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How the world wars turned me into a rebel

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Early trauma shapes my perception of the human race
Desmond Morris Writer
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But there was one bit trauma coming up which was going to have a major impact on my life. My father had been working for some time in a... he was an engineer and he was... I knew him as somebody who worked in a drawing office of an engineering company. He was also a writer; he wrote children's stories. And he gave me my first typewriter when I was very young and I could... I always used to say I could type before I could write. And that served me in good stead because, you know, my typing was very fast; I could type as fast as I could think when I was quite a small child. And so when... later on, when everybody else was doing longhand, I was typing away like mad. And that helped me a great deal later on... later in life. Today, of course, every child has a computer keyboard so it's all changed.

Now my father in World War I had been so badly damaged by life in the trenches that his health had been ruined. His lungs were shot to pieces and he had all sorts of other problems. And all through my childhood, I was watching him slowly die, and he finally died in 1942. The Second World War had just... at its worst. I was 14, and a 14-year-old finds it very difficult to cope with the death of a father. I had enormous respect for my father as well as obviously loving him, but I... he was... he was a strong man who suffered from this awful damage that he received in World War I, and I felt very angry on his behalf. And when he died during World War II, as a teenager I thought the human species is mad, the human species is crazy – what's going on? We had a world war to settle everything, now we're doing it all over again! And here am I, a teenager at boarding school, and they've already got me into uniform – I mean the ATC, Air Training Corps – and if the war goes on long enough, I'll be shot down in my Spitfire. At assembly at school each morning, the headmaster would read out the names of last years' sixth formers who'd been shot down in those Spitfires and Hurricanes the previous night. And... I was in the fifth form and you think, well, it's only a couple of years, you know, and it'll be me.

And what's so interesting is that I had no memory of how I'd reacted at the time, but my mother had kept my school essays and my school letters sent home, you know, to her. And I was able to read those many years later. And what was fascinating about my school essays was that they were violently critical of the human species. A child growing up in World War II knew that when you grew up what you had to do was to kill people. That's what grownups did – they killed people! And you were supposed to kill people. That was... that was the view I was getting as a teenager – as a sensitive teenager, and I thought this was appalling. And in one of my school essays, I wrote an extraordinary sentence in which I said that the human being is a monkey with a diseased brain. That was my description of the human species as a 14/15 year old.

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: World War I

Duration: 3 minutes, 59 seconds

Date story recorded: June 2014

Date story went live: 06 November 2014