The story continues….
Sometime on the 28th May 2016, Sir David Attenborough, the broadcaster and world-renowned naturalist, set aside a moment or two of his precious time to write a thank you letter to me . The great man was ninety years young on the 8th May, so I believe that every moment in his remaining days on earth are singular, precious temporal increments .It’s no mean thing then, to pause momentarily , take out pen and paper and write in response to an anonymous person such as myself. My Daughter Number Three likes to imagine that he wrote it while sitting on his lawn in Richmond, London, after finishing his breakfast of porridge and honey.That may well be the case .The birds may have been chirping, cheeping and generally carousing in the trees. The honeybees may have been buzzing as they flitted from one bloom to the next, stealing some sweet nectar as they helped the flowers to have sex. Butterflies may have been living their entire lives during that particular day as life flowed on around him.It’s a beautiful fabulation and I’d like to think that on that May morning the sun shone down and a cooling breeze perfumed the surroundings as Mr Attenborough brushed a few toast crumbs from his table ,making room to better pen those few lines he’d sent me.
The reality may well be much more prosaic. It may well have been one of those rainy mornings and the great man may have been huddled in his study surrounded by piles of unopened birthday cards and assorted mail from well-wishers the world over.In these days of instant gratification , it is a rare thing to receive a hand -written letter from anyone, never mind a very famous and still very busy man.It’s more likely that communication will be made by quick text or short, sharp e-mail. The human touch has been filtered out long ago, so for someone to take up pen, paper and ink and actually cleave a proper epistle is no small novelty , requiring effort which many men of similar age may not rise to.
I never expected it but there it was dangling from my wife’s fingers after the postman had visited .She didn’t recognise the handwriting and possibly suspected momentarily that I’d inherited money from somewhere or some old girlfriend had appeared out of the woodwork from the mists of the past.I opened the envelope , quickly reading the few lines and handed it to her to watch her astonished face when I said …”It’s a thank you note from David Attenborough.”…..and there were several lines of his handwriting and a bold signature at the bottom of the page , slightly above the faintly printed line stating simply, “from David Attenborough”.
I’d recently written a piece entitled “Death In Paradise”, in which I had referred to the influence that he’d had on my own life and on the lives of millions throughout the world.Someone who had read my piece suggested that had he been the recipient of such mention and praise , he’d be delighted to receive a copy of the story. I thought about this for a moment or two because in practical terms I had no notion where he lived and I thought that he would probably be already buried under an avalanche of demands on his time, anyway.I was assured that his address was freely available to anyone ,so I decided to send a copy of the story ,with a covering explanation ,on the off-chance that he would ever find time to read it.Had I expected a reply I would have included a stamp and a return envelope,given that nobody can afford to reply to everyone, but I assumed that if my work even received a cursory glance among the thousands of other well-wishers, that would probably be as far as it would go.It was simply my way of thanking him and wishing him well on his birthday and for my lifetime’s enjoyment of his work.
It is the measure of the man that within less than two weeks he had the humility to read my story without perfunctorily placing it in the nearest waste-paper bin and actually write back thanking me for it in a most humble and self-deprecating way.
He ended with “I am greatly flattered by the generous things you say. It was very kind of you not only to have referred to me in in such terms -but to send me a copy! Best wishes David Attenborough”. To say that it made my day would be to understate my feelings.
David Attenborough has had a huge influence on all our lives .Not only is he a naturalist whose films about the natural world have been aired on television since the 1950’s ,when television was gradually entering and colonising the corners of the nation’s front rooms, but he also had a huge influence behind the scenes.We watched him from the times when the television tubes in those old square cabinets took minutes to heat up.That handsome young man took us on faraway journeys throughout that distant black and white world in programmes such as “zoo Time”. In a later guise he was also Director of Programming for BBC television during the formative 1960’s and 1970’s, especially as Controller of the then new “arts” channel BBC2 . As an aside he continued to make creative nature programmes occasionally. Without him we may never have been introduced to such diverse and eclectic programmes as “Man Alive”, “The Old Grey Whistle Test” and the mould-breaking “Monty Python’s Flying Circus”. These kinds of programmes including archeology, drama, the arts, travel, science, sports and business differentiated BBC2 ‘s output from the other existing channels. David Attenborough was the guiding light and the reason why a generation of teenagers made comedy heroes of the anarchic Pythons and why they sat up late at night watching their musical heroes perform live on the Whistle Test while the last embers died in the fireplace.When colour television arrived so too did his commisioned series about the history of Western Art and the landmark “Civilisation”. BBC2 is where you saw Jacob Bronowski’s “The Ascent Of Man” and “Alistair Cooke’s America”.He could have been Director general of the BBC but his heart wasn’t in it and he eventually abandoned such aspirations to return to the things he loved doing.
His landmark opus”Life On Earth” was to centre around the known facts of evolution since Charles Darwin stumbled upon that great notion .This subject was closer to his heart than anything else and eventually resulted in the first of a long list of revealing , factual programmes whose span , innovation and quality have influenced an entire generation of documentary makers. These series included “First Life”, “the Living Planet”, “The Trials Of Life” and “The Private Life Of Plants” among many others. He has been variously honoured in many ways ,called “the great communicator”, “the peerless educator” and “the greatest broadcaster of our time.” I would also add that he seems to be the most humble of men. It is a measure of his humility that he had accepted such praise with great grace and here he is thanking me for praising him.
“You’ll have to frame that letter” said the good wife, still in some shock . You know…. I thought….I might just do that.