Ot over the years the BBC has sown and nurtured some unique presenter specimens. Chris Packham, after a decade of Springwatch, began to develop in this space in the minds of audiences once occupied by, say, John Noakes or Patrick Moore or John Peel. It’s direct and lyrical and you know for sure the camera is only listening to his authentic life – the same way he looks into nesting boxes and fox dens – and once it’s off he keeps on watching. the same way.
He invited me to lunch in his natural habitat on the edge of the New Forest. He’s never been away for a very long time. He grew up on the other side of Southampton cycling through the woods, living a I spy childhood, collecting tadpoles, examining beetles, for a while with a beloved kestrel as a closest friend. He went to Southampton University and for many years rented a thatched cottage a mile or two from here; between closings, he traded those low beams and its history for the clean lines of his new, angular home – all terraces, cladding and glass panes – set in a few acres of woodland garden and bordered by a stream.
He doesn’t know how to cook (“people always think I attack their lives”), so lunch – a delicious bowl of asparagus tabbouleh with mint, cilantro and bulgur wheat – is prepared by his longtime companion. date, Charlotte Corney, who runs the Wildheart Animal Sanctuary on the Isle of Wight. They have been together for a decade, although still separated by a ferry, having met in the zoo she inherited from her parents.
Packham, you get the sense, may not always be the easiest man to fill. “Before, he only ate salad,” says Corney. He went vegan a few years ago – the abandonment of cheese coincided with the sale of a farm he owned south of Bordeaux (“a local man kept goats and used to bring around of that plate of half a dozen conker-sized cheeses that were impossible to resist ”). He doesn’t eat any fruit, shudders at the thought, so the pomegranate seeds are a side dish here rather than part of the main bowl, and he grimaces and looks away from the strawberries that Corney takes out afterward. It wasn’t until a few years after starting their relationship that Packham explained that he was diagnosed in 2005 with Asperger’s syndrome – which no doubt helped explain both his concentrated passion for all that is alive and his sometimes apparent indifference towards those close to him.
Containment suited him very well, he said. His stepdaughter from a previous relationship, Megan McCubbin, stayed with him and his two black poodles, Sid and Nancy. The first morning after the shutters were lowered, last March, he walked around the garden and made an impromptu play on his phone screen about the chelidines that had come to life in the cottage garden under a chestnut tree. ‘India’ wanting to share them with people who were awakening to a new kind of fear ‘. This Twitter video caught the attention of a young fan and producer, Fabian Harrison, who suggested that Packham make it a regular ad hoc broadcast. By lockdown two, the daily production of the Self-Isolating Bird Club – which Packham featured alongside McCubbin – was reaching 8 million people worldwide. It spawned a collaborative book, Back to nature, captioned “How to Love Life – and Save It”, written by the two, a personal handbook for an urgent restart of our relationship with the natural world.
“We were kind of locked in this little utopian bubble,” Packham says of last year. “We would go out once a week to buy food for my dad, who is alone, and Megan was doing all the Zoom pub quizzes and so on. But I pretended I was 14 again – the last time I had that much time in one place back to back. When you’re away for a week here and you go out into the woods, it’s like you’ve walked into a room and someone has redecorated it, everything has changed. Last year, walking through this space, I felt this change in a much more comfortable way. Every night at midnight, Packham, 60, reconnected with another formative aspect of his teenage years, browsing his vast collection of 1970s records and choosing a track to play for his Twitter followers on #PunkRockMidnight.
The other good thing about the forced seclusion, he said, leaning back from the lunch table in the shade of the scorching sun, is that it gave her some breathing space to protest. In recent years, he has become a natural leader of Extinction Rebellion, although he does not claim to support every one of its goals or methods. “A lot of the – necessary – campaigns we had were highlighting the problems rather than offering solutions,” he says. “The Self-Isolating Bird Club felt good because it was a solution to a problem for a lot of people. We could stop yelling at people, put our signs away for a bit. “
Packham is happy to accept that in some quarters he may be seen as an extremist, as long as it opens up the climate and environmental conversations that are desperately needed. The Wild Justice group he founded with fellow environmentalists Ruth Tingay and Mark Avery aims to bring a similar crowdfunding benefit to wildlife issues as Jolyon Maugham’s Good Law Project does to governance. Seeking legal ways to protect old growth forests from HS2, or to stop the logging of badgers, or to regulate against the environmental damage of outdoor sports, he knows he is engaged in long and grueling battles.
Wild Justice’s most successful campaign to date saw a new licensing regime for the indiscriminate shooting of a range of birds, including jays and magpies in England. He was not deterred by vicious threats against him from opponents, including an incident in which two dead crows were left hanging over his garden gate. “You’re asking people to change their mind,” he says, “and faster than they want – a small percentage of those people are going to go wild and be extremely rude.”
He also refers to an article that appeared that morning Telegraph in which his most vocal opponent, the recently knighted hunting, shooting and fishing advocate Ian Botham, called him in for once as a tour guide for a long-haul travel company. “It’s just bullshit. The thing he’s talking about is something I did four years ago. But if you spent all your time trying to deal with negative things, you wouldn’t have time to do good… ”
He admits that his uncompromising punk spirit fuels part of his campaign – although that is difficult to separate from his Asperger’s (he has noted his kinship with Greta Thunberg in this regard, who calls the condition “his superpower”).
“People like me,” he said, “have a very deepened sense of injustice, and I think that has been very motivating in my life.”
His successful memories, Fingers in the glittering pot, and a subsequent BBC documentary made him as in demand as a speaker on mental health as he was on nature viewing (it doesn’t necessarily separate the two). He has another BBC film in production on these issues, which he hopes could help children who grew up like him knowing they were different, but without knowing why.
“I am not an autism expert. I’m someone who has it, ”he says. “I can only speak from my experience.” As he does so, he realizes that “there will be things that my family, which is basically my father and sister, Megan and Charlotte, will probably find a little uncomfortable.” More particularly, perhaps, his habit of candidly suggesting that the greatest loves of his life have been his dogs and his kestrel. Corney has long been used to his ways, of course, and watching them together reminds you that love comes in many different forms. Packham has a habit of marking every meal she prepares out of 10. “Well? ” She wonders. He thinks a little, meditates on the pomegranate seeds. “Six maybe seven,” he said.
He understands himself enough to smile at his frankness, and on his own he speaks very affectionately about Corney – and her stepdaughter McCubbin, who has been a companion on field trips around the world since she was little.
“I have a number of sentimental treasures,” he says. “Not a large number. I have the handwritten lyrics of Shout Above the Noise from the punk band Penetration. And next to it, I have a little post-it in a frame that Megan left stuck to the front door. He simply said, “Went to rebel.” She is clearly a woman after her own heart.
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