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Overcoming traumatic memories

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Childhood memories I can’t forget
Desmond Morris Writer
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It wasn't until I was eight that the next trauma came along, and this one was strange because I was on a family picnic on the Thames, and we'd gone in a boat and we were having a picnic on the bank. And there was something I'd left in the boat and I wanted to get it, so I went back to the boat and I leant over and as I leant over, the boat moved away from the bank and I fell in. And even to this day – what is it? 78 years later – I can still remember exactly what I saw. It was these water reeds waving like that in front of me, and it was so beautiful and I thought: how lovely this is. And the strange thing about it was that I was so impressed by the beauty of this underwater scene that I suddenly thought: I'm drowning, you know, this is... and then I suddenly started to panic because I was very close to drowning. I was in the... tied up in these weeds and I couldn't swim anyway.

And then I saw some legs, a pair of legs, walking towards me and this is my aunt coming to rescue me. And she'd got me out just in time. And the funny thing about that incident was that what the worst memory of it was the embarrassment I had when they had to take off all my wet clothes, and I had to put on the clothes of other relatives and have to sit in this... sit in these other clothes, feeling really stupid and embarrassed for the rest of the afternoon while the picnic went on. And as a result of that trauma in childhood, I never learnt to swim. I hated swimming. I wouldn't swim at school and I got into trouble for that. But I couldn't put my head underwater; if my head went underwater, I panicked. And it wasn't until I was 40 years old that I taught myself to swim. By this time I had a private swimming pool of my own and I got into this pool and I went through a series of exercises.

I'd been very lucky because I'd known an old psychoanalyst who was a friend of Sigmund Freud's. And when I was very young I used to listen to a lot of the things he had to tell me about psychoanalysis. And he told me... I told him about this particular problem and he said, what you do if you have a problem is you take it to pieces. You take each element of it and you deal with it separately.

And so I got into my pool. And what I'd do is I would hold onto the side and put my head under the water so that... and try to get used to this getting my head under the water without panicking. And that was terribly difficult. But I... what you mustn't do is to try and just swim because then it all happens at once. So I would spend... and I could do it in a private pool because nobody could see me looking ridiculous doing this... putting my head under the water and then coming up again. And then I would take my hands off the wall and do it with that. And bit by bit I would put together what it took to swim and I taught myself to swim at the age of 40, and then I loved it. And since then, I... after 40, I've been in every coral reef in the world and I love it. So that was overcoming that particular trauma.

The next one was when I was 12. And again, it was a picnic – I don't know what it is about picnics – it was a picnic on the bank of the Thames. Actually, not on the bank. It was in a... in a field next to the Thames and my mother and father were with me, and we were having strawberries and cream. And I remember the strawberries and cream very well because the strawberries were bright red in the afternoon sun. And we were sitting there having this... picnic when two small twin-engine aeroplanes... I can remember what they were – they were Avro Oxford's, they were training planes used for training. This was in – when was it? 1940 – the war had just started and they were training young pilots. And these two training aircraft came over and I looked up at them and they were coming towards us and as I watched them, their wingtips touched and they both plunged into the field in which we were sitting, one on either side of us. We're having our picnic and a few yards over there, there's one aeroplane, and a few yard over there's another aeroplane, and there's an arm sticking up from that aeroplane like this and a groaning sound coming from the other aeroplane. My father, who was very ill at the time, got up and went over to this aeroplane, looked inside it, and then walked – I always remember this – he walked over to a hedge and vomited. What he'd seen was so awful.

Now, I can remember that scene. I mean, there's... I've forgotten so much of my childhood but that scene, as I describe it, is vivid in my imagination. It's... isn't it awful that the things that are the worst moments stay most clearly in your memory? And other nice moments like going and having a lovely time here, lovely time there, you forget all about it. But I can't forget that moment.

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: River Thames

Duration: 5 minutes, 26 seconds

Date story recorded: June 2014

Date story went live: 06 November 2014