Society Diary interviews... Beccy Speight

20 Oct 2023 Interviews

Civil Society’s satirical columnist asks RSPB’s boss the pressing questions others dare not ask, unearthing her hatred of cauliflower and the time she met Benedict Cumberbatch.

Beccy Speight is the chief executive officer of the RSPB

Greetings, readers, and welcome to Diarys second-ever interview!

Last month, you might have seen Diarycross-examination of RSPCA’s chief executive Chris Sherwood, in which he was asked to choose between dogs or cats and name his best-loved cheese.

Rest assured that no one in charity land is safe from Diarys interrogation skills. 

Next in the firing line is RSPBs CEO Beccy Speight, who explains why cauliflower is her least favourite vegetable and the time she met Benedict Cumberbatch. Read our exchange below. 

How are you? 

“I’m OK! We had our AGM last weekend which is always quite a big deal and particularly so this year following on from the hullabaloo created by our tweet about nutrient neutrality. But it all went off well and it was good to feel the wave of support from our members, albeit virtually. Having said that, we have also just released the ‘State of Nature’ report, something we co-ordinate in a partnership of about 60 organisations, and there has been no let up in the declines we are seeing in the natural world here in the UK. So, while unsurprising, it’s always a bit depressing to be reminded of how much we still have to do.”

What bird would you be?

“A gannet. An utterly beautiful, totally awesome, supersonic seabird. And the good news from last year is that some of them seem to surviving the horrific threat of avian influenza. Go, gannets.”

Have you ever been starstruck?

“Oh yeah. Many times! Years ago, I met Benedict Cumberbatch at a party at Hay. I was then CEO of the Woodland Trust and he spent a long time telling me how he would have been a tree surgeon if he hadn’t been an actor. Needless to say, I pursued him shamelessly but our stars never aligned and I couldn’t lure him into the fold. If you’re reading this, Benedict, it’s birds now.”

What’s your favourite food?

“I had the time of my life working in the Basque country in Spain in my early twenties. So it would be something from there, in a big terracotta dish with a cold glass of that year’s new cider, eaten outside in the spring sun at a big trestle table full of friends.”

Least favourite vegetable?

“Cauliflower. I just don’t get it. The only way it’s bearable is covered in cheese sauce or a crispy, spicy coating. And that could be true of anything!”

If you could only read one book for the rest of your life, what would it be?

“Torture! I did an English degree!  Maybe the Tree of Man by Patrick White. It’s the only book I’ve ever been reading, on a train, and a complete stranger walked past and said ‘that book changed my life’. Or something by Ali Smith or Jeanette Winterson. But, can I just say, that you could ask me tomorrow and I would say something different. And that how I feel about certain once loved books has changed as I have got older. If you’d asked me in my early twenties, I would have definitely said the Magus by John Fowles. I read it backpacking around Europe at the age of 18 and it obsessed me. Now I find it overwritten and limited in scope. Something has to be utterly brilliant, like Shakespeare, to cope with our shifting perspective as we age.”

What song cheers you up the most?

“I Want You Back by the Jackson 5. I dare you not to dance.”

What was the last gift you gave?

“I gave the beloved nephew some dosh for his birthday so he could take his mum out for a lovely meal when they go on holiday together in a week’s time.”

Camping or glamping?

“Camping. Preferably somewhere where there are bears and where there isn’t a souped-up yurt or an exotic outdoor shower anywhere in sight.”

Favourite wild animal and why?

“When I saw my first wild elephant in Zimbabwe, I burst into tears. In a good way. But I also had a fantastic encounter with a young fox the other day, who let me get really close on a track before he noticed me and scarpered. Basically, any encounter with a wild animal is thrilling and gives you a sudden window into the wider life of the planet of which our species is only a part, despite our enormous impact. We’d do well to remember that.”

Please do volunteer if you would like to be next ([email protected]). If not, Diary will pluck someone at random...

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