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Choosing to become a research zoologist


My debt of gratitude to Dylan Thomas
Desmond Morris Writer
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I decided to apply for a transfer immediately and this time I was lucky because I got into the Royal Army Education Corps and was sent to a demob college. Now this demob college was a place where men went when they were coming out of the army and they could choose any subject to rehabilitate themselves for civilian life. And they were short of a lecturer in Fine Art, the previous one having left under a cloud, I gathered. And I was given this job. I was suddenly – I was only a teenager – but I was suddenly running a monthly course on art, on the history of art, on life classes. I had life classes, I did still-lives, I did field trips to sketch in the countryside, I took my art students to the galleries in London. It was a wonderful time and I really enjoyed this part. This was the second year of my army life; it was wonderful. I had 12 of these one-monthly courses. And, of course, as a young painter, this was just what I needed. And I learnt a huge... well, I had to learn fast because again the army was teaching me how to use a bit of low cunning and to bluff my way through because, of course, as a teenager, I didn't know much about the history of art but I learned it very, very quickly in order to teach it.

And it was during this time, I was very lucky because my boss, a man called Mervyn Levy, happened to be a childhood friend of Dylan Thomas. They'd grown up together and they were close... they were best friends when they were children. And Dylan used to come and stay with Mervyn. And when Dylan was coming to stay, I would dash over there and spend as much time as I could with him. And it was about a couple of years before he died. He was... he was... poor Dylan – he was either drunk or suffering from a hangover and hangovers were better because then you could talk to him. He had this terrible problem with booze. But he was a magician with words. His... as a wordsmith, you just sat in astonishment at the way in which he could play with words. Everything he said, sort of, hung in the air. And he wasn't showing off – he just couldn't help it. And I learnt so much from him about the use of words.

I remember Mervyn was a rather short man, and at lunch one day, Dylan took his fork, stuck it in a boiled potato, held it up like a microphone to his mouth and said, 'And now, we will all say a hymn to our host who is a very, very short man'. And then he proceeded, and you... I couldn't believe my ears the way... because it all just came out. He said, 'Our midget, which art in heaven, miniature be Thy name' and he went right through the Lord's Prayer, ending up, 'Forever and ever, Tom Thumb'. And it was the most extraordinary facility with the English language.

And he and I discussed the difference between visual art and written and he... at one point, he took a crumpled poem out of his pocket and held it on the wall and said, 'Look, you can sell your paintings – I can't sell that'. And, of course, money was the curse of his life. I mean, he was obsessed with the fact that he didn't have any and was always borrowing money and was in money difficulties. It was... it was such a shame because he was the greatest wordsmith I've ever met and I... what he taught me, without... he didn't teach me, but just by listening to him, I learnt so much about the use of words. And it lasted... that's lasted me a lifetime too. I shall always be grateful to Dylan Thomas for that.

Born in Wiltshire, UK in 1928, Desmond Morris had a strong interest in natural history from his boyhood. Later, as an undergraduate, he studied zoology, and after obtaining a First Class Honours Degree from the University of Birmingham, he moved to the Oxford University Zoology Department where he began his research into animal behaviour for his doctorate thesis. In 1957, having moved to London, Morris famously organised an exhibition at the ICA of art work created by Congo the chimpanzee. Morris's engagement with the visual arts remains strong and he has often exhibited many of his own paintings since 1950 when his paintings went on show alongside those of the surrealist painter, Jean MirĂ³. 1950 was also the year when Morris began his career in TV creating and presenting Zootime and Life in the Animal World. Soon after this, he began work on a book that has proved a huge best-seller, The Naked Ape. Focusing on human behaviour, it was the first in a series of books in which the author observes humans primarily as a species of animal. Today, Desmond Morris has lost none of his inquisitiveness and continues to observe and write about what he sees in the world around him.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: Royal Army Education Corps, Dylan Thomas

Duration: 4 minutes, 7 seconds

Date story recorded: June 2014

Date story went live: 06 November 2014