Wolfgang Grulke

Northern Germany just after WWII was a difficult place to grow up, and when I was a youngster my family moved to South Africa, where I first learned to speak English. I always had an interest in art, but that was not a subject taught at my school, so I ended up doing maths and physics at university—thankfully, I appeared to be quite good at those subjects. I was a passionate collector of odd things even as a young boy.
For a while I was a DJ, and every few months I would fly to the UK to buy records (remember those?), which weren’t available locally. The destination was always the iconic One Stop Records in London, often meeting the music stars of the day including Hendrix, Clapton etc. London just seemed to be the hub of everything in the late ‘60’s. I think that must have spawned my love for all things ‘UK’. I love the unique English sense of humour, and the way it explodes in all areas of life and work.
I worked for IBM in South Africa, and after a few years I was sent on an international assignment to the UK, in the early 70’s. Subsequently I worked for them all over the world in research, marketing and management. But in the late 1980’s, at the height of apartheid, IBM were faced with an ultimatum from shareholders to leave South Africa. I joined a team responsible for negotiating the disinvestment of the IBM company from South Africa—we were given just a few weeks. This was ironic in many ways, as IBM had always been in the forefront of pushing against the apartheid regulations, with many black employees working in senior jobs that normally they would have been barred from.
We ended up buying the company. This was not a management buyout, it was an employee buyout. As a result, all of the more than 2000 employees were able to buy a part of the company—and they did. About 10 years later, after Nelson Mandela was released, we sold the company back to IBM at many times the price. Every employee benefitted from that strategy.
In the 1990s, I started a consulting network called FutureWorld. Over the next 20-something years this grew into a global team that helped senior executives in business and government to understand how the internet and advanced technologies were shaping the future. I spent most of my time travelling, in regular round-the-world tours, speaking at events and conferences, and writing books about the experience. The most successful of these, titled 10 Lessons from the Future, was translated into Spanish, Arabic and Chinese and became a staple at Business Schools.
The trouble with many businesses is that their perspective is so short-term—2 to 3 years max. To think further ahead you have to accept that there are very different alternative scenarios out there for you—and you have be prepared to believe that you always have a choice. That was our mantra. A US media company commissioned us in the early 2000s to help them understand ‘The Future of Television’. By then it had already become obvious to us that all broadcasting would eventually be digital and delivered via the internet to tablets and phones, but I don’t think that, at first, they really believed us. We took the job on the condition that no one could use the word ‘television’ in the project.
Being in charge of my own business gave me the freedom to choose what to do with my time, and the resources to become a serious collector. As a keen scuba diver I was always interested in shells and marine life. With shells, I soon realised that 90% of all the shells that have ever lived are extinct. That way I ended up interested in fossil shells and ammonites, and the fabled Nautilus.
Scuba diving took my wife Terri and I to some particularly remote places, such as the many islands of the Indian and South Pacific Oceans, where we met with a host of industrious and inspiring local tribes. I became fascinated by their art, and how they used materials like shells, teeth, feathers and beetle carapaces, to make spectacular adornments, currencies and charms. During lockdown, one of the projects I’ve been working on is a new book, Adorned by Nature, about their unique material culture. On one of our visits, Terri gave a local chief one of our airline ‘hospitality kits’—which included a razor, creams and cosmetics, comb and a ballpoint pen. He spread it out on the ground for the whole village to admire, and it turned out to be the most extraordinary thing he’d ever seen. In return, he gave us a 1 metre bunch of bananas plus a huge pottery head. Tragically, these were way too big for us to take back on the light aircraft we’d arrived on.
While my interests in marine life, fossils and deep time was developing, I realised that in the same way we think little about the future, we have very little perspective of the past either. As an example: “How long has life existed on our planet?” The answer is around 3.5 billion years, but the vast majority of senior school students answer between one thousand and one million years. The trouble is that the subject isn’t in any school curriculum, nor is the study of nature and its diversity. This is a complete change from Victorian times, when interest was astonishingly high. In some ways, my collection of fossils here is trying to recreate that Age, when curiosity thrived about nature and natural things. Everything seemed new and interesting.
Unending curiosity is something I have always had—things just intrigue me. It makes me sad to meet anyone without a sense of wonder, without a question or two. For example, the Nautilus has been around for almost 500 million years, is the precursor of all ammonites and is still thriving today. Look at a Nautilus fossil and it compares well with one living in the Pacific Ocean today. Nautilus has barely evolved at all. Why did an animal that didn’t evolve, outlive all those that did? What would Darwin have said about that? For me, asking “Why?” is the important bit. From intrigue to curiosity, to learning something new.
Fifteen years ago, my wife Terri and I took a week’s break in Lyme Regis. We had sort-of entertained the idea to settle in the UK, so we took the time to do some house-hunting. Our home in Oborne was the very first house we looked at, and Terri was saying we should buy it simply from looking at the brochure as we drove here from the coast. We knew nothing about this area’s fossil history, until our hosts in Lyme Regis exclaimed “You’ve bought where?! That’s amongst the most historic fossil collecting areas in the UK”. They talked about the Frogden Quarry and all the important ammonites that had been found there.
Once we moved in we discovered that the locals didn’t know of this fossil history either. Now though they have joined us on several local digs and many have an ammonite on the mantelpiece, some even have their own collections. Our own fossil collection here consists of several thousand specimens, amassed over 20 years or so, of examples from round the world. It documents the story of the evolution of life over the last 500 million years—just think, without fossils we would know nothing of the history of life. The collection is housed in a converted barn, and we can host interested groups of around 10 people. We usually ask for a donation to our local village hall charity. Like all collectors, I enjoy showing, sharing the collection with enthusiasts and chatting about the myriad of questions that they raise. Academics, collectors and museums from all over the world have visited—including Sir David Attenborough. After his first visit he wrote in the visitors’ book: “I am, truly, lost for words”.
The collection is documented in my Deep Time Trilogy of books—Heteromorph, Nautilus, and Beyond Extinction—each book focused on different aspects of the story of life—with fresh perspectives on life’s amazing continuity. We were delighted when the trilogy won the Independent Publishers Award for Best Non-Fiction Book Series in 2020. Due to lockdown, Terri and I had the pleasure to attend the award ceremony in New York’s Times Square—via Zoom!
One day, hopefully the collection will be housed in a museum, perhaps even local. For me, the collection and study of these extraordinary creatures from deep time has always been a personal project, a labour of love, which, judging by the international attention, seems to have become quite ‘important’—although perhaps in the whole scheme of things, ‘interesting and curious’ might be more appropriate words.