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Heavyweight pair

10 July 2015


TWO great birthdays; two international treasures. Two interviews: one with someone who does not, alas, believe in God; the other (some followers say) is a god himself. On the Sunday before last, to celebrate his 89th birthday, there was David Attenborough Meets President Obama (BBC1); then, last Sunday, there was Dalai Lama at 80 (BBC4).

Perhaps the first was the odder of the two. President Obama was inspired by Attenborough’s programmes when he was a child in Hawaii, reinforcing the fascination he already felt for the natural world all around him, and, in an extraordinary reversal of the accepted order, he was the interviewer in the White House.

This was a meeting of minds as they discussed the future of the planet, global warming, population growth, and the need for education in a world where more than 50 per cent of people are city-dwellers and have no experience of nature.

In fact, it was a bit too cosy to provide much new insight, and large chunks were taken up by a voiceover (perhaps President Obama is not a very good interviewer — or, more likely, he could only spare 15 minutes, and they had to bulk it out somehow).

In contrast, His Holiness was interviewed by Emily Maitlis. He always wanted to say more in response to her questions than she had prepared for, perhaps conscious that the programmers thought, similarly, that 30 minutes would be quite long enough for this kind of boring — possibly even religious — stuff.

It was, of course, fascinating, and showed the inspired simplicity of his profound wisdom. Which other world leader would happily tell a story about relieving himself in the jungle as a child? An extraordinary range of topics were covered: the value of learning from bad times; the Buddha’s requirement that his disciples should subject his Way to investigation; politics; science; China; the centrality of love and compassion.

But perhaps the most striking thing about the two programmes was how much the two subjects had in common. Both are questing, more youthful than most people half their age, driven by enthusiasm, and full of humour.

Dan Cruickshank’s Civilisation Under Attack (BBC4, Tuesday of last week) was an account of IS’s drive to extirpate all monuments to any culture different from its own bitter creed. Cruickshank was revisiting the subject: he had made an important programme at the time of the run-up to the Iraq War, fearful of the loss of irreplaceable artefacts in that conflict.

His deepest forebodings then, of course, nowhere approached the destruction by explosion and bulldozer as we helplessly witness the cradle of civilisation, the surviving glories of Sumarian, Babylonian, and Assyrian cultures, wiped out. The moral problems were not ignored: should we care about the destruction of inanimate objects, however ancient, when human blood is being shed with the utmost barbarity?

Cruickshank spoke to a British IS supporter in an attempt to understand the reasoning. No light was forthcoming. The scale is unprecedented, but the impulse to destroy in the name of God is not: remember the Reformation.

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