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Contemplating death and the afterlife


Mortality – the best remedy for procrastination
Desmond Morris Writer
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Looking back on my life, I never expected to live to be 86. All my male ancestors died much younger. And I once went back over ten male ancestors and averaged out how long they had... they'd lived. And then on that basis, figured out how long I was going to live. I was doing this when I was 40 and it turned out I was going to die at 61, which wasn't very... wasn't very useful. Or was it? Actually, it was because it made me hurry up. When I was 40 and I thought I was going to die at 61, I worked twice as hard because I thought: I haven't got much time left. And my old friend, Anthony Burgess, the author, said to me once that he was told he was going to die in six months, the doctors gave him six months to live. And he thought, my poor wife – I must, I must quickly write a couple of novels so that she's got some income from those novels after I die. He took about three years to write a novel before this but when he thought he was going to die in six months, he sat down and wrote three novels in six months. And then he came back to England to die and the doctors in England said, that's rubbish, you're not going to die, you're perfectly fit. And Anthony Burgess said to me, I suddenly realised I didn't need three years to write a book – I could write three books in six months! And after that he became one of the most prolific authors ever known – he never stopped writing.

And I think, in a sense, if you think you're going to die young, it's quite an advantage because then you do get on with it and you don't procrastinate. You don't sort of put it off to tomorrow because you don't think there's going to be much of a tomorrow. And so from the age of 40, when I thought I was going to die young, I kept working as if I've only got a few moments left. And I've been doing that ever since. And I'm still doing it at 86. I've got two books coming out this year, two exhibitions of my paintings and I've written another book this year already which will come out the following year. So I'm still writing and painting and... but I do adjust my life now. My... I'm lucky because my brain is still working, but my body is giving up the struggle. I haven't the physical energy I used to have, which annoys me. I loved walking and now I find it's a strain to walk a long distance and that makes me very cross because I love walking – particularly in strange places – and I love travel and that's become more of a problem.

And so I am cross that my body is aging, but luckily, as I say, I'd rather have it that way than the other way around. And old friend of mine had the opposite. She was an author here in Oxford and she physically was fine, but her brain went. And the last time I saw her she didn't know who I was. And I... I thought, I'd rather have it the other way. I'd rather... if something's got to go first, I'd rather it was the body than the brain because to see her in that state was so awful – that here was this brilliant novelist who wasn't at home anymore. So I think I would rather have it this way round. And I'm perfectly aware of the fact that the human body has a built-in sort of obsolescence. It... we have a lifespan because that keeps the species flexible. If we... if we live forever, the species wouldn't have any chance of evolving any further. And by constantly rejumbling up the genetic material with each new generation, we create the possibility of evolutionary change. And it's a system that has worked for every species so far. Well, apart from some rather strange, lowly organisms, but all higher forms of life go through this cycle whereby each generation is replaced by another generation and, in that way, keeps it flexible.

I... to me, my great joy are my grandchildren because they're my genetic immortality and they're carrying my genes on to another generation. And so I take great pleasure in them and I'm very proud of them because they're all... you know, they're four wonderful young people who are growing up and I'm sad I shalln't see them become adult because, at 86, I haven't got much longer to go. Although who knows? I've been wrong so far – I  may have a bit longer to go.

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: Anthony Burgess

Duration: 5 minutes, 9 seconds

Date story recorded: June 2014

Date story went live: 06 November 2014