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David Attenborough — not over, not out

At 84, Britain’s favourite naturalist says that, with BBC2’s First Life, he has made his last major TV series. Yet he shows no sign of losing his love for fossils . . . and life.

Picture the scene: it is the late 1950s, and in an English field a young David Attenborough and 16-year-old Richard Dawkins are hunting for tadpoles. "We had wellington boots on, and we had little fishing nets," says Dawkins, "and we spent the whole day tramping around through ponds and ditches." He had met Attenborough through his uncle and aunt, who encountered the presenter when he was making a programme in Sierra Leone.

It is easy to imagine the pair of them trawling through the mud, because that is how we have seen Attenborough on our screens for nearly 60 years: exploring and explaining the behaviour of animals in their natural habitat. He has become part of our collective imagination, his voice a soundtrack to British television. Yet Attenborough, when we meet, is wary of his public image. "If you appear on the box, people think you know what you are talking about, and it's patently not so," he says.

This is modesty; he reads all the latest zoological literature, and his documentaries, according to Dawkins, don't just show "things the world hasn't seen but that scientists haven't seen either. You can think of it as a very fertile part of scientific work, of scientific research." Attenborough, 84, won't have it, describing himself as simply "a chap from the television".

When I ask him if he ever regrets not becoming a scientist, he shrugs. "I am not a specialist, and I can't pretend to be a specialist." He is keen not to be cast as a figurehead, or a champion of a cause. Environmentalists often try to recruit him, and in films such as State of the Planet he has spoken out on the subject, yet he "fights against being put in that situation when people say, 'So, what's happening to the climate?' I say, 'I don't know. I'm just looking at the scientific world, and this is what the majority of scientists say. It's no use attacking me. I'm a reporter.'"

Perhaps it is understandable that a figure so widely celebrated should wish to underplay his achievements. He does this to an almost comical degree, improbably describing himself as someone who is "by nature rather idle, sitting in a bath chair watching it all going on around me". He avoids aligning with any political party (he votes, but "secretly"), saying carefully that he appreciates the progress all the parties have made in taking the environment seriously.

If he has a "cause", it is overpopulation, which he believes is "at the root of almost every affliction that the world faces today". He advocates female emancipation - where there is good education and free medical care for women, they choose to have fewer children. The Catholic Church, and its opposition to contraception, must anger him, I suggest. "You're telling me!" he says. "Yes, absolutely."

Religion carries no weight in Attenborough's life. Many believers write to him, criticising his failure in his films to acknowledge the role of a divine creator. "You're never going to silence them because the fundamental problem is accepting what evidence exists," he says. "They say, 'It's written down on this page and what is there is beyond argument and it was put there by God.' If you believe that, well, I'm awfully sorry, but there's no point in us discussing it."

This is the pragmatic and tough-minded side of Attenborough. He makes programmes because he thinks "the way a spider weaves its web is breathtaking" - but he has no desire to preach. As he says, "I have a certain compulsion to tell people stories, but I don't have a compulsion to persuade them. I'm not one of them."

Fossil fuelled

Attenborough's first love was the fossil. He was born in 1926 and brought up, together with his brothers Richard (the film director) and John on campus at the then University College, Leicester, where his father was principal. As a boy, he would spend hours searching Charnwood Forest for specimens. "They are just gorgeous, and so you become intoxicated by them," he says now. "You have to be pretty stolid and phlegmatic not to be thrilled by the perfection of the fossil."

That intoxication led him to Cambridge, where he studied natural sciences, specialising in zoology and geology. When he left, he joined the navy for his national service, hoping for adventure but ending up on a Reserve Fleet aircraft carrier in the Firth of Forth. The disappointment continued as he joined a London publishing house that produced science textbooks, a job he found so dull that he thought the clock on St Paul's Cathedral had stopped, because he checked it so often.

Attenborough wanted to be out in the world, bringing the facts to life, not limiting them to paper. So, in 1952, he applied for a training course at the BBC and joined the talks department, where he made his first natural history series, The Pattern of Animals. He was eager to show the animals - trapped and frozen in the bright studio lights used on the show - in their natural environment. That brought about Zoo Quest (1954), a colonial-style adventure with Attenborough, dressed in a safari suit, accompanying the curator Jack Lester on a mission to capture wild animals for London Zoo's collection.

Their first quest, in Sierra Leone, was for Picathartes gymnocephalus, the white-necked rockfowl. The programme was supposed to be presented by Lester, but he fell ill after the first transmission and Attenborough was drafted in to replace him. Zoo Quest was exceptional for the time: filming in the wild, the team travelled to seldom-visited parts of the world. Attenborough later led missions to South America searching for anteaters and anacondas, remote Indonesian islands for the Komodo dragon, New Guinea and Paraguay for birds of paradise and armadillos. Some were never caught. Others - parrots, monkeys, pythons and bushbabies - he brought back to live in his house in Richmond, Surrey (where he still lives), cared for by his wife, Jane, and studied in wonder by their two children, Robert and Susan.

To boldly go

Attenborough's success pushed him through the ranks of the BBC. In 1965, he became the first controller of BBC2 and in 1969 director of programmes across BBC TV. But he was trapped behind a desk again. As he says: "It was very nice for me running a network for a few years, in the sense that it was very flattering for one's ego. But it's not much fun." So he resigned in 1973 and took up programme-making again, starting with a series in south-east Asia and research for Life on Earth, the first of nine Life series for the BBC that would shape the next 30 years of his career.

Alastair Fothergill, the former head of the BBC's natural history unit, was a teenager when Life on Earth was broadcast in 1979. "It was like the most gripping drama; I just had to watch next week's episode. I absolutely remember deciding that was what I wanted to do." Fothergill went on to make Trials of Life and Life in the Freezer with Attenborough, as well as The Blue Planet and Planet Earth (both of which Attenborough narrated).

After nearly six decades inside and outside the BBC, Attenborough has a better sense of the organisation's trajectory than most. "I think the BBC has strayed from the straight and narrow on a number of courses at the moment," he says. "The sails need to be trimmed and [it] needs to be refocused." And, in a rare flash of indignation about the politics: "But it is crucially important in our society and [represents] the highest aspirations of our society. I'm appalled anybody thinks otherwise." His warning to the government is clear. "If you remove the licence fee, it would be gone in a decade, finished," he says. Still, when I ask what he would be doing if he were back behind a desk at the BBC today, he replies, half joking: "Resigning, I think."

As it is, he has never stopped working. In 1997, he was filming a series in New Zealand when he received a phone call telling him that Jane had suffered a brain haemorrhage. He returned to Britain and was with her in hospital when she died. As he reflected later in his memoir Life on Air, he felt the focus of his life was gone. Jane had looked after the children and the animals, had met every flight he took home. She had made his career possible: "Now, I was lost." Work steered him through grief, and he has immersed himself in new projects ever since.

A hallmark of his career has been his desire to push back the boundaries (he introduced colour television to Britain on BBC2 in 1967). Now he is experimenting with 3D. On Christmas Day he appeared in Sky's Flying Monsters, squashed into a hang-glider as an animated pterosaur - a giant winged lizard, 65 million years extinct - whirled around him. "I was thinking, 'Gosh, a national treasure's going up in a glider,'" says Anthony Geffen, the show's producer. "And the helicopter with the rig was flying literally within feet of the glider to get him to speak to camera. It was hair-raising." But Attenborough, says Geffen, is always game. "He just goes in and likes to think the best will happen, and that nothing bad will happen." That adventurous spirit has never been quelled, nor has his work ethic. "David is rigorous," Geffen says. "He wants to get it right and he will get it right . . . He doesn't suffer fools gladly. If you get it wrong, you'll certainly know about it."

Yet he is also fun. The pair recently worked together again on First Life, a series on fossils. At the end of a day's shooting the crew would return to the hotel assuming that the presenter would be tired and retreat to his room. Far from it, Geffen says. "When we get back he's fired up and wants to go out and talk and drink red wine - and we're up till pretty late and off again very early." Attenborough will talk about anything, Geffen says; he reads extensively. "He's a very good partner in Trivial Pursuit, because he answers everything."

Not long after I met Attenborough, I went to hear him speak at the Institute of Education in London. The hall was packed, and even though it was a cold Monday evening in November, in the middle of term, the rows were full of children shuffling in excitement. At the end of the talk, their hands shot up to ask questions. He has always had this effect on children, has never lost what Dawkins describes as his "boyish enthusiasm". Perhaps that is why people can be overcome with affection for him. He is a voice and a face from our earliest years, when we sat too close to the television as a grey-haired man crouched behind a bush and explained something extraordinary about nature.

Stars in his eyes

Dawkins says that Attenborough's longevity and undimmed energy have made him arguably the most respected person in Britain. He quite seriously imagines what would happen if we had to elect a monarch: "David Attenborough would be the one person the whole country would unite behind. Attenborough for king!" Not that the man would relish the adulation. Geffen had to persuade him, when they made First Life, that the public would enjoy an additional film about Attenborough's life ("He didn't really want to make it because he likes to concentrate on what he's filming").

Eventually he agreed, and they took an extra crew on location for First Life to shoot Attenborough's Journey, tracing his lifelong passion for fossils. At the end, the presenter sits on a beach in Australia and muses on the circularity of choosing the very earliest creatures as the subject of what he says will be his final big series. "In that curious way, the end - of making my last series like this - is my beginning."

As Geffen says, this was unusually introspective. "He doesn't sit there, reflecting like that in a sentimental way, very often. He's not fundamentally sentimental about himself. He is very, very modest . . . but it's a rare chink we got out of him and quite a big moment: the final element of the whole strand of programming he's made for years and years." That this was as difficult to capture on film as a snow leopard in the wild reflects Attenborough's lack of self-interest. (Fothergill notes that, in Attenborough's films, he never says "I" - "he is clear that the stars are the animals".)

His boundless curiosity is instinctive. "That's what being alive is about," Attenborough says. "I mean, it's the fun of it all, making sense of it, understanding it. There's a great pleasure in knowing why trees shed their leaves in winter. Everybody knows they do, but why? If you lose that, then you've lost pleasure."

He seems uncharacteristically sombre for a moment. Then he says: "I feel regret that there are some people who've never even savoured it. It never occurs to people to wonder why a hummingbird and a hummingbird hawkmoth do the same things. It's a delight. So I suppose there are some people who don't do these things and are very happy and have perfectly happy lives. Who's to patronise them? But all I can say is that the pleasure of it all is not virtue, or high morality. It's just fun."

Sophie Elmhirst is an assistant editor of the NS.

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 10 January 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Here comes the squeeze

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Donald Trump and the age of rage

What the rise of Trump tells us about our failing politics.

I met Donald Trump at a party in midtown Manhattan hosted by Dominick Dunne, the novelist and Vanity Fair journalist. It was October 1999 and the party was being held to celebrate the launch of Dunne’s new book, The Way We Lived Then, which is about old Hollywood (the title is a nod to Anthony Trollope).

Trump wasn’t there to talk to people, of course, but to be photographed, an ambition at which he fully succeeded, significantly helped by the presence of his striking new girlfriend, Melania Knauss (now his third wife). Trump’s urgent need to be noticed manifested itself as a kind of weird social radiance. What is interesting, from my point of view, is that I’ve forgotten the other guests at that party, many of equal ­celebrity, far greater achievement and much more ­interest. Trump registers with people, including, to my surprise, with me.

Those strands of Trump’s personality have served his presidential ambitions well. He leaves an impression, his central point of difference from the amorphous Beltway professionals whom he ridicules. “Ghastly” or “vulgar” aren’t really criticisms in Trump’s world-view; “forgettable”, however, is the bottom of the moral scale. This instantly creates asymmetries for his opponents: it is difficult to inflict reputational damage on a politician who neither needs nor craves respectability.

But personal magnetism – I cannot bring myself to type “charisma” – does not explain the Trump phenomenon. He is the most spectacular beneficiary of something far wider and more international: the perception that politics as we know it is failing. Running against Washington is as old as Washington, but never has it looked quite like this.

How do you like anti-politics now? For it is anti-politics – the contempt for the “establishment” and the convenient flight from serious debate about how it could better exercise power – that has taken Donald Trump to within striking distance of a shot at the White House. And as the search for the right person or plan to stop him becomes frantic (the responsibility is America’s, the concern is global), we should ask the wider questions. What if intelligent people – pundits and voters alike – had stood up more bravely for the political mainstream, pointing out the necessity of compromise, pragmatism and disappointment? Strands of the Republican Party now regret the visceral attacks they sanctioned against President Obama. The party unleashed a demotic rage that subsequently turned against its own establishment. The analogy applies far beyond the Republican Party: is anti-politics a parlour game that has got out of control?

Ironically, the ascent of the establishment as a focus of hatred and political anger has coincided with the decline of the establishment as an instrument of power. Think of the weakness of the establishment currently governing the Republicans in America. It has proved notably useless at doing all the things establishments are supposed to do: manipulate power behind the scenes, undermine mavericks and keep the show on the road.

This failure seems especially out of character for the Republicans. Even allowing for the insanity of its Tea Party strands, you would have expected the GOP – if its “establishment” was what we imagined it to be – to have snuffed out this Trump nonsense, probably during a grouse shoot in South Carolina, or over a few holes of golf at Augusta National in Georgia. Isn’t power what these people do? No longer, it seems, except in our imagination. So why are we so sure that the establishment, which can’t even cough up a decent candidate, is the power pulling the strings? I am beginning to wonder if the establishment’s new role, far from the exercise of unchecked power, is to provide a convenient palliative sideshow. So long as we insist that the establishment is messing up the world, then we won’t have to face up to tangible and worsening political problems and our reluctance to debate them seriously.

***

Donald Trump is both the em­bodiment of political failure and the result of political failure – or perceived political failure. He represents political failure because he has accelerated the descent of political discourse: “They’re rapists, build walls, ban Muslims.” He is the result of political failure because he taps in to a deep, subliminal anger: the conviction that “the system” has betrayed and abandoned the people.

Why do so many people feel this way, to the extent that even Trump (and other preposterous candidates) become palatable? Despite widespread political correctness, there is one group that it is perfectly legitimate to despise: politicians. When I worked for a newspaper, I was surprised one day to hear a reporter, usually so fair and mild-mannered, describe her hatred and contempt for politicians – “the worst people, just disgusting”. This is the kind of comment you hear from normally civilised and balanced people, who usually don’t know any politicians personally, but feel quite certain of the truth of their conviction.

In Britain, the parliamentary expenses scandal, though indefensible, was not the cause of this contempt, but rather its consequence. Given the strength of the underlying hatred, an appropriate story was always going to come along that allowed our contempt to be channelled into ridicule. I’ve seen news stories operate along the same lines in professional sport. When a manager or team has become unpopular with the fans, an event or “error” will act as a lightning rod for general ill-feeling. Usually the tipping point is quite routine; people get away with much worse when their stock is high.

Why are politicians and the “establishment” so despised? The new populism is partly a delayed consequence of the end of deference, in part fuelled by the emergence, especially on social media, of a strong, hard-edged and almost daily picture of “the will of the people”. Maybe this is what real democracy looks like?

Economics is also central to the “age of rage”. In the loosest terms – except among the very poorest – even “late capitalism” has continued to raise absolute living standards, albeit increasingly slowly. But few people judge their wealth according to absolute living standards. Wealth is perceived as relative to something else: relative to the past, relative to others (especially those inside “the establishment”) and, crucially, relative to individuals’ own expectations.

By those criteria, most people feel much poorer. The political class itself is the target of these economic frustrations, exacerbated by the financial crisis, even though politics is far from a complete explanation.

Second, there is a sense that politics has “failed” at ground level. This has two deep causes, which, taken together, create a significant credibility gap. First, as politics has been professionalised, its practitioners have become better at knowing what to say to get elected. Whatever their other failings, none of us can doubt that politicians spend more time than ever working out what the electorate wants, and devote greater energy towards trying to suggest that they know how to deliver it.

Having professionalised electoral messaging, politicians simultaneously professionalised avoiding controversy once in power. The degeneration of the political interview into unlistenable banalities is only one side of the coin. The flipside is the gaffe-hungry media, encouraged by an anti-politics sentiment in the electorate. The “gotcha” culture of debate doesn’t make politicians accountable, it makes them evasive.

The continual threat of being “caught out” saying the wrong thing – or saying ­anything – coexists with the perpetual expectation that politicians will be saying something at all times. We have drifted towards the assumption that politicians will speak in public non-stop, yet without taking any risks: the definition of a boring conversation. Trump’s ghastly voice seems fresh to so many people because he isn’t schooled in this tradition.

Professional political strategy clings to the notion that any vacuum creates space for an opposition advance. I think they’re wrong, and that it is impossible for politicians to have interesting and important things to say on the hour, every day. My view, in contrast, is that politicians devalue their own words by printing too many of them. But would they do it if the electorate didn’t expect it?

***

The ultra-professionalisation of politics has coincided with a huge crunch on the state’s capacity to expand. A simplistic history of politics in the second half of the 20th century would show parties winning power by handing out an ever-expanding range of goodies. Today, however, that ­arrangement is pincered from three sides: an ageing population, burgeoning expectations, and the weight of existing commitments to taxpayers, such as pensions. So, the central challenge facing overstretched liberal democracies is obvious: people want more services and benefits than they want to pay for. (Evidence that voters prefer not to focus on this contradiction lies in the remarkable success of Bernie Sanders, who promises more of everything without explaining how to pay for it. Both the Trump and the Sanders campaigns channel political disenchantment, but they exploit the feeling in opposite ways.)

For governments, however, a credibility deficit accumulates over the long term. And even quite effective administrations, as a result, leave the impression of significant underachievement. In other words, just when politicians have professionalised the art of saying the “right” thing, they have found it harder than ever to get things done in office. As with living standards, it is this deficit – the gap between political promises and governmental performance – that is causing problems, not the performance alone. Are today’s governments really worse than some of those gone? If so, when exactly were these exceptional governments of the past? These questions, intriguing as they are, do not figure in how people think.

How can the political class narrow the credibility gap? The tempting answer is to suggest providing the kind of sparkling, error-free government that has never existed and never will exist. The other problem, revising improbable expectations, at least might be achieved. In the ultra-professional era, political parties have suffered from a kind of prisoner’s dilemma: if, despite the long-term problem of credibility, they don’t play the media-friendly game of promises and button-pushing, someone else will.

After all, what does the alternative look like? “You can’t have this, lower your expectations, things are going to be hard”: it’s easy to see why politicians don’t relish saying these things, even when they’re true. The whole process that has led to today’s political disenchantment is all too rational: rational politicians coming up with rational avoidance strategies for problems that may not be soluble. Haven’t we, the electorate, played a part in that process, too?

Domestic frustrations are compounded by threats emanating from abroad. Hyper-terrorism, globalisation and migration on an unprecedented scale are huge problems and challenges with no obvious solutions. Donald Trump has exploited fears on both counts with crass answers. How much harder it is to turn complex approaches to the two problems into easy soundbites.

When I was living in New York in the late 1990s, the Clintons seemed to represent a great deal of what was wrong with politics. Ethically they hovered somewhere between dodgy and outright corrupt. Their personal relationship seemed an extension of political lobbying, more an alliance than a marriage; politically they told us how much they cared, rather than showing it. Bill had the partially redeeming quality of charm. Hillary had a talking-clock voice and predictable opinions – her 1996 book, It Takes a Village, was beyond parody – without Bill’s knowing wink.

And now? If she is up against Trump in November, I will happily stuff envelopes and campaign for her. Whatever it takes. The nature of my U-turn says everything about Trump: nothing about Hillary, whose reputation has become even more tarnished and whose political voice is more jaded. If she must be the future, we can be in no doubt about the impoverishment of the choice.

There is a view that a win for Hillary, and the restoration of competent (but cynical) middle-ground politics, will show the hollowness of anti-politics as a movement – a frenzy that won’t survive the cold rationality of the ballot box. This opinion holds that it is parties that have gone nuts, not the people. “This is not the revolt of the public against the party leadership,” argued Philip Collins in the Times. “It is the revolt of the party activists against the public.”

Yet the view that a Hillary win will see predictable centrism safely restored feels wide of the mark. I doubt a simple reprisal of Clinton-Blairism (which Daniel Finkelstein defined as the idea that it is “possible to do everything without upsetting anybody”) can get us out of this hole. Trump taps in to something frightening. If it’s defeated this time, it will still come back, even if the man will not. Until the deficit of political credibility is reduced, the demotic potential of the populist “outsider” will remain.

And next time I’m pretty sure it will be someone nastier than Donald Trump. The need is to find a better Hillary Clinton. That will only get harder if intelligent people go on paying lip-service to anti-politics. There are always establishments. The important question is how good they are.

Ed Smith is a contributing writer for the New Statesman

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 14 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The making of a monster