Attenborough’s grace

As Sir David Attenborough turns 90, I’ll add my story of him.

In 1999, I was the lead developer and press spokesperson for the Natural History Museum’s new exhibition,Voyages of Discovery. The day of the VIP launch, we held a preview of the exhibition for Sir David and Mark Lawson, host of BBC Radio 4’s Front Row. The botanical curator, Dr Sandy Knapp, and I were hosting and touring them round the exhibition. We were both a bit starstruck, and were surprised and disappointed in our encounter. He seemed offhand, over-critical and his questions were challenging rather than exploratory. Not what we had expected; or, perhaps we had done something wrong. We were very concerned – maybe the exhibition was rubbish, and Sir David was about to tell the nation, live on the radio.

We tuned in later that afternoon and of course he was glorious. He summed up the exhibition, detailed some of the hero objects we had discussed but added his own colour and context, and wrapped up by highlighting his desire that the joy and wonder of  nature be discovered and enjoyed by all.

We had the VIP evening. Sir David was there, of course, but I didn’t speak to him. Still worried that I had done something wrong, I didn’t approach; anyway he was in circles of trustees, professors and media.

Near the end of the evening, he suddenly appeared at my elbow. ‘Excuse me, Paul,’ he said, and then went on to apologise. He said he’d been unaccountably moody that morning, and it was no reflection on the exhibition, which he thought was great. I barely said a word, maybe a mumbled awed ‘thank you,’ before he disappeared into the soft flow towards the exit.

Next morning I found out more. He’d been about to get into his taxi, when he stopped and hurried back to find me. And, as she excitedly told me, Sandy had the same experience. So I’m humbled and awed. From the heights of his intellect, fame and influence he remembered Sandy and I, and made right a minor wrong. And he liked the exhibition too!

He’s a great person indeed but not just for the reasons I’m seeing anyone else write. He’s also kind and humble, and acts with grace and generosity. We all have off days. But it’s a remarkable human who always tries to own and fix the consequences.

When I met him again, eight years later, he remembered, too. That’s also amazing.

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