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Why hadn't I thought of evolution by natural selection?


How would you feel if your mother died?
Redmond O'Hanlon Writer
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The only good thing it got me, in the long, long term, was my wife. Because I'd arrived to see Belinda in Oxford, wearing, indeed, my father's Spitfire jacket, on a Triumph 500. Big, impressive boots on. She'd opened the door, and she'd say, 'Oh, how lovely to see you'. And I'd think, 'Right, give it five minutes and I'm off'. So that really intrigued her. I never even took my jacket off, so she didn't know I had no muscles until it was too late.

[Q] This might sound a bit odd, but I wanted to ask you, did you love your mother?

No. Absolutely not.

[Q] Is that retrospective, or did you at the time?

No. I didn't even like her smell, funnily enough, after that. It always felt violent. But very good question. Because that was the very first question that Puffin's psychiatrist, again on the NHS, when she had terrible anorexia... anyway, first thing they asked me, that psychiatrist was in a different hospital, was 'How would you feel if your mother died'? And I thought, 'Well, just a joke'. So I said, 'Well, look, I'll tell you exactly. In fact, I do know where to go to hire, for a week, a 45 Magnum. You can get one for £200. And I would also pay for two clips, and I would stand over the grave, and I'd empty both magazines into it, just to make sure.' And to my amazement, no one was laughing. They were just taking notes. And I said, 'Is this meant to be a joke'? And I thought, 'No, it's not a joke'. Nobody even looked up. So on my medical records, that's what...

And even now, with my brother, well, he insists we go and visit the grave. He stands right on top, says well, 'Mum, this is what I've been doing'. This is... he gives a whole report. I stand way back in case a disgusting green hand comes up and grabs your ankle. Yes.

[Q] This doesn't sound funny at all, your childhood.

No, but you see maybe I wouldn't have done anything but for that. It's kind of periods of crippling inaction. Well, which I still have. That's why I have Bertie the cat, because he's perfectly prepared to sleep 16 hours a day with me. I mean, that's his thing.

No, maybe not. But you see my father, really, really believed that God put the spots in a butterfly's wing. The eye spots. They're there for our delight. Everything in nature has been made by God for our pleasure and our instruction. Natural Theology, wonderful, 1802, Paley. And that's why Darwin wanted to be a country clergyman, because it was just as valuable in those vast palaces of vicarages to go out gathering a complete series of different species of earwig or woodlouse or butterfly, in those wonderful oak and walnut cabinets, as it was to go and visit your parishioners. Well, much more fun. And so, by the same token, the people who were best qualified to understand The Origin of Species and what it meant were all the country vicars and rectors. The suicide rate after 1859 just went crazy in parishes.

[Q] What about your dad?

My dad wasn't... Well, he hasn't read The Origin of Species. He really believed that. And I can't thank him enough. His father was a great friend of a guy called TA Coward, who produced the first – I'll show you – the first popular books on British birds. They're all for the greater glory of God and Reverend Morris. And I loved it, that's what began it. A real Edwardian, or actually much earlier, early Victorian childhood. And then, bang, at Marlborough, finding out about and reading The Origin, biology came alive in the most vivid way. This never left me. Still is. I can still remember the colours of the frogs we dissected and so on. And the fantastic explanatory power of evolution by natural selection. You know, there's the sparrow on the hedge. Now, that butterfly with the eye spots flashes its wings. Were those eye spots put there for our delight, or were they put there to give the sparrow the most appalling fright, so he pisses himself and falls off the hedge?

Well, I mean, there's no contest.

British author Redmond O’Hanlon writes about his journeys into some of the wildest places in the world. His travels have taken him into the jungles of the Congo and the Amazon, he has faced some of the toughest tribes alive today, and has sailed in the hurricane season on a trawler in the North Atlantic. In all of this, he explores the extremes of human existence with passion, wit and erudition.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is a London-based television producer and director who has made a number of documentary films for BBC TV, Channel 4 and PBS.

Tags: Oxford, NHS, Natural Theology, On The Origin of Species, Marlborough school, William Paley, Charles Darwin, TA Coward

Duration: 5 minutes, 36 seconds

Date story recorded: July - September 2008

Date story went live: 11 August 2009