'Watership Down' - England Of Yesteryear
Trouble has found an English meadow. The lush, peaceful pastureland in Berkshire has been purchased by developers. Nature-hating machines and their men will soon arrive. The laying of tarmac and concrete, imminent.
The meadow's rabbit community is in denial and most are refusing to abandon their homes, for this they will answer to the bulldozers. But some - a small band of courageous rabbits - have elected to flee in search of a safer place to live. They will set off for the neighbouring county of Hampshire, undercover of night. Straying from their community is forbidden, not to mention the treacherous journey that awaits them. Will all of them make it to their chosen haven... Watership Down? The odds are not favourable, and they know it.
A bestselling book written in 1972 by Richard Adams. A full-length animated movie followed in 1978, which won a variety of awards. Renowned English actors John Hurt, Richard Briers and others supplied the voices of the rabbits and other characters. The film also featured the song 'Bright Eyes' by Art Garfunkel.
It seems about every three years that I feel the need to reach for my copy of Watership Down; each page devoured as if for the first time, including the Forward, Acknowledgements and Copyright information. Perhaps I can recite them verbatim. One day I might try.
Much of my playtime as a boy was spent outside, in fields, climbing trees, jumping streams, gawping at wildlife, exploring farmyards and getting into mischief. Today, I'm doing different things outdoors. Mostly I'm hanging out my car window screaming at imbecile drivers. I'm tearing along footpaths on my way to shops, the post office and train station, dodging dog dung, swinging umbrellas and Jehovah's Witnesses without much luck. The only wildlife I see has been flattened by imbecile drivers. Like almost everyone else, I demand a second term of childhood. I want to be a boy again, if only for one more summer.
I haven't been to the Hampshire Downs (see photo) - about a two hour drive from my home. The real Watership Down (yes it's a real meadow) is in there, somewhere. If I went I'd have to find it. Could it live up to the hopes that I have for it? Are there even any rabbits there? I'm certain there are.
What I know is that Watership Down the book, has magical powers. From the second I grab it off my shelf it plucks me out of now and plonks me back in then... my childhood. Captured within its pages are the places very similar, creatures and adventures I encountered as a boy...
The Northamptonshire meadows I tore across with my friends chasing butterflies we never could catch, not once. The trees as big as space rockets I attempted to climb (I still have a scar on my forehead and right eyelid from falling). The farmers whom never tired of inventing new ways for keeping mischievous boys off their land. The scary foxes I sometimes glimpsed going about their business of scavenging and raising their cubs; for me they might just as well have been lions. And the rabbits. If I could have captured just one, I would have faced an angry mother for taking it home to be my pet (there wasn't money in our household for keeping animals).
Set almost anywhere else Watership Down would be a wonderful read. A view of the world through the eyes of animals that live around us - rabbits, birds, cats, dogs - must always be fascinating if written properly, which this is. The terrors wild animals face, rabbits in particular, plus man's cruelty add suspense and danger to this story.
But to be truly magical, as Watership Down is, it needs to be set in England. At its core is a simple story with a basic message. A tale of friendship, and bravery. The dialog rich with the peculiarities of Englishness. And remember too, English life of yesteryear was a simple affair. Needs, quite basic. Things were, and in some cases still are small and quaint here... cars, buildings, etc - all to be found in this book and all bringing the necessary 'smallness' needed to lift this story to its magical plane.
I don't think that Tom and Jerry - the greatest of American cartoons, for example - would work if it were English. Those two have been thrilling us for decades with their crazy antics. Who hasn't been at the edge of their seat while watching them going at it? The catchy dialog. The hatched plans born out of impulse. The tearing around the house like madness itself. Do you think that an English Tom and an English Jerry would carry on like that? Of course not! They'd probably call a truce by the end of the first cartoon and be best mates in the next one. Where's the fun in that? Long live Tom and Jerry.
And long live Hazel, Fiver, Bigwig, Blackberry, Dandelion, Pipkin, Silver, Buckthorn and the other rabbits on their journey to Watership Down.
I printed off this review and all your wonderful comments and sent them off to Mr Adams. To my surprise (and obvious delight) his secretary wrote back to me. Here's her letter. I've blacked out his full address.