How We Met: Richard Dawkins and Lalla Ward

Richard Dawkins, 53, is a lecturer in zoology at Oxford University and a Fellow of New College. His prize-winning and best-selling books include The Selfish Gene and The Blind Watchmaker. Married to Lalla Ward since 1992, he has a nine-year-old daughter from his previous marriage.

The actress Lalla Ward, 42, trained at the Central School of Speech and Drama in London. She received critical acclaim for her Ophelia in the BBC production of Hamlet and fame as Romana, companion to Dr Who. She has also illustrated numerous books and published several of her own.

RICHARD DAWKINS: In March 1992 Douglas Adams, the writer, had a surprise 40th-birthday party. It was a very showbizzy type of party and I hadn't met many showbusiness people before. Douglas took me over to meet Stephen Fry, and Lalla was standing there. Fry and Adams are both about seven foot tall, and they were talking to each other, forming a sort of arch over the top of our heads, with Lalla and me facing each other under the arch. We hit it off very well. We talked for a little, and then we slunk off to have dinner, rather sheepishly, because the party had just begun. We told each other we intended to come back but somehow we never did.

Lalla is a very beautiful woman. Everybody around her loved her: she has that effect on people. I'd had it explained to me that she was an actress, and I was very impressed that she had played not only the 'Companion' in Dr Who but also Ophelia in the BBC television production of Hamlet. Even more remarkable was that she had read my books. Actually, I later discovered that she's read everything. She read Darwin's Origin of Species when she was only 15. But it was still gratifying to find that she had read not just my Selfish Gene, which people sometimes have read, but also The Extended Phenotype, which is a rather technical book designed for professional scientists.

Then I learnt about her other career, as an artist. She has done beautiful embroideries, for the Shell calendar and for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds calendar. She has written books on embroidery and knitting. In one, which is about birds, she has a comic verse about each bird, and they are very funny. She knows a great deal about animals, and she knows their Latin names, which I, as a zoologist, ought to know but often don't. It really did seem that we were remarkably well-suited. We got on terribly well and loved each other's company.

Two weeks after we met I was due to go to America to lecture and she was going on holiday to Barbados. Somehow we ended up with her coming to America with me instead. I suppose at that point we realised we were serious. We met in March and married in September. We went to Mauritius for our honeymoon - but we got no special honeymoon treatment because everybody who goes to Mauritius is on honeymoon.

We are both strongly non-religious, and we have similar views on what's important in life. We do have differences, though. She has a certain changeability of mood which one has to learn to accommodate. She's always been interested in opera and I never have, but I'm prepared to change my mind about that. Since meeting her I have become much more sociable. I love being with her with other people and I love showing her off, if I can put it that way. She also gets on extremely well with Juliet, my daughter. My life has improved enormously.

I'd like her to act again, but only if she felt she wanted to. I think she might, either if an opportunity came up in Oxford, or a film that was over and done with in a finite time. I think what she doesn't want to do is a West End play where she'd have to be in London every day. She's very involved with my work. She's illustrating the book of my Royal Institution Christmas lectures, which I was giving, I believe, when she first saw me: they are mostly of animals, pen-and-ink or pencil- shaded drawings. She also reads the stuff I write for a lay audience, and she's a very useful critic. And we read to each other a lot. Her voice when she reads poetry can move me to tears. Her strengths are her great diversity of talents, her sense of humour, her charm. She is so many gifts, wrapped up in one person.

LALLA WARD: We met at Douglas Adams's birthday party on 14 March 1992. But I first saw Richard the previous Christmas, when he was doing his marvellous Royal Institution lectures on television. I'd switched on at random and was so fascinated that I quickly rang a friend and told her to watch it too. Richard has this amazing ability to explain difficult concepts.

I was living in my father's flat when we met. My mother had died in July the year before. She committed suicide, and I was still in a fairly fragile state. But my father encouraged me to go to the party. I arrived fairly early and Douglas came bounding across the room leading someone to introduce. It was Richard. I didn't recognise him at first; Douglas's parties are full of people you've seen and you think you should know. It began to fill up, and I said to Richard, 'This is the moment in a party when what I'd really like to do is skive off and have dinner', rather hoping that he would fall for that. He did, and we did. As we hurried out I remember thinking, please don't anybody stop us, I don't want to be stopped. I wanted to be with him, and I didn't particularly want to share it. We drove to an Afghan restaurant, and I have a mental blank over what we talked about. I know we talked for hours and I suppose we talked about all the sorts of things that make you think you like somebody by the end of that time. We didn't go back to the party, and Richard drove off to Oxford.

Next day I spent a rather fraught Sunday driving my poor father round the bend saying, 'Why doesn't Richard telephone?' He did, about 4pm, and my father breathed a sigh of relief. We arranged to meet the following week.

It sounds rather daft saying it was love at first sight, but I suppose it was. I think we both knew it was serious almost immediately. Richard was about to go to America to lecture and I was booked to go to the West Indies on holiday with a friend. I'm afraid I let her down badly by going off with Richard. We stayed in Boston with friends of his, and I spent the whole time thinking, I hope to goodness no one asks us how long we've known each other because it's going to look terrible if we say three weeks.

We went on to Duke University in North Carolina where Richard was to lecture. They asked if we'd like to see their lemurs and I jumped at the chance. I'm besotted with lemurs - I've drawn them for ages. It was quite nice because I could show off - I actually knew more species of lemur than Richard. Travelling together was such a nice thing for us to do so early on. You immediately get to know somebody better in all sorts of situations, and America always fills you with that kind of energy.

These past two years have been both the hardest and the best of my life. I've gone through such an unhappy time, losing both my parents. But meeting Richard was the most amazing piece of luck. So many things have changed. I've lost all my links with the past. I'm very sad and sorry that my mother never met him, but so pleased that my father lived long enough to see us married.

I had lived in London all my life, but I hadn't the faintest qualms about leaving. Richard has changed me in the sense that I'm happy. It's wonderful to be absolutely sure from the very beginning that something is right, to have no doubts or anxieties. We just hurled ourselves into it with innocent enthusiasm.

It terrifies me, the sort of touch- and-go of it - what if I hadn't gone to that party? Luck of that kind so hangs in the balance; it's such a minute thing. If my father hadn't said, 'Go on, go out', I really don't know what my life would be like now. I try not to think about it too much. It's too frightening.

(Photograph omitted)

Comments