Saturday, 24 November 2012

58 years in the wild

Congratulations to David Attenborough, currently celebrating 60 Years in the Wild on BBC2 (although, on a point of pedantry, it should be 58 Years in the Wild because, while Attenborough began working for the corporation in 1952, his Zoo Quest didn't start until 1954).

Attenborough's most famous moment on TV came when he suggested that his series, Life on Earth, should feature a sequence to illustrate opposable thumbs, which we share with apes. That is how he came to be lying smiling among crushed wild celery alongside a 100kg female gorilla on the slopes of the Virunga volcanoes in Rwanda in 1978. One young male even jumped on to his lap. Head down in deliberately submissive pose, Attenborough whispered: 'There is more meaning and mutual understanding in exchanging a glance with a gorilla than any other animal I know. We're so similar. It seems really very unfair that man should have chosen the gorilla to symbolise everything that is aggressive and violent, when that is one thing that the gorilla is not - and that we are.'

‘It was obvious from the first episode that thousands of new zoologists would all be conceived at once, like a population bulge,’ wrote Clive James in the Observer about Life on Earth. According to the sociologist Yvonne Jewkes, who conducted ethnographic research in Midlands prisons, Attenborough’s programmes were particularly popular among inmates. ‘I watch them because animals don’t make judgements’, said one. ‘When you’re behind bars, it’s wonderful to see animals roaming free,’ said another. ‘All you see round here is varying shades of grey, so it really wakes up your senses to see a fantastic kingfisher or amazingly coloured fish.’ (Yvonne Jewkes, ‘The use of media in constructing identities in the masculine environment of men’s prisons’, European Journal of Communication, 17 (2002))

In his book A Short History of Celebrity, Fred Inglis wrote this about Attenborough:

‘[He] has taught his large following, in the tiny details and broad patterns of natural life from its minutest insects to its cosmological panoramas, the terms of what it is not too much to call an emerging religion. The wonderful spaciousness of the sky and seas and the multitudinous variety of the life lived in them corroborate the Romantic metaphysics which is by now the nearest thing people outside formal churches have to a shared religion … Attenborough teaches, though he would never, I guess, put it like that, the theology, liturgy, mathematics, and grammar of such a world and other-worldly view. His listeners believe him because of who he is, the self that he is: serious, joyful, highly intelligent, unself-regarding, changeless from thirty to eighty, brave ... He is steady and hopeful. There is no tragedy in his vision of nature and its many selves, only the plotless epic of seeing and believing.’

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