Trials of life: Deborah Ross meets a prickly Sir David Attenborough in his natural habitat
David Attenborough is one of our best-loved broadcasters, and Deborah Ross is one of his greatest fans. She’s watched all of his landmark series, and she loved every one. You’d have thought they’d get on like a house on fire ... wouldn’t you?
Saturday 22 November 2008
In my defence, I'm not sure I was ever given the option of starting on the right foot, or that there even was a right foot, which may not be much of a defence at all, but it's all I've got so, boy, am I sticking to it.
So, what happened? Well, let me tell you because, having got this far there wouldn't be any point in not, would there? Also, I wouldn't get paid, and we wouldn't want that, as I have bills and everything. OK, so first off I arrive at his home, a villa-style house in Richmond, where his daughter, Susan – who has looked after him a couple of days a week ever since his wife of 47 years died in 1997 – opens the door just as Sir David is descending the stairs behind her. The fact is, it had never – never! Not for a nanosecond! – occurred to me that Sir David, now 82, would be anything but a great, big, cuddly, grandfatherly sweetie-pie. Hell, he may even, in his typically hushed yet enthusiastic way, offer me a Werther's Original – and would I refuse? I would not. But here he is coming down the stairs with a face that isn't of thunder exactly, but is pretty irritated all the same. It's as if nothing could please him less than seeing me at the door – and while I understand that, as I'm not sure anything would please me less than seeing me at the door, I'm somewhat taken aback. There is no "hello" or anything. Instead, he says: "I have to be out in an hour." He then ushers me into the living room. He indicates the way with his hand, presumably because a cattle prod is not to hand.
Once in the living room – nice; lots of artefacts from his travels; books like The Wisdom of Birds; huge TV – I decide I'd best do a bit of the famed Ross schmooze which, over the years, has charmed absolutely nobody, but I do keep trying (God, at least, loves a trier; thank God for God). I begin with small talk. I know he's lived in this house for the past 50 years, so I ask if he remembers the first time he saw it. "Yes," he says and then nothing, silence, just a challenging, hostile stare. I persist. Was it love at first sight? "Yes," he says, and then nothing, silence, and another hostile, challenging stare. At this point Susan announces she's just had a call to say a photographer is on the way. "Oh damn, is there?" he says. Come on, I say. Put on a bit of lipstick and you'll be right as rain. He says: "I have to be out of here by 11." I ask where he is going. "Up north," he says. OK, who with, what time will you be back, and you will text if you are going to be late, won't you? I then add: can you tell I have teenage children? Susan lets out a little guffaw – very little, teeny-tiny, but, still, I am immensely thankful – while Sir David winces. "Shall I crack on?" I ask. "Please," he implores. "I really do have to go."
I don't get it; I truly don't. If he didn't want to do the interview, why didn't he say so? He's been our foremost natural-history broadcaster for about a billion, zillion years so it's not as if he needs to get his name about. On the other hand, having accepted, and being as seasoned as he is, you'd think he'd at least play the game, hit a few balls back. Probably, and I'm just guessing here, the publicity people for his latest project, Life on Land, a 15-disc DVD encyclopedia bringing together his various landmark programmes on mammals, invertebrates, birds, plants and reptiles, asked him to do it, he didn't want to say no, and next thing he knows, here I am, sinking into his creamy, squishy, leather sofa. (It's wonderfully comfortable. Perhaps I won't move until he gets back from "up north". Surprise, Sir David! I'm still here!) I try to get things going by asking if he is proud of Life on Land? "Yes, I am very pleased," he says, albeit without a great deal of enthusiasm. He continues with: "It was more by accident than anything else, but if you start off doing a methodical survey of large groups of animals, in the end you are going to come to the end of the large groups, and then suddenly you realise, golly, we can put them all together in the order of evolutionary history and there you have got the complete set." I ask if he agrees with Steve Jones that evolution has pretty much washed its hands of us. He says: "Well, he's the geneticist. He's a better judge than I am." He then, I think, realises he has been short – why wouldn't he have a view, having spent a lifetime marvelling at the living world? – and expands with: "It is perfectly the case that if you think that Darwinian natural selection has been responsible for the production of species as we know them, that has stopped as far as mankind is concerned because natural selection also involves natural rejection and we don't reject anybody. We go to a lot of trouble, medically, to make sure that there isn't any selection and everybody has a fair chance so to that extent we aren't evolving bigger heads or anything."
I ask what he thinks about the persistence of creationism – what, no God to love a trier? Well, that's me stuffed – most particularly in America where some states refuse to teach anything else. He says: "One does despair," and adds: "It's got nothing to do with God, just scientific facts. If you believe that the first woman was made from a rib by a God who put the first man into a trance, and took that rib from his side, because it says so in a document that is 2,000 years old, so it must therefore be right, that is a rejection of rational thought." So why do these people persist in their beliefs, in opposition to all the evidence? He says: "Because of early conditioning, a difficult process to extract yourself from." Then it's: "I do have to be out by 11." So I ask him straight: do you like doing interviews? This seems to throw him on to the back foot rather. "Um ... ahem ... how does one feel? Um ... someone comes to ask you questions ... um ... very flattering."
He doesn't appear flattered. He appears bored and I am boring him, I know. But he's been broadcasting since 1954, so what hasn't he ever been asked before? The personal route doesn't take us anywhere. Can you cook? I ask him at one point. "No," he replies. Nothing? "No." Nothing at all? "Well, I can massacre an egg," he eventually concedes begrudgingly. I decide a zippy, quick-fire approach might be more fruitful. So, what, Sir David, haven't you seen that you would like to? "I've never seen the snub-nosed blue-faced monkey of eastern China." What, of all you have seen, has most astonished you? "A microscopic fly – you can't see it with the naked eye – that is complete in every detail, and actually contains within itself the next two generations already alive and kicking." If you could revisit any living thing that you have seen – if it could be brought in right now so that you could admire it all over again – what would it be? A mistake, that one. "I wouldn't like it in here," he says. "Animals should be in their natural circumstances." But he does continue with: "If you'd said, 'What would you really like to see in its natural habitat?', that's a different question altogether. It could be primates of some kind or the bird of paradise or hummingbirds..." And what would you say was the cutest animal of all time out of the koala, the manatee, the panda and John Sergeant? He says: "Koalas would disappoint you. Have you ever held one?" I start to say that I did hold one once, in Australia, but he's not having any of it. "Koalas are very silly and they are very bristly and not at all cuddly." Actually, I thought the koala the cuddliest thing ever, but I'm not about to say that now. Plus, as it is, Eva, the lovely photographer, has arrived. "Come in, make yourself at home. Tea? Coffee?" Sir David exclaims warmly. OK, maybe not. He does say, "Put your stuff down." But then adds: "I have to leave at 11 and no later."
I wonder if he is aware of his own popularity. Not particularly, he says. "I travel by tube and sometimes people say: 'I know who you are.' It doesn't make any odds." Where is the unlikeliest place you have been recognised? "Top of a mountain in Borneo and perhaps that is not surprising really. If people have the inclination to go up a mountain in the middle of Borneo they will have a particular taste in television, the sort that I make. Perhaps people on a mountain top are more likely to recognise me than people on the tube in Richmond." He has previously sounded off on the "celebrity culture" and does, indeed, find fame for fame's sake depressing. "I think it is just terrible, yes. Actually, I'll withdraw that. It is understandable." Understandable? "It's a consequence of the over-concentration and unnatural density of human beings and the depersonalisation of human beings. Two hundred years ago in your village it didn't matter who you were, everybody knew who your parents were, and they knew what you did and saw whether you were good, bad or indifferent and they recognised you and if you walked down the street they would react to you in some meaningful way. These days, everything is depersonalised and that means people have been downgraded into reacting like termites and that is demeaning. What people need is to be recognised when they walk out of the door just by someone saying 'Good morning' or knowing who they are or caring whether they fell over or didn't. So it's very understandable that people should find some sort of consummation in fame." So today's gossip magazines, they're providing an old-fashioned service, in a way, by telling everyone who is doing what? "Right, right." I tell him he can gossip with Eva and myself anytime he so fancies. I get a small laugh for this – hurrah! – so I further say that I bet, after all these years, he's sitting on some very good gossip. I do not get a small laugh. Instead, he says: "Me? Not particularly. I wouldn't have thought so."
I ask if there is anything good about the modern age, if there is anything he really likes. He sighs, deeply, then comes back with: "I suppose medicine. If you think what people went through before surgery, having their legs cut off without anaesthetic. And sanitation." What would you de-invent if you could? "I was going to say the internal combustion engine, but when you think what people did to horses, I don't know." Are you hopeful for the planet? "No." How so? "There are three times as many people living on Earth as when I started making television programmes, and there is nothing we can do now to stop that growth. We are putting huge pressure on everything, every system, on living space, on space for growing food, on transport, on global warming and all those things. The natural world is becoming increasingly hemmed in and reduced." Are there environments that you have visited that now no longer exist? "There are places whose environment has been changed. There is many an island I can think of which, when I went there, were pretty well uninhabited, and are now thronged with people." I don't think he'll be holidaying in the Maldives any time soon.
Whatever, it's nearly 11, so Eva takes over with her camera while I stand back.
She has a go at the small talk too. He'd mentioned earlier that he loved George Eliot so she says: "Middlemarch is my favourite novel too." Silence. "I re-read it recently." Silence. Eva is a trier – God doesn't know what he's missing by not existing; so many triers to love! – so she presses on with: "I photographed your brother [Richard Attenborough] last week." Silence. "I've also photographed Sigur Ros, the band whose music has been used for your programmes." Now this incenses him. "Not at all," he puffs angrily. "Our music is especially composed." "I'm sorry," says Eva, "I must be mistaken." (Actually, she isn't, I later discover. Sigur Ros music was used to accompany the trailers for Planet Earth.) Whatever, I do manage to lighten the mood somewhat by asking if I might use his bathroom. Only teasing, as this seems only to incense him further. "I'll have to show you where it is," he says. Please don't, I say. I'm sure I can find it, if you just point. "NO YOU CAN'T," he shouts. He then stomps out of the room, stomps to the toilet, which is under the stairs, opens the door crossly, thumps on the light, and stomps back, while I just trail after him like a silly schoolgirl (or a koala, perhaps). What would he have wanted me to do? Pee on his carpet? (Imagine, peeing on Sir David Attenborough's carpet!)
Perhaps, Eva and I agree on our walk back to Richmond station, he was just having a bad day and we do all have bad days, after all. I don't know what he did afterwards, but I'm thinking it might have involved getting out by 11 and going up north. I don't know what makes me think that; I just do.
'Life on Land', the DVD encyclopedia, is out now, £99.99
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