His dog had died, his partner had left him, the naturalist was completely alone. Chris Packham saw no alternative to killing himself.
“There might have been people around,” he clarifies, “but they were of no relevance to me whatsoever. I was so totally isolated, I was in a place where there was nothing and there was no one.”
It was 2003 and Packham, then host of children’s progamme The Really Wild Show, was in the wilderness. He could only compare his suffering to the grief that engulfed him when, aged 14, his kestrel died.
Then, the teenager lost the power of speech. “I thought I’d had a stroke or some sort of brain damage. I couldn’t figure out that it was a psychological thing. Yeah, it was frightening.” But this was worse. At the age of 42, Packham reached for the bottle of pills and began counting them out…
The face of Britain’s natural world strides into a noisy coffee shop at the bustling BBC in central London. Still looking a good decade younger than his years (he’s just turned 55), he’s dressed entirely in chic black. Packham, who returns to our screens with Springwatch later this month, has driven up from his home in the New Forest to talk to us about his autobiography Fingers In The Sparkle Jar.
He arranges his phone and glasses case symmetrically just so in front of him, and will adjust their positions minutely throughout our chat, as if calibrating his mind to speak. But ask him all the questions and he’ll tell you no lies. The only time he dodges a line is when I ask for the reaction of his sister, the fashion designer Jenny Packham, to his book, and for his thoughts on whether the Royal Family, as the UK’s biggest landowners, are good stewards of our countryside. But, notably, Packham tells me he’s ducking those questions.
One of the most astonishing passages in the book is when a 15-year-old Packham comes across a fox – trapped in a snare and fallen into a freezing River Itchen, near the family home in Southhampton. He doesn’t think twice. He jumps into the icy waters, despite knowing he can’t swim. It sounds like he nearly died.
“I did,” he laughs. “I’m still a really poor swimmer. I never go swimming, unless I have a purpose. But then I knew I had to get in that water. I had to get to that animal.”
Battling against the current and hypothermia, Packham eventually dragged himself and the thrashing fox to the riverbank. The wire snare was twisted and dug deep into the terrified animal’s bleeding neck. Packham, near-naked, blue with cold and without any tools to remove the trap, knew he had to put the fox – an animal he loved – out of its misery.
“I thought I could get this fence post, knock it on the head, simple. But when I hit the fox as hard as I possibly could, the post just bounced off. Then I thought, ‘my God, now I’m exaggerating its pain.’ So I hit it even harder and it still didn’t die. Then I got in a panic, hit it a few times and it was still wheezing and gasping. I just thought, ‘Christ, what can I do?’ So I took it back into the river and drowned it.”
Recounting this now, he still looks shellshocked. It’s an echo of the distress he felt a year earlier following the death of his cherished kestrel – a bird he had taken from a nest, hand-reared, trained and flown. The depth of that torment is underlined by the joy he felt at its unauthorised acquisition (he had written a letter to the Home Office asking for permission to remove a kestrel from its nest, but had been refused). “I felt like I had climbed through a hole in heaven’s fence,” he describes in the book,“like something shiny had fallen and I had caught it with my heart.”
His heart was so shattered by the bird’s death, he returned to the woodland place of its burial on every anniversary for the following 12 years. Talking about it now remains difficult for him and he studiously avoids eye-contact.
“It’s got some sort of possession over me,” he agrees. “It’s really hard to not become instantly traumatised again by that event. I could easily get tearful about it. It’s right there, like it just happened.”
This intensity of feeling is magnified by Packham’s astonishing recall. In his book he forensically describes not only the natural world around the small Southampton home he shared with his parents and sister but also every insult and rejection and smack and kick he suffered at secondary school. He was the “weird kid” who smelt of snakes and mice, who couldn’t help telling his classmates the unvarnished truth (“I told him he had BO, so he punched me in the face”).
“Compared to other people – apparently – I remember things with tremendous intensity and detail. When I was writing about the fox I could remember virtually every footstep.”
When he writes about the death of the kestrel, I say, it sounds like the loss tipped him into depression.
“Yeah,” he nods. “When I was talking to the psychotherapist, she said it was like a post-traumatic stress.”
Packham began seeing a therapist in 2003, an emergency response to an emergency situation.
“I’d been to the football to see Southampton,” he begins. Jo, his then-partner, and her daughter Megan picked him up. In the car was his dog Fish, a one-year-old black poodle. “Fish went completely berserk which he always did when we met up, and stood on my lap with his feet on the dashboard. And Jo said to me: ‘He loves you more than I ever could. And you love him more than anything in the whole wide world.’
“But there was no animosity,” he adds, “it was just an observation. Then she dropped us off, drove off to the gym, and he got run over and died in my arms.” He pauses, still reeling from the immediacy of the chain of events. “What was just so grotesque was the way it happened. It was like it was stage-managed. It was like something out of a movie.”
This wasn’t the first time he’d lost a dog. But unlike the shocking manner of one-year-old Fish’s killing, Max was old and Packham had prepared himself for his death. That said: the day Max died, Packham had to fly to America for work, and when he landed he faxed his mum: “Whatever you do, don’t bury Max in the garden.” Relating this now, he swallows. “But she did. And I couldn’t go into my parents’ back garden for about six years.”
Fish’s sudden death was grief of an altogether greater magnitude. It was 11th May, he notes pointedly, and “again it was that shock. Everything in life seemed to be in order, and then everything had gone in one instance. After that everything else fell apart.”
Jo left him and Packham found himself utterly alone, save for a bottle of pills. He counted them out, 39 in total, but decided there weren’t enough for the job at hand. Would he have committed suicide if there had been?
“Yeah,” he says quietly. “There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind. When you get to the point where you’re counting them out, I had every intention of taking them.” Much as he loved Megan, then aged eight, “all those things were severed”.
And that moment was different to other suicidal thoughts he’d had in the past. As he says in the book, “It felt right, because this time it was only about me. It wasn’t like when I’d got close to it before. That was about other people, about me planning to hurt the people who had hurt me.”
Though he describes a sense of exhilaration after stepping back from the brink, he was once again to wrestle with suicidal thoughts. This time it was his new dogs – not a shortage of pills – that saved him. “I was on my own with the dogs,” he writes.“I couldn’t leave them. They loved me so I couldn’t do it. They kept me alive. I owe them my life.”