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The lake in my grandmother’s garden

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How the world wars turned me into a rebel
Desmond Morris Writer
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This anger I had at the way my father had been treated produced in me a sense of rebellion. But in the immortal words of Alfred Hitchcock, I was a good little boy. I hadn't... I wasn't destructive. I didn't smash windows or anything; my rebellion had to be more constructive than that. And it took the form of turning against anything to do with authority. I decided that all political leaders, religious leaders and military leaders were... in my teenage language, I described them as the scum that rises to the top of society. And this is what these world wars had done to me: they'd made me hate authority and hate the leaders of society for what they'd done to my father.

And my rebellion was not particularly spectacular. What I did was I turned against anything to do with authority and tradition. I hated anything traditional because they were the people who'd killed my father. So I... in music, I was being taught classical music, so I developed a passion for jazz which made my music master furious and I had great battles with him over this. And from that day to this, I've been a great jazz enthusiast and have not really taken much pleasure in traditional music. In art, I was being taught about the old masters and I decided they were all rubbish and I found an essay by Max Ernst about surrealism and I became a passionate Surrealist. In literature, I was being taught Dickens and Shakespeare. What I load of rubbish, I thought – I'm not having any of that. And I turned to WH Auden, Christopher Isherwood, Dylan Thomas, TS Eliot, ee cummings – these were the people that I looked to. So in literature, in music, in art, I turned to all those movements and those figures who were rebels against tradition.

It was a fairly modest rebellion but it... it pleased me and it started me off painting. I started painting in... surrealist tradition and I started writing fantasy prose and poetry. And there was one other rebellion and that was that my family wanted me to be a doctor. It was the last thing in the world I wanted to be. I'd seen enough illness to last me a lifetime, seeing my poor father dying slowly, in agony. And so I said no, I want to be a zoologist. They said, but you can be a doctor, there's... you can make a good career out of that. How can you make a career out of being a zoologist? I said I don't care, I'm going to study animals. And I became passionate about two things – about my surrealist painting and my study of animal behaviour.

And I spent all my time studying the animals in the countryside in Wiltshire where I lived. I had a huge collection of pet animals. I had a collection of foxes and in a ridiculous, childish way, I intended to hunt foxhounds with them. I... I love foxes and snakes, and I had about 100 toads in the garden. Toads were a special favourite of mine. I loved their appearance. I thought their ugliness was so complete that it was beautiful. And my very first scientific paper ever published was in the school natural history magazine, which I edited with Martin Wells, who was HG Wells' grandson. And we edited this magazine and in it, I wrote my first paper on toad migration because I had studied toads and saw how they always migrated back to the ancestral pond. And I didn't know how they did it, I wanted to know.

So I went out at night – I was given special dispensation to go out at night which wasn't normal – to go and study the migration of toads and to follow their path back to the ancestral pond. And the interesting thing is that now, so many years later, we still don't know how they do it. It's still a mystery how they migrate back because tests have been done where toads have been taken from their ancestral pond and moved beyond other ponds, and then they... they walk round these other ponds to get back to their old pond. So it's not that they go to the nearest pond. It's that they go to their pond, the pond in which they were born, and they can identify that pond. How they do it, I don't know and nobody does. And I... in a way I'm kind of pleased that that mystery is still there although I would love to know what the mechanism is. The navigational systems of animals are still very much a mystery, an absolutely fascinating subject of scientific investigation.

Anyway, that was my very first study and I spent a lot of time in the countryside, watching animals.

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: rebellion, authority, tradition, jazz, Surrealism, zoology, toads, animal navigation

Duration: 5 minutes, 56 seconds

Date story recorded: June 2014

Date story went live: 06 November 2014