Life isn't exactly littered with second chances but last night I was given a big one. At the truly awe-inspiring Whitley Awards for conservation I got an opportunity to meet my hero, Sir David Attenborough. Again. It was a rather unremarkable encounter. Unlike the previous. In fact I challenge anyone to have made a bigger cock up out of meeting their idol than my first rendezvous with Sir D.
Sir David is like Jesus to me. Other than my parents, he’s probably had the biggest influence on my life. As a child his ‘Life on Earth’ series blew my mind. The parade of curious creatures that danced through the sitting room accompanied by this ruffled but rather handsome man in his sober safari suit, led to a lifelong love affair with nature. Attenborough’s hushed authoritative tones introduced me to the stunning diversity of life that existed beyond my parents’ chintzy living room. This magical thing called evolution had created an Argos catalogue’s worth of animals, each with its own peculiar lifestyle. If David was Jesus then the religion he preached, evolution was the one I would follow devoutly.
But it was the kaleidoscope of modern day amphibians that really hypnotised me. They looked like creatures from outer space. Almost too exotic for this planet. I remember one in particular - a lurid green tree frog from Argentina that preformed elaborate yogic manoeuvres in order to massage self-secreted sunscreen over every inch of its body. Including its eyeballs. The resulting all-over otherworldly-varnished sheen allowed the frog to bake in the sun without turning to a crisp. You clearly wouldn’t catch a Chacoan tree frog sitting in the shade looking blotchy and burnt. Which back in the 70’s made it significantly more sophisticated than most humans I knew. And so a lifetime's obsession with frogs was born.
So a few years ago when a former colleague of mine casually mentioned that Sir David Attenborough was hosting a fund-raising night for amphibians at London Zoo I nearly exploded. I had to go. I hounded the poor man until he finally managed to secure me my very own golden ticket. A night of Attenborough AND frogs. Wow. I was so excited I thought I might pop.
I arrived early and took my seat for the opening presentation, clutching my super geeky notebook with its little smiley green tree frog on the cover. I sat poised, pen quivering with anticipation. Out shuffled Attenborough. I gasped. He was smaller, older and much more frail than the young man I remember gadding about the jungle in a neatly pressed pantsuit. I was also struck by how immaculate he looked. Like he was fresh out the washing machine, smelling of fabric softener and topped off with wisps of snowy white hair.
After the lecture we were invited for drinks in the amphibian and reptile house where there would be an opportunity for everyone to meet Sir David. Although we were urged by ZSL staff “not to hog him and to let everyone have a go”. It seemed a tiny bit sad that Attenborough had been reduced to a money-raising merry-go-round but as long as I got a “go” and the frogs got some “cash” that’s all that really mattered.
I collected my glass of warm Chardonnay and began stalking the room. I stared at the frogs in the zoo’s collection, sprightly denim coloured dart frogs that would normally command my attention, but my mind was possessed with thoughts of how amazing it was going to be to finally meet my hero. I was going to be able to talk so knowledgeably about frogs and offer myself up to the cause. As a fellow Oxbridge and BBC alumni, he’d be impressed by my zoological and broadcasting credentials. We’d become firm friends, intellectual frog colleagues on a mission to save the amphibians together. It was going to be brilliant. But things didn’t exactly go as planned.
I spotted Attenborough. He was with an American couple that appeared to be hounding him for his autograph. How tacky I thought. I’ll go and save him from this boorish couple. I marched forward, elbowing the Americans out of the way and thrust my hand towards him. “Sir David, hi I’d like to introduce myself. My name is Lucy Cooke and I’d just like to say…”. But what did I want to say? Confronted with my own personal Jesus my mind went blank as it dawned on me that whilst I may have been longing for this moment for thirty years I had never ACTUALLY thought what I would I would say.
So I blurted out the truth, “…I’d just like to say what a profound effect you’ve had on my life”. Not necessarily a bad a thing except that as the words came tumbling out of my mouth the enormity of the moment overcame me.
Then the unthinkable happened. I started to cry. And not just a little bit. As I tried to speak my voice became a sort of high-pitched semi-squeal and my body shook with waves of heartfelt sobs. It was the kind of crying generally reserved for being brutally dumped. Horrified at myself and unable to comprehend what was happening I blindly continued - each word shuddering and squeaking more than the last.
Attenborough, bless him, tried his best to calm me down. Whilst simultaneously attempting to gently winkle his hand out from my sweaty death grip.Looking over his shoulder I noticed his ZSL minders hovering, rightly concerned about the potential Lee Harvey Oswald bothering Sir David. Their eyes screamed, “Save Attenborough, we must save Attenborough”. I took a deep breath and tried to compose myself. I’d appeal to him as a fellow media professional and try and excuse my behaviour as some random aberration. “I don’t know why this is happening”, I stammered. “I’ve met tons of famous people, everyone from Gandhi to…”
What? WHAT? What was I saying? My brain had clearly totally disengaged from my mouth and I was now in a full-blown verbal vortex. As a TV director I may have filmed lots of famous types but it’s not the kind of thing you boast about unless impersonating a media toad of the highest order. Plus, and most horrifyingly, I have of course never met Gandhi. How could I without the help of a time machine? Gandhi died over twenty years before I was born.
The sentence hung in the air like a curried burp as my mind grappled with what the hell I would say next. Who else should I claim to be friends with: Scooby Doo? Dr Who? Charles freaking Darwin? But I never got the chance to finish the sentence. Almost immediately I felt a spiky grip on my shoulders and was promptly steered away from the vicinity of Attenborough by a terribly diplomatic ZSL minder who suggested rather firmly that someone else speak to Sir David now”. So that was it, my great meeting with my hero. Mired by tears and lies. Good job Lucy. Excellent. The frogs are definitely safe now.
As I slunk out the back door, escorted by ZSL staff and still weeping, I marvelled at how things could have gone so far wrong. Then I realised. Attenborough’s brother directed Gandhi. My poor panicked synapses were firing off in all directions and grasping onto anything they recognised. The crying was less easy to fathom but it felt as if something deep inside me had stirred. Perhaps the idea of what I would have lost if Attenborough had not existed.
It took me quite a while to recover from the shame of that night. Friends suggested that I write Attenborough a letter. But what could I say? I didn’t really meet Gandhi; I was just having a brain fart. One even attempted to pacify me with the news that the same thing had apparently happened to Bjork when she met him. The hysterical crying that is. Not the fictional rendezvous with a latter day saint. But it’s little consolation to be lumped in the same mental bracket as a woman who dresses as a dead swan.
It was this erroneous encounter that inspired me to start this blog. So despite the shame of that night I believe something positive came out of it. I was of course still too nervous to tell Sir David that when I met him last night. I dared not open my mouth for fear of a ghostly repeat and simply shook his hand and smiled as sweetly as possible. Much like a million other people he meets. Rarely have I been so relieved not to have made any kind of impression at all.
The Whitley Awards are given annually to a handful of conservation projects. I was delighted to meet one of this year's winners: Carlos Vasquez Almazan, a Guatemalan amphibian saviour fighting to protect some of Central America's last surviving cloud forest and the unqiue species of salamander that live there. There were thankfully no tears involved in this encounter.