A Sunday lie-in with Uncle Dave

David Attenborough is a perfect successor to the late, great Alistair Cooke

The radio can't go on too early on Sunday mornings for fear of stumbling across the unspeakably irritating wishy-washyness of Something Understood (6.05am, Radio 4) or, worse still, a burst of churchy warbling. But listening comfortably in bed to David Attenborough's Life Stories (8.50am, Radio 4) has become the definition of a proper lie-in. Those warm tones are as familiar and soothing as a favourite uncle's, and what wouldn't we give to have lovely Uncle Dave as a real-life relative?

But something else has happened as this series has bedded in: with little fanfare, and in a remarkably short time, Attenborough seems
to have slipped into the empty tasselled loafers of Alistair Cooke. Like Humphrey Lyttelton's jazz spats, these once looked impossible to fill, but if the jury is still out on the quartet of sub-Humphs who presided over the last series of I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue, David Attenborough manages to be even better than his predecessor.

This past week we pondered the bird of paradise and a fable about the persistence of ignorance. Attenborough relished every moment of the telling, explaining how 16th-century European explorers were presented with the magnificently feathered skin of a dead specimen, which had had its feet and wings severed to show off the prized plumage. Puzzled, they asked the Spice Islanders of modern Indonesia how on earth this bizarre creature could perch or fly. The islanders, who traded the skins but had never seen the live version either, assured the gullible foreigners that the birds floated in the firmament and lived off dew, and this information was duly passed on to the Spanish scholars tasked with cataloguing the exotic finds the explorers had brought back with them.

Instead of pooh-poohing the obvious lie, they accepted it - somewhat nervously - and it accrued extra layers of wild speculation. The secretly baffled scientists peddled confident nonsense, telling each other that the females of this bizarre species, unable to nest, must lay their eggs on the back of the males. To this day, the greater bird of paradise bears the Latin name apoda, or legless, proving once again that humans would rather cling to the impossible than admit to being wrong.

With Attenborough in the vanguard, Radio 4 has generally done well by the elderly in the past week. We've had Joan Bakewell, our unofficial minister for oldness, on Desert Island Discs (9 August, 11.15am, Radio 4), sighing over the lost innocence of the Sixties and remembering, rather archly, that her erstwhile lover Harold Pinter used to urge her to see any and every production of the play she had inspired, Betrayal, and alerted her whenever it was staged. We've also had Secrets of the Super Old (12 August, 9pm, Radio 4), in which Adam Rutherford spun out his well-timed scoop - a recording of the late Henry Allingham's 113th birthday party - into an investigation of the science of longevity. Research is rather thin on the ground because there aren't too many supercentenarians (that's people over 110) to experiment on. And even if there were, you wouldn't fancy your chances of getting them to co-operate: apart from good genes, long life seems to depend mainly on stubbornness.

Lisa Mullen is a former radio editor of Time Out magazine

Antonia Quirke is away

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Afghanistan: The Lost War