The Overloaded Ark (TOA) was Gerald Durrell‘s first book, written in 1953 after his marriage to Jacquie Wolfenden – who encouraged him to write to make money when he could not find work. The book chronicles a 1947-48 animal-collecting expedition Gerald undertook to Cameroon (then British Cameroon) in West Africa, accompanied by ornithologist John Yealland.
The image is the original Faber & Faber cover, depicting (presumably) Gerald, who is clad in something resembling a colonial-style pith helmet and a safari suit, as he wades through a jungle swamp, clutching a monkey (bear in mind nobody knew who Gerald Durrell was in 1953). We know he’s in Africa not just because of the jungle-swamp scene but because of the helpful line of almost-naked African men carrying spears in the background, patiently watching the pith-helmeted swamp-wading from the bank.
Jacquie describes the book’s genesis, and the birth of Gerald as a writer, in her own book, Beasts in My Bed, written in 1967 (and which is really a fan book about Gerald):
In between cutting up fruit and cleaning cages [my note -the newly weds spend three weeks looking after a Margate ‘seaside menagerie’ while Gerald, unsuccessfully, looks for work ‘in the animal line’] I had had time to concentrate on our future and an idea had begun to germinate. Larry Durrell was quite a successful author and had, from all accounts, always encouraged Gerry to write. If one Durrell could write and make money at it, why should another one not try? So began Operation Nag. Poor Durrell suffered. For days I went on and on about him writing something for somebody.
‘I can’t write, at least not like Larry’
‘How do you know you can’t write, until you try?’ and in sheer desperation poor Durrell began to put some ideas down on paper.
Later, Larry – who is visiting England with his wife Eve – steps in and Jacquie records that he offers advice (naturally):
‘Why on earth don’t you write a book about these dreadful trips you go on, and make some money for a change? After all, the British simply love stories about fluffy animals and jungles, and it’s so easy to do – you’ve got ample material and what-have-you.’
Unfortunately, unlike My Family and Other Animals, TOA is no longer in print (past editions, including first editions, are easy enough to pick up on Amazon and Abebooks), a shame because it is a well-written, witty, compelling and very funny book – and a really impressive first effort, especially from someone who (at least at the time he wrote it) claimed he was not a natural writer like his brother.
Unlike My Family, which although reflects the time period it covers, TOA has dated, mostly in the way it talks about Africa and Africans – such ‘colonial’ language particularly talk of ‘natives’ sounds strange and out of place today,* and obviously the idea of expeditions to Africa to trap wild animals (‘beef’) for zoos is unthinkable now.
However, none of that gets in the way of enjoying the book. TOA is first and foremost travel literature, a first-person trek through exotic landscapes (you could imagine bits of it serialized in National Geographic):
The straggling town lay along the side of the bay, filled with rustling palms, hibiscus and bougainvillea hedges glowing with flowers, and in every compound and garden stood sedate rows of canna lilies, like vivid flames on thin green candlesticks.
It’s a Boy’s Own Adventure replete with a manly young hero who thinks nothing of leaping on angry, wild crocodiles and wrestling them before bargaining for them with African hunters:
The crocodile was now heading for the forest proper, with bits of curry and wood ash adhering to his scaly back. Taking off my dressing-gown I launched myself in a flying tackle, throwing the gown over his head, and then winding it round so tight that he could not bite. I was only just in time, for in another few yards he would have reached the thick undergrowth at the edge of the camp. Sitting in the dust, clutching the crocodile to my bosom, I bargained with the man.
It’s situational comedy (with animals, of course):
The chief was a small, bewildered-looking little man, clad in a red and gold robe, an orange stocking cap on his head, and clutching to his breast an enormous and exceedingly angry duck. The council members, an unctuous, shifty-eyed crowd, steered him through the tangle of equipment to where I stood, and then pushed him forward to say his piece. He cleared his throat, took a firmer grip on the duck, and started. It was made as difficult as possible for him by the duck, who, tried beyond endurance, flapped its wings in his face, and quacked vigorously in a hoarse and complaining way. It was so large and strong that at one point I thought it was going to take off and carry the chief with it, but he mastered it, and continued his speech a trifle breathlessly, his stocking cap askew.
Incidentally, the back cover of my Penguin edition (a 1957 reprint – so a year after My Family came out – priced at 2’6 and clearly marked ‘Not For Sale in the USA’, and which has substituted the pith-helmeted monkey carrying hero cover for a bland and surely zoologically inaccurate line drawing of a tiny monkey grooming a completely different species [EDIT TO ADD: In the comments below, Matthew points out the following: :The species are different but in the book the baboon george allows a monkey of a different species to groom him so I take it that is what the image is of. I too have this edition.” ) includes a little autobiographical passage that sums up the later Corfu books neatly:
‘I was born in Jamshedpur, India, in 1925. When my father died in 1928 my family returned to England. In 1933, we went to live on the Continent, where I was educated by a variety of tutors of various nationalities. We eventually settled on the island of Corfu, where we lived until 1939. During this time I made a special study of zoology and kept a large number of the local wild animals as pets.”
*Although the language is dated with much talk of natives who wear loincloths, speak in simplistic, Pidgin English, and look up to the English Lords, I think Durrell does not patronize the African men and women he describes in the book anything like as much as more recent attempts to engage with Africa, such as ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas Time (At All)’ (answer – perhaps the Coptic Christians do but probably the Muslims don’t really care) and the frankly armpit-scorchingly embarrassing rhetoric of ‘Make Poverty History’, in which the poverty of an entire continent was miraculously and simplistically eradicated by a single pop concert and some cheap wristbands.
- Photos from 1957 Bafut expedition, Cameroons (whitemetropolis.wordpress.com)