TLS review: ‘Journeys To The Other Side Of The World – Further Adventures Of A Young Naturalist’, David Attenborough (Two Roads, 2018)

The subtitle here is something of a misnomer: as with Attenborough’s previous volume, Adventures Of A Young Naturalist, the emphasis in these travel journals from the 1950s and 60s is as much on varieties of human culture as on non-human natural history. Both books are re-issues: the first previously appeared in 1980 as The Zoo Quest Expeditions, this latest volume, exploring the Pacific islands, Madagascar and Australia, in 1981 as Journeys To The Past. Even Attenborough’s prefaces are more or less the same, updated only with a how-things-have-changed bulletin (between the 1950s and 1981, the New Hebrides became Vanuatu and New Guinea achieved independence; between 1981 and today, the ‘tiny town’ of Darwin has become a city, and the feral Asian water buffalo has been exterminated in northern Australia).              

Attenborough’s earliest expeditions were made in collaboration with the London Zoo, for the breakthrough BBC television series Zoo Quest, but, as Attenborough acknowledges, ‘as time passed our interests broadened and the tribal people we met on our journeys began to figure with increasing prominence’. The shift in focus was one Attenborough took seriously: already the holder of a Cambridge degree in natural sciences, he enrolled to study social anthropology at the LSE in the 1960s (but curtailed his studies to take up the controllership of BBC2).  

In this volume, accordingly, the really enduring imagery is not of lemurs and Komodo dragons but of land-divers hurling themselves from high platforms on the island of Pentecost and of Aboriginal Australians painting one another’s bodies with kaolin and limonite. Attenborough gets on well with people, and seems, as a rule, to like them. It might not sound like much but it’s been the mainspring of a remarkable career in science communication. Here, amiable, interested and open-minded (and proud, you can tell, of his command of South Pacific pidgin, ‘a language in its own right, with its own syntax, grammar and vocabulary’), he strikes up warm and productive friendships in Tonga and Madagascar, Arnhem Land and the Whagi Valley; in the decades since, the same qualities, translated through a shooting script and camera-lens, have earned him his unique place in the affections of the British public.             

The nostalgic aesthetic of a monochrome and side-parted 1950s dominates the book, propped up by Attenborough’s (surprisingly unedited) contemporary allusions: a New Guinean ritual works like ‘a Paul Jones dance’, the team’s skill in assembling camera kit is like ‘a gun crew at the Royal Tournament’. Accordingly, Attenborough isn’t the sort to wear his heart on his sleeve, but there’s a rather touching emotional centre to the book as the young explorer finds a kind of paradise in Tonga: amid sprays of tropical flowers and platters of pineapple and roast chicken, grass-skirted dancing girls and chiming guitars, he writes: ‘Life … is abundantly good. Flowers are beautiful, food sweet-tasting, girls pretty and music beguiling… Perhaps if I had stayed longer, I, like other Europeans on the island, would have become discontented. I longed to find out.’ It’s perhaps worth noting that at this point Attenborough has a wife and two children at home.       

The change in the book’s title, from Journeys To The Past, is of course understandable; the implication of anthropological ‘progress’, and of ‘backward’ civilisations stuck in prehistory, is unwelcome, and it’s a little surprising to see that passages about ‘watching life in the Stone Age’ as craftsmen in Papua New Guinea fashion stone axe-blades have survived the 2018 edit (relatedly, a section characterising the wildlife of Madagascar as ‘antique’ and ‘outmoded’ itself now seems extremely out-of-date). The language of the previous book was tweaked in this respect – the ‘Indians’ of 1980 quite rightly became ‘locals’ or ‘Amerindians’ or ‘Wapishana’ in 2017 – so this seems an oversight. But on the whole there’s a basic decency to Attenborough’s approach to indigenous peoples; on religion, especially, he writes with curiosity, sensitivity and perspective, exploring Malagasy ancestor-worship, Aboriginal ‘dreamtime’ theology and South Pacific cargo cults (a lengthy passage on Australian Aboriginal ritual in Journeys To The Past is here excised for reasons of cultural sensitivity, replaced with the polite line: ‘It is not my secret to tell.’). ‘Our own myths, in their original form,’ Attenborough writes, ‘are seldom obviously logical.’

Inevitably, the framework of Attenborough’s travels has a European, late-colonial flavour. As in the previous book, each adventure seems to begin with a rickety charter plane touching down on a grass airstrip to be met by a white man in a sweaty hat. We meet planters, ranchers, prospectors, loggers and harassed colonial administrators. Then (as in the previous book) there’s quite a lot about jeeps and Land Rovers, running repairs and mechanical bodge-jobs; there’s quite a lot of logistics. There’s a reason, we remember, why today’s Attenborough documentaries only include ‘making of’ featurettes to fill the ad breaks when the series is sold overseas. But then, at last, there are the animals – tenrecs, magpie geese, sloths, sifakas, dwarf fig parrots, chameleons, honeypot ants, boas, goannas – and Attenborough’s restrained but real delight in their company invariably makes them worth the wait.

The obvious comparison, in reading these stories, is with Attenborough’s close contemporary Gerald Durrell (Attenborough was born a year later, in 1926). Both men’s memoirs see the narrator in pursuit of outlandish beasts in far-off places, both familiarise the reader with the recurring motif of a local boy turning up on the verandah with something interesting in a squirming sack, asking after the foolish white man who pays good money for trapped vermin – but in Attenborough’s stories there’s none of Durrell’s big-hearted rogueishness, no similar sense that riotousness might always be about to break out. In fact, at times these books are more reminiscent of a writer who, for readers of a certain age, will always come to mind whenever animal-collecting expeditions are spoken of: Willard Price, creator of the intrepid brothers Hal and Roger Hunt, who in the Adventure series of children’s novels travelled the world from 1949 to 1980, gathering up exotica for American zoos. There’s something here of Price’s sturdy reserve and commonsense morality, as well as of his instinct for communication and explanation (Attenborough’s adventures in Australia even furnish a highly Price-ish villain, a boorish redneck hunter known as ‘the butcher’: ‘Shall I stir ‘er up with a bullet? Don’t yer want a little drama in yer movie?’). 

A lot of the episodes in Journeys To The Other Side Of The World are invested with additional richness by the context in which the 2018 reader engages with them. There’s added value here for the armchair Attenborologist. We can’t read of Attenborough and cameraman Geoff Mulligan painstakingly tracking indri in eastern Madagascar without thinking of the stunning HD tree-to-tree tracking shots of the same animal that opened Planet Earth II (2016). We read about the young Attenborough piecing together a foot-long Aepyornis egg, knowing that he was to explore the story of the same egg as an 85-year-old man, in the 2011 film Attenborough And The Giant Egg. Episodes such as Attenborough’s facing down a horde of onrushing Papuans with an outstretched hand and a brisk ‘Good afternoon!’ are well-worn components of the enduring Attenborough legend, as is his lasting passion for birds of paradise (here, again, there’s a pathos to the hard-won glimpses of the birds he and his companions snatch in the jungle, set against the full-length widescreen footage he would later be instrumental in beaming into our living-rooms).

Perhaps there is pathos, too, in reflecting on a career in natural-history filmmaking that, for all its success, might have taken a different direction. In his 2002 memoir Life On Air Attenborough writes with real excitement about his short-lived studies under Raymond Firth and Robin Cox at the LSE; he remembers his early ideas for anthropological programmes, but also his rationale for abandoning them: ‘Spying on one’s fellow human beings was an intolerable intrusion on their privacy … Human beings are not, after all, the same as other animals, and television should not treat them as though they were.’ The recollections of people, communities and societies in Journeys To The Other Side Of The World suggest that he might, had his work continued in that vein, have found a way to reconcile these conflicts. Attenborough was and is a naturalist, and a fine one, but, in their most vivid and memorable moments, these read more like the adventures of a young anthropologist.      

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