W is for Watership Down

I’m about twelve and in an English lesson at school. My favourite lesson in fact, one where we just sat for the entire hour reading whatever book we were reading at the time. I loved reading at the time and still do, although I have to admit that my reading was mostly quite one track, namely endless Target novelisations of Doctor Who stories, to the continuing despair of my English teacher. ‘At least you are reading something’ was the best he could offer in my defence. But this week was different. In my hands was a hardback book from the Local Library. It had a cover that was not the most exciting thing in the world; it was just a photograph of some rabbits sitting in a sun kissed field (actually highly inappropriate in many ways for this book). The book was by Richard Adams and was of course ‘Watership Down’.

Now this was not the first time I had read this book – it was maybe the tenth or eleventh time since I had picked it up for the first time at the age of about eight. I have no idea why I came to read it – it was not one of the books my parents knew anything about – maybe I heard about from someone at school. I don’t know. All I did know is that I fell in love with it straight away and it is still my favourite book (if you pushed me – ‘Good Omens’ by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman is close behind and as an aside I cannot wait for the BBC TV adaptation, albeit with a tiny amount of trepidation – but only tiny as Gaiman is so involved in it, surely they cannot screw it up?). Nevertheless, my English teacher was delighted that I was now reading a ‘proper’ book. He was less enamoured when I decided to reread it a few further times that year, but in the final reckoning, I refer you to the ’at least he’s reading’ sentiment once more.

Of the thousands of books that I have read, why should this book still have such a resonance with me? Good question. Partly it is the time I first experienced a fully nuanced novel that even as a child I could see worked on different levels (for some of the people I know this might be books by Tolkien, C. S. Lewis or Mervyn Peake). I was always someone I would describe as a naturalist at heart so anything about animals is going to be well received at least at the outset, but this was probably an entry point and nothing more. Looking back today though, I think it gave me the kind of story I like the most, an interesting ensemble cast of characters that, in this case, just happen to be rabbits. As a child, my favourite character was Blackberry – the bright one, basically – but I found them all well drawn and ‘real’. Add on top of that a simple but well thought out rabbit culture, language and mythology (danger: Allegory alert) and I was sold.

But it is Hazel that is the centre of the book. If you want an example of what the ideal leader looks like it is arguably the central character. On the surface he appears only average, but in reality, he is the reason for anything good that happens; he listens to others, he learns what everyone’s skills are and then uses them; he doesn’t look down on anyone, even a humble mouse (and I will not spoil the story to say how crucial that attitude turns out to be). And, when it needs to be, he is heroic and prepared to die for his people (particularly when he confronts the main antagonist near the end). If I had to aspire to be a character in a book – this is who I would want to be.

Please read this book if you never have; do not be biased by the 1980s animated version, which has it charms but is fatally flawed in my opinion – mostly because you lose the complexity of the characters. Some of you will fall in love, I’m sure.

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V is for Very Lucky

It was something of a respite for us at the weekend to have a long weekend in Hampshire on our own, in lush, gorgeous arable countryside with perhaps more than our fair share of sun. It was beautiful walking weather – bright, sunny but not too hot – and the area we were in, sandwiched between Ringwood and Salisbury, was full of interest, historical and natural. As I have commented before, when we walk the Lovely Wife and I also do quite a lot of talk and as this increasingly weird and complicated year continues to surprise there is always plenty to talk about, even when not discussing the sights we see along the way.

One ritual is the review of the day, for both where we went, what we saw and what surprised and delighted. Sunday was a particular pleasure, kicked off with a Roman villa and graduating via two Saxon churches, a hill fort and a medieval turf labyrinth which more than satisfied my history needs. But as is often the case it is the smaller, often wildlife moments that stick in the mind. The huge Devil’s Coachman Beetle on the path as we climbed out of Rockbourne, or the slow worm sunning itself on the footbath up to that village’s church. Or perhaps the two Brown Hares having a face off in one of the fields we passed later in the day, largely oblivious to us in the midst of whatever dispute they were mutually engaged with.

We needed the respite. I go back up to see my father again later this week, he continues to hang on in there although is becoming increasingly tired. I have been very blessed though with having the opportunity to spend so much time with him these last six months and we have had plenty of time to talk and say what we need to say to each other, something many people do not have the luxury of. My main worry for him now is to stop him getting bored, although cheeky exchanges with some of the Nursing Home staff (some of whom are very colourful in their own right), a supply of sweets and endless editions of NCIS and its various spinoffs on the TV seem to be keeping him pretty happy – if a little confused, as watching through the day across different channels does mean that there is no continuity of characters. But, hey, it’s just fairly entertaining hokum and taken in that sense it does not make a vast amount of difference if you are seeing it in the right order or not.

No one knows how long this will last and I have now learned not to really think about it too much. I cannot affect what will happen, so we will concentrate on what we can effect, being there for him as much as we can considering the other plates we need to spin for us and for friends and family. The support from everyone has been wonderful; and I have to also say that my work – I work for Procter & Gamble – have been hugely supportive, and I am constantly aware that with a less flexible and understanding employer this whole period would be much less tolerable. So we soldier on, and take each week as it comes.

U is for ‘Upstairs”

My Dad can be a funny old sausage sometimes. In the twilight of his time with us he has continued a lifelong ability to make me laugh, intentionally and otherwise. On one side, when we see him now in his nursing home it is nice to see him enjoying an ongoing banter with the carers and laundry/cleaning ladies; several of them drop in for a chat as unlike many of his fellow inmates he is still interested and able to make conversation. Unintentionally though, he does come up with some classics.

One of these is the mysterious conspiracy of ‘them upstairs’. My Dad’s explanation for any perceived delay in anyone coming to tend to him after he has pressed his ‘attention’ button –  never far from his hands now that he has realised what it is really for – is down to the machinations of the mysterious cabal that rules the ‘upstairs’ (cue pointing upstairs as one might to heaven). Apparently these mysterious masters control the poor workers (the carers) and therefore responsible for any delay in service. I think it is fair to say we have still managed to keep a straight face most of the time at these conspiratorial revelations, but sometimes we struggle. It is utter nonsense of course. He is referring to the nurses who are based on both levels of the home (in fact, as my Dad has not been outside his room, he has not realised that the ground floor nurse’s station is just outside his own room. The response times for assistance I have seen – and I’ve been in enough over the last few months to judge – are pretty fast and effective, and my Dad has nothing to complain about. It is mainly because he has no real sense of time these days, and he does not really understand the division of labour between the care staff and the medical staff, and conspiracy thrives in an environment where there is limited information or rife misunderstanding.

Conspiracy theories, or more broadly, the ability to believe things in the presence of hard facts to the contrary never cease to amaze me. Now let me be clear what I mean here. I’m talking about empirical, simple questions. Is the Earth flat? Did the moon landings happen? Does the Loch Ness Monster exist? That kind of stuff (In my opinion, no, yes and yes – everyone knows since the 1970s that Nessie is a Zygon bred cybernetic hybrid, duh). It is entirely clear to me how people can believe in higher powers or ghosts or in ‘alternative medicine’ as the history of human existence in my opinion is defined by an overreaching fact that there is more to the world then we think; that’s also the joy of science as it rarely proves to be as simple as we first thought. I like to keep an open mind because I find life is a lot more fun that way.

But on something that is sitting in front of you screaming its reality and to still not see it; that I struggle with. I guess the simple truth is that we are as a species excellent at deciding to not see the things that upset our world view. If pressure is applied to that world view then we surround ourselves with others that share that view as a defence and reinforcement – if you had been looking at my Twitter feed in June 2016 you would have gone to bed, as I did, feeling confident that common sense would prevail over the EU referendum. Which just goes to show I am as guilty as anyone else in not seeing a reality I would rather not see.