TV

Chris Packham: 'My younger self would be my biggest critic'

The beloved naturalist and broadcaster was empowered by punk, and the movement’s focus on positive action still informs his thinking

Chris Packham

Chris Packham stood in front of Skógafoss waterfall in Iceland. Image: BBC

Chris Packham is one of our finest broadcasters. A radical whose voice rings out from the mainstream. He was one of the first public figures to speak out in stark terms about the climate crisis, always with uncompromising clarity and force. For new series Earth, Packham is at his best – using cutting edge science to explain major events in the planet’s history, the smart script modulated to ensure every word is heard, and every graphic viewed through the prism of the current climate crisis.

Packham studied zoology at the University of Southampton, his home town, but put plans for a PhD on hold to train as a wildlife cameraman. In 1983 he began working on the BBC’s The Living Planet series. But he really came to prominence in front of the camera, on Bafta-winning children’s programme The Really Wild Show, which began in 1986. Since 2009 he has co-presented Springwatch and Autumnwatch on BBC2 – full of citizen science and the everyday beauty and brilliance of British wildlife – among many other natural history and science shows, while his 2017 documentary Chris Packham: Aspergers and Me was an award-winning insight into issues around neurodivergence, and was followed this year by Inside Our Autistic Minds, which was similarly acclaimed.

Packham has recently become president of the RSPCA, alongside his work with conservation charities including Hawk Conservancy Trust, the Bat Conservation Trust and the British Trust for Ornithology, and is vice-president of the RSPB, the Wildlife Trusts and Butterfly Conservation.

In his Letter to My Younger Self, he recalls growing up on the outside, and how cultivating a punk image helped him find his identity.

The year 1977 was all about punk rock. I’d go to an independent record shop in Southampton called Subways every Saturday, hoping to have enough money for one or two singles. I would go in early because I wasn’t too keen on squeezing in with everyone else, and then it was looking through all that week’s releases and making the impossible choice – because I would want to buy 15 and didn’t have the money. Then it was going home on the bus, putting them on the record player, playing them until midnight. In the meantime, I was studying badgers and kestrels. So my life was pretty polarised between punk rock and birds.

Black and white photo of Chris Packham as a child
Nurturing his childhood love of birds. Image: courtesy of Chris Packham

I started to shut down in terms of communicating with my peers. I’d figured out that the best thing to do to avoid conflict was just not to engage. I became very solitary. I wasn’t the happiest person on the planet, I’ve got to be honest with you. And I was very confused and angry, principally with myself, because I didn’t understand why I was different from other people and I couldn’t see that difference. To ourselves, we all feel normal. 

I did fight a little bit with my parents and left home really early to avoid falling out with them, essentially. They didn’t deal well with my autism. It was bad enough when I was a kid. But when I got to the stage that I was locking myself in my room, refusing to come out, it was difficult. And I feel sorry that they went through it. I wish we’d been in a position to understand what was going on.

Punk rock was enormously empowering for me, because it allowed me to present myself – dress, hairstyle, attitude – in a way that separated me from my peers. It gave me a physical identity that associated with my mental identity. I was immediately identifiable as different. It’s difficult to explain to anyone younger how striking and bold the blue hair, white trousers and pink brothel creepers was in 1977. When punk rock started and people started appearing on the streets, as I did, with my leather jacket and studs and chains, people would cross the street rather than walk past me. If I were at the bus stop, everyone would move away. This was brilliant for me. It’s just what I wanted. 

I used to hitch around the country. The weird thing was that although people would cross the street to avoid me when I was walking to get the bus, if I went out to the motorway, I’d get picked up. I don’t think I ever waited longer than 15 minutes. One guy picked me up in a smart BMW and drove me all the way to Northampton, and that wasn’t uncommon. I’d go to see the Ramones, The Clash, the Damned, Buzzcocks, Penetration – there were so many bands producing so much music. You couldn’t keep up with it all.

I used to think I was broken. Because we had no idea about neurodivergence, I thought there was something wrong with me, but couldn’t identify what that was. It did make me enormously depressed. I turned a lot of anger on myself. I blamed myself. And that was enormously damaging. If I was to go back and whisper in his ear, I would say, “It’s not your fault. You’re just a bit different. And it’s not their fault either”. Because I did also have an enormous amount of anger towards those people that were horrid to me. And that was really destructive and shouldn’t have been part of my mid-teens life.

So I’d tell my younger self, just find a way of getting through this. By the time I got to university, I had found a way – and that was to be solitary. I didn’t integrate, I didn’t socialise. I just sat in the corner of the room and didn’t say anything – I really enjoyed the work and still got my degree.

Chris Packham as a teenager in a faded black and white photo
Finding an identity through punk. Image: courtesy of Chris Packham

At that point, I was trying not to communicate with anyone. It was the polar opposite of what I do now. So my career now just would not compute. My mission was to get my degree, do a PhD and spend the rest of my life hiding in an ivory tower studying birds. That was my life plan. I frankly wouldn’t have believed what I do now. The other reason I wouldn’t have believed it is that my parents didn’t have a lot of money. What they did have, they spent on us kids, trying to get our education sorted. 

We used to get secondhand National Geographic magazines and I’d look at all of those places. I remember an article about condors – I never dared dream that I’d ever see one of those birds in its natural environment, like I did for this new series. Let alone be shat on by one, which I was.

I was very, very angry at times. It was an incredible amount of energy, like being a grenade sometimes, I could feel myself just waiting to go off. And I turned that anger on myself, which was really disruptive for my mental health. I would say, learn how to do something creative with all that energy. Use your imagination. Turn it into something positive. And I think I have done that. The fuel for my work is the passion to want to learn more.

My younger self would be my biggest critic. I’m never happy with anything that I’ve done. I’m ruthlessly self-critical. He would come in and rip everything I’m doing apart. It’d be quite healthy. I’d quite like that. I quite like constructive criticism. I’m not very good with flattery. It doesn’t seem to serve much purpose.

I trashed so many potentially great relationships because of my autism. I just didn’t know what was going on – I found it very difficult to read other people’s emotions and found it very difficult to express my own. As a consequence, I would tell my younger self to be more honest with my partners. Tell them what you really think. Occasionally that would come out, but it would come out so badly. That went on right until my late 30s. 

I don’t regret very much. But I certainly regret some of the things I said. I never meant to be unkind. I’m not an unkind person. Charlotte and I have been together for at least 15 years, and I still make mistakes. Sometimes I see her biting her lip. Occasionally she walks out of the room. But she has invested a lot in understanding autism and therefore harbouring a better understanding of me. She is not tolerant, but she’s understanding – and that means we are able to maintain a healthy relationship. 

Chris Packham holding a dinosaur skull and smiling
Chris Packham holding a replica fossilised skull of Innostransevia, a lethal Permian predator. Image: BBC

My younger self would be very happy that I’m still as determined to try and do the right thing. I was ferociously independent as a teenager. I was always a fighter. My dad said, you should always question authority. Which was weird coming from my dad because he was as far from radical as you could possibly imagine. So my younger self would be pleased that I’m still kicking down the door. I support Just Stop Oil at the moment because they are the only people doing anything. I’m not saying everything they do is right, but at least they’re doing something. That’s because I care very passionately, as they do. And I’m as scared as they are. They’re looking to express that fear to motivate others to change. And that’s what makes me want to make my new programme, Earth. The energy is the same.

Every day we are inactive and continue to make the same mistakes, the harder it is to go back. The sense of urgency is boiling and that is why I have grave concerns. I’m genuinely worried about what we’re going to do. We don’t want violence. We don’t want a bloody revolution in any sense. But we’re not succeeding through constructive dialogue. And that’s really scary. That scares me as much as the climate breakdown, frankly. I don’t sleep much. So that means I work all day, every day. But there isn’t a choice, I’ve got to keep going. And I’m going to keep going to the bitter end.

Looking dapper with his dad Colin in 2017. Image: Courtesy of Chris Packham

If I could live one day again, I know exactly what it would be. When I started doing The Really Wild Show, I made a small amount of money. Before that, I was on the dole on and off when I was doing camera work. So I had some money. My dad had been obsessed with Spitfires – he was three years old when the first one flew and would watch them taking off from the airport as a child. He’d lived through the war and they were a very symbolic and totemic part of that. As a kid I made many, many AirFix Spitfires. 

One day in 1988, we went to a tiny airfield called Popham in Hampshire. It was clear blue sky, the sun shone, the fields were grassy, the skylarks were singing, and my dad flew in a Spitfire. And it was the best day of my life. I still have the picture of him with his fighter pilot helmet on. I don’t have much sentimental stuff but if there was a fire, that’s what I’m saving. The poodles and then that picture.

Earth is on BBC Two and iPlayer on Monday nights at 9pm.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy! If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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