Desmond Morris on the Irish: ‘There’s a humour there, and a love of the eccentric'

Desmond

At 91 years old, the thirst for knowledge is still strong in the Naked Ape and Manwatching author

Desmond Morris has accomplished more in one life than most of us could cover in 10. Author of 70 books including the multimillion bestseller The Naked Ape, polymath, zoologist, research fellow at Oxford, television presenter, artist of over 3,000 surrealist paintings, he radiates a puckish sense of mischief, inquiry and fun that maybe can only come with a mind that never ceases to turn over, to ask questions and completely belies his 91 years of age.

He has written books that change the way we look at the world and ourselves – this is the man who invented body language or at least classified it. He has sat at the feet of literary giants. He counts Richard Dawkins and David Attenborough as lifelong friends and tells unprintable tales of wild bohemian parties with artists, aristocracy, film and television stars.

This is all astonishing, but it gets further elevated to the realms of the fantastic when you hear he is still writing and painting and pursuing his academic work: Postures: Body Language in Art was published by Thames & Hudson last December; hopefully his exhibition in London this June of 60 paintings will go ahead; now that he is settled in his new Irish home, he is back into his ethogram, an encyclopaedia of human gestures.

Morris quit his home in Oxford last year following the death of his beloved wife, Ramona. He’s now living in a Kildare village beside his son Jason and his family. He passed on his love of horseracing to Jason, who is the director of racing for Horse Racing Ireland. He enjoys the quiet pace of life in the village, which reminds him of his childhood in Wiltshire, where he was an only child, but did not find this to be a disadvantage.

“It means for the rest of your life, you’ll never be lonely, because being on your own isn’t loneliness, it’s solitude. If you’re a painter or a writer, you have to be able to tolerate solitude.” Nocturnal, he works into the small hours every night and credits his prodigious output to his close comfort with being alone. Every December sees him beginning a new book, finished by the spring, he then takes up painting again.

His latest book is a perfect fusion of the work of a lifetime, in science and art. A cultural history of social customs and a survey of changing artistic styles, it brings the subject of body language in art to life vividly. Morris’s text sparkles with wit and the reader is instantly carried away by his enthusiasm for presenting art in a completely new way. “It was fun to do, I wanted to ask the question, why are certain postures common in one period rather than another and the obvious question is why does Napoleon have his hand in his waistcoat? Why is the Greek Orthodox blessing a particular combination of fingers?”

If you’re a painter or a writer, you have to be able to tolerate solitude

Many of the topics in the book were, quite simply, gaps in his knowledge: “I didn’t know Mr Spock in Star Trek, when he makes his famous V-sign, I thought it was something he made up! Then I discovered it’s an ancient Jewish ritual sign which he saw as a child – he saw the priests doing it two-handed and he decided to change that to one-handed. It’s an ancient sign spelling God’s name in Hebrew.

“And I kept learning about all these different postures. I didn’t know that Hong Kong owed its history to a simple posture – when we sent out our official to the court, he refused to kowtow, because kowtowing meant you had to go down on the floor before the Chinese emperor. This caused such a scandal it ruined all our trade with China, that single posture mean the whole trade with China was off and, on the way home to compensate for the loss, he bought a small island called Hong Kong and turned it into an English colony. Hong Kong only exists today because of that posture.”

Poignantly, Postures is the last book he worked on with his wife. Ramona did the research for many of his books, but refused to allow him to put her name on them. After his wife’s death, Morris was so riven by grief he could not go on living in Oxford – the house was haunted by memories. “We were married for 66 years. It wasn’t a bereavement, it was an amputation. We’d become one person. We thought together. The worst thing of all was not being able to pick up the phone and ask her a question. That period was the darkest time of my life; my family saw me through it. Coming here last June has enabled me to start a new life – I’m able to keep going.”

When he began painting, he could not sell any. “With my sort of imaginative work, just after the second World War, no one wanted that sort of painting. They wanted quietly pleasant things, they had had enough of nightmares. I couldn’t sell anything, and I said I’m not going to starve. My other passion was animals, so I decided I’ll make a career as a zoologist, which I did.”

Desmond Morris: “I was studying primate behaviour and I realised I needed to look at humans as a species of animal.” Photograph: Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis via Getty
Desmond Morris: “I was studying primate behaviour and I realised I needed to look at humans as a species of animal.” Photograph: Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis via Getty

And what a career that turned out to be. His seminal work, The Naked Ape, has been a multimillion bestseller. He exhibited with the Catalan surrealist Miró in 1950, and remembers the artist hallucinating from starvation, he was so poor. Morris stopped exhibiting, but kept on painting. “I have no control over my paintings, what I do is to switch off my rational brain and the imagery comes straight from the unconscious. Sometimes they are a complete failure, but they paint themselves, sometimes I come down the next morning and expect to find the painting had gone on with things after I had left.”

Everything I write is first draft. Never touched, that’s how it keeps its freshness

He believes the reason his books have sold so well is because he writes so simply. “I’ve always had a golden rule – simplification without distortion. Everything I write is first draft. Never touched, that’s how it keeps its freshness.” For half a century, he lived in the house the Oxford English Dictionary was written in, and it’s clear he adores language. “The house was haunted by words – every word in the English language has passed though my front door. I collected over 200 dictionaries, I became obsessed by obscure words, but that’s a hobby, I don’t use them when I’m writing.”

Poets had an enormous influence on him at a young age, there’s a tautness and economy to his writing that is more poetic than prose. “Although I’m a scientific writer, the people who influenced me were WH Auden, TS Eliot, Dylan Thomas. I try not to show off with words but I do love to play with words.” He met Thomas as a young man, a year before the poet’s death. “My boss in the army was a childhood friend of Dylan Thomas, he used to come and stay with him. I could just sit and listen to Dylan all day, he was a wordsmith of an almost magical kind. He would just play with words – I can’t ever remember a single sentence he spoke which wasn’t interesting.”

Every topic mentioned during an interview that spins out over three hours is ardently debated; his appetite for precision is absolute. I put it to him that certain arguments advanced in The Naked Ape would be viewed as utterly untenable by today’s feminists and a lively discussion on what he wrote versus what was interpreted ensues: “People misunderstood The Naked Ape. There were so few people on Earth that the important thing was to breed. Hunts were risky and dangerous and women were simply too valuable to be allowed to go on a hunt. If a few women got killed, the breeding rate plummeted. The males were specialists, they developed a singular quality which was risk-taking, females were better at everything except hunting – they were at the very centre of society, they organised it.

People misunderstood The Naked Ape. There were so few people on Earth that the important thing was to breed

“Saying The Naked Ape glorifies the male is ridiculous. Men have a built-in need to take risk and it’s what makes them different from females. I’ve always said the political scene should be run by women. Men take risks. On the international scene, it gets you into trouble, that’s how wars start. The great tragedy of history has been that urbanisation favoured men – the hunting ground is now making a kill in the city, not in the jungle. Women were unfairly treated for four thousand years by urbanisation. I was totally behind the feminist movement.”

Desmond Morris: “The worst word in the English language is retirement.” Photograph: Alan Betson
Desmond Morris: “The worst word in the English language is retirement.” Photograph: Alan Betson

Famously, he wrote The Naked Ape in four weeks. David Attenborough, in charge of BBC2 at the time, commissioned a discussion programme on science called Life. “While that series was running, I was studying primate behaviour and I realised I needed to look at humans as a species of animal. When I began to write it, I only had a month’s leave, but it was all there in my head, I already had it written. It just poured out, I did 80,000 words in four weeks.”

Morris is friends with David Attenborough for more than half a century and the two nonagenarians have a lot in common. Both active, engaged, still producing cutting-edge work, sharper and more brilliant than most of us in our wildest dreams could ever hope to be, how do they carry on? He laughs uproariously: “Why aren’t we dead? We had this conversation just the other day, he rang up and was asking about something. We’d both been given some award, and I said, ‘What are you doing now?’ He said, ‘I’m just off to Lapland.’ I said ‘at 93, what else can you do, you’ve got to go to the frozen north!’

“I asked him, ‘Have you ever been to a gymnasium?’ ‘No!’ ‘Have you ever been on a diet?’ ‘No!’ ‘Have you ever been jogging?’ ‘Good God, no!!’ We both enjoy a glass of wine, we eat the foods we want to eat, we spend all our time doing the things we love doing. So there’s only one explanation: we both still have a juvenile curiosity.” He puts his own mental age at 18 and Attenborough’s at 16, although he saw fit to revise that upwards after Attenborough famously flirted with Cameron Diaz on Graham Norton’s TV show.

He has spent his whole academic life working on an ethogram, an encyclopaedia of every human gesture, action, expression and posture. “Part of my scientific brain loves classifying. When you start to study a new species, the first job is to make an ethogram, a list of all the actions that an animal does. Until you did that, you didn’t know its grammar, its behaviour. With human beings it’s never been done, so I decided to do it.

There are about 3,000 things most people do, just as if you collected their words, there are about 3,000 words most use

“There are about 3,000 things most people do, just as if you collected their words, there are about 3,000 words most people use. I decided I was going to produce an encyclopaedia of human actions and my publisher came out and said ‘How far have you got?’ I said, ‘I’ve reached the eyebrows.’ He said, ‘Are you going up or down?’ ‘Down,’ I said and he said ‘Oh my God, this will take years!’ So I said okay, ‘I’ll do a popular version.’ And the book was Manwatching, it’s my personal favourite of all my books. It introduced the concept of body language which everybody talks about today, but I introduced the subject in the 1970s and nobody had written an encyclopaedia of body language before.

“I was a zoologist, I couldn’t talk to my animals, I couldn’t interview them, I could only observe them. So I did the same thing with humans. I’ll pretend I can’t talk to them, I won’t listen to what people say, I’m just going to observe what they do. Manwatching was a popular version of this great encyclopaedia I never finished, but I am deep into it again since I came to Ireland. It won’t ever be published – this will go into my scientific archive in Porto, they have a special department in the university doing the same thing as my work.”

Now that he’s living here, what is his impression of the Irish? “I can answer that in a few words. Their most conspicuous feature is their warmth. There’s a humour there, and a love of the eccentric – they like something a bit odd, a bit different. Kind and friendly, those are the qualities I have observed. I’m not saying that to please the Irish. I have really enjoyed my time here, it’s taken me back to my childhood. I grew up in a village, now I’m living in a village here and I remember the kindness and warmth of my childhood. I think that’s been lost in England, the simple joy in living. It hasn’t been lost here.”

He is a massive fan of the cinema, going back to his youth when his first girlfriend was Diana Dors. They grew up in the same Wiltshire village. His favourite director is Luis Buñuel, the Spanish surrealist. Asked who he would admire now, he says cinema has gone off, “with these huge, obscene budgets, all you get are these superheroes. I hate it, they are not real people, only crude metaphors. When the Oscars come along, there’s one film which is so dour and so politically correct that it gets an Oscar. Actually, this year the Koreans managed to crack the system and produced a brilliant film, this year they gave the award to someone who really deserved it. Pedro Almódavar is my favourite director – Pedro has inherited the crown of Buñuel, his films are extraordinary.”

We finally come to the overarching question of our times and, typically, he not only has the answer ready, he prepared it a quarter of a century ago: “I predicted this in The Human Zoo: ‘Each locality contrives to make sense of belonging to a small patch of human social activity. Ultimately, even this may be swamped out and then we may well see the return of nothing short of a biblical pestilence. This may sound melodramatic but consider the facts.

Desmond Morris: “I was a zoologist, I couldn’t talk to my animals. I couldn’t interview them, I could only observe them. So I did the same thing with humans.”
Desmond Morris: “I was a zoologist, I couldn’t talk to my animals. I couldn’t interview them, I could only observe them. So I did the same thing with humans.”

“‘Any species that overcrowds itself beyond a certain point shows seven stages of damage: individuals become psychologically stressed, this stress causes physiological disturbances. These disturbances weaken the body’s natural defence mechanisms. This weakening makes people increasingly vulnerable to infection. The overcrowding makes it possible for infections to spread like wildfire. The infections grow until they become epidemics. The epidemics decimate the populations. Already, flu epidemics have killed more people than the whole of human warfare.

What if a more virulent, lethal disease were to mutate and become as easy to catch as the common cold? Then we could see our great cities collapse and crumble

“‘Most people who catch flu do still survive. But what if a more virulent, lethal disease were to mutate and become as easy to catch as the common cold? Then we could see our great cities collapse and crumble. Of all the doomsday scenarios, this is the most likely. It has been calculated that by the year 2000, half the world’s population will be housed in cities . . . Whether they turn out to be breeding grounds for human inventiveness and creativity or for lethal diseases and epidemics remains to be seen. Gigantic playgrounds or vast ghost towns – the choice is up to us.’”

We talk about the reactions of people to the crisis and he divides people into sorts: “There are the panickers, who will buy 2,000 rolls of loo roll. These are anxious people of a nervous disposition who see disaster everywhere and always have something to worry about. These are the people stripping the shelves. There are the cavaliers, the people who are blasé about it. These are the people we saw out and about, in the pubs, in town squares – these are the risk-takers. But these people are beginning to sober up now. The third type of people have a very set way of life – these are the people who brush their teeth at the same time every day and who, every so often, allow themselves to have fun and let their routine break down. They will have a hard time with the disruption to their routines. But the people who will suffer most are the sociable ones, those who love going to parties or the pub and now can’t do so. They will find it extremely difficult.” There is a fifth group that will thrive: “If you are a person, like me, who is creative and used to solitude, you will be fine. This is a crisis that favours the solitary people like writers and artists.”

We talk about the outcome of the pandemic and he notes that throughout history flu epidemics went into rapid decline during the summer and how sunshine works against them. His prescient words are comforting. “It could take six to seven months but it is good to see the government taking it seriously. It’s a unique situation. I haven’t felt this way since the second World War.”

At 91 years of age, will there be another book? “As I said to David, the reason we keep going is work. I shall probably start on a book later this year, on birds in art. But in the meantime I have an exhibition opening in London in June, so I am working on that. I never stop. The worst word in the English language is retirement. If you are a creative person and you’re honest, you realise how little you know. The depth of your ignorance is something you are constantly aware of – knowledge is a bottomless pit and you keep finding new things. I’m forever coming up against a question I can’t answer. And that’s what keeps me going.”