Saturday, March 05, 2005

Reading: David Attenborough

I wouldn't touch most celebrity autobiographies, but I made an exception for Life on Air. Ever since we got a computer with a DVD drive, we've been working our way through his documentaries. I figured he'd be an exception among celeb writers for the same reason he's an exception among TV presenters: he never makes the mistake of thinking that he's the point of the enterprise. Put Davina McCall or Dermot O'Leary in a chair lift to the top of the rain forest, and the theme of the programme would be: 'I Go Up in a Giant Chair Lift.' When Attenborough did it for The Life of Mammals, he didn't dwell on his personal experience. Of course he went to the top of the rain forest; that was where the animals were.

Life on Air is written with the same philosophy. Attenborough tells us very little about his personal life. Except for the last chapter, where he movingly describes his wife's death, he mentions his family only when they come into contact with his work. Similarly, his childhood memories are restricted to his early years in fossil collecting. Most of the book is not so much about him as about the places he's been and the people he's met on his journeys.

And they are truly astonishing journeys. Attenborough has been to most parts of the world, and he started long before tourism became a global industry. He's played (famously) with mountain gorillas and watched a three-toed sloth give birth. He's sailed to Komodo in a gale, with a fugitive at the helm and no map. He's spent hours persuading a flying snake in Borneo to perform for the cameras. He's met a tribe in New Guinea who had never seen white men before, and a colonial officer in Sierra Leone whose sole interest was in model trains. More mundanely, he's been working in British television almost since it began, and describes how broadcast techniques and programming evolved. He keeps up the momentum of his stories and lets the reader share the excitement of his discoveries. With the mark of an accomplished television writer, he uses striking visual descriptions and rounds sections off with a neat summary and setup for the next part.

Only twice in this book does Attenborough have really negative things to say about people. The first time is when he describes his stay in
Joy and George Adamson's camp, where 'violence lay beneath the surface wherever we looked.' The second is when he recounts his run-ins with the odious A.N. Wilson, who accused him of having faked scenes in his documentaries. You have to admire a man who got a 'grovelling retraction' out of Wilson -- twice. The second time he was also paid damages. He gave the money to a wildlife fund, of course.

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