I admire David Attenborough without reservation. He is the ultimate communicator. He enables us to look at the world and all the infinite variety of life in it and feel something of the privilege that he speaks of so eloquently. We think big when we watch his wildlife programmes. We hear the sounds of Africa. We fear for the polar bear cubs. We marvel at the bewildering variety of all living things both animal and vegetable. We dive into the depths of the ocean. We wonder.
Yet I wonder about other aspects of the whole business. Why, for instance, do lions not winkle the tourists out of those high, open-top, vehicles? They have claws big enough. They can jump high enough. Do bacteria ever think:’There must be more to live than wriggling around some creature’s intestine.’ Why don’t they evolve and become stock-brokers with fine houses in the country? Why does nobody ever tell the bower-bird to take it easy occasionally? He really is a bit of an eejit. Give it a rest. Stop trying to impress the birds. I tried that lark for years. It’s a futile task. You get tired.
As a somewhat tattered Christian, I do not care for lions. They have ‘previous’ with Christians. I don’t like the unbreakable glass in the lion enclosure in the zoo. Unbreakable so far. ‘Stone walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage.’ Did the poet write that one in a zoo? Three orcas swam past my house one still summer’s evening. Their fins were like the sails of sinister yachts. They cruised languidly in the shallows, turning this way and that. I have seen the film. They are not averse to sliding up the beach in pursuit of seals. They drifted on in their interminable quest for food. I think of them occasionally when I dip myself in the water. Would I be a tasty mortal to an orca? I don’t like the way they hurl their prey high into the air. I have a touch of vertigo to add to my fear of being swallowed by sea monsters.
Attenborough, if I remember rightly, made ‘Backyard Safari’, a wildlife programme about what goes on in your garden. If it wasn’t Attenborough, it only goes to show that we imagine wildlife and wildlife photographers going about their business by kind permission of David Attenborough. He is the gold standard. It was as fascinating and grisly as anything that goes on on a larger scale in the Serengeti. You don’t need aliens from another planet when you look at earwigs, spiders, wasps. It’s a jungle out there.
I like to allocate roles to the creatures in my backyard Serengeti. The starlings graze like the herds of wildebeest. It has been pointed out to me that they strut just like Tina Turner. They do. However, the image of herds of Tina Turners covering the endless savannah, is a bit too much to take, especially early in the morning. The crows are buffalo, armed and dangerous. The seagull is a white rhino. With his perpetual frown he always looks angry. He eats too much too quickly and sometimes has to cough it back again. We were always told not to bolt our food, but growing up in a large family, you had to be quick. The blackbirds and thrushes are timid gazelles. Timid? Tell that to the worms. The sparrows fear nobody. They are surely, the baboons and monkeys.
Size is relative. Did you see Attenborough’s film of a plover chasing an elephant away from its nest? The wren is fearless. You will always catch him in the corner of your eye. Look directly at him and he is almost invisible. He is not afraid to speak his mind. Troglodytes Troglodytes We use the word disparagingly-a caveman. But this little caveman is, to borrow a phrase, simply the best. The wran, the wran, the king of all birds.
The wildlife film-maker never intervenes. He never jumps up from the breakfast table to chase a chattering magpie from a blackbird’s nest. He would never try to nurse a lost nestling. I found a sparrow hawk with a broken leg. He had knocked himself unconscious on a glass door. It was an old break. The vet said that it could never heal. He said that the bird would die in captivity. It died overnight,of sadness.
Accipiter, the sparrow hawk. His name sounds like speed. He is the leopard, the cheetah. A silence descends on the garden when he is about. He took a wagtail. He shrouded it in his wings and tore it to pieces. We found only a head and some feathers. Birdsong resumed, tentatively at first. You have seen how the zebra graze placidly beside the lion who is devouring their brother. Safe for the moment. My sister asked me to paint two lion that she photographed many years ago on a memorable trip the length of Africa. You don’t say ‘lions’. You say ‘lion’, just as you say ‘fish’ or ‘sheep’ but it’s different when you say ‘lion’. They say ‘fishes’ in the BibleI did a fine job but she laughed when she saw the result. ‘They’re just like Robin Hall and Jimmy MacGregor!’ Robin and Jimmy were two bearded folk-singer(s?) in the days of black and white television. You couldn’t put the heads of two folk-singer on your wall, I suppose.
The heron, by size, should be the elephant but his temperament is all wrong. He is closer to the cobra in terms of speed. He comes like a wraith in the pale light of dawn, to filch our goldfish. He has all the stillness and menace of a wild-west gunfighter. He has the elusiveness of a moth. I have stalked him with a high-powered water pistol but he gets the drop on me every time. He perches on a neighbouring roof with a pterodactyl smirk when he has done the deed.
Now here’s an idea I might pitch to Lord Attenborough (the brother.) Take the DNA of an elephant; implant it into a heron’s egg and recreate the long extinct elephant bird. It’s an old trick but…it …just … might… work.