They liked to monkey around
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 In The Durrells of Corfu, for which he has been granted access to Gerald’s papers and unpublished autobiography, he covers the familiar ground while unpicking the details.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