How do I look?: Morris watching

Science writer and television presenter Desmond Morris is best known for his work on the way we communicate with each other through visual signals. Here, he discusses his own appearance

Provided I'm washed and shaved, that's all that really matters to me about my appearance. My wife can't get me to buy new clothes - she has to fight to get me to go to a clothing shop. I spend more money on old books. It dates back to when I became a scientist. You just begin to dress like a boffin. If you want to find the least colourful, least imaginative clothes, go into any laboratory. The point is, a scientist isn't interested in himself, he's interested in what is happening in front of him in his experiments, in his observations. Look at Bill Gates. If I didn't know who he was and I met him, I'd think he'd come to repair my computer, not that he ran the world's largest software firm. This is a very important change, historically: information about people's status in society is transmitted not by their clothing any more but by our knowledge of them through the media. Once, if you were a king, no one knew what you looked like, so you had to let them know how important you were through your personal appearance, your regalia.

I didn't used to be like this about my appearance. Back in the Forties and Fifties, before I became a zoologist, I was an artist. I caught the tail end of the surrealist movement and my clothing was very extravagant for the period, which was rather dour. In those days, I wore very bright clothes - like a red shirt with a yellow tie. When I met my wife I was having my first exhibition in London, with Miro, and I was dressed entirely in corduroy - corduroy trousers, corduroy jacket, corduroy shirt and a corduroy tie - and I remember it was very hot. I was in my Dali phase at the time and I was reading The Secret Life of Salvador Dali, which had just been published. Dressing in a strange way was part of our artistic rebellion.

I've never really looked youthful, and my hair's been like this since I was quite young. When I first appeared on television in 1956 they said to me, `Your hair's a disaster, you'll have to wear a toupee.' But I said to them, `I'm on live television with a chimpanzee and if you think I'm going to chase a chimpanzee around a studio trying to get back the toupee it's just taken off the top of my head, you're mistaken.' And then they said, `Your forehead's too big, we'll have to move your eyebrows up.' So I was sent to a make-up studio and they covered up my own eyebrows and put on a false pair. Finally I said, `This is ridiculous, I won't do it.' As far as I'm concerned, what I look like is not important, all that is important is that I convey to my television audiences my excitement and enthusiasm. I don't want to be given a lot of style, I want to be nondescript so that viewers concentrate on the subject, not on me. I have actually been thinking of having my hair shaved off for charity, I do get fed up with these wretched strands which I drag across my head, but I talked to a producer about it recently and he told me not to because it's become a kind of trademark.

I have never worn a ring in my life, or a bracelet or a medallion. I only wear a watch if I absolutely have to, if I'm going out and I'm going to leave my car on a parking meter. I like to have my arms and hands free of anything, it's a personal oddity that I have. I was watching the athletics the other night and almost all the sprinters had these little gold necklaces bouncing around on their necks - that would drive me mad. But although I don't wear anything, I am fascinated by things other people wear. What people don't realise is that virtually all jewellery started life as some sort of protective amulet. I've been collecting amulets and protective charms for years and I now have hundreds, like the Dream Catcher [pictured], which is used by American Indians to "catch" bad dreams.

I'm currently trying to lose weight. I always put on weight when I write, and I'm working on my third book this year - they were written back to back. Usually I manage to balance my life between my three worlds: painting in my studio, writing in my library and making television programmes. Working on location does keep you fit, because of the adrenaline and travelling. My weight has gone up and down on four occasions before. I can get it off, it's just a matter of eating less, which is a deprivation for me because I love food - for me it's an art form. I don't hold with all this nonsense about special diets, all you do is eat less and then you get thinner. At my age I'm less worried about looking overweight than about the health implications. When I was 40 I used actuaries' tables to work out when I would die and I calculated that it would be when I was 61. I'm 71 now, so I'm into extra time, and there's still so much I want to do and see.

`Body Guards: Protective Amulets and Charms', by Desmond Morris, is published by Element, price pounds 20

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey / South West London

    £22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

    Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey/ South West London

    £22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

    Ashdown Group: Recruitment Consultant / Account Manager - Surrey / SW London

    £40000 per annum + realistic targets: Ashdown Group: A thriving recruitment co...

    Ashdown Group: Helpdesk / Trainee Application Support Analyst - Hampshire

    £25000 per annum + pension, 25 days holiday: Ashdown Group: A highly reputable...

    Day In a Page

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor