The other side of David Attenborough

david attenborough

From my Times interview with a broadcasting legend.  Among other things, we talked about his early years at the BBC, his passion for the piano and his unlikely role as a pioneer of world music:

There is a strange whistling in the air in the sleek, modernist library in David Attenborough’s  home in southwest London. Could it be some exotic bird that he has brought back from a trip to the rainforest? No, nothing as exciting as that. It is simply his hearing aid malfunctioning. He chuckles and gives it a quick tweak. Apart from his slightly stooped posture the hearing aid is the only clue that Britain’s most beloved naturalist celebrated his 92nd birthday this year.

Otherwise he seems as brisk and alert as ever, answering questions with grace and humility, even when the conversation turns to the recent attack on his work by the radical environmentalist George Monbiot (more of that later). Attenborough’s daughter, Susan, a retired primary school head teacher who keeps him company, supplies us with unusually spicy ginger biscuits. Some interviewers have found him to be distant and evasive. Today he is genial, avuncular and thoroughly engaging.

He is, understandably, slightly more cautious when I ring him a few days later to ask him a follow-up question: what makes him cry? It is a day or two after the broadcast of the latest episode of his BBC One series Dynasties and half of the country — or so Twitter would lead you to believe — have been sobbing over the scenes of baby penguins facing an icy death in the Antarctic. I immediately sense that he would prefer not to go down this particular path, but he answers anyway. “I’ve never cried while filming, but I suppose I cry more easily nowadays.” He pauses and corrects himself. “Well, tears don’t pour down my cheeks, but I blinked hard on November 11.”

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An extraordinary aspect of the decision-making in Washington between 1961 and 1975 was that Vietnamese were seldom if ever allowed to intrude upon it. Successive administrations ignored any claims by the people who inhabited the battlefields to a voice in determining their own fate: business was done in a cocoon of Americanness… There is a great line in David Halberstam’s “The Best and the Brightest” about Vice-President Lyndon Johnson’s awed reaction after seeing McNamara, Rusk, Bundy, Schlesinger, Rostow and the rest of the Kennedy Round Table gathered for the first time. He rushed off to tell his friend and mentor Sam Rayburn, speaker of the House, about this brilliant group, only to be deflated by the droll response: “Well, Lyndon, you may be right, and they may be every bit as intelligent as you say, but I’d feel a whole lot better if just one of them had run for sheriff once.”

Max Hastings, “Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945-1975”. 

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All Saints, Marlow

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Being Tina Turner

My Times review of Tina Turner’s autobiography, a sequel of sorts to her 1980s bestseller, “I Tina”. Once again, her stage partner Ike  – wife-beater, drug addict and musical pioneer – looms large:

As awful as Ike was, there remains the nagging thought that the R’n’B he made with Tina had more fire and energy than the anthems that brought her a huge following from the 1980s onwards. Tina takes a dim view of her early work in her first autobiography. Who can blame her for feeling jaundiced about it? But will posterity come to the same conclusion?

It’s ironic too that a singer who has become a rock goddess is so self-effacing about her looks. Beneath the exotic wigs and leather minis lurks a much quieter creature: “I was — and I am still — amused by the constant attention paid to my legs. I truly don’t get the fuss. Did you ever see a pony’s legs when it’s just born? Long and spindly? That’s what my legs always looked like to me. When I was young, I used to think, Why do I look like a little pony? My short torso is hooked onto these two little dangling legs, but I’ve learned how to wear clothes to flatter them. In Nutbush, no one would have looked twice at my legs. Black women who were full and curvy were considered beautiful, but my body, which was just skinny and straight, never turned any heads.”

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Cooling off

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I always associate northern California with the late sixties, when I spent some time here. The hippie stuff was fun for about five minutes and then, by late ’67, the barbarism had set in.  A typical story: A woman I know made the mistake of accepting the invitation of a famous “hippie” songwriter to spend the day on his houseboat in Mendocino, where he proceeded to beat the hell out of her and, for a time, kept her there at gunpoint. Luckily, she escaped and told her friend Sonny Barger, then president of the Oakland Hells Angels, about it. Sonny sent a crew roaring upstate, where they worked the guy over and burned down his boat. In those days of love and peace, you’d hear  that sort of stuff all the time.

Donald Fagen,  “Eminent Hipsters”.

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Ye olde jazz hipsters

I can’t stop laughing at this. A 1982 cartoon by Trevor Holder, discovered via @PunchCartoons.

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When Presley and [Pat] Boone were the two most popular singers among American teens, were they really the idols of opposing camps? Or does that way of seeing them just reflect the fact that the few teenage music fans who went on to become rock critics had different tastes from the millions of teenagers who swooned over both? […] Reading through the histories of both jazz and rock, I am struck again and again by the fact that although women and girls were the primary consumers of popular styles, the critics were consistently male – and, more specifically, that they tended to be the sort of men who collected and discussed music rather than dancing to it. Again, that is not necessarily a bad thing (some of my best friends…), but it is relevant when one is trying to understand why they loved the music they loved and hated the music they hated.

Elijah Wald, “How The Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll”.

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The morning after

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Team spirit

I don’t need to mention there’s an important semi-final tonight, do I? Most of the media build-up is drawing parallels with Italia ’90, for understandable reasons, yet for someone of my generation (I was born in 1959) 1966 is still the touchstone. I just about remember watching the final back then, although its real impact didn’t sink in until about two years later, when I started getting serious about playing football. Reading Leo McKinstry’s biography of Sir Alf Ramsey has been a a reminder of what a different world it was then. No multi-million contracts, of course. But no PlayStation, no Xbox, no Dr Dre headphones either. Just the telly, the radio and the occasional trip to the flicks:

Sometimes as Jimmy Armfield remembers, Alf’s announcement of a cinema outing could be quite abrupt: “We would be sitting in Hendon Hall Hotel after lunch or dinner, then Alf would suddenly say, ‘Harold [trainer Harold Shepherdson], John Wayne is on at the Odeon.’

‘Very good, Alf.’

‘I think we should go. what do you think?’


‘Then tell the lads we’re going to the Odeon.’ By then, he’s picked up his gear, got his coat and is almost out the door. And we have to run up the stairs, get our coats, and then chase him to the Odeon. So we have the sight of the England football team running down the hill after our manager. As he gets to the ticket office, we would all pile in behind him. And he would say, ‘I want 26 seats.’ We would always go upstairs. It was dark, the film would often have started and we would be noisily clambering into our seats and Alf would say, ‘Shut up, John Wayne’s on.’ That was Alf. He loved his westerns.”

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