The Paraguayan expedition was the only quest where they didn’t nab their quarry, the giant armadillo. Why was Attenborough pursuing it? “They have the one quality which, for me, is the most potently fascinating of any that an animal may possess – a blend of the exotic, the fantastic, and the antique which is only inadequately summarised by the word ‘strange’.”
He is in his seventh decade as a broadcaster now and things have changed. “These days zoos don’t send out animal collectors on quests to bring ’em back alive. And quite right too.” The emphasis has switched from quest to conservation and, because of Attenborough’s work over all the years between, we understand why.
Nowadays he works for Sky as well as the BBC, instantly recognisable, universally adored, affable on screen and in person. He still pursues any objective, whether a creature or a conviction, with total determination lightly veiled by charm and ingenuity. On the page, as on the screen, he shares, shows, explains. His style is disarmingly self-deprecating, utterly engaging.
Yet there remains something elusive about him, as if he’d rather be in peril up some distant river than anywhere else. He is, in the nicest sense of the word, an adventurer and, like that other great voyager, Odysseus, a man of many wiles.
416pp, Two Roads, £25, ebook: £16.99