I have just finished reading David Attenborough’s Life on Air. It is not the kind of thing I normally read because I don’t like reading green room stories or memoirs about a life in TV. In fact, I don’t much like TV so as I said, it was an unusual choice for me but I felt David Attenborough is something of an exception so I determined to give it a go.
Before I get to the content, I should just say I bought the book in a shop in South England where I had a temporary job last summer. It was a charity shop and it had no price on it. I asked the woman how much it was and she replied, slightly surprised, “Oh, you’re very Scottish”.
I wasn’t quite sure how to respond to this. These possibilities leapt to mind…
- Yes, can I help you?
- Do you go around just naming things? Do you say “oh, that’s a shelf, and that’s a floor” every time you see one?
Anyway, I have to say the book was an excellent read. Some of it seemed familiar because the documentary of the same name covers a lot of the material but most of the things in the documentary are covered in more depth in the book.
There is a bit of internal BBC politics but mostly from a bygone era and not enough to make you stop reading it. Everyone knows the wildlife documentaries but less people know about his spell as controller of BBC 2 and also Director of Programming for BBC television. The angle about these things in the book is that although in part interesting jobs, thse things eventually became distractions from his real desire to make wildlife programmes.
Although, having said that, the word wildlife doesn’t really cover it all because there have been plenty of Attenborough written/produced/narrated/commissioned programmes about geology, paleontology and anthropology too. He also mixes in some telling words about the worsening environmental crisis that threatens to destroy a large number of the species he has been filming.
Also, for a man with a fair number of royal titles to his name he seems to have a rather healthy disdain for the whole ridiculous merry-go-round. This is revealed in a couple of places, the first was how he tried to get out of being the man responsible for the Queen’s speech and the second I will come to.
With all these things in mind the book never really gets bogged down in one particular area. At the beginning there is a lot of in the pioneering days of nature filming stuff and it makes interesting reading when you consider who it is coming from. It seems that in the early days part of the point of the programs was to capture some of the animals for London Zoo although this practice seemed to die out fairly quickly.
When we move past that we get into landmark series such as Kenneth Baker’s Civilisation and others and then onto some of the more remarkable modern series that have been made.
The only thing that disappointed me in the book was that he didn’t directly address the issue of certain stations buying his documentaries and then editing out the references to evolution. I would have enjoyed reading his take on that.
So why this title about Rafflesia then? Well, Raffles the Gentlemen Thug was a very funny character in Viz Magazine. This character was basically a modern hooligan using victorian era language and the juxtaposition made it funny. Sentences like “My scarves are fashioned of the finest silk sir. Any man who suggests differently is a c*nt” are pretty memorable.
While I doubt that Attenborough is a reader of that magazine Attenborough wrote about the plant Rafflesia which produces the “largest unbranched inflorescence” (not the largest flower) in the world. The plant is a parasite which lives inside a host vine and the only visible part of it is the flower. Attenborough had this to say about it…
I am not one of those, like Aesop or Robert the Bruce, who readily derive moral precepts from the behaviour of animals, and I thought I would be even less likely to find them in the cycle of the life of plants, but Rafflesis did seem to me to provide a parable. One has to ask why this particular plant should produce the most extravangt and flamboyant of all flowers. It occured to me that Rafflesia does not work for its living. The vine itself has to build leaves and stems to produce its food and ultimately construct its flowers. But Rafflesia does not concern itself with such practical matters. It simply absorbs all the food it needs from its host. Indeed there is virtually no limit on how much it can take and no curb to its extravagance. So it can build the most grandiose of flowers. It is the aristocrat of the tropical forest plant community.