Rare Specimen

My interview, in his 90th year, with Sir David Attenborough

By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 23rd January 2016

You cannot meet David Attenborough without reflecting on the lottery of life. He bounces into the room unaccompanied, a little stiff in the lower back perhaps, but otherwise breezy and lithe. He is sound in wind and limb, vision and hearing, his eyes sparkle, his face is scarcely rumpled by time. Yet in three months he will celebrate his 90th birthday.

While other people’s worlds tend to shrink with age, his seems to expand. His curiousity ranges as widely as ever. His ability to understand and assimilate new information seems unabated. “Oh, I forget things,” he claims. When I press him for examples, he tells me, “Well, where I put my glasses, I had them about three minutes ago and they have simply evaporated, they’ve dematerialised. Oh yeah, and I forget engagements.”

But these, surely, are afflictions suffered by anyone immersed in the world of ideas. He has no diffulty remembering the things that fascinate him. When I ask him about his new project, his body bundles up with excitement.

“Luminous earthworms! Did you know about luminous earthworms? Aaah, aaah, yes, very interesting. I’m doing a thing on bioluminescence … and with a little research we discovered that there are earthworms in France that are luminous – in the earth! Why? Yes, why?! Well at the moment I am just thinking about it. As you well know there’s a gene for luminosity and it’s very widespread, and so you would like to suppose that it has some antiquity. So maybe luminosity was a by-product of digestive processes or energy processes or something.

“And if it is, the exciting thing is – what about all those graptolites, what if they were luminous?! In which case, now you suddenly realise that trilobites have bloody good eyes, so maybe they were there too! Wow!” (Graptolites and trilobites are long-extinct marine animals).

I mention his latest film, which will air on Sunday, about the excavation and reconstruction of the skeletons of Titanosaurs, the biggest terrestrial animals known to have walked the Earth. Why, I ask, do dinosaurs exert such a grip, especially on the minds of children?

“Partly because nearly all the adults have got it wrong. It’s one of the easiest subjects for a kid – or it was when I was a kid – for you to expose your parents, because you had just read the new cigarette card and there was a name there, a polysyllabic name, your parents had never heard of.”

And there he still was, I realised, the boy with his cigarette cards, his excitement about creatures that lived many millions of years ago undimmed by the passage of mere decades.

So this is what must have happened. On one of his early expeditions through a remote tract of rainforest, he stumbled across the elixir of life. He has been hoarding it ever since and surreptitiously sipping a little every day. Either that, or he is simply the luckiest man alive: fit, bright, relevant, in love with life, the last man standing.

He has the decency to be aware of his luck. “People sitting in corners doing nothing aren’t there because they want to sit in the corner doing nothing. They would much rather be doing [things]. And I am lucky enough to be able to do them. It would be very ungrateful to have that facility and not use it.” He has, of course, no intention of retiring.

There is only one lifeform he is reluctant to discuss, the scientific curiosity known as Sir David Attenborough. He created a powerful sense, when talking, of intimacy and candour, leaning in, holding my gaze, twinkling and gurning, speaking in his confidential whisper. But when I came to read the transcript of our interview I found that what had felt like frank confession was nothing of the kind. What he said with his body bore no relation to what he said with his words.

I pressed him several times on an issue with which I have long been struggling. How do those of us who love the natural world cope with its loss? He must have seen more than his fair share of devastation.

“Oh yes, of course. You go to Borneo and see oil palms everywhere where there was forest. You see people everywhere where there weren’t people.”

“And how does it affect you, seeing those changes?”

“Well you feel apprehensive for the future, of course you do.”

“So how do you cope?”

“I don’t have a rosy view of life, of the future, I look at my grandchildren and think ‘what are they going to have to deal with?’, of course I do. How could you not?”

But what about the emotional impact? Does he not get depressed? Does he have a mechanism for avoiding depression? He answered by bouncing the issue onto someone else.

“I once asked exactly the same question of Peter Scott [the great British conservationist, who died in 1989]. And he said, ‘Well you can only do what you can do.’ So what I do is what I can, but I wish to goodness I had done a tenth of what Peter did.”

While his self-deprecation is charming, it also seems defensive. I pictured those two quintessentially English men stroking their chins and repeating “you can only do what you can do” to each other, and thought of a scene in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life. An army captain pays a call on one of his men, who is lying in bed, nonchalently reading a book. “What’s all the trouble, then?”. “Bitten, sir. During the night”. “Hmm. Whole leg gone, eh … Any idea how it happened?”. “None whatsoever. Complete mystery to me. Woke up just now, one sock too many.” Monty Python made their television debut on BBC2, commissioned by the controller at the time, a certain David Attenborough.

When talking in general terms, he uses the word “I”. When asked to talk about his feelings, he says “you”. Some of this is perhaps generational: it was once considered vulgar to discuss such matters. But perhaps his great fame has also obliged him to develop a carapace. I asked whether his public life has blurred the boundaries of his private self.

“There has always been the private and the public thing in you, in everybody”, he replies. “You are different things to different people, to your children, to your television producer.”

Can he go anywhere in public without being mobbed?

“I have to confess the ubiquity of the selfie is, er –  On occasion when they say ‘do you mind’, I say ‘well, I am off duty at the moment’, and they say ‘oh are you?’, by which time I’m three yards down the road. But I do have to remember that they are the people who … listen to me, you know, and so you try not to be rude.”

I asked him if he ever gets lonely. His wife, Jane Oriel, died almost 20 years ago.

“Hmm? Oh. My daughter lives in the same house as me now and has done for many years. So once a day I see her, she runs my business affairs and, you know, I’m very lucky.”

He is just as discreet about the politics surrounding his work. On the day I met him, the controller of BBC2 and BBC4, Kim Shillinglaw, lost her post. He was plainly delighted, chuckling and winking and grinning when he asked me whether I had read that morning’s news. But he was careful to say nothing quotable. Television producers I know expressed intense frustration at her instant and unexplained dismissal of programmes they proposed on environmental themes.

But the problem, as I perceive it, is much wider than that: has there not been a systemic failure by television to cover the great crisis of our age: the gradual collapse of the Earth’s living systems?

“I am absolutely certain that the general public at large is more aware of the natural world than it was even before the industrial revolution,” he replies, “and that people are well informed about not only what the world contains but the processes that go on. Television has made a contribution to that. … I greatly regret the fact that there are no or very few regular – ”

He stops himself, and plunges into a more general discussion of scheduling. Surely, I persist, there’s a real problem here? Entire years have passed without a single substantial programme on environmental issues.

“Well,” he says, more crisply than at any other time in the interview, “you’ll have to take that up with the controllers.”

I suggest that his own interest in the state of the world appears to have intensified in recent years.

“That’s not an interest. I wish I didn’t have it. I wish there was no need to have it. It’s not an interest, it’s an obligation.”

But he has surely been more prominent as an environmental voice in the past twenty years than he was before?

“Well yeah, and that is very simple in that I have been in the BBC all my working life, practically, and you knew very well … that if you said something, just because you are on the damn box people thought it was true and you’d better be bloody well sure that it is true.”

(I used to curse this reticence, willing him to get off the fence and denounce the destruction of all he loved.)

He explains that his views on climate change crystallised when he attended a lecture – he could tell me when it was if he had his diary to hand – by the president of the US National Academy of Sciences, Ralph Cicerone. After that, he made two programmes, called Are We Changing Planet Earth? and Can We Save Planet Earth?

Attenborough is not just a master of the art of television, but also one of the medium’s pioneers, producing programmes almost from its launch in this country, and guiding the development of some of its treasured strands, first as controller of BBC2 (from 1965 to 1969), and then as the BBC’s director of programmes (until 1973). Has he helped to create a monster?

“Well it depends how you define a monster. And are all monsters malign?”

Has it not encouraged us to be more sedentary, I ask: to spend less time engaging with the world about us? He laughs and winks: “And we gave up sitting in pubs for three or four hours a day! How awful!”. Would he lay any ills at the door of television? “Oh yes, of course. Adipose tissue.” Anything else? “What you might call visual chewing gum, in that it stops you thinking about anything else. But then I feel that about music. I mean I cannot understand how people want to go round with -” he mimes a pair of headphones and shifts the conversation onto a safer subject.

I was packing my things after saying goodbye when suddenly he sprang back into the room, this time wearing his glasses and holding a small leather filofax. “I’ve found the details of that lecture by Ralph Cicerone. I thought you’d want to know.” He showed me the address and the date: 2004. The old scientific habit – record your facts, check your facts – had not deserted him. As I marvelled at his recollection that he had left something hanging, and his determination to resolve it, this remarkable specimen of life on earth skipped away to his next appointment.