Book Review: The Adventures of a Young Naturalist, by David Attenborough

Available in bookshops nationwide.

51xl7QiCeML._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_David Attenborough is a legend of our time, synonymous with sharing the wonders and delights of the natural world with us through numerous television series over decades. He is a man with fascinating stories to tell about his life and career and Zoo Quest Expeditions shares some of these adventures.

In the 1950’s, David Attenborough was 26, a television producer for the BBC with two year’s broadcasting experience and an unused zoology degree, anxious to make animal programmes.

His plan was simple. The BBC and the London Zoo should mount a joint animal-collecting expedition on which both he and a curator of reptiles from the London Zoo should go. David would direct film sequences showing the London Zoo curator searching for and finally capturing a creature of particular interest. The resulting television series should be called Zoo Quest.

Zoo Quest Expeditions is David’s diary account of the experiences they had on their animal-collecting expeditions into the wilderness of British Guiana (Guyana), Indonesia, and Paraguay in the 1950’s.

Part of the magic of this book is the realisation as to how special these far flung locations were in a time when there was limited access to the area, and few European faces. Exotic animals were abundant the jungles and wilderness, and sometimes living as pets in remote villages. David and his team come into contact with Caiman crocodiles, piranhas, sloths, exotic birds, giant spiders, vampire bats, capybara, tree porcupines, manatee, anteaters, and many, many more wonderful creatures.

There is also the realisation that David Attenborough was far more than just a television producer and presenter, he was a very hands-on naturalist, with a confidence and appreciation of the animals and wilderness environments. He waded in deep crocodile infested waters, crawled through jungles, climbed trees with giant snakes; the man had no fear. The tale of David wrestling with the monster python a foot wide and 12 feet long in the jungles of Java is an eye-opener.

David Attenborough acknowledges in the book’s introduction that nowadays zoos don’t send out animal collectors on quests to bring them back for the zoo collection. The methods were of the time, when men of science were still concerned with compiling a catalogue of all the species of animals alive today, rather than conservation and respect for the wildlife and environment. If you can be comfortable with this, you’ll be able to appreciate the stories of the beautiful and charismatic creatures and their first interactions with humans, rather than saddened by the fact they were often collected and brought back to zoos.

On the trip back from Guyana, most of the animals were brought back by sea, except a few nice spiders, scorpions and one or two snakes in sealed tins with tiny air holes that went on the plane with David. He also kept a Coatimundi kitten nestled inside his shirt, a delightful furry creature still on a milk diet, with bright brown eyes, a long ringed tail and a pointed inquisitive snout. When he became hungry for more, they fed him worms rustled up from the tulip gardens at the airport in Amsterdam.

Zoo Quest Expeditions is a snapshot of a time long past, and a truly fascinating account of the wonderful animals that live our planet Earth.

Reviewed by Amie Lightbourne

Adventures of a Young Naturalist: The Zoo Quest Expeditions
by David Attenborough
Published by Hodder & Stoughton
ISBN 9781473665958

Adventures of a Young Naturalist: The Zoo Quest Expeditions features in the 2017 Summer Reading Catalogue.

Book Review: A Dying Breed, by Peter Hanington


cv_a_dying_breedAvailable now in bookshops nationwide.

A Dying Breed is the first book by Peter Hanington; I hope it won’t be his last. His work on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme during the time of the Iraqi and Afghanistan conflicts has given the book a sense of realism. When his characters move through the landscape of Kabul you are there with them, watching your back and being ever alert for danger.

William Carver is an old-school BBC journalist who likes to keep what he knows to himself, much to the irritation of his employer. He’s filing few stories, and no one knows exactly what he’s up to.

When a local official is killed in a bombing at a tailor’s shop in Kabul, it doesn’t excite Carver much. Until he learns the official was opposed to a UK company being awarded a telecoms licence. Warned to leave the story alone, Carver does the opposite, roping in his translator, Karim Mumtaz, to help him dig deeper. He discovers that the bomb was the kind favoured by foreign forces and the official died from a gunshot to the head, not the bomb blast.

Back in the UK Carver’s immediate boss, Rob Mariscal, is told to rein him in and kill the story until the contract is awarded. Carver hates working with a producer and has already been responsible for one resignation, but Mariscal sends young producer Patrick Reid to Kabul, in the hope that he will find out exactly what Carver knows. So he can get on with his research, Carver sends Reid and Mumtaz on a job that had been set up just for him. When they get kidnapped and Mariscal arrives in Kabul, Carver mistakenly confides in him, which could put his colleagues’ lives in danger.

A Dying Breed has a number of characters who play an integral part in the story – British Ambassador David Lever, private military contractor Richard Roydon, and a warlord known as the General. Everyone has something to hide and lives will be lost trying to suppress the truth. Will Carver be able to publish his story in time or will his efforts be in vain?

This book is fast-paced and extremely well-written. As a journalist myself, the characters in A Dying Breed are believable and the trials and pitfalls of chasing a major story only too familiar.

A note claiming the book was set in a shadowy le Carré-esque world worried me a little as I had never read any of le Carré’s books. Having finished A Dying Breed, I’m keen to remedy that. It just shows the difference having extensive knowledge of your subject matter makes to a novel – this book is hard to put down and leaves no questions unasked. Just like a good news story really.

Reviewed by Faye Lougher

A Dying Breed
by Peter Hanington
Published by Hodder & Stoughton
ISBN 9781473625426

Feminist Days, Susie Orbach with Carole Beu at #AWF16

One of the things that particularly attracts me about this year’s Auckland Writers Festival programme is the chance to hear some major feminist thinkers. Feminist Days, Susie Orbach in conversation with Carole Beu, was a joy.

cv_fat_is_a_feminist_issueOrbach has just republished an updated edition of her classic text Fat is a Feminist Issue, which she rather sweetly refers to as Fifi. Originally published in the 1970s, “Fifi, unfortunately, has stayed in print”. Unfortunately because, far from getting better, the problem of body hatred and compulsive eating has become radically worse.

Beu did an excellent job of interviewing, keeping her questions direct and her remarks pertinent and brief. Orbach spoke of the ways in which fatness can be an – often unconscious – “way of negotiating horrors and attacks on our bodies from visual culture”. To be fat is to “take up a different kind of space, to challenge ideas, and express discomfort with way femininity is represented” – although she noted that increasingly boys and men are suffering from a disordered relationship with food as well.

pp_susie_orbachOrbachn (left), who works as a psychotherapist, is horrified by the ways in which she sees her patients accepting disgust of their own bodies as expected and unfixable: “We have normalised self-hatred”. She says, “The public health emergency we have is disturbed eating and disturbed relationships with our bodies … people are frightened of food … food becomes a complicated, magical site, both nourishing and scary.” The point of therapy, though, is “to find the words you never found before, to have someone who can absorb them and recognise their importance.”

Orbach is interested in the ways in which we acquire our senses of our own bodies: “The human body is made in human culture and relationships … Body-to-body relationships create the bodies we have.” She is concerned by the ways in which the distressed body can be transmitted from mother to child, and the rise of eating disorders and body image problems in very young children: “We carry distress in our embodiment”. Orbach spoke scathingly of the ways in which the diet and food industries are poisoning our relationships with our own bodies: “They’re increasing profits by selling us non-foods that are addictive rather than nourishing … it’s vulture capitalism.”

A huge crowd had come to see Orbach, and Beu left plenty of time for questions. Audience questions are always a bit of a crapshoot, but I have to say the standard of questions in this session was very high. Asked about what she hopes for girls growing up now, Orbach said,“To have a life of meaning and contribution, finding things that really interest you … this is very hard under [the] neoliberal ideology of success and money … one of the definitions of human beings is that we have dependency needs, but our culture is vested in us denying this … We need to talk about way of owning these needs and the struggle to be complicated.”

I was particularly struck by something Orbach said towards the end of the session: “We think there has to be a solution to everything, but a listening ear is the most powerful thing we have to give.”

Recently, Orbach has been working on a BBC Radio 4 programme called In Therapy, which is available for free download. I’m now looking forward to Gloria Steinem later tonight!

Reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage

Susie Orbach will also appear during the Auckland Writer’s Festival with Jeanette Winterson on Saturday, 14 May, at 3.00pm, as well as tonight at the Pop-up festival with Jeanette Winterson, at 9.00pm.

Fat is a Feminist Issue, published by Arrow Books Ltd, ISBN 9781784753092
Bodies, published by Profile Books Ltd, ISBN 9781846680298