May 7, 2010


by Sir David Attenborough
225 pages, HarperCollins

News of the World by Pat Black

If a handsome, sturdy book with a kindly old silver-haired chap pictured in its plumage lands in your garden, you’ll need to act fast.

Capturing it with your bare hands can be hazardous owing to the sharp edges, and its weight might tear through your butterfly net like it was wrapping paper. Fear not, though; once you’ve got a firm grip on it, the book is easily tamed, and can make a fine companion for the other specimens on your shelves.

Sir David Attenborough’s latest book is a typically bright, colourful affair, concerned with all manner of natural wonders and strange creatures, boasting some pretty illustrations and prints throughout the text. Life Stories is a transcript of a BBC radio show the doyen of natural history television narrated last year, and it’s unusual in that Sir David – now in his eighties – was given free rein to choose whatever subjects he wished for discussion.

So, we have chapters on a great diversity of natural phenomena, a whole host of animal, vegetable and mineral oddities, some still living, others long since extinct. There is a chapter on Madagascar’s Aepyornis, a monstrous, flightless bird reputed by some early explorers to be big enough to carry an elephant in its talons, and the inspiration for the roc of myth and legend. To look at some of these creatures’ eggs, compared with those of its nearest relative, the ostrich, the early assessments may not have been too far off the mark. Then there’s a chapter on the Coelacanth, a prehistoric fish known previously from fossils, found alive and well in modern seas to the astonishment of many natural historians.

The platypus, a creature that almost defies description and still mystifies scientists, is given some airtime too, and you can almost sense Sir David’s frustration that the hatching of these animals’ infants has still not been captured on film. Fossils of extinct creatures, be they the strange swirls of ammonites or the delicate structures of the Archaeopteryx bird, are also brought to life before our eyes. Ancient flies and arachnids preserved in amber are also reclaimed for the reader from the realms of science fiction, happy accidents which have preserved long-vanished species for millennia, a gift for scientists from mother nature.

With the possible exception of the Komodo Dragon section, there are very few of the tarts of the animal world in here; you won’t find any great white sharks leaping from the water, or tigers swiping at each other in the snow. What you will find – and what I liked most about this book – is that strange and often overlooked things are given attention, with the history of mankind’s interaction with them recounted.

We are introduced to the titan arum flower, a forest giant almost as big as a man. Sir David makes a striking connection between its outlandish petal attire and the British aristocracy, which tickled me. Then he examines the simple act of singing, from the birds to the apes, and the advantage it brings to the animal world’s singers in terms of finding a mate (a trait which, Attenborough asserts, is clear and present in modern day humans).

There’s a great deal of quirk in here, examples of the increasingly rare and endangered British eccentricity, something best illustrated by the chapter in which the author reveals his lifelong passion for collecting things.

One great advantage Life Stories has is that it’s all too easy to imagine the prose being voiced-over in your mind by David Attenborough himself. Like reading Hunter S Thompson, this provides a rare telepathy between reader and writer, almost neuron-quick connections between your mind and the page. And the prose is all put down with such enthusiasm and curiosity, too, something it’s heartening to note that the author retains well into his ninth decade. This bright-eyed sense of wonder put me in mind of Gerald Durrell’s My Family And Other Animals. Sir David Attenborough’s fascination with the world and its creatures coalesces with our own – fitting, as he shaped many people’s understanding of life of Earth through his unequalled television series, rare treasures beamed into millions of homes.

Anyone who thinks the BBC is something that should be cut down to size, radically reshaped or hunted to extinction – please take note.

And, of course, the book is a beautiful object in itself, one that visitors (children in particular) will be drawn to take down from your shelves to look at. With e-publishing a growing part of the literary marketplace, it’s lovely to have a reminder of how rare and wonderful well-put-together books are. Catch this one if you can.

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