The wild life of the Dur­rells

Larry swam naked, Gerry kept fish in the bath­room and bears roamed the gar­den — no won­der their poor mother turned to drink!

Irish Daily Mail - - It’s Friday! - LIBBY PURVES

BI­OG­RA­PHY THE DUR­RELLS OF CORFU by Michael Haag (Pro­file)

ANY fam­ily is a tapestry: wo­ven into its his­tory are flaws, tragedies and ad­ven­tures, glit­ter­ing fic­tions and jokes en­liven­ing the solid tex­ture of fact and the rips and darns of wider his­toric events.

Fam­ily sto­ries are worth telling, and this one is fas­ci­nat­ingly put to­gether by Michael Haag. For few fam­i­lies present such an en­ter­tain­ing patch­work tale as the Dur­rells, three of whose mem­bers were writ­ers.

The el­dest was cel­e­brated novelist Lawrence (Larry) Dur­rell, who wrote the Alexan­dria Quar­tet and the glo­ri­ous spoof An­trobus sto­ries of diplo­matic life.

The baby of the fam­ily was the nat­u­ral­ist and founder of Jer­sey Zoo Ger­ald Dur­rell, beloved for tales of col­lect­ing spec­i­mens in Africa and his mem­oir of their years in Corfu, My Fam­ily And Other An­i­mals (which in­spired the cur­rent ITV se­ries star­ring Kee­ley Hawes).

Their sis­ter Margo, teas­ingly por­trayed as a girl­ish air­head by her brother, but, in fact, a res­o­lute woman, had her own mem­oir pub­lished in 1995.

Haag draws on all th­ese writ­ings, but casts side­lights on the char­ac­ters (two, at least, were mis­chievous ex­ag­ger­a­tors) and cov­ers the more sober parts of their his­tory be­fore Corfu, us­ing di­aries, letters, friends and un­pub­lished notes.

Read­ing about the harder bits, you ad­mire their loy­alty, rack­ety, harm­less squab­bles, ex­as­per­ated tol­er­ance and, above all, an un­spo­ken bond of care for a fond, but frag­ile mother.

They were a colo­nial fam­ily liv­ing in the beauty and harsh­ness of In­dia in the Twen­ties. Louisa, the mother, lost one baby to diph­the­ria and gave birth to the next in a cholera epi­demic; there was the risk of snakebite, poi­son, ra­bies, lep­rosy and yel­low fever.

She had long pe­ri­ods of look­ing af­ter chil­dren alone amid the hot scents, jun­gle sounds and soft-footed ser­vants, while her hus­band built rail­ways.

There were also two pet Hi­malayan bear cubs. The young Gerry re­mem­bered: ‘Hav­ing our own bears was a won­der­ful thing, even though they did smell very lava­to­rial.’

Larry was away at school by then, but Margo and their other brother Les­lie would over­turn the bears’ bas­ket and shout: ‘Mother, the bears are out!’

Louisa would run to save baby Gerry, who’d be busy grub­bing in the dirt for slugs even then.

The chil­dren would eat ran­dom berries, ne­ces­si­tat­ing a visit from Dr Chakra­vati on his old bi­cy­cle to say: ‘What is the trou­ble today dear lady . . . Oh dear dear, cas­tor oil must be given to all!’

Les­lie, the sec­ond son, was dosed with chicken’s blood, ton-

sils were re­moved in a scrubbed din­ing room, while Margo re­lied on a se­cret bot­tle of holy wa­ter from Lour­des, given to her by a devout gov­erness, to stave off ill health.

But in 1928, their fa­ther died. Louisa, heart­bro­ken, con­tem­plated sui­cide.

They re­turned to an Eng­land they hardly knew; first Lon­don, then Bournemouth. Left mainly alone with lit­tle Gerry, Louisa took to drink.

At one point in 1932 she van­ished and his notes men­tion a ‘ner­vous break­down and rest cure’.

This cri­sis is never men­tioned in the mem­oirs, but is one rea­son the fam­ily moved to Corfu. Also, Gerry had been slapped at school and was re­moved aged nine, never to go again. Larry may have tired, too, of Lon­don life, where he ‘hymned and whored . . . play­ing jazz in a night­club, work­ing in real es­tate, tried ev­ery­thing’.

There he met his first wife, Nancy My­ers, an art school dropout, who re­ported that he ‘drama­tised ev­ery­thing — mad mother, ridicu­lous chil­dren, mother drunk throw­ing for­tune to the winds, hellish, fool­ish, stupid woman . . . bee­tles in the soup’.

Mother, in turn, threw her out of the Bournemouth house af­ter find­ing them in bed: ‘I’m not hav­ing Gerry cor­rupted.’

Two weeks later, she wel­comed Nancy back again and fed her de­li­cious cur­ries.

Ger­ald de­fended him­self, as the baby of the fam­ily al­ways will, with bursts of out­rage. When his el­dest brother emp­tied a sink full of in­ter­est­ing marine life in or­der to shave, he cried: ‘You — you — you AU­THOR, you!’

The Corfu years are told in My Fam­ily And Other An­i­mals and, while char­ac­ters are fa­mil­iar — their Greek pro­tec­tor Spiro, Theodore the nat­u­ral­ist, Ge­orge the tu­tor — Haag adds some use­ful mod­i­fi­ca­tions.

The fam­ily ar­rived in poor health and Louisa’s drink­ing was wor­ry­ing. It was a tough par­adise at first — they did not speak Greek and had trou­ble get­ting money sent.

HOME­SICK Margo wrote: ‘Don’t be­lieve a word they say about this smelly is­land.’ Larry says his sis­ter car­ried on like ‘a blue fart — says the heat is too much, flies too many, Greeks too in­san­i­tary’.

A few neigh­bours were ec­cen­tric — un­pub­lished writ­ings re­veal one man who kept the skull of his former mis­tress on his desk, and a lady who stored empty tin cans in a na­tive In­dian ca­noe hung from the ceil­ing.

But not every­one took to the Dur­rells. Larry and Nancy’s nude swim­ming shocked the lo­cal church so much that young men threw stones. A fel­low ex­pat de­scribes them as noisy, shout­ing ‘clowns’ who scan­dalised the es­tab­lished Brits of Corfu.

‘The Dur­rells were not mem­bers of the pro­fes­sional or of­fi­cer classes and were not gen­try. They associated with peas­ants and vil­lagers in a way that of­fended those be­low and above their sta­tion . . . they did not fit.’

World War II in 1939 drove them back to Eng­land. In the bomb­ing of Corfu, Spiro’s par­ents were killed and the town flat­tened. Back home, the young men were con­scripted (Ger­ald was sent to work on the land) and Margo, as a sin­gle mother, took in lodgers in Bournemouth. This book marks out the Dur­rells’ ter­ri­tory in the bold his­tory of bo­hemi­an­ism.

Fam­ily baby: Gerry in Corfu with his beloved crea­tures

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