Jonathan Drori

I grew up in Twickenham, south west London, not far from Kew Gardens, which later became hugely important to me. My father ran a diesel laboratory which developed and designed fuel systems, one of which—a fuel injection pump—became almost a standard fitting for tractor and bus engines around the world. When I go to agricultural shows, I always rush over to the old tractors, and say to my long-suffering wife, “You know who designed this CAV DP15 pump…” My grandfather was also an engineer, my brother and I both went into electronics.
My mother was much more interested in the arts. When we visited Kew Gardens, she was keen to teach us to appreciate the beauty of plants, while my father would explain to us the miracle of how plants work. This combination of science and beauty is wonderful, and something I believe all children should learn. Between the two of them, our parents taught us all sorts of stories about plants, and even fed us bits of them. When you use all your senses, you remember what you learn; I can recall things about plants my father taught me at the age of seven!
My father came from Eastern Europe, arriving in this country just before the war, with just his little suitcase, and knowing no English. His family had all been murdered. It’s so hard for me to compare my life to his, but I’m constantly reminded of how lucky I and my generation have been. The first thing he had to do was learn the language, and because he already had some engineering training, he got a job at Harland and Wolff shipyard on Clydeside. Then he met and married my mother in Glasgow. By the time he came to work at the lab in London in the 1950s, he was managing thousands of people, building ships to replace those that had been lost in the convoys. His story leaves me with sympathy for refugees because my Dad was one. To my mind we’re all the same; we pretty much laugh and cry at the same things, and surely, a little human variety is the spice of life!
My parents were completely focussed on my brother’s and my education. I think my father had assumed that school wouldn’t teach me anything and was actually quite pleasantly surprised when we did in fact learn our three R’s there. When I later went to a direct grant school in Hammersmith, I did pure and applied maths, physics and chemistry A levels, but surprisingly, it was the drama society that really set me up, although I didn’t realise it at the time. We would put something on every week; I didn’t act, but I did all the behind-the-scenes stuff like lighting, and sound. When I went off to Sussex University, (in those days a sort of thinking person’s Butlins), to do a degree in electronic engineering, I absolutely loved it. My parents weren’t well off, so I was fortunate to get a grant. When I left, with an interest in broadcast engineering, I applied to the BBC for a job. I think I was successful because I had the right degree, but also because of my involvement with drama at school. I in fact I had two job offers, one from the BBC and the other from BT International, who were offering double the salary of the BBC. I asked my father for his advice as to which to choose, and he said, “go to where you’ll learn most”. So, I took the job with the BBC, and years later after he’d died, I began to wonder if in fact he’d said, with his Russian-Scottish accent, “Go to where you’ll earn most”! Actually, knowing my Dad, I’m pretty sure it was “learn”.
The BBC was a fantastic employer for me. When I reached my mid-twenties, I really “got it”, realising that being good at a job meant working out what an employer really wanted, and trying to do that, and be one step ahead, rather than just doing what you’re told. I decided I wanted to move away from engineering and more towards explaining science, setting my heart on becoming a television director. At first, unsurprisingly, I was unsuccessful in applying. But the BBC allowed me to be “attached” to a programme called Tomorrows World, for 6 months. I had to come up with ideas for parts of the programme every other week, and after that I worked my way up through various jobs, researcher, director, series producer and so on, making lots of science TV programmes for the next 16 years. I ended up running BBC Online at the end of the 1990’s. It was at the height of the internet boom, and anyone with a serious internet job was being offered silly money with outside companies. An American e-business company offered me massively more than I was earning, and given that our family weren’t exactly landed gentry, I thought the job would offer me some financial security. I went to the Director General, at the time Greg Dyke, and told him what I wanted to do. He said that although he didn’t want me to go, if it was what I wanted I should do it, and, that when the whole internet boom collapsed, he’d give me a similar job back, as long as I returned within 2 years. Of course, collapse it all did, but although I didn’t in fact return to the BBC afterwards, that offer meant that I could go and take a risk, and it was a great insight into how to treat people well! I then set up my own consultancy company, offering advice to government departments, and big museums and galleries on how people could use new technologies to engage audiences in new ways. I also worked in the civil service for 3 years, running a creative operation to develop new kinds of internet activities in science, culture and the arts.
Because of my interest in plants, when a board position at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew was advertised, I applied, and became a trustee for nine years. As a film maker with a botanical interest, they occasionally allowed me to travel with expeditions, making films about plants, which was pure heaven for me. One thing leading to another, I ended up on the boards of various technology, botanic or education organisations. I was Chair of a university, I’m on the board of Raspberry Pi, a computer company, which has just sold its 40 millionth computer, and I have an honorary position at the Birmingham Institute of Forest Research.
I’ve always been interested in how each discipline that one learns about connects with and interacts with others. For instance, plants are amazing, and physics is astounding, but when you put the two together, that’s super-exciting. And when you add the human dimension too, well, that’s when the magic happens! I remember a few years ago, when I was looking for a book about trees, which I love, which included science, culture, history, folklore all entwined together, I couldn’t find one. So, I thought I’d better try to write it. That was how Around the World in 80 Trees was born. It was almost a hobby, a labour of love, and because of that, and the beautiful way the publisher produced the book, it has been a bestseller in 18 languages, I think. A fancy way to describe it, (and the just-published follow-up, Around the World in 80 Plants), is ‘interdisciplinary’, but I have tried to make it an exciting read, whether someone comes with an interest in science, history, ecology, people or just loves plants. I’d also like people who read the books to care about the natural world, and we all know the real emergency is climate change. The priority right now is to massively reduce our use of coal, oil and gas, and to protect the forests and peat bogs that we already have. If we make the necessary changes to our lives now, climate change can be managed.
My connection with Dorset goes back to early childhood. All through my childhood our family holidays were at Lyme Regis, where we’d go fishing off the Cobb, and occasionally rent a small boat. And as we had no car, we either walked in the countryside, or collected fossils between Charmouth and Lyme, which was for us kids a brilliant way into the magical world of science. Dorset is my spiritual home, so it was a big deal when I first introduced my wife Tracy to its countryside; as an American she was a bit surprised that we could walk across someone’s field on a footpath, and not get either shot at or attacked by a wild animal. Now, it’s a huge part of our married lives, and being able to spend more of our time in the Piddle Valley is a delight.