David Attenborough: A Fossil of Our Time

A week ago, I sat in an audience waiting for the arrival of a British icon in Chiswick Business Park. The place was packed out, the air fizzing with anticipation – for who? Sir David Attenborough.

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Funny how a man of 87 years could create such an excitement – the only other time I’ve witnessed such a thing was at a guitar show where people queued for an autograph from Jim Marshall, the famous guitar amp creator. It’s strange how a crowd buzzes over such an old person, something that doesn’t often occur in this Western world obsessed with the young. But let’s face it: Jim Marshall is a music legend and therefore automatically eternally cool. David Attenborough on the other hand…works with animals. Okay, maybe he’s done a little bit more than that.

As soon as he bounded in, waving at the audience and bouncing onto the stage to be interviewed, I got it: I understood why people like him rise from the crowd and do great things. It’s his positive energy, his enthusiasm. The chair was stationed so that his back was turned to the side of the audience where I sat, but like a true professional, he directed every answer to the entire audience – actively turning around to speak to us all. And though his voice – instantly recognisable from his career of voice-overs – has its iconic, husky tone, he nevertheless spoke so vibrantly, he barely needed his microphone. I felt like I was having a personal audience with him. And so enthusiastic – as enthusiastic in his mannerisms as Jack Black – gesticulating with his arms like one of the many primates he’s filmed in his life.

His interview took us on a journey back in time. He actually began his career with a degree in natural sciences at Cambridge University. In 1952, he started work at the BBC after applying for a job as a radio talk producer, which he didn’t get, before his CV was noticed by Mary Adams who was head of the Talks department – basically the factual TV department. He became producer for the department, and eventually landed his first role as a presenter when Jack Lester, the then presenter for Zoo Quest an animal collecting programme – became ill and David was made to stand in at short notice. The rest is, of course, history.

His stories of TV in the old days fascinated me the most, as a worker in the industry, and with parents who also once worked at the BBC in the 60s and 70s. When Attenborough first began presenting, everything went out live. There was no technology back then to pre-record anything. The schedule itself was a very interesting concept, as back then not many people had TV sets (until the Queen’s coronation in 1953 when many people rushed to buy televisions just to watch the televised ceremony). He explained that around 6pm, BBC television broadcasting shut down for a couple of hours, for fear that housewives would be so locked into watching it they would forget to put their children to bed!

Attenborough has many titles and awards, and is the only person to have won a BAFTA in black and white, colour, HD and 3D formats (bring on 4K). He was asked what he felt was the biggest change in the industry. His response was when cameras became electronic during the 80s. Before then, cameras (especially  studio cameras) were huge – giant things that need a group of people to wheel them around. But the technological advances in cameras meant they became more stable and reliable, smaller, and easier to manage. To him, this was a major evolution in technology.

His legacy lasts because he plays a part in so many fields – the natural world and TV. What of the future? He believes that his style of nature presenting, what is known as traditional “blue-chip” programming, is on the edge of extinction. Nowadays, nature programmes have more of an adventure feel: the presenters are Indiana Jones-esque, getting into the thick of it – like Attenborough does himself, but there’s more of a hands-on and not to mention wild and dangerous value. Attenborough himself said that animals are relatively easy to read (with their emotions like aggression and calmness readable by any human’s sixth sense), and that he has always found animals to be calm. The scariest creature he has ever faced is a human being wielding a gun.

And the future of the planet?

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We need to stop overpopulating. In his words,

“Either humans need to control the population, or nature will end up doing it for us.”

How does Attenborough propose we curb overpopulation? He said that people like him are part of the problem – old people are living longer these days. But more than that, the countries where overpopulation is a problem are the countries where women are not educated and have little control over their own bodies. If we educate women in these countries, it’s likely that the population levels will fall, as women in countries that encourage them to be educated and have more control over their bodies are less likely to have so many children.

His interest in nature began as a child, when he collected fossils and specimens. Just as this inspiration has carried on well into adulthood, where he is still so fascinated by breaking open a fossil, like an ancient tomb, and being the first human to set eyes on a creature that hasn’t been seen since it became fossilized millions of years ago, so we too will continue to look upon the museum of his life and career in awe. So many of us in Britain have grown up with David Attenborough. He’s so warm and friendly on television, he’s like an old family friend. No doubt that one day the country will inevitably be in mourning over him, but he will be cherished and continue to live on as a fossil of our time. Such is life.

The Eiger: a Short Mountaineering History

 

The Eiger.

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A mountain in the Swiss Alps with a north face (Nordwand in German) so deadly, the Germans nicknamed it mordwand – the death wall. The death wall, where at least 64 climbers have died whilst attempting to scale it since 1935. In 1935, Karl Mehringer and Max Sedlmeyer from Bavaria had attempted to climb it, but after spending many days climbing, they disappeared, and were discovered much later, frozen on what became known as Death Bivouac.

This year, however, marks the 75th anniversary of the first successful ascent of the Eiger’s north face in 1938. During the 30s, the race was on to scale this face, and different nations took part, with one of the biggest pushes from the German side, eager to prove themselves superior to all others. Even in those early days, experienced as the climbers were, their equipment was somewhat primitive. Though they used climbing gear, it was mainly hand-made and insufficient, such as hand-twisted  hemp rope, home-hammered pitons , and woolly mittens.

Back then, mountaineering, or alpinism as it’s known more specifically concerning climbing in the Alps, was highly specialised, because the stakes were so much higher. Not only was the technology not what it is today, but a lot of the paths that mountaineers take today were pinpointed by the earliest climbers.

So why is the northface of the Eiger still so gruelling and deadly?

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You only have to watch the 2008 German film North Face (Nordwand) to learn the reason: there is the danger of avalanches and falling rocks, and not only that but the weather is so changeable it still catches out people even to this day – leaving them stranded in severe snow storms. This is what happens to the main characters in the film, who are in fact not just characters, but were real men. And yes, as you watch the film, you keep thinking: This is based on a true story?!

Spoiler Alert! Do not read further if you wish to watch the film.

Meet Andreas Hinterstoisser – German mountaineer who was a highly esteemed, technical climber, famous for his pendulum manoeuvre that enabled him and his partner to traverse impassable faces.

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The famous Hinterstoisser Traverse on the Eiger’s north face was in fact named after him. This is his climbing partner, Toni Kurz, skilled in planning and forward thinking.

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Both Germans decided to attempt the Eiger’s north face in July 1936, alongside two Austrians Edi Rainer and Willy Angerer.

Edi Rainer and Willy Angerer

Only the previous year, the two Germans, Karl Mehringer and Max Sedlmeyer, had made their fatal attempt at climbing the Eiger’s north face. A year later, this latest group of climbers were very much aware of the dangers, and when they set off from camp at the base of the north face, several other climbers who had also been waiting for a weather window had already left camp for home, deciding the chances too great against them. The four Germans and Austrians began the climb, with Hinterstoisser creating his famous traverse across an icy rock face using the pendulum technique. Though this was the only way across the face, they decided to remove the rope from there, thinking they would only need to abseil back down in a different direction.

But they ran into trouble. The weather changed and became hostile, and Angerer was hit by a falling rock, leaving them unable to continue. They decided to return back down the Eiger. Yet as they lowered themselves down, they once again had to attempt the icy rock face, but with the rope gone, it was up to Hinterstoisser to attempt his pendulum manoeuvre once again.

He tried for hours to cross back again, but eventually had to admit defeat, leaving the group to descend on a trickier route. But, as they climbed down, they were suddenly struck by an avalanche and Hinterstoisser, who was apparently disconnected, fell from the mountainside and died. Following this, Angerer also fell, hitting the wall and dying. The force caused Rainer, who was securing both Angerer and Kurz, to become pulled against the wall where he died of asphyxiation.

Though the film depicts these events in a slightly different fashion, it pretty much reflects the morbid events. After this, Kurz was left alone, with two unresponsive climbers still attached to him – one above and one below.

There was, however, a train – Jungfraubahn – that passed into a tunnel into the Eiger and connected with viewing stations further up the mountain.

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The railwayman realised that Kurz wasn’t far from one of the tunnel’s viewing windows, and on hearing him shouting out, decided upon a rescue attempt. Yet, the worsening weather left the rescue team unable to help for another night, leaving Kurz huddled against the mountainside. He was now with one gloveless hand and had lost all feeling in it and his arm. The next day, the rescue attempt continued – Kurz having survived the night – and they urged him to cut himself free from Rainer and Angerer, who were by now unresponsive. The idea was to lower his rope for the team to attach their own rope to that would enable Kurz to lower himself down to their level. But Kurz’s rope was too short, so he had to unravel it to make it longer, using just one hand and his teeth. It took him five exhausting hours.

At this point, the rescue team realised they still didn’t have a rope long enough. Their 60m rope had slipped out from beneath one of the member’s backpacks and fallen down the mountainside, and it was too late to retrieve it. Instead, they tied two ropes together and attached it to Kurz’s. Kurz, now close to death, slowly lowered himself down. He became stuck just metres from the rescuers, hanging in the air, when the knot in the rope wouldn’t pass through his harness. The guides were so close to him, they could just touch about reach him if one stood on the other’s shoulders, but he still needed to be lowered further. Kurz attempted to pull himself up so that, with less weight, the knot would pass through the gear. But he just couldn’t do it.  Eventually he gave up, saying, “Ich kann nicht mehr,”. He died, dangling helplessly, his body to be cut down a few days later.

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For more information on this, see here.

A tragic story, considering the first mountaineers – another group of Austrian/Germans (Anderl HeckmairLudwig VörgHeinrich Harrer and Fritz Kasparek) – to successfully climb the north face did so just two years later. As time went on, the Eiger’s north face became more easily navigated by its climbers, from Alison Hargreaves climbing it in 1988 whilst six months pregnant (who sadly died in 1995 on K2), to 2008, when Ueli Steck climbed the face completely unaided.

Having watched North Face after returning from a break in Chamonix just two weeks ago, I am now fascinated by the world of mountaineering. To me, a mountain is like a domineering, living, moving being, that I can’t seem to stop staring at – my eyes forever travelling upwards. No wonder people want to climb them – to be part of a mountain and to conquer it, like breaking a horse. I wish I had the guts to take up mountaineering myself, but for me, hiking and cable cars are enough of an adrenalin rush for the time being! Pictures will never fully represent the experience of being somewhere like this until you go there, but I thought I’d end with some anyway. Chamonix – Mont Blanc and the Aiguille du Midi.

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Climbers

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Mountaineer after Climbing Aiguille du Midi

International Women’s Day: Hypatia

I first came across Hypatia in the 2009 film Agora.

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Based in Roman-ruled Egypt, the film centers around the raging disputes between the main religions of the day –  Judaism and Christianity, and ends with the death of Hypatia, a Greek philosopher. Essentially, it is suggesting that ancient religions allowed no place for philosophy or science and in fact divide us as people, though this concept may have been made stronger for the sake of the film plot.

Hypatia sprang to my mind as someone to write about, because for a start, women were not really regarded as equals in Ancient Greece or Rome. Hypatia lived in the later stages of the ancient world, around 350-370 AD. But as an aristocrat of her day, money allowed her to thrive in a man’s world.

She was a mathematician (the first known woman mathematician) and philosopher, and as the head of the Platonist school at Alexandria, she taught many male students on these subjects – based on law rather than nature – making her a woman apart from her time. One scene in the film that has stuck in my mind (probably out of shock value), that apparently did happen in real life, is when one of her suitors makes a pass at her (suggested as Orestes in the film though this is not historically true), and she gives him her menstruation rags, saying there is nothing attractive about carnal knowledge. As to the rest of the film, it’s probably fair to say that history has been somewhat distorted.

Essentially, her eventual death resulted from rising tensions between the Christians and Jews. Or rather, the situation was used to get rid of her. Orestes was the governor of Alexandria at this time, and Cyril was the Bishop of Alexandria, and both became more furious with each other’s actions. Although Hypatia was widely held highly and with virtue by most men, it was because Orestes came to her for council that Cyril cited her – an untrustworthy pagan- as the reason for his and Orestes’ inability to get along, which amounted to the wider conflicts between Christians and Jews in the city. Really, he was jealous of her – jealous that people came to her for her wisdom, and that a woman could hold such a power as wisdom.

One report by Socrates Scholasticus states that after Cyril spread these rumours, she was kidnapped by a mob of Christians, stripped naked in a church, and attacked with roof tiles, before her body was torn limb from limb. Another report says that her body was dragged naked through the city. Along with many others, she was made a scapegoat for the conflicts, and it was because she was such a strong female figure, that she was seen as much of a threat as the other men.

International Women’s Day: Melanie Klein

I asked my sister which women or female figures have influenced her in life. She said it’s difficult – most of the people who influenced her through her teenage years, and even now, have been men. But there were a few exceptions – Alanis Morissette, Anne Frank, Judy Blume, Joni Mitchell and Melanie Klein.

Who the frack is Melanie Klein?

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Most people have heard of Sigmund Freud, many have heard of Carl Jung, and some will now perhaps recognise Sabina Spielrein as an early, yet somewhat overlooked, psychoanalytic theorist as a result of the film A Dangerous Method. Much of Spielrein’s theories had been forgotten or hidden until the 1970s – even now she is more famous for her possible affair with Carl Jung, not her work which was on a par with her male contemporaries.

In fact it was some of Spielrein’s work, primarily on child development, that influenced Klein when she witnessed a talk given by Spielrein at the Psychoanalytic Congress in 1920.

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Melanie Klein (30 March 1882 – 22 September 1960) was a post-Freudian psychoanalyst. She was born in Vienna to Jewish parents, and became influenced by psychoanalytic therapy during the First World War in Budapest. After receiving little support in Berlin for her work in the field, she was invited by British neurologist and psychoanalyst Ernest Jones to work in Britain in 1926. She was a strong follower of Freud, who with Ernest Jones’ help, also moved to Britain in 1938 with his family to escape Nazi persecution.

Klein was the first person to apply psychoanalytic therapy to children, using Freud’s theories on the stages of childhood development, as a basis for her own – such as the object relations theory. She is probably best known for her therapeutic technique of play therapy. But this is where the British Psychoanalytic field divided, as although Klein believed that children could be psychoanalysed, Anna Freud – Sigmund Freud’s daughter – thought the opposite.

She stood out in society. Though she was a woman who was divorced with children, and worked in a field of men, she had an immense impact on psychology and psychotherapy – with play therapy still widely applied today.

My 2012 in Pictures

My 2012 in pictures:

Early months…

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Churchill-Bedroom Map-Room-phone

100th Anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic – and my greatest blog post of the year:

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Trolleybus Anniversary

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Ferris Wheel

View over Business Park from Ferris Wheel

Queen’s Jubilee – my father lighting the beacon at Whitstable

Queen's Jubilee

My first oyster at the Whitstable Oyster Festival

first oyster

Whitstable Harbour Oyster Festival

blessing

The Olympics 2012

Olympic Flame Relay

Brad wiggo

Summer days

Camden Market

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 Holiday in Portugal

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Larry Graham in concert

Larry Graham

Felix Baumgartner’s Stratos Jump – I was obsessed with this event – read here

standing

Bonfire Night

Bonfire Night

Talk with Olympic and Paralympic athletes at work

Olympic and Paralympic Talk

The Thomas Hardy tree

Thomas Hardy Tree

Secret Cinema – The Shawshank Redemption

Secret Cinema November

Christmas 2012

Christmas Tree

A death in the family

Papa passport 3

Christmas party at the Tower of London

Tower of London Christmas Party

Christmas Day on the beach

Christmas Day on Beach