Thu, Oct 01, 2009 - Page 13 News List

David Attenborough’s long walk on the wild side

Since the 1950s, the 83-year-old British naturalist and broadcaster has produced a formidable body of work. How has he kept up with the momentous changes in his subject? And does he think we’re all doomed?

By Nicholas Wroe  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

He acknowledges that this approach “strikes at the fundamental rights of a human being to decide how many children they should have. The only answer I have is that in every society where there is literacy and where women are treated as equals and have control over their own bodies, the birthrate drops. So the way to stop population growth is to raise standards of living.”

When he was a boy, the idea of environmentalism, as we now think of it, didn’t really exist. “I was interested in the natural world, but it was nothing to do with saving the planet. There were people who thought the country had been desecrated in terms of putting up pylons and things like that. But the idea that you could actually destroy the Earth didn’t really occur. So we poured raw sewage into the sea because the seas were infinite. If there were unpleasant smells from a factory then you would build a higher chimney. The atmosphere was so big it could just absorb it all. If you wanted to dig up a bit of forest, no one was going to stop you. It was assumed the world was big enough. Maybe it was. But when I was a kid there were only a third of the people on the planet that there are today. It doesn’t seem big enough any more.”

David Attenborough was born in 1926, the middle of three brothers, and was brought up in Leicester, in the English midlands. His father, an Anglo-Saxon scholar, was head of a college at the city’s university. He attended a local grammar school and “within a half-hour bike ride I could get into a hedgerow or a wood or a wild field, fishing for newts or looking for fossils.”

In 1945 he won a scholarship to read natural sciences at Cambridge University. “It was the most marvelous time of my life. It’s a cliche, but mostly cliches are true. I encountered whole new areas of human experience: music and painting and talk with other students. And there were great men around the place who had proved that continents moved or had mapped the history of the North Sea through pollen analysis. But mostly I had an overwhelming feeling of good fortune. I was sitting alongside people who had lost arms or legs — fighter pilots who had been shot up. To say you were humbled would be putting it mildly.”

After university he completed his military service in the Navy and says that by the time he was demobilized he had begun to doubt whether he had the necessary dedication to be a scientist. “I also didn’t fancy going back to living on a grant. I was used to earning a wage. And I wanted to get married.” He and Jane Oriel were married in 1950, by which time he was a junior copy editor in an education publishing house. They had two children and were married for 47 years until Jane’s death in 1997. Attenborough still lives in the London home where they moved in 1952, the year he joined the BBC. He had initially applied, unsuccessfully, for a job in radio, but his resume was passed to the fledgling television service and, despite being unable to offer a critique of their program because he didn’t own a television set, he was appointed as a trainee producer.

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