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BBC sounds, music, radio, podcasts. Hello, I'm Lauren Laverne, and this is the Desert Island Discs podcast. Every week I ask my guests to choose the eight tracks book and luxury they'd want to take with them if they were cast away to a desert island. And for right reasons, the music is shorter than the original broadcast. I hope you enjoy listening. My castaway this week is the entomologist, explorer and broadcaster George McGovern, a naturalist for over 40 years, he's enjoyed a lifetime of adventures that are the stuff of childhood dreams is lodged up.
A tree with Gibbons in Thailand discovered new species in the rainforests of Borneo and observed the nocturnal jaunts of Chilean vampire bats. Yet unlike others in his line of work, he is equally happy on expeditions that rather than taking him away, take him within. He spent a year exploring the mysteries contained in a single English oak tree, created a mock house full of decomposing rubbish at Edinburgh Zoo to study the cosmos of bacterial life. He's made it his life's work to uncover the mysteries of the largely uncatalogued animals that make up an amazing 77 percent of life on Earth.
Invertebrates, he says, everyone wanders around looking for the blackbirds and owls. But the interesting stuff is the things you can barely see. If I had a load of money, I would buy a hand lens for every child under the age of 10 so they could look at insects, bark and flowers. George McGovern, welcome to Desert Island Discs. Thank you very much. So, George, you do sweat the small stuff. How would you make the case for creepy crawlies to budding naturalists who have yet to be convinced of their charms?
If you want to find out about the natural world, looking at insects and other small creatures is definitely the way to go. We don't know anything about them at all. We've only described them a million. There are probably eight million insects alone undescribed. There are 20 thousand species of bees on earth. I mean, everybody knows about the honeybee, but there are thousands of solitary bees and other bumblebees and other things that pollinate the majority of the world's flowering plants.
And without them, we would have no fruit, no nuts, no seeds. We would lose a large amount of our food.
We'd be reduced to eating grasses and stuff. So the fact that we have a rich diversity of of species and food on earth is largely due to be.
So that's just one organism. But there are many, many other insects that are incredibly useful. And of course, they are the food of the world. Most higher animals eat insects. I mean, a bloated chick will eat thousands of insects. And it's like a bat, a single bat, a tiny bat flying in the evening may eat 10000 small flies and moths. The ecosystem would simply collapse, simply collapse like a pack of cards. And that's why we have to we have to sweat the small stuff.
We don't sweat the small stuff. The big stuff is going to come tumbling down.
So, George, the beauty of your approach is that, of course, you can make discoveries everywhere. But, you know, does that does it mean that you're always on if you if you're always searching for an intriguing specimen or what might pop up anywhere?
Yeah, I'm always on basically. Yes, I'm stretched. I'm like a spaniel, basically, you know, and they don't have off switches.
I read in early school report of yours a great quote from it. George needs to concentrate more. A fly going past would distract him. How prescient.
I remember, though, that I think it was in class five. Actually, I got that one. And of course, absolutely.
And I continue to be distracted by flies going past and with very good reason.
Let's dive into the music then. Desk number one, what are we going to hear and why have you chosen it today?
This No one is reign over me by the WHO. The mid 60s was a time when I was at school and were very busy and unified, wanted to be a or a rocker.
It simply wouldn't have been allowed. I just think the WHO one of the most amazing groups and I picked it because I want to hear it.
If I'm on this island for any degree of time, any length of time, I want to have things that I can hear over and over again on.
Love rain over me, the who. So George McGovern, you were born in Glasgow and grew up in Edinburgh. Your parents are both artists. Was it a creative household then?
My parents were all painters and watercolors and they did sculpture and stained glass. So, yes, it was extremely arty. Not bohemian, though, I have to say.
OK, so explain that distinction for me.
You can throw out any sort of caftans and multipartisan.
No, it was it was a pretty sort of standard middle class thing.
How would you describe your relationship with your parents? Difficult. My father was very authoritarian to me, and he used the strap or the taus, as it was called, which is a hideous implement, which was used on occasions on me, particularly with my only OMEIR, only on you and only me. And I did.
I did rankly really did. I don't know, of course, because he isn't around anymore, but I think he was embarrassed about my, my stammer and he, he would make allusions to it on occasions.
I remember being about 10 and what I wanted for Christmas was a Timex watch because there were adverts on one TV Ticketek a time at the time and I wanted one.
And I asked my father said, can I have a watch? And he looked at me and said, George, you can have a watch when you can speak properly. Oh, and I knew I just knew that I would never have a watch because I couldn't imagine a time when I could speak properly.
And even to this day, I could go out tomorrow and buy a I know Maiga or a Rolex or any expensive watch I chose to buy if I wanted to.
But deep down, deep down inside me, my 10 year old heart says, well, you shouldn't really have that, George, because you can't speak properly.
So that's still with you. So with me. Yeah. After after all these years.
So you had this very difficult relationship with your your dad. What about your mum?
What was her attitude? I overshadowed by my father I think.
In what ways is how I would say, well, I wish I'd got to know them a little bit more. Perhaps perhaps it was me. I don't know. But John, my my older brother, four years older than me and and who is my twin? I don't think they had the same experience that that I did, you know. So your experience of what happens to you is very individual.
OK, George, let's take a moment for some more music. This is disc number two. Tell us about this track. What are we going to hear?
Well, this is the dark island. This is a theme, an aire
played on the Great Pipes, which was the theme to a 1962 TV drama series for kids of the same name.
And it was a whole it's a haunting, haunting er and I watched the program, I think it was on every week or something, and I'm hoping if I get anybody trying to invade the island I can play the pipes and they will retreat.
The dark island, the pipes and drums of the Black Watch. So George McGovern, there was so little understanding of speech disorders in those days. And the mistaken assumption of many people was that, you know, they could be overcome somehow.
Come on, snap out of it. Just sufficient effort was put in by the exercise, by the person suffering. Was that was that your parents attitude?
I don't really know. I mean, I know that it got to such a point when I was about 14 that I it was virtually not worth speaking. And in fact, for about a year, I was a self-imposed mute. So I would you know, I'd be out in Edinburgh. I would always have a pad of paper and a pen. So if anybody asked me something that I really had to answer or had to write, I would write it down on that piece of paper.
But eventually, you know, something had to be done. And I was dispatched to the Edinburgh School of Speech, which I attended every week for about a year, I think.
What help were you offered there? One of the things I had to do end was school of speech, which was utterly terrifying was the phone, the telephone. I could not use the telephone, not in a million years. I mean, it was just one that it was an instrument of utter torture, I might answer, but I wouldn't say anything. But it was on my own. So every Tuesday I had to ring Waverley Station in Edinburgh and I had to inquire about the train to Leeds and I'd say, yes, can I ask between these and there, where does it stop?
And is there a buffet car and how much is the fare? First class and second class.
And week six, I was getting the hang of this. You know, I was getting easier, you know, so I was I was on the phone and the speech therapist was there beside me and I was going, hello, could I inquire about the train to Leeds? And this voice came in and the funny thing had been bloody gone.
Yet I just I froze, like, every every muscle just went into spasm and and I my face went white.
And the speech ever said, what's wrong? What's wrong?
I mean, you're laughing about it now, but it must have been so traumatic at the toxically traumatic.
Utterly traumatic. Despite everything that you were dealing with. Apparently, you were always a bit of a showoff.
Yes, I know everything. So he's got stammer. He'll be shy and retiring. He'll be introverted. Well, no, not really.
OK, if I hadn't had a stammer, I would probably have been an actor, which would have meant I'd have been out of work for 80 percent of my adult life because I do like an audience. And my cousin Leslie said to me, what are you going to miss if you're on this island? And I said, Oh, I don't know. And she said, I know where are you going to miss an audience.
And she's probably right. It's time for some more music desk number three. What have you chosen?
Well, I've chosen Edward Elgar's Cello Concerto, played by Jacqueline Dupré, because it is just so hauntingly beautiful. I love all of Elga stuff and I can see me having this on ad nauseum.
Edward Elgar's Cello Concerto in E Minor Jacklin to play with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir John barbarously. So George, you're about eight or nine when you really started to develop an interest in the natural world. Can you remember the trigger?
I remember Anambra program and I've tried to find it again, but I can't find it. It was a sequence about a garden spider and the male spider was just about to mate and it was just captivating. And he was saying and the male spider charges his pulps with sperm and advances towards the female.
And I was just, oh, my God, not only was it about sex, which I only vaguely knew about, but spiders were doing it.
I mean, I thought, wow, this is this is cool. Yeah.
So you were hooked. How did you explore your interest? Where where would we have found you? Well, you know, on school holidays, the family would would pack up and we'd head off to the West Coast to Kintyre or Irun or sometimes on on the East Coast. And that's pretty much how I spent my holidays.
One of the most beautiful things to do is just to get there and lie on a rock and just stare into a rock pool or just lie on a piece of grass, head down Hanlon's if you have one, and just park the grass and just look at everything that's going on in there. It is. It's a different world. It's but it's our world.
Well, your passion stayed with you and you enrolled at the University of Edinburgh to read zoology. And the seeds of your future career were planted there when you went on a field trip to the West Coast of Scotland. What happened?
We had a week away. It was absolutely glorious. And all my classmates and I mean all of them were looking for badgers, owls, eagles, anything with the spine, anything with feathers or fur.
And of course, it's not that easy to find them.
We're at our feet where literally hundreds of thousands of ants doing amazing things.
And I just thought, why are you wasting your time hanging about waiting for eagles, vampires?
When are all these things that your feet I know that your relationship with your parents didn't improve and eventually you felt you could no longer allow them to be in your life. You cut yourself off from them.
Was it freeing to be where I was? I was 40 and I remember this distinctly because it was the last time I spoke to either of my parents and I was on this one of these awkward calls home, you know, how are things? Just fine. How are you feeling? And of course, I was stammering because you always I always stammered much worse with my father than anybody else.
SAnd he went, you know, George, you're really going to have to do something about that stammer. You're never going to get anywhere unless you do something about that stammer.
And I hung up, I, I didn't say anything.
I just put the phone down because I in my head, I was going, I've got a job at Oxford University. I've written three books. I have a beautiful wife.
I have a child. I have a daughter of my own. I am doing very well. Thank you.
How dare you. How dare you say that? And I knew that I would never speak to him again. And it was liberating. Yes, it was freeing.
Let's take a break for some music I need to break and exhausted.
What are we going to do next?
Well, this singer, I have only I only had it for the first time about two years ago, but I just went, oh, my goodness, she's got a gorgeous voice. And this track, I think I would play in the evening.
I'm Phil Knight, Lament by Kate Roseby. So George McGovern, you moved to London after you graduated and you were offered a PhD position at the Natural History Museum. How did you get it? Yeah, very strange.
I was walking down Bucklew place in Edinburgh and I walked past the Edinburgh coroner's office, you know, University of Edinburgh office. And I went in and I said, Hello, hello, I'm George McGovern. He said, hang on a minute. I'm I'm on the phone. He said, What do you do again? I said, I'm a zoologist. It's OK. Hang on. Yes. Yes, I have a candidate right here. Yes. Yeah.
AOn the train. Yes. He can come down on the train. He's going to get train train tonight. I get on the train. I'm going. Yeah. He was on the phone to the NHS Museum. The Natural History Museum here were offering students tips and I was going to be interviewed the next day for ten of them on the strength of absolutely nothing.
The fact that the guy I just happened to walk in when he was on the phone to them and I was dispatched off on the train, first time I'd ever been on the train all the way to London. Just a different world.
Just a different world. You met your wife Lois, a few years later when you were working for Imperial College, is a research assistant based at Sellwood Park. And you proposed just two weeks after you met. Oh, yeah.
I just knew, you know, one of those things I mean, when you meet the right person. Oh, that's it being.
And after a couple of weeks, I said, you know, what might you consider, you know, possibly marry me? And she went, I don't know. I don't know. I'll think about it sort of thing. And then five years later, I'm still going, oh, marry me, for goodness sake.
Look, look, I said, look, if you marry me, I will bring you a cup of tea in bed for the rest of your life.
And she paused and said, OK, why didn't you tell me I was it?
And I have to be fair to myself, I have kept my promise, except that I'm aware, of course, ever since I was since George in 1984, you got what you called your first dream job as assistant curator of entomology at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. So is everything your heart desires?
Why biology? Finding out about the natural world, working out how it worked? That was really the only thing I wanted to do. You were in charge of the collections you could do teaching, you could do research, you could do pretty much anything you wanted to do. It was utterly glorious.
And I do remember saying, and I don't believe, of course, in God or any gods, but I do remember leaving the interview and saying to myself, you know, if if if I get this job, I will be a very good boy the rest of my life for your next desk.
What are we going to hear and why have you chosen this one?
How a person's voice sounds to me is very important indeed.
And when I proposed to my wife, she did say to me that there were three men with whom she would elope if the opportunity arose. Richard Burton was one of them, Anthony Hopkins and Attenborough.
And I said, why those range? What is the voice is the voice is just so wonderful. Richard Burton has one of these voices. And on the Melwood, the 54 recording with him, I would have to take him island because you could just listen to that again and again and again to begin at the beginning.
It is spring moonless night in the small town, starless and Bible black, the cobbled streets silent and the hunched quarters and rabbit wood limping, invisible down to the slow, black, slow black crow black fishing boat bobbing. See, the houses are blind as mules.
The mules you find tonight in the snotting to begin at the beginning from under milk wood by Dylan Thomas read by Richard Burton. Sir George in 2007, after many happy years in your tenured post at Oxford, you chose to resign. Why? Oh no.
Did crazy, huh? Well, I realized I was on the way home on a Friday night and I realized that if I had a tutorial class, I would have an audience of one, two, three or four.
I sometimes did cruise ship talks, which I don't do anymore, but you might have an audience there of 400, but if you did something on television, you might get an audience of four million. So I got home, had a beer and I typed out my thing. This saying the director, I resigned my post forthwith, bloody bloody blah handed in the next day. And to my eternal shame, I did not tell Lois for. Six weeks.
Oh, no, I know, I know it was I didn't go down, it didn't go down well, I did not go down well.
So you made the leap, your second dream job, television, and it offered you the opportunity to travel to remote areas of the world from volcanoes to rainforests. You know, you'd made your first trip to the rainforest in Papua New Guinea, I think, when you were in your 20s. Yes, I was 28 or so.
And I got it completely wrong. I had all the things you can do wrong. I did I was very excited, like Darwin or Wallace on their first trip to the rainforest. And I just parked the jeep up somewhere. I thought, right, I'll just walk on a straight line for an hour and then I'll come back and I'll make a little mark with my knife in the edge of trees on the right hand side. I'll turn around, I can fold them back out.
And that was it. So off I went for now, finding stuff. Oh, my God. Look at that. Look at that. Look at that. Oh, God. What's this? Oh, and eventually after an hour, I turned around to come back. I couldn't find any mark on any tree. Wandered about in the circle clearly last for about five hours and it was becoming dark and there were things going on.
I had no food with me. I didn't take water. I hadn't told any where I was going. We had no cell phones, no days, no GPS disaster, total disaster.
Luckily, you lived to tell the tale. And no matter how many trips you've made since the thrill of discovery must never leave you. Can you describe what one of those moments is like?
One of the things that you will always get on these trips is diarrhea. Eventually, I mean, you'll spend at least a quarter of your time on a toilet or wishing you were on the toilet. And it was on one of those days that all the crew went off to film something large and hairy. And I was in camp when a spider came down on a thread about six inches from my nose. And I looked at it and it looked at me and I said, You're a new species, aren't you?
I haven't seen anything like you ever before. And what was different about it? Well, it was an ant spider, so it looked so like an and it's so it looked so incredibly like an ant that if it hadn't had a silk thread coming out of its back end, I would have sworn any money I had that it was an ant. That must be just the biggest thrill.
It is exciting. It is very exciting. And I knew in that very instant when this thing was just dangling on its thread in front of my face, I was 100 percent sure it was an undescribed species of spider.
It's time for some more music, George. Disc number six. What is it?
I love Pink Floyd. And one that I had that made a huge impact on me is keep talking, which has the voice of of Hawking on the track. For millions of years, nothing like the ethical. Keep talking by Pink Floyd. So George McGovern, not all of your programs have been in far flung exotic locations, some of them haven't even been about the natural world in 2018. You were diagnosed with a rare form of melanoma. And the following year, you made a documentary about your experience called A Year to Save My Life.
Why did you want in that situation, which must have been so stressful and such a time of uncertainty to turn the camera on yourself?
A lot of people said, oh, that's very brave of you, George, but actually wasn't brave. What it was, was a way of my dealing with it almost. I was becoming an outsider. I was viewing it from the outside.
And just to tease apart, the science was wonderful. And at the end of making the film and I wish we'd begun a bit earlier, I felt at peace with it because I knew that all that could be done, that was being done.
And I know two years in, I'm on these amazing drugs, which I've been on for two years.
They're still working and I'm still I'm still going.
And you are, of course, such a great advocate for appreciating the richness of the environment that surrounds us.
You know, whether it is something that we might not see is beautiful or interesting or just something that we might walk past without realizing, is that an ability that anyone can learn or develop or are you born with it, do you think?
Just walk slower, walk slower. People go for a walk and the power walk past lichens and fungi and all kinds of wonderful stuff.
Just OK, have a power walk. But every other walk you do go really slowly and just look carefully at bark. You look at the moss, all you got to do is just go slower.
No slowing down for us now though, because we've got to get to more desks and No.7, what are we going to hear?
Very appropriately, this is alone. Lost, abandoned from an opera by Puccini, performed by the legendary, the one and only Maria Callas.
Up until I was 40, I thought opera was the complete and utter waste of time. And I don't know why I thought that, but I just thought, what are they thinking about? Are they singing about their shopping list, getting their underwear? What? I don't know. It's all ridiculous. And then suddenly, like a switch was thrown. And after I was 40, I realised I understood opera.
It's about the human condition. It's about love and death and hate and longing and all the things that we feel.
Oh, oh. Need. Alone, lost, abandoned from Puccini's opera, Mona Lesco performed by Maria Callas with a Philharmonia orchestra conducted by Tullio Seraphin.
So George McGovern, we live in environmentally challenging times. How optimistic are you about the future?
Not I oscillate between feeling optimistic one day and then feeling completely the opposite the other day. OK, we've got a bear in mind is that we as a species have been around on Earth for a vanishingly short time. And if you look at the fossil history, the amount of time spent on Earth by any large species is between one million and 10 million years. We're not going to be going on forever. There will come. Our time will come. We are, unfortunately, in my opinion, hastening that end by our own actions.
And that is the thing that we're just not addressing.
George, I know that you take comfort from the story of a micro animal called, I think the tardigrade tardigrades.
Tell me why.
Why do they console you when you worry about this kind of thing?
The tardigrade is a wonderful little arthropod that lives in soil, in mosses and wet areas. They are indestructible virtually. They've been sent into space. When they become dry, they form a very resistant state called a tonne, which can be heated up to above 100 degrees. I think just they can be frozen in liquid helium and then you can put them in a droplet of rain water and within half an hour they have rehydrated and are wriggling about again. If we could unlock the secrets of the tardigrade.
Wow, it won't happen, of course. But I mean, I think when the end comes, when the end comes, when we are no longer around, which will happen, it isn't a question of if, it's when there'll be plenty of tardigrades around.
You've experienced a lot of discomfort on your travels. You've been cooped up in a hollowed out tree in total darkness, been at the mercy of leeches, been stung, scratched. George, I'm imagining that our desert island will hold no fear for you.
The desert island will be rather nice, actually, by comparison, it'll be rather nice.
What do you think you'll miss?
Well, obviously I'll miss my wife and the grandchildren, Louise and Ambrose, Sam and Emma, because watching them growing up and finding excitement in the world is an utter joy.
But, you know, I don't miss having an audience.
But before you go, we've got one more disc before we send you away to the desert island. What are we going to hear next? And why have you taken it today?
Despite the fact that I love a jungle. I do love a jungle. I'm drawn to Finland and Sweden and Norway, Arctic things. And there's a piece of music I had a couple of years ago, a few years ago by a guy from Finland called Brattleboro. And this is a concerto for birds and orchestra.
And supposing I don't find anything on this island, this track recorded near the Arctic Circle in a bog will just take me transport me completely to these cool, gloriously bleak and rather wonderful habitats.
The bug from Qantas Arctica is composed by Angel Juhani Rotavirus with the Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Max Pommer.
So George McGovern, I'm going to send you away to the island. I will give you the books, the Bible, which I don't want, actually.
That's all right. I'll take it for other things. OK, the Bible and the complete works of Shakespeare. You can also take one other book. What would you like?
I'm going to take the history of the World in 100 Objects by the wonderful Neil MacGregor basically explains in 100 objects how we came to be here, how we how we are, why we are.
You can also have a luxury item.
What you fancy, hot sauce, hot sauce, sauce, and I'll tell you why. Yeah, I don't know what's on the island to eat, but from my expeditions I've eaten some pretty rum things and had to on occasions and a bit of hot sauce will make just about anything edible.
Absolutely. It's yours. And finally, which one track of the eight that you've shared with us today, would you say from the waves of Yatta?
I think it would have to be the Elga George McGovern.
Thank you very much for letting us hear your Desert Island Discs. Thank you very much.
I hope you enjoyed my conversation with George, and I hope he manages to find an audience, possibly some receptive dolphins somewhere on the island, over the years, we've cast away many zoologists and biologists, including Desmond Morris, Professor Alister Hardy, Dean, Miriam Rothschild and Dr. Richard Dawkins. You can hear all of their programs on the Desert Island Discs website and on BBC sounds. Next time, my guest will be the activist Malala Yousafzai. I do hope you'll join us.
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