The winner of the 2009 Observer ethical awards lifetime achievement is Sir David Attenborough. Novelist Ben Okri, a lifetime fan of Britain's best-loved naturalist, meets his childhood hero
Ben Okri interviews Sir David Attenborough
The winner of the 2009 Observer Ethical Awards lifetime achievement award is Sir David Attenborough. Novelist Ben Okri, a lifetime fan of Britain's best-loved naturalist, meets his childhood hero
He has lived more intensely with the natural world than many of us will ever do. Poets think in terms of metaphors and metres and rhythm, but he thinks in terms of evolution, orang-utans, sea otters and exploding population. Through the television he has taught generations the marvels and terrors of the natural world. He has infected us with his enthusiasm, surprised us with his paradoxes, and delighted us with his revelations of nature's infinite variety. The story of his life is the story of fossils, birds and immense journeys in search of the astonishing flora and fauna of the earth. He is 83 years old and yet to witness him bounding down the stairs of his house could cause one to mistake him for a hurdler in his middle years. Burdened with honours he still retains the freshness and vitality of a mental pugilist.
What would it be like to spend an afternoon with someone who has beguiled our days with the splendour of the hairy and not so hairy creatures of this planet? The first discovery was his exquisite taste in painting.The second was his essential fidelity: he has lived in the same house for 57 years. The third is that he communicates with his grown-up daughter – the delightful Susie – in chimp sounds. His curiosity and passion for nature are a constant inspiration to us all. He is a perpetual reminder that we disregard the natural world at our peril. Poised as we are on the brink of such a peril, what he has to say to us needs to be amplified.
BO: Do you remember your sense of the world as a child?
DA: Very much so. My father gave me a fire salamander when I was eight. It was glossy black with yellow spots on it. I remember now it has a body like rubber and feels like overstuffed cushion. It smells faintly of vanilla [he inhales]. Bloody thing kept getting out…
If, when we're kids, we have this fascination with the natural world, what is the effect on us when we lose it?
We lose a great deal of pleasure for sure, because our sense of beauty comes from the natural world, in my view. And in a practical sense you cease to understand the world in which you live. You begin to think the only thing in the world is human beings, and that's catastrophic.
So we pay a costly price for this loss of wonder?
Yes. The paradox is that according to the UN, about half of all homo sapiens are now urban. There are an awful lot of people who go about their days hardly ever seeing a wild thing, and yet they know more about the natural world through television.
So on the whole we have an abstract relationship with the natural world?
Yes, and if we don't understand the beauty and the value of the natural world we're not going to look after it.
Is there a narrative in nature?
Of course there is, in the sense that an animal has a life, a birth, copulation and a death. But there's also the 3,000-million-year-old narrative of evolution.
Where is that narrative going?
I've no idea, except in my gloomier moments.
Let's have an idea of those moments.
One can see a world that's overrun by homo sapiens, where there's almost nothing left in the natural world, which is the way we're going with the increase of population. Three times as many people are alive today as when I made my first TV programme.
Do you think we should get simpler?
No. I've nothing against complexity. The history of evolution is of increasingly complex things. But we're not now evolving very much.
Has evolution come to a stop, in a way?
Only for us. And that's an important clause. If it's true that Darwinian natural selection is the major driving force of evolution then that involves natural rejection. Now we've stopped rejecting. Medicine has stopped nature. We keep people alive like me, for a start. I mean, 83? That's not natural. However, the fact is that when we learned to write we started cultural evolution. In the same way that genes passed on physical advances, the theoretical advances are passed on through writing.
Do you think nature is artistic?
Some parts of it are, absolutely artistic. The most obvious example are male bower birds, who build nests or corridors of twigs and then put glittering beetle wings or shells on these nests. Then the female goes around looking at the bowers, and picks the guy with the best-looking nest. She's not saying he's a better father; it's an aesthetic attraction.
Tell me about your sense of wonder – it comes across in everything you do.
(David suddenly dives over the side of his sofa, leaving one foot high in the air. He re-emerges with a fossil in his hand and gives it to Ben)
DA: It's a 30-million-year-old shark's tooth! See, you don't have to work hard for wonder.
Did you know that your first television programme was going to work?
Goodness, no. Remember, in 1952 television was almost entirely live. I said I'd like to do a programme about animals, and when it was agreed I went to the zoo and asked could they lend me a cobra and some others, and they put them in a sack and I took them back to the studio. We simply had Julian Huxley, the most famous biologist of the day, sitting at a desk, reading my words and then we'd cut to different shots of animals. The trouble was that all the animals looked like freaks out of context. Eventually the idea became that me and Jack Leicester from London Zoo would go on trips and I would produce a rudimentary sequence of Jack striding through the forest and finding a python. But poor old Jack had a tropical disease and because the programme had already been advertised in the Radio Times I appeared instead.
How did you discover such an intimate tone?
Well, if you're standing here and there's a gorilla a few feet away, I assure you that what you say is [he whispers] "There's a gorilla over there," rather than shouting "IT'S A GORILLA!"
You do it when it's not a gorilla.
No I don't, actually. There's a certain reverence maybe. I don't approve of knocking animals or using them as metaphors for ourselves. They deserve respect, and if you're in the presence of even an ant colony, you should speak about it with respect.
What has been your most mysterious experience?
Well, I once went to Baltimore to film the emergence of the periodic cicadas. These creatures are under the ground for 17 years and then all at once millions emerge above ground to mate. So we set ourselves up next to a nunnery where we knew the entire population of cicadas would emerge. So we started rolling and I was to walk towards the camera talking about this phenomenon as they emerged. Then the director frantically shouts "Cut! Cut! Cut!" A little white dormobile had driven into shot. Out of the dormobile came a line of elderly nuns carrying sticks. They each walked to a spot and stuck their stick into the ground. So we approached them and said, "We're awfully sorry, we're making a film about the cicadas." And they said, "Oh, very nice. Well we've spent our lives at this nunnery and we've come to select our burial places." In the background I have old ladies preparing to go into the ground and in the foreground millions of cicadas coming out of the ground. Bizarre!
Copyright Speakers Corner 2017