Happiness is a place called Richmond: my erstwhile neighbour David Attenborough at 95

And a many happy returns to David Attenborough (sorry, but the anti-establishment rebel rebel in me refuses to acknowledge the knighthood), who has turned 95.

During my last spell living in Britain, Mick Jagger, Jerry Hall and I were virtually next door neighbours in the scenic outer fringes of London on the top of Richmond Hill.

OK, four and five doors away to be precise: after their divorce the now Mrs Rupert Murdoch bagged the house, with Jagger forced to buy a little pied-à-terre next door so he could be near the kids. The Who’s windmill master Pete Townsend resided ten doors further up at The Wick, the home once owned by John Mills, who then sold it to Ronnie Wood, who’d built a basement studio that was where the Rolling Stones’ It’s Only Rock ’n Roll was written, emerging out of a jam session between Wood, Keith Richards, Mick Jagger and David Bowie.

Home for me in 2013 was atop a mansion block where Richmond Hill meets Friars Stile Road. A friend said to me at the time, “Trust you to choose here to live, so you can look down at the rest of us.”

He had a point. 

And I had a bit of a viewpoint. I could look out my lounge window and see not only the beautifully sculpted Terrace Gardens that sloped down from our building to the river, but also a panoramic prospect of the meandering Thames bend famously depicted by pre-eminent Georgian painters such as Turner and Holland, and beyond that the outline of Richard E Grant’s almost rural residence in nearby Petersham.

Not only that, but if you’re really into star spotting, from my bedroom I could catch a glimpse of the rear garden of David Attenborough’s lovely light blue property nestled on Park Road, with its cathedral shaped windows and the remnants of an old pub he annexed and turned into his library.

Born in nearby Isleworth on 8 May 1926, the broadcaster and naturalist told Time Out London the year we were neighbours that Richmond was his “favourite place by a long way. Partly because I live there, partly because my friends and family are there.”

And if David Attenborough likes something then you’re almost certainly assured of greatness. At three times the size of New York’s Central Park, the hugely stunning Richmond Park situated at the end of our road would have been a major plus point in moving there too, naturally.

Sadly though, the conservationist’s older brother, the actor and director Richard Attenborough, died in 2014, just after I left Britain. Dickie, as he was colloquially known, lived in a gargantuan abode that looks out on Richmond Green and which was once part of Henry VIII’s Richmond Palace.

By all accounts he was a kindly, dear old man. Though back in 1982 I kinda hated him for making Gandhi, though not because it was a bad film.

The biopic starred Ben Kingsley in the title role, though try telling my interminable classmates that, who, because I had easily tanned olive skin and John Lennon-style horn-rimmed spectacles, decided it would be “hilarious” to give 13 year-old me the nickname Gandhi and pretend it was me in the film, repeatedly.

I‘m still laughing. Not.

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If I’m totally honest, it’s one of the few things about England I miss. The zone 4 town I mean, not celebrity neighbours. It’s the only place in London that I found strangers bid me good morning as they walked past. Indeed, Richmond upon Thames has been named the happiest place to live in the capital, for several years in a row, according to the wellness arbiters at Evening Standard Homes & Property. Of course, we all know it’s really Surrey, not only historically but mentally and aesthetically.

Of course, you don’t need me to point out that, David Attenborough is the very definition of a living legend; a national treasure in the traditional sense of the term before it became as devalued as the pound, but more than that: an international treasure who’s made an impact on the world that the rest of us can only dream of.

Growing up with that warm and comforting voice, and the myriad images and footage of nature and wildlife in all its untamed glory, it feels strange to even contemplate the planet without this incredible individual.

This species of human is as old as The Queen, and yet it’s mind boggling how sharp he is for his age. Attenborough has possessed one of the most brilliant minds of our times and as a mid nonagenarian is still more lucid and coherent than most people on the crazy and endlessly surprising globe he cares so much about.

He’s truly had a phenomenally wild and fascinating ride, living through the Great Depression of the 1930s and the horrors of World War II to seeing the world evolve from no TV to Director of Programming at the BBC, the national institution that aided him in building such an extraordinary career. Clearly an individual in the upper echelons, and we’ve all been fortunate to have him in our life in some capacity. 

In that same interview with Time Out a few years back, the broadcaster said: “If I can make programmes when I’m 95, that would be fine.“

Well, he’s 95, he’s still here and he’s still making programmes.

Thank bloody God.

Steve Pafford

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