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I once met…Desmond Morris

A book dealer I knew mentioned in passing that the author of The Naked Ape and Manwatching was a passionate collector. But no-one had prepared me for what I encountered when I rang his doorbell in leafy North Oxford.

This zoologist was not a collector—he was a bibliomaniac! He admitted to visiting book fairs, second-hand bookshops, junk shops and auctions. At one time he mistakenly bought copies of books he already owned, but remedied this error by always carrying around a laptop containing a disk that listed  all the books in his library. And what a library ! He had had it built as an annexe to his large Victorian house and it was absolutely crammed with books, floor to ceiling, and a few of his own paintings were also displayed. He, of course, was a sort of Abstract Surrealist, strongly influenced by Miro. There was a lot of ethnographical art too—mainly pots and animal inspired pieces.

We talked for over three hours—some of the conversation was off the record. He told me that he came from a village near Swindon and as a youth had gone out with Diana Dors, whose real name was Diana Fluck. Books were part of his DNA. Morris’s great great grandfather had been a bookseller in old-town Swindon, while his great-grandfather, one William Morris, was a well known local historian and naturalist in Wiltshire. It was a book, Grew’s Comparative Anatomy of Stomach and Guts, which the zoologist later inherited from his library, that inspired him to study animals. From such an eclectic pedigree of learning arose  Morris’s extraordinary range of knowledge—which encompasses a range of art-related disciplines, of which Surrealism and ethnography was two, and a variety of scientific subjects, the most prominent being zoology. Whole stacks were devoted to two main interests—dogs and primates, but human psychology was strongly represented too. There was also a fair-sized section on English poetry and here Morris revealed that in the late 1940s he had met Dylan Thomas, who had shown a strong interest in one of the younger man’s own paintings that he happened to be carrying. Thomas offered to strike a deal. He would swap a manuscript of a poem he had recently written for this painting. It must have been a good painting (or a poor poem), because Morris declined the deal. Thomas died just a few years later at the height of his fame and Morris told me that he has regretted that mistake ever since.[RR]

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