have heard and enjoyed when we were little.
Moving on to what is probably my favourite work of yours: The Plague Dogs. I’m from Cumbria, from Lakeland, and it resonates with me for many reasons.
Well topographically it’s OK.
Absolutely. Partially because you had Wainwright on board! What was your relationship with Alfred Wainwright on this book?
I never met him. It’s a great disappointment to me, but I never met him. He had a job you know, he was borough surveyor to some local authority up there. This mountaineering started off as a hobby, and then he produced these little guides, and they were in his manuscript before they were printed. Little by little the Lake District took over, and he dropped his work for the local authority; although he kept it on for a very long time. I wish very much that I’d met him. He only achieved this fame little by little, and it was only gradually that I came to see how important Wainwright is. And his books.
Did you do much hill walking yourself?
Oh yes I was a hell of a hill walker. I once did 40 miles, and it nearly killed me, it taught me better. I never tried that nonsense again. The walk was from Goring-on-Thames along the Downs to the White Horse, and back. Twenty miles and twenty miles. I had a friend with me called John Aps; a great friend of mine. He was a sort of East End boy that I rescued – I’m speaking stupidly of course – but I took him on and used to read to him. He had an astonishing ability, I read him Great Expectations and he loved it. He was only about twelve at the time, he had an amazing attention span. Anyway, John Aps came with me on that walk to the White Horse and back, and it was half way back that I knew I was buggered. I was limping, I was wondering if I was going to make it, and I think if it hadn’t have been for John Aps I wouldn’t have made it. We limped back into Goring, and we had told them in the pub the night before that we were going to do this and that we’d come in as soon as we’d finished the walk and advertise the fact. John Aps got me down to the pub and I managed to stagger in there. We fulfilled what we said we’d do, but I have curious memories of that time when I didn’t quite know what I was doing, but still, I did do it.
Had you done much walking in the Central Fells [in Cumbria] before you wrote The Plague Dogs?
Yes. I reckoned I knew the fells as well as anyone could.
What triggered that book? Was it seeing one of the research stations?
That was one of the things that made me cross yes, animal experimentation. Still makes me cross, but there was something else as well. I had another motivation, perhaps it will occur to me as we go on. I can’t remember now just what it was, but certainly anger at animal experimentation was one thing. Is there not a parody of the popular press?
Oh yes, yes there is.
Yes – I wanted to make fun of the tabloids, of the tabloid press. I rather enjoyed that.
With The Plague Dogs, you almost get into the mind of the animal when you’re trying to describe things humans do from an outside perspective. There’s a bit at the start of the book when the caretaker comes in and he ‘makes the gesture that makes the light come’. It’s moments like that which really make you think about the way animals must perceive things that are happening to them. It happens in Watership Down too, but it’s most noticeable in The Plague Dogs.
I remember one bit, I don’t know whether it was left in the book or taken out, I think the publisher wanted it taken out… It’s when they are escaping from the place down this tunnel, and they’re struggling to get through, ‘and their progress became like a turd from a heathy arsehole’.
Yes, that’s still in there.
Oh, lovely! They wanted it taken out, but I wouldn’t have it.
Well, you won that argument! While we’re on the subject of changes, the first edition of The Plague Dogs ends when they’re swimming out to the island. In subsequent editions they are picked up in the boat. Whose decision was that?
I wanted them to have a happy ending. To have them just swimming out was almost a tragic ending, you felt that perhaps they might not do it. Didn’t they say, ‘I can’t go on Rowf, I can’t go on.’ Snitter says, ‘I can’t go on.’ I think that’s about the last thing [in the first edition]. Well, I wanted a happier ending. I can’t remember why I didn’t put it in to begin with… Well, never mind, but it was under pressure from various fans and supporters that I decided in the end to have a happy ending, and it struck me as a very nice idea to have them rescued by Sir Peter Scott. Did you like that? Well, my wife didn’t like that so much; she thought it would be good if they were rescued by a group of children who were having a little run out to amuse themselves. That would have been OK, but I’m quite content with it being Sir Peter Scott. I didn’t ask Sir Peter Scott before I did it, and somebody told him, and he said, ‘ah, and how many girls do I sleep with?’ [Laughter] Later on I met Sir Peter Scott – great chap of course, splendid chap, as everybody knows.
They made an animated film of The Plague Dogs as well as Watership Down.
And they kept the original ending for the film. Was that a decision on the part of the filmmakers, or did they make that as the book was released?
It was entirely them and not me. I would have put in the happy ending. I don’t know why they didn’t, they never told me. Each way it made quite an effective ending I think, it depended how you wanted to look at the thing. I was very keen on The Plague Dogs, keener on that than of any other thing other than Watership Down. The idea behind The Plague Dogs took hold of me very powerfully, so that I was meditating it wherever I went. It was on my mind all the time; I carried a little book to make notes for the book.
Do you keep in with any of the anti-animal testing groups?
Yes, I have my contacts, but my quarrel is still the same: they’re not active enough. They ought to amalgamate of course, instead of being about six different groups, usually local and under the control of some particular hero or heroine. If they amalgamated they’d be much more powerful. I don’t think enough campaigning is done for animal rights in this country, and I’d like to think that you had heard of me in that connection.
You yourself were president of the RSPCA at one time, is that right?
Yes I was, and I left them because they wouldn’t do what I wanted. The RSPCA, I always thought, ought to be a campaigning body. Well it isn’t, it’s doggywogs and pussycats really isn’t it? They won’t even go abroad for things like tigers. I tried in vain to get the RSPCA to go for the tigers. I can’t remember what I finally fell out with the council on, but the basic point was that they would not campaign, and my patience was exhausted.
In terms of interpretations of your work, obviously we’ve had the films – what did you think of the film version of Watership Down by the way?
I’m afraid I didn’t like it.
It must be difficult to view someone else’s interpretation of your work.
They’re not my rabbits. I suppose it would have been a miracle if they were, but there could have been a greater effort to equate to my rabbits than they achieved, I don’t think they were really trying. Before it started I said don’t alter the story, and they said, ‘oh no, we won’t alter the story Richard, oh no.’ Actually it’s a completely different story. I couldn’t like it because it bore no relationship to my original work at all.
More recently there was a story that appeared in an anthology for the Born Free Foundation. Was this something you wrote especially for that book?
Yes. They asked me to do something, and they offered quite a nice bit of money, so I took it on. I thought if I was going to write a story about an animal I would attack it in a completely different way, and as you know, what it does is to get inside the animal and describe its sensations and feelings. I thought perhaps I would have difficulty in getting it accepted, but no, everyone seemed to like it very much.
So would you call yourself retired at this point?
Did you call yourself retired before you were asked to do this last story though?
[Laughter] Well I didn’t say I wouldn’t be open to another request or offer, if something came up that pleased me.
But as well as the novels, of which you’ve written a fair few, there have been various short stories such as the Tales from Watership Down. Was that bowing to everyone who was clamouring for more, or was that you just wanting to tell more stories from that world?
No, they were clamouring for more, and they wanted me to write a full-length book like Watership Down, which would have been an effort that I don’t think I could have managed. Writing is hard work, as you probably know yourself, and didn’t think I would be up to the tremendous effort required to write a full-length book. Short stories was a concession, I agreed to do that. I don’t know whether I shall publish any more. You can’t help feeling a bit old, when you’re ninety. It’s easy enough to talk to you, in a pleasant way, but the idea of taking on something that’s going to take weeks of hard work is… in a way I’d like to do it, but I don’t think I could.
It’s a nice mix. We hear more from the does, which is nice.
I came in for a lot of criticism you know, about not having does in Watership Down, and I said that if I wrote any more about it I would try to give the does – I could only agree [with the criticism], when I wrote Watership Down I wasn’t really thinking about public reaction at all, I just wrote the story, but I had to accept the criticism that the does got precious little of the floodlight. I agreed to give them more of it next time.
They certainly do in the short stories.
Whether it’s any better for that I rather doubt. Well you couldn’t repeat Watership Down could you? It couldn’t be done.
It must be such a temptation though, to revisit – especially in the world of Shardik when you’ve got this huge world – although you do have the sequel to that in Maia. If you have this enormous world it must be so tempting to just investigate the stories within it, like a lot of fantasy authors do. They just stay within these invented worlds whereas you have written lots of different things.
In Maia I wanted to write a book that would simply be a page-turner. No wonderful religious ideas or poetic notions, just, ‘and then she’, ‘and then she’. It took four years to write Maia, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I’d be the first person to admit that it’s not a blockbuster, it’s just a straightforward tale: ‘and then she’, ‘and then she’. It’s surprising how many people have read it though.
That’s one of the joys of books you enjoy isn’t it? If you have a long book you enjoy, then all the better.
And it had plenty of sex of course. [Laughter]
Well, that’s always a bonus. That reminds me of The Girl in a Swing; it almost seems like it was written by another person.
I always try to vary the stories.
Which is perhaps why people who have only read Watership Down might be surprised that the rest of your books are so different?
I’ve never pretended to be grinding some great axe. I’m an entertainer, and that’s what I try to be as an entertainer: a storyteller. The stories are different, and I’m not trying to grind any particular axe; it’s just for amusement really. I’ve always made it quite clear that in the rabbit’s story there is no allegory or parable, it’s simply a story about rabbits. If people try and read into it, then that’s from them. Not from me.