Encountering Desmond Without Warning                                                                                                  Posted 25th May  2013  

Sometimes the multitudinous cruelty of the world can ambush you in strange places at strange times.

I had come home from the pub, where I had imbibed perhaps more than was strictly necessary.  I was living alone at the time in a bedsit, not a jolly event in itself.  The tiny room around me was littered with failed attempts to write, papers that seemed as relevant to me now as the Dead Sea Scrolls.  I had thought of having a coffee but I knew that the cup that was fused to the mantelpiece would have such a residue of months-old coffee in it as might need a drill to remove it.  I decided to have a last whisky.  I sat down with my comfort glass for company and pressed the remote.

As the scene slowly resolved its darkness into visual clarity, I saw what looked like a small, furry vacuum cleaner on legs hoovering the ground with its snout.  A voice emerged which I recognised as David Attenborough’s, saying that what I heard as “Desmond” was looking for food.  I had already worked out the purpose of the activity but Desmond?  In my less than vividly alert state I was wondering (my language can sometimes become more McCawberish with every glass I take) if the estimable Mr Attenborough had become so familiar with the creatures of the wild that he was on first name terms with them.  Certainly I had seen him in a previous nature programme strike up a cosy relationship with some silver-backed gorillas.

With mounting awe, I watched Desmond abandon his fruitless search of dry land and plunge into a stream.  Another camera showed him sculling around underwater (or maybe this was just a relative – I couldn’t tell, although presumably David Attenborough could).  Desmond eventually found a worm which appeared to be wedged under a rock.  Being a mammal, Desmond had to keep kicking back up to the surface for air.  That worm was firmly fixed and was showing no inclination to dislodge itself.  But you had to feel that if it had managed to get the Taj Mahal on top of it, it wouldn’t have helped.  Desmond was up and down like a yoyo, pulling that worm out and letting it snap back as if it were an elastic band.  I thought I could almost see the worm trying to evolve hands so that it could hold them up and surrender.  By the time Desmond had pulled it to the surface and crunched it down, I felt the worm might be happier in his stomach.  At least it would get peace there.

‘Its hard-fought-for worm will now keep it going for another hour or so,’ David said.

I groaned for worms.  It didn’t exactly give them a lot of time for a fiesta.

I think I then heard David give some incredible statistic, something like Desmond having to eat his own bodyweight every day or something.  But I can’t be sure.  I was consulting a dictionary at the time.  I found nothing under Desmond but eventually discovered that a desman is ‘a molelike amphibious mammal having dense fur and webbed feet, found in the Pyrenees.’  But i think he will always be Desmond to me.

Meanwhile, the programme showed other creatures: aardvark, pangolin, giant ant-eater, bat.  Have you seen bats’ faces in close-up?  They make gargoyles look like George Clooney.

Watching it all, I had the thought that these creatures are so stupendously ugly because they’re the shapes of their appetites.  The ant-eater has evolved its grotesque snout because it fees on ants.  The bat’s face, it seems, is partly about hunting by night.  Throughout the programme the amplified sound of chomping jaws was deafening.

But the shock of Desmond was what remained most strongly with me: that such an insignificant and scruffy little bundle of fur should spend its entire life scouring the planet for creatures smaller than itself, so that it can eat them.  Is all evolution just raw self-interest constrained only by time and place and circumstance?  Including us?  It’s enough to make you wary of going out again.

Wasn’t life telling me something?  I seemed to have received some kind of cosmic message, a bit like a telegram.  ‘Apologies. Stop. Don’t leave building unless absolutely necessary. Stop. Seem to have overdone nature-red-in-tooth-and-claw idea. Stop. God.’  Something like that.

I had another whisky.

  e-mail: william.mcilvanney@personaldispatches.com                                                                    © William McIlvanney