Thursday, 30 Mar 2023

I Played for a Knight and He Showed Me the World

Tim DeClaire

Last year, Anderson Cooper interviewed world-renowned natural history producer and author, Sir David Attenborough, for 60 Minutes. David was promoting his soon-to-be released book and a new documentary, A Life On Our Planet, for Netflix. As David explained in a promo for the documentary, he has witnessed firsthand in his ninety-three years of exploring, studying and documenting the natural world, that the way humans are living on earth is sending the planet into decline. He told Anderson his message was simple: human beings everywhere must take action in order to save it.

Near the end of the interview, Anderson turned the discussion toward the idea of life on other planets. Before Anderson could get to the real question, David answered it. “Why would I want to go live on the moon, when I’ve got this world of badgers and thrushes and jellyfish and corals? Why would I want to live on the moon? Because there’s nothing much there but dust. I’d say, ‘Well, thank you very much, I’ll stay where I am and watch hummingbirds.’”

I, too, share David’s point of view. It’s not difficult for me since I’ve had many years of reinforcement about the wonders of the natural world. From spending countless hours of my youth with an outdoorsy grandfather who mended and nursed injured birds, to growing up on an intracoastal waterway that was only a bike ride away from the Atlantic Ocean, to working with top scientists and explorers from around the world, to obsessively viewing hundreds of natural history programs, I’m committed to the world around me.

I first reached out to David when he was still in his seventies. As a communications manager at Discovery Channel, I was lucky enough to be tasked to lead publicity for a new natural history series called Blue Planet. I had come to the important stage in the project where I needed to pitch the American press. The best way for me to secure press coverage was to offer up interviews with my biggest star, the narrator and face of the series, David himself. Before I could convince him to talk to journalists and maybe even persuade him to board yet another airplane to cross yet another ocean, I had to get to know him, gauge his interest in promoting the series in the U.S., and figure out ways to work interviews and appearances into his busy schedule.

I knew all about David and I was more than up to speed on the new series. I had done a great deal of homework and preparation. But how was I really going to connect with him? He was a legendary natural history producer and expert. I was just another communications and marketing guy. He had traveled the world many times over. I had only a few stamps in my passport from a couple of trips to Japan and a relatively short backpacking excursion across Europe. He was British. I was American. He really didn’t need any publicity. I needed a lot.

I read article upon article about David. I asked producers about him. I talked to the BBC Natural History Unit team who had worked with him for many years. I read his latest book. And then I found it, that one thing we had in common, the one thing with which we could come together on equal ground: music. Even better for me, we both loved classical music and we both played the piano. After further investigation, one of David’s colleagues confirmed that his love of music was truly legitimate. So much so that when he traveled he always carried a minidisc player. Our correspondence began in 2003 and although the iPod had been a hot seller for over a year, David still traversed the globe with minidiscs in tow. In fact, he loved to buy a certain type of chocolates because, as David had discovered, the small plastic containers in which the chocolates were sold were the exact size to reuse as minidisc carrying cases.

And so it began. I made my first call to David and from that point forward we primarily used his favorite means of communication. Already a few years into the twenty-first century, one would expect to use email. Or maybe he preferred phone calls at pre-scheduled hours in the day. Or was there an agent or manager who helped him with his correspondence? It was none of those. We faxed. I would fax him questions and information and timing and interview requests. I’d wait a day or two and then David would fax back. Nearly every time he would type out his response, print it, sign “Best wishes — David,” and then fax it. One day I finally had a chance to ask about his piano and his playing and just like that, we bonded.

Throughout the campaign leading up to the U.S. premiere of the series, we continued to fax and, on rare occasions, speak on the phone. I had grand plans that I would fly him to New York or Los Angeles, or both, so that I could escort him to in-person interviews with writers, radio show hosts and broadcast talk shows. Unfortunately for me and the campaign, one morning I received a long fax from David explaining the details of a health issue that came with adamant doctor instructions to refrain from flying until they could treat the problem. Doctors had told David that he, “Must not on any account fly.” He assured me, though, that as dire as that sounded, specialists were able to rule out that it wasn’t a “rather nasty cause” they had originally feared.

Several weeks into the publicity campaign, my work on a few other projects necessitated a trip to London. In a fax regarding more telephone interview requests, I mentioned to David that I was to be in London in a few weeks and would he have time for lunch or dinner. I expected that if he was willing and available, he’d meet me at some fancy establishment in an equally fancy neighborhood in the middle of the city. He was, after all, one of the most famous people in Britain. Instead he said that it would be lovely to see me and that I should come to his house for lunch. His daughter could come by and make something for the three of us.

On a lovely spring day in April, I took a long taxi cab ride from central London to a quaint neighborhood in Surrey and knocked on the front door of Sir David Attenborough’s home. Was I a little nervous? The answer is a resounding yes. But the nerves were not because David was (and is) world famous. Not because he was (and is) considered a “national treasure” in the United Kingdom. I was nervous because I didn’t want to disappoint. I didn’t want this to be another meeting he had to endure with a stuttering, blubbering super fan. “What’s your favorite animal, David? What’s the Queen like? Have you ever met Paul McCartney?”

Fortunately, I had prepared. In addition to articles, interviews and his book, I had studied countless hours of natural history programs. In fact, for one of my electives in college, I enrolled in a course called, Animal Behavior. The entire class was devoted to the study of animal behavior through David’s Trials of Life series. I had to watch every episode, take notes and test on all the facts and information presented. So, in addition to all my personal and on-the-job research, I could actually say I even had university-level preparations.

David welcomed me into his home and was the quintessential host—gracious and jovial and interesting. We ate, we laughed, we told stories and we laughed some more. He made me feel so comfortable that at one point I had the courage to say, “Ok David, I’m ready for the game.” He paused for a beat and said, “Ok, let’s start over here.” David knew immediately that I was referring to the 1950’s British game show, Animal, Vegetable, Mineral?, on which he was a

producer. The basic setup for each episode was a host with three experts who would look at artifacts or objects from all over the world and try to guess what they were. I had heard that David would sometimes play a loose version of this game in his home. He’d give you a point for any correct observation you made about the object he presented to you.

Most people who are fans of David’s programs and books, and who have a basic awareness of his long career and travels, assume that David’s home is stuffed to the gills with artifacts. It would be like stepping into the dangerous lair of the world’s most traveled hoarder. Personally, I imagined it to look like a scene from an Indiana Jones movie, or a larger version of Ollivanders Wand Shop in a Harry Potter film, or a dusty old storage room in Manhattan’s American Museum of Natural History. On the contrary, I can report that it does not look like any of those. His home is quite comfortable and lovely. Still, I can confirm that it is full of amazing treasures. David presented several pieces to me throughout the game. Occasionally I’d score a few points, and I even made some respectable observations, but most of the time he stumped me.

This journey around his home was nothing short of spectacular. For the last piece, he stepped over to a large chest of shallow drawers, opened one on the top left, and gingerly retrieved an ornate and elegant staff. It was adorned with such careful decoration that I said it must have been used for ceremonial purposes. David smiled and said, “That’s correct. One point for you.” But that’s as far as I got. I couldn’t figure out the place or the actual use. As I held the staff, David announced in his world-famous narrator tone, “It’s from the Solomon Islands. The tribe that made this object practiced cannibalism. It was used to display someone’s head after it had been removed from their body.” I think I said something along the lines of wow, how interesting, with a nervous laugh, and then I handed it back to him as quickly as I could.

After the joy and honor of a guide around the world by the world’s greatest guide, I didn’t think my visit could be any more perfect. I reveled in how fortunate I was to have this once-in-a- lifetime experience. That was when David nodded toward the piano and said, “Are you going to play something?” I was having so much fun that I had almost forgotten the one passion we shared equally. Up until the day I stepped onto his front porch I thought for sure he would never ask me to play his piano. And even if he did, I knew I would say no, no, I couldn’t, and I’d find a way to weasel out of it. I’ve been studying piano since I was a boy and in my lifelong experience, rarely if ever do people ask me to play. That has always been fine by me because I’m not a showman. I typically get too nervous in front of an audience. I’d much prefer to practice and play for an audience of myself.

Despite knowing in my heart that he wouldn’t ask me to play, I had been practicing. A lot. I had been working on a piece I absolutely adore. And it wasn’t just any old classical bauble, like a Mozart Minuet or a Bach Prelude. It was an Etude by Alexander Scriabin. A slow, simple- sounding but technically difficult piece that evokes deep emotion. So exquisite is the piece that many of the greatest classical pianists include it in their repertoire.

Rather than protest or feign ignorance, I sat down at David’s magnificent grand piano without hesitation. I felt completely at ease. As I hoped, he had taken care of his instrument. It sounded good, he had kept it in tune, and the action of the keys was quite nice. By this point in my visit, I felt so good that I would have played the piece to near perfection had it not been for what David did next. Upon reflection later that day, I would realize it was exactly what you should expect from David. At the sound of the first note, he became David Attenborough.

He involuntarily and suddenly became the passionate and focused observer of life that we have seen in his documentaries for sixty years. He stood right next to my left side and leaned in. In fact, he practically leaned over the lower register of the keyboard. He observed intensely. He didn’t speak or make a sound, in an obvious effort to avoid spooking the subject. All that was missing was the camera hiding in the distance and I would have gotten the full experience of appearing in one of his programs. I was now in an exclusive club. I knew what the gorilla’s perspective was in the jungle, and what the sloth must have seen up in the tree, and what the bird of paradise was looking down on as she squawked from the branch above.

After a few moments of distraction—my mind racing, thoughts swirling about the most celebrated natural history producer in the world watching my hands, listening to my interpretation of the music—I began to focus on the sound and muddle my way through without too many errors. David stood up and said, “Well done. My, my, there were some large chords in there.” He appeared to truly appreciate the piece as well as my effort. He asked about the piece and I told him it was a Scriabin Etude and that one of the reasons why I loved it was because when I first heard a recording of Vladimir Horowitz play it during his triumphant return to Moscow after many years away, I knew I had to learn it no matter how far outside of my skill level it might have been.

David said, “You know, I think I have that recording.” He took me across the house and ascended a narrow staircase to his loft. It was flanked by two walls of floor-to-ceiling bookshelves full of books and a vast collection of compact discs. He pulled a disc from a shelf, inserted it into a player and displayed giddy satisfaction in finding the right track so quickly. I heard the first few chords and recognized Horowitz’s mastery immediately. I let out a groan. Horowitz was arguably the greatest performing pianist of the twentieth century. Now we were listening to his version right after my amateur attempt.

But the feeling of musical inadequacy was only fleeting. What mattered was that my experience began to make sense. All of it. David’s lifelong message. Those few hours, those precious moments of discovery, of surprise, of beauty, of laughter, of appreciation, of connection between two organisms in that fascinating and magical Surrey abode here on Planet Earth—those are what David has been preserving throughout his storied lifetime.

We the fortunate keystone (and some would even say hyperkeystone) species on the planet get to experience, enjoy, document, and share the many wonders around us every day, when we say good morning to our loved ones or laugh with a friend or hear the song of a wood thrush. As David says, humans are part of the natural world. While the bowerbird builds and displays his own work of art to attract a mate, and bottlenose dolphins work in teams and blow bubbles to corral large schools of fish, humans gather together to celebrate the birth of a child or work in teams to build machines that can fly across oceans. And an English gentleman hears Scriabin sing from his piano for the first time.

All of us together—protista, fungi, monera, plants, animals, and yes, humans—are part of the natural world. David has been showing this to us for more than sixty years. Through his storytelling, he’s shown how extraordinary and precious our world is. Inhuman animals have always appeared to be the focus but we humans are part of it as well. It’s all one world full of 8.7 million different forms of life.

I am confident David will continue to observe, document, thoroughly enjoy, and protect our world until it is time for him to leave it. Because of what he has shown me over the years, I

hope to one day see an Arctic Tern land on a North Atlantic coast after a long flight, or watch a Bird of Paradise do a dance in New Guinea, or see a herd of elephants take a water break in Zimbabwe. Until then, I’ll continue to revel in the wonder around me every day—a laugh with a good friend, or the sound of a live orchestra, or a once-in-a-lifetime tour with a legendary knight. And I’ll continue to enjoy what David has given us—the joy and knowledge of the natural world, and the will to do what little I can to preserve it.

As I thanked him profusely for the lovely visit, David walked me to the taxi cab parked at the curb in front of his house. The driver exited the cab and nearly fell over with delight at the sight of David. He shook David’s hand vigorously and said, “A great pleasure to meet you, sir!” As we drove away, the taxi cab driver blubbered incoherently, still stunned by his encounter with Britain’s National Treasure. I looked out the window and watched the beautiful world go by.


Tim DeClaire is a writer and communications and marketing professional who’s held leadership positions in a wide variety of industries including travel and tourism, education technology, e-commerce, gaming, and television. He lives in Arizona with his wife, two children, a toy fox terrier, and a very active hummingbird feeder in his backyard. 

Image: “Hummingbird – Infrared” by fortherock is licensed under