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Chris Packham: ‘My ideal holiday would be a trip to Chernobyl’

Springwatch presenter Chris Packham is sheltering in his car from a downpour after taking his dogs for a walk when I speak with him.

He’s been out in the woods near his home in the New Forest, which is where he likes to spend many hours taking the wildlife photos that have become an obsession.

His nature photography is the subject of a talk he is giving at the Cambridge Arts Theatre, so it’s surprising to hear that he actually finds taking pictures “distressing”.

Cambridge Arts Theatre Autumn season 2021: Chris Packham (52062782)
Cambridge Arts Theatre Autumn season 2021: Chris Packham (52062782)

“I do take the process of taking the photograph quite seriously,” says Chris.

“I quite like that discipline, and I do find the whole thing, ultimately, extremely frustrating, disappointing and quite distressing. People have said why do you bother, and I think that I bother because I love the challenge and I'd like to get better. So the reason that causes most of this discomfort is that I'm never happy with my results but I think it's a healthy thing because if I were then I wouldn't try harder next time. So my mission is to go through life learning to take better photographs, incrementally nudging up that scale getting closer to perfection, which is obviously unattainable.

“I like looking at other people's photos but for me photography is an ongoing task. It's a bit like writing a poem, you know, it's only ever in a stage of completion, it's never really finished. Obviously once you've clicked the button, and you've done your processing, the pictures in pretty much as it was, that's one of the joys of it you've got that opportunity to capture one moment in the universe's history, making it again quite important, you get the right moment to button in the right way at the right time. But I look at my pictures and I see fault in all of them. They are not worthy of worship, really, at least not from my point of view.”

Chris Packham is coming to the Cambridge Arts Theatre (52062708)
Chris Packham is coming to the Cambridge Arts Theatre (52062708)

The naturalist and wildlife presenter has taken photographs all over the world from South America to Antarctica, but only on trips that are organised through work because the places he loves best are closer to home.

“I wouldn't organize an Antarctic photographic project myself,” Chris explains.

“I couldn't afford it but I can afford a project where I just jump over the fence and go to the woods around the corner. It’s a lot more accessible and therefore I think it's going to be more successful because I will have more time to plan and I can go back if things go wrong. I never just wander into the woods and say I’ll see what there is to photograph today. My photography is planned. I take a lot of risks in my photography and I try not to conform. I'm always trying to do things in a new way so very often the shots mess up, and then they are rubbish. So then I have to come up with another idea so it helps if the subject is local.”

In spite of his own admission that he is obsessed with photography, Chris won’t display his pictures at home except for a single snapshot of his father.

Chris Packham is coming to the Cambridge Arts Theatre (52062701)
Chris Packham is coming to the Cambridge Arts Theatre (52062701)

“'I've got a picture of my dad sitting in a Spitfire, which was almost a happy snap. That's the only picture of my mine that I have on display at home. It’s just a highly personal photograph. It has that ability to immediately transport me back to that moment and it was a time when both he and I were coincidentally very happy. And shared happiness at that level, I think, is quite rare in life. I mean we are independently happy and sometimes we are happy, but one person is happier than the other, but at that point, you know, we were just co-joined in a moment as perfect as could be. My dad, flying in a Spitfire - I can't think of anything better. It was just brilliant beyond belief. Also, he looks good. He looks like Biggles with the flying helmet and all that stuff.

“My dad was a child in the Second World War, so I grew up making epic Spitfires (models) and I had a great passion for the aircraft to match my father's passion for it. We would always do Spitfire things together, and on that occasion he was fortunate enough to be able to fly in one. He was so overawed by the experience, which was fabulous.”

It’s easy to imagine that an ideal holiday for a wildlife presenter would be to go to an exotic location and see the wildlife in its own habitat, but Chris has a different idea.

“My ideal holiday would be to go to Chernobyl,” he says.

Chris Packham is coming to the Cambridge Arts Theatre (52062712)
Chris Packham is coming to the Cambridge Arts Theatre (52062712)

“I like taking pictures where nature is reclaiming something which we've temporarily despoiled. So, I love a ruined building covered in ivy and I love a sort of industrial decay, where something that we thought was fruitful has proved only so in the short term and nature's reclaiming it. One of my ideal holiday destinations would be Chernobyl. When humans left due to the radiation the wildlife just flooded in. It’s a fantastic sign that no matter how badly we damage the planet, nature finds a way of claiming it back. So that's really reassuring. I like the fact that whatever we do, life finds a way to prosper.”

Feeling such a deep affinity with wildlife, Chris explains that part of his vocation is to communicate with the public about the dangers of climate change and he supports many of the controversial activities carried out by climate activists.

“Everyone has known about the problems and we've done nothing about it and on my watch. I've seen catastrophic declines in habitats and species across the UK and across the world, and that was at a time when I was meant to be an active conservationist so I didn't feel terribly good about that I think that our generations could and should have done a lot more, and leaving it to the last minute to try and fix it, it's not the best strategy and it's going to leave our children and grandchildren with a legacy of difficulty that we didn't need to give them.

“I know Extinction Rebellion have been naughty in Cambridge, but I'm all up for the peaceful nonviolent demonstration. I think that we have a right to democratically raise our voices and sometimes we do that physically. I don't like unnecessary confrontation. I like creative confrontation. I like people to think, as a result of anything like that. I don't support everything that Extinction Rebellion does but as you know decentralized movements of people can put on the badge or the t-shirt and go do what they like. Which means, not everyone acts in the best interest of that mission, but whether you like their methods or loathe their methods at least we're thinking about what their message is and that is that it's time to act now because we're running out of time.”

In my instance autism is something which influences my personality it's not something which dominates my personality

However, he warns that activists such as Insulate Britain can’t keep doing the same kinds of protest without losing the point of their message.

“It just annoys people and then no one wants to listen to what you are saying. Those sorts of activists need to be more imaginative and creative. There are plenty of ways to capture people's attention, it doesn’t always have to be through discomfort. Sometimes you can do something artistic and capture people's attention and those are the things that we ought to be exploring at this point, we've got to integrate this issue into every aspect of our lives because it permeates every aspect of our lives.

“There's quite a backlash against those sorts of protests, because people see it as unnecessary disruption, what they don't see is that it's actually a minor amount of disruption to what's coming.”

And while he believes the Earth may become uninhabitable for people eventually, he has faith that life will continue in some form.

“We will destroy the planet from our point of view, and very sadly will take quite a few other species with us,” says Chris.

“But life's tenacity has been shown over billions of years. We’ve had all sorts of cataclysmic events on the earth, and life in the immediate aftermath has flourished beyond compare. The explosion of mammal diversity after the K-T extinction, when the meteorite hit and wiped out the remaining dinosaurs, is astonishing. I was standing in a dig once with a paleontologist and he just said between here and here - he showed me about a centimetre - mammal life on Earth exploded from being a few shrews in the woods to the greatest diversity of species we've ever had on land. So I don't worry about life. I just worry about us ruining things. We have a conscience so we didn't ought to ruin things, we ought to look after them. The planet doesn't need saving. It just needs us to look after it to save ourselves and that's slightly different.”

Chris has spoken out extensively about how his life has been impacted by Aspergers, a form of autism, and earlier this year made a film for the BBC called The Walk That Made me. In it he follows a riverside walk he took many times in his youth and talks about the mental health struggles he suffered when he was younger.

He says: “I was trying to say to all of those younger people who might have watched it is that things can get better. The pressures on young people are enormous nowadays such as worrying about the climate and social media. So they do need help. And they need to be able to be given the ability to recognize themselves or others around them when they need that professional help and be able to get access to it. I'm a firm believer that we should be investing in also investing in having a conversation so that it's no longer stigmatized, to, to point out to people that you are actually in a pretty bad place. And secondly, that when that's been identified that any friends and family can solicit qualified assistance. Because from my experience, your friends and family sort of want to be the ambulance but they're never going to be the hospital. They’ve got all the sympathy and all the desire to try and help them and protect you but they don't often have the training to get it right.”

Chris Packham is coming to the Cambridge Arts Theatre (52062728)
Chris Packham is coming to the Cambridge Arts Theatre (52062728)

Chris was not diagnosed with Aspergers until he was an adult and was left confused about the nature of his difficulties when he was younger. But by the time he found out about the diagnosis, he had already come to terms with it. He explains: “It wasn't a sort of an epiphany like some people say, it can be. I'd kind of figured it out quite a long time before because I had been going out with nurses and people in the medical profession so they'd had it sort of unceremoniously pointed out to me.

“It also came off the back of a long period of psychotherapy that I was taking because of the issues that come from that sort of autism and that can be mental health crises. So it came at the end of that and I was actually more concerned with finding use for that therapy than getting the two pieces of paper that arrived at my friend's house telling me that I was diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome.

“At that point they were bigger issues than the autism. In my instance autism is something which influences my personality it's not something which dominates my personality, it's always there, it's shapes, it puts restrictions in place, and it offers opportunities, but the sort of mental health issues that I was having at the time were going to terminate my personality so I had to give them a little bit more thought and weight in the equation as it were.”

Before his diagnosis, Chris would have to write reminders to himself on the back of scripts telling him to listen and look interested in people in order to fit in.

“At age 26 I still didn't know what was wrong. At the time I thought that I was really quite badly broken and everything seemed to point to me in terms of all the conflict and problems in my life, I seemed to be the origin of it all. The level of self loathing had hit like a fever pitch but there was enough for me to think, I can't continue to go through my life like this, I've got to get a handle on it. And so I did set myself a series of challenges, particularly when I'd had to become more sociable, because up until that point I was deliberately anti-social as a means of protecting myself but at that point working in TV is all about working teams. I needed to work things out very rapidly because I wanted to make a success of it.

“Subsequently people who know me say that I have changed post diagnosis. I will now generate expectations that people around me will have an expectation of my needs or failings or whatever it happens to be. So, whereas in the past I would just try and hide it, and fit in and not fit in very well sometimes and mess up quite a bit. Now, I'm told I'm happy to say to those people, like well no, I'm not doing that, that I can't do that easily without getting messy and whereas before I would have done it and things would have gotten messy so I suppose I'm just a bit more more honest with myself and I'm more honest with them because I just don't seem to sort of hide as I did.”

Chris has vowed not to bow to pressure to stop his activism following a suspected arson attack on his home last week, just days after his interview with the Cambridge Independent.

The presenter said that at around 12.30am on Friday two masked men set a Land Rover on fire, causing an explosion at the gates of his New Forest home that led to extensive damage.

He asked in a video posted on Twitter whether this could be the actions of rural organisations or members of hunting groups, “or some of my internet trolls who fill my timeline with hate”.

He has received “torrents of relentless abuse” online and has frequently had dead animals left at his property, including birds, foxes and badgers, he revealed.

“What happens next? Do they burn the house down?” he said. “I mean, are they going to kill me at some point?”

However, he warned he would not change his stance on the “unwarranted savagery” of fox hunting and would not support “unsustainable or illegal shooting”.

He tweeted: “I will not be cowed, I will not buckle.” He asked National Trust members to vote for an end to hunting on the trust’s land ahead of the AGM on October 22.

Then, on Saturday, he went to Buckingham Palace to present a 100,000-signature petition asking the royal family to commit to rewilding their estates before the Cop26 climate summit.

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