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Childhood memories I can’t forget

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Avoiding death for the second time
Desmond Morris Writer
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But the other disproportionate influence on one's life is, as I said, childhood experiences. Now, I'd already had one bad one and I was in for a few more. I've often wondered really, what sort of childhood produces creative adults. And I think it's a combination of having loving parents and a... and a happy, loving environment, but also at the same time having occasional bad moments. If your life's too cosy, you end up as a sort of happy-go-lucky adult. If it's too shocking and chaotic, you end up as a neurotic adult. The ideal is to have a happy childhood, but to have a few bad moments. It may sound an odd thing to say, but what happens if you have those bad moments and you survive them is that they can make you tougher. They harden you up, they make you wary, they make you aware of the fact that life is not a bowl of cherries so that when you do grow up, you are ready for it and you don't expect life to be cosy.

Now, I had four of these childhood traumas. The first one I've already mentioned, which happened in the womb. I don't know what effect that had on me. I can't... I can't even guess. But my second one came pretty soon after because my young mother, like all young mothers in the late 1920s when I was born – I was born in 1928 – were under the influence of a childcare specialist called Dr Watson. Now Dr Watson had written the childcare bible of that period, and all young mothers were following his instructions. He's very authoritative. He also happened to be – and this is an understatement – a raving lunatic because he said that the child was a little monster that was trying to get the better of its mother and that you must not under any circumstances respond to it when it cries. You had to leave it to cry. Let it cry itself out; you'll break your baby that way. It was like breaking a horse; it was the most appalling book ever written about childcare. How he got away with it, I don't know. But young mothers believed it, and children were left to cry. He said you must put your baby out in a pram, regardless of the weather, because it must have fresh air and if it cries, it's just exercising its lungs and if you must watch it, build a screen and look at it through a peephole. I mean, he was... you couldn't be more nutty than this man. And these young mothers believed him.

So my mother would put me out in my pram and leave me to cry. And – she was a loving mother, don't get me wrong – and she hated it, but she was told this was the thing to do. And one day there was a bitter East wind – I always remembered the East wind which she told me about later on – and I got double pneumonia and nearly died. I was on death's door for the second time. I was only a baby and already, twice, I'd nearly died. At that point, my mother threw the book away and said: to hell with Dr Watson, I'm going to love my baby. And from then on, I... and indeed, I think it worked in my favour because then on she was particularly loving and gave me all the cuddles that a baby needs and ignored this ridiculous advice from Dr Watson. So I then had a loving and a really wonderful childhood.

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 Miró. 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: baby, trauma, childcare, pneumonia

Duration: 3 minutes, 45 seconds

Date story recorded: June 2014

Date story went live: 06 November 2014