They liked to mon­key around

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The Dur­rells’s ex­u­ber­ant life on Corfu masked a sad­ness, says Lewis Jones

Ger­ald Dur­rell’s My Fam­ily and Other An­i­mals (1956) is one of the great feel-good books, a work of the sheer­est es­capism. An ec­cen­tric fam­ily – the wid­owed “Mother”, vague and a lit­tle dotty, de­voted to cur­ries and gin; the sex-mad writer Larry; the gun-mad Les­lie; the diet-mad Margo; and the an­i­mal-mad Gerry – es­capes the cold and grey of Eng­land for an en­chanted isle, where they live in an at­mos­phere of bo­hemian hi­lar­ity.

Corfu in the Thir­ties was, as Gerry re­calls it in the book, “like living in one of the more flam­boy­ant and slap­stick comic op­eras”. He in­sists all his sto­ries about his fam­ily and such na­tives as the taxi-driver Spiro Ha­likiopou­los, who be­came the fam­ily’s fac­to­tum, and the bi­ol­o­gist-poet Theodore Stephanides, who be­came his tu­tor, are “ab­so­lutely true”. But as Margo said of her broth­ers, “I do not trust writ­ers”, and “I never know what’s fact and what’s fic­tion in my fam­ily.”

That is the start­ing-point of Michael Haag’s lat­est book, The Dur­rells of Corfu (Pro­file, £8.99). He knew Dur­rell, wrote about him in Alexan­dria: City of Mem­ory (2004), and is writ­ing a bi­og­ra­phy of him. In The Dur­rells of Corfu, for which he has been granted ac­cess to Ger­ald’s pa­pers and un­pub­lished au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, he cov­ers the fa­mil­iar ground while un­pick­ing the de­tails.

It turns out, for ex­am­ple, that Kosti, the mur­derer on leave from prison, was be­friended by Les­lie rather than Gerry, and that the Daf­fodil-Yel­low Villa was “ac­tu­ally a faded pink”. This is mildly in­ter­est­ing.

More so is the story of the fam­ily be­fore and after Corfu. They were all born in In­dia, chil­dren of the Raj. Mother – Louisa née Dixie – mar­ried Lawrence Sa­muel Dur­rell, who was an ex­ec­u­tive en­gi­neer of the Dar­jeel­ing Hi­malayan Rail­way, and they had five chil­dren, the sec­ond of whom, Margery, died of diph­the­ria.

They trav­elled across In­dia from one rail­way project to an­other un­til 1920, when Lawrence Sa­muel re­signed to set up Dur­rell & Co, which won a con­tract from the Tata fam­ily to build a tin-plate mill, an of­fice build­ing, a hospi­tal and work­ers’ houses in their model town of Jamshed­pur.

Ger­ald, their youngest, was born in 1925. Louisa main­tained that his first word, ut­tered when he was two, was “zoo”, and he said his ear­li­est mem­ory was of the “pun­gent smell of leop­ards and tigers” at La­hore zoo.

In 1928, Lawrence Sa­muel died of a brain haem­or­rhage. Ad­vised by her fel­low mem­sahibs that In­dia was no place to bring up four chil­dren alone, Louisa set sail for the strange country that was “home”. Two years ear­lier her hus­band had bought a big house in Dul­wich but it was ap­par­ently haunted and too ex­pen­sive to main­tain so, in 1930, she rented it out and the fam­ily moved to a base­ment flat in the Queen’s Hotel, Up­per Nor­wood, which was also said to have ghosts.

In Larry’s novel The Black Book, writ­ten six years later in Corfu and in­spired by Henry Miller’s Tropic of Can­cer, the Queen’s Hotel is cun­ningly dis­guised as the Regina Hotel, a “tomb of ma­sonry”, “crowded with ghosts”, and in­hab­ited by pros­ti­tutes, per­verts and de­gen­er­ates. At the age of five, Gerry was be­friended by a lo­cal pros­ti­tute, who took him to her flat and, when not dis­cussing busi­ness with vis­it­ing gen­tle­men in her bed­room, taught him the waltz and the Charleston.

In 1931 Louisa bought Ber­ridge House in Bournemouth, which was thought to be salu­bri­ous and brac­ing. It was a vast house, as Gerry re­mem­bered it, with “an in­cred­i­ble num­ber of bed­rooms” and “a herba­ceous bor­der slightly wider than the Nile”. Larry lived there for a while, un­til his mother told him, “You can be as bo­hemian as you like but not in the house. I think you had bet­ter go some­where where it doesn’t show so much.” So he moved to a bed­sit in Blooms­bury and worked for an es­tate agent, “col­lect­ing rents in the dis­mal purlieus of Ley­ton­stone” by day and writ­ing po­etry by night.

Gerry was taught to read by Larry – Lewis Car­roll, AA Milne, Ken­neth Gra­hame – and was sent to school. But he was bul­lied and, when he re­tal­i­ated, was beaten by his head­mas­ter, so Louisa with­drew him, aged nine, bring­ing his for­mal ed­u­ca­tion to an end.

Not men­tioned in any of Gerry’s books, or by the oth­ers, is Louisa’s ex­ces­sive drink­ing, or the ner­vous break­down she suf­fered in 1932, when she booked first-class tick­ets for her and Gerry to In­dia. At the last minute some­thing – pos­si­bly Larry – pre­vented her from sail­ing. After a spell in a “nurs­ing home – or wher­ever it is she went”, the fam­ily moved to a much smaller house in Bournemouth.

The open­ing of My Fam­ily and Other An­i­mals, which Haag cheer­fully mis­quotes, de­scribes a cold wet Au­gust af­ter­noon soon after that, with Gerry plugged up with catarrh, Les­lie deaf from an ear in­fec­tion, Margo blotched with acne, and Louisa sneez­ing from a mis­er­able cold.

“Your fam­ily looks like a se­ries of il­lus­tra­tions from a med­i­cal en­cy­clo­pe­dia,” Larry tells her. “Why don’t we pack up and go to Greece?”

“Very well, dear, if you like,’ says mother, un­guard­edly.”

Ac­tu­ally, as Haag re­veals, it was late au­tumn or win­ter, and Larry was mo­ti­vated by con­cern about his mother’s drink­ing. He was drawn to Corfu by the letters of his friend Ge­orge Wilkin­son, a writer, who had bi­cy­cled across Europe with his wife Pam, a painter, and raved about how cheap and sunny the is­land was. So off they went, to live in a se­ries of vil­las, all of which are still stand­ing. But Larry and Nancy (his first wife, never men­tioned in Gerry’s book)

Ger­ald Dur­rell doesn’t men­tion his mother’s drink­ing or her break­down

ac­tu­ally lived else­where. “We were ab­so­lutely mad on tak­ing off all our clothes,” Nancy re­called, and they were ad­dicted to swim­ming naked, dis­creetly, so as not to shock the na­tives, “who never even took their vests off in sum­mer”.

On one oc­ca­sion, though, they were no­ticed by a pri­est, who ral­lied the lo­cal vil­lagers to pelt them with stones. The black-and­white pho­to­graphs that il­lus­trate Haag’s book in­clude one of Larry and a vis­it­ing bal­le­rina sun­bathing naked on some rocks, and an­other, not for the squea­mish, of him and Henry Miller “bap­tis­ing them­selves in the raw”.

At the age of 10, Gerry wrote his first ex­tended prose work, The Man of An­i­mals, which Haag quotes in full: “Right in the Hart of the Africn Jun­gel a small wite man lives. Now there is one rather xtror­denry fackt about Him …”

As an adult he would, of course, write dozens of books, many of them best­sellers, to fund his zo­o­log­i­cal ex­pe­di­tions, and the zoo he set up on Jer­sey. The dif­fer­ence be­tween him and Larry, he said, “is that he loves writ­ing and I don’t. To me it’s sim­ply a way to do my an­i­mal work, noth­ing more”.

Haag ar­gues that Corfu healed all the Dur­rells of the trauma they had suf­fered in In­dia. Larry wrote a lyri­cal guide to “the landscape and man­ners” of the is­land, Pros­pero’s Cell (1945), and be­came a cel­e­brated poet and nov­el­ist. In 1962, after the pub­li­ca­tion of his Alexan­dria Quar­tet, he was short­listed for the No­bel Prize for Lit­er­a­ture but was de­nied it as the judges felt his work “gives a du­bi­ous af­ter­taste … be­cause of [his] mono­ma­ni­a­cal pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with erotic com­pli­ca­tions”. He mar­ried four times and died in France in 1990.

For the two non-lit­er­ary sib­lings, Corfu seems to have been the high point of their lives. Margo mar­ried an en­gi­neer for Im­pe­rial Air­ways flying boats, by whom she had two sons, and from whom she sep­a­rated. She ended up keep­ing a board­ing house in Bournemouth, where she died in 2007.

Les­lie had a son in 1945 by Maria Con­dos, the Greek maid who had ac­com­pa­nied the fam­ily six years ear­lier from Corfu back to Bournemouth. But he mar­ried Doris (not ac­corded a sur­name), a pub land­lady 11 years his se­nior. In 1952 they went to Kenya, where he man­aged a farm and then worked as a school bur­sar but was caught mis­ap­pro­pri­at­ing funds. In 1968, he and Doris fled back to Eng­land, where he worked as a care­taker at a block of flats near Mar­ble Arch. He died of a heart at­tack in a Not­ting Hill pub in 1982.

Gerry mar­ried twice and died in 1995. In 1967, when he vis­ited the is­land to make a doc­u­men­tary, he felt that Corfu had been ru­ined by tourism – and guilty that he might be re­spon­si­ble: “To­tal lack of con­trol,” he com­plained, “to­tal ra­pac­ity, to­tal in­sen­si­tiv­ity.”

He ex­ag­ger­ates, as usual. One can never re­gain a child­hood par­adise but the tele­vi­sion se­ries The Dur­rells, filmed on lo­ca­tion and soon to re­turn for a sec­ond se­ries, shows Corfu has kept its charm, if you squint a bit. And we’ll al­ways have the book.

In­side the hu­man zoo: Ger­ald Dur­rell with his wife Jac­que­line in 1957; left, the forth­com­ing sec­ond se­ries of The Dur­rells

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