“What do we talk about now?”: Doug Aiton reflects on his interview with Sir David Attenborough

Continuing his series of columns, Melbourne radio legend Doug Aiton recalls his interview with Sir David Attenborough

It was the third time I had met Sir David Attenborough. I suggested to him that we try a different interview: that is, we wouldn’t mention natural history.

He seemed happy about that. He had given a million interviews about natural history and associated subjects.

Further to that, I had also met Sir David the day before, for a separate interview. So it was no wonder that when we met again so soon afterwards, he looked at me bleakly and said “what do we talk about now?”

He was about to turn 70 (he is now 95).

I had discovered that he cherished his Steinway grand piano and that when he was home in Richmond, London, in the house they’ve lived in for over 40 years, he liked to play it every day.

Aiton: “Can you remember your piano teacher?”

Sir David : “Oh God! Do I ever. Jessie Adcock. I suppose I was about eight or so when I started with her. She told me that in this house there were various gnomes and fairies and they all had doorbells. This gnome’s doorbell was the double b flat, and this fairy’s doorbell was middle C, and so on. I thought she was ‘round the twist.”

The London house, built in the 1830s, was attached at both sides. One was another house, the other was an English pub called ‘The Hole in the Wall’. However, he didn’t go in there much because he couldn’t see the point when he could have a drink from the comfort of his own home.

He had grown up in Leicester, in a nice house near a highly regarded music hall in the Midlands. So it wasn’t unusual for visiting soloists and orchestras to come and stay with the Attenborough family.

He remembered a visit during the 1940s of a Polish pianist called Pouishnoff, born in Odessa in 1891.

“I remember standing in the aisle listening to Pouishnoff play Chopin. There was a tall man standing alongside me. Distinguished, not an old man.”

As Pouishnoff was playing a nocturne, a young David Attenborough turned and saw tears running down this gentleman’s cheeks. It was the first time he had seen an adult cry and the first time he realised that this thing called music also had connections with people’s souls.

Aiton: “Do you have any particular favourites as composers?”

Sir David said he got “enthusiasms”. Monteverdi for example, but with his own piano playing he liked Bach, Beethoven and Mozart.

Aiton: “I suppose you and your family knew Sir Malcolm Sargent.”

Sir David : “Yes. Dick thinks he was a better musician than I do.” (Dick the film actor is Sir David’s late brother).

“He was the church organist at Lutterworth. I’m pretty sure he wore a corset. Shouldn’t say that. And he had to have a carnation which seemed to me an affectation.”

I intruded, “I seem to remember that [English conductor] Sir Thomas Beachim and Sargent hated each other.”

Sir David :Yes they did. Once Sargent went to Jerusalem and there was an attack on his car coming from the airport. And Beachim said he had no idea the Israelis had such musical taste. But look, I’m being snobby and unkind. Sargent just seemed very, very unwarm. He was very formal.”

I then asked Attenborough about Leicester, its surroundings and what he missed about the England of those years.

“I’m not sure I missed that kind of life because I don’t lead it anymore, but I was just a boy with a bicycle and there were ponds and insects and fossils. And I’d watch birds. But I’m not twelve anymore. I think the essence of England is still there. I dare say there are still hedge rows and fourteen-year-olds watching birds and dragonflies on a pond.

“I never heard my mother and father exchange a hard word ever.”

Aiton: “Did your father die peacefully?”

Sir David :Yes. I was away in Borneo, very remote. I didn’t know he was dying. I got a message from my wife saying he was very severely ill and by the time I got to the next telephone he had died. He must have been seventy-three.”

Aiton: “And were you close to your mother?”

“Yes.” Sir David paused, “She died in a car smash.”

We sat silently for a few moments before he continued, “It was a mystery. She could have had a seizure, heart attack, so I never said goodbye to her either. And I didn’t see her body. Dick did. He said not to go because she was so dreadfully wounded.

“I wish I had. I think the circumstances of death have to be confronted. If you don’t confront reality, there is something incomplete. Something unanswered. There is no conclusion and it’s difficult to deal with.

“My father was so shattered. He couldn’t go to the funeral. He locked himself in his room. He grieved for years.”

For the rest of the interview, Sir David talked about his giving up wine at lunch (“I thought I was about a stone too heavy”) giving up smoking, but that was thirty years ago, and how he doesn’t drive at all.

Aiton: “But do you still drink?”

Sir David : “Oooh yes. I like my chardonnay. Never before 6pm. But at three minutes past six, whoosh!”

And that of all the books he read so long ago Treasure Island was one favourite.

“All the names! Blind Pew, Squire Trelawney, Long John Silver, Ben Gunn”

“I like it,” I said, “when Blind Pew hands Billy Bones the black spot and says ‘and now, that’s done!’ and goes tap tap tapping off into the night.”

“Exactly. Oh marvellous…” Treasure Island, he said, had lead to his obsession with the bird of paradise.

“They’re just stunningly beautiful. They are to me the quintessence of nature’s glory. Wallace [Alfred Russell Wallace was the first to see the bird in 1858] said ‘how could it be that these extraordinary sights are not for the eye of man but only to impress other birds’”.

Sir David mentioned only one another animal; Seamus, the only dog he ever owned, an Irish setter who died in 1938.





About the Author

Doug Aiton was the Drive time Presenter at Melbourne’s 3LO from 1987 – 1997.

He has a combined past of newspapers and radio including a weekly column for the Sunday Age for about ten years. He is married to Judy and has three children.

Now in his 70s, Doug still presents a regular program on The Pulse Geelong.