“Dung beetle navigation” does not seem a promising subject. What could there be said about how a dung beetle finds its way around?
A David Attenborough programme revealed that the dung beetle, in fact, gets lost if it doesn’t have a means of navigation and its means of navigation is the Milky Way. If the sky is cloudy, if the stars are not visible, the insect cannot find its way back to its nest.
The programme was one I would not have watched if my mother had not been watching it. Natural history always seemed worthy of attention but never seemed quite interesting enough to draw me away from ITV 3, or whatever other channel was showing reruns of detective series.
It is a cause of gratitude to my parents that they always watched the sort of programmes that made demands upon the intelligence. We were a working class household, but one with a strong sense that there were always new things to be learned.
In my childhood days, the choices of television viewing were limited. Even with just three channels there would have been alternatives to some of the programmes that we watched, but seriousness would seem to have carried the day.
The BBC news was always watched, and was supplemented by Panorama on BBC and World in Action and This Week on ITV. I cannot hear the Intermezzo from Jean Sibelius’ Karelia Suite without being transported back to our living room when I was a child and the beginning of This Week.
Documentaries, science stories, history programmes, dramatisations of novels, much of it meant little to a boy sat watching. The television plays were the hardest to understand, the characters of Play for Today or Playhouse seemed to behave in ways very different from the way in which anyone in our village might have behaved. Natural history for us was represented by The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau and The World About Us.
In a house where we sat as a family in the living room each evening, there were the options of reading, drawing or watching television, and even if reading or drawing, there would be half an eye on the screen of our black and white television.
There was a serendipity in growing up against the background of such a soundtrack, hearing about countless things that no-one would, or could, have taught us at school. Fifty years later, my mother continues that eclectic process of learning.