‘I have had a most extraordinary affair of the heart’

At the end of July 1987, Gerald and his wife Lee flew out to Corfu to watch the filming of the BBC ten-part series of My Family and Other Animals.

Douglas Botting refers to the trip towards the (rather rushed) latter section of his (rather good apart from the rather rushed latter section) biography of Durrell, noting that the BBC had some problems with filming because Corfu had changed so much since Gerald’s idyllic childhood there in the 1930s.

On this trip, Gerald appears to have been so upset about the changes – something he remarked on during previous visits to Corfu (known colloquially as “Cor, Phew” in Britain in the  late 1980s, if my childhood memories serve)- that he was moved to write an article about the devastating effect of tourism on the island and its wildlife for the Sunday Times newspaper, published as part of its Impressions in the Sand travel series, around July 1987.

(Thanks to The Corfu Blues blog whose author very kindly sent me a photocopy of the article – you can read his take on it here and see a scanned image of the first page. The blog is well worth checking out in any case, as it has more insights into Corfu, Greek Islands and the Durrells, like this recent one about Lawrence Durrell and Cyprus.)

The article features anecdotes of the Durrells’ sojourn on Corfu – as one would expect – as well as some insights into Gerald’s failed attempts to ward off the tourist industry. There is a photograph of Durrell in 1987 during his trip to Corfu , plus some photos of Gerald as a child on the island, including one of him dressed up to attend lessons with one of his tutors.

Anyway, here are a couple of extracts:

I have had a most extraordinary affair of the heart. It started when I was eight years old and I fell deeply and irrevocably in love with a ravishing creature who was mature and beautiful. She gave me joy, brightness, freedom of spirit and opened my eyes to beauty, scents, colors, knowledge, love and laughter.

Her name was Kerkyra, the island of Corfu, and she is probably several million years old.

Going back to her recently was like paying a visit to the most beautiful woman in the world suffering from an acute and probably terminal case of leprosy – commonly called tourism.

It is, of course, ridiculous to expect the places of your youth to remain unchanged while you yourself get older and more withered but somehow, with land and seascapes, if they are untarnished by man you expect them to be immutable, like a beautiful painting.

“Never go back to a place where you were happy,” my brother Larry once said to me, and it is an offered fruit of wisdom with a kernel of bitterness enshrined in it, for have been back to many places where I have been happy and been happy again.

But the place that gave me the greatest joy and enchantment was Corfu and so I have been back many ties and suffered as I watched her demise.

Tourism is a curious modern disease. It attacks the shoeless man, the man of meagre wealth and the bloated man of affluence, whereupon it becomes an epidemic like the Black Death that stalked through Europe in the Middle Ages. It now ranges all over the world.

The people of Corfu were bless with a magnificent, magical inheritance, an island of staggering beauty, probably one of the most beautiful islands in the whole of the Mediterranean. What they have done with it is vandalism beyond belief.


We had only one horror of tourism in those days: the cruise ship – a sort of floating casino that used to arrive once a week, milk-white and crackling with tourists. I think it came from Venice, but maybe Trieste. As, hooting like a friendly drunk, she dragged herself to rest near Customs House, all of us old hands immediately went to ground. Those Corfiots who relied on this tourist convict ship for trade would put out hopeful and evocative signs that said SOUVOONEERS CHEEP or HERE WITHIN BEST BARGAINS HAPPEN, and the never-to-be forgotten IF YOU HAVE KNOW SANDILLS HERE WE SELL. IF YOUR SANDILL BROKE HERE WE REPAIR IT WITH LOVE.

Durrell’s description of how the tourists who invaded the island came in “two colour varieties -bright scarlet or fish-belly white” reminds me of the busloads of British tourists who would be disgorged onto Gibraltar for an afternoon visit during their holiday in Spain, and a gaggle of whom I once ended up on a dolphin-watching “safari” with. After we had sailed out, one gentleman, clad in an “England” shirt and wielding a can of lager, declared the trip to be “borin’, innit” and “not ‘alf as good as what we saw in t’Blackpool Sea Life Centre”.

7 thoughts on “‘I have had a most extraordinary affair of the heart’

  1. All this is true. All this has happened. I’ve been over it again and again – chatted happily about it with Jim and Maria Potts last February at Rouvas. The world is full of Lopakhins keen to buy and Ranevskayas who, through their own ignorance of domestic finance, have decided to sell. From L’s words in Chekhov’s play “Come everyone and see Yermolái Lopákhin lay his axt to the cherry orchard, come and see the trees fall down! We’ll fill the place with villas; our grandsons and great-grandsons shall see a new life here.” What remains of the island’s cherry orchards is yet amazing. What’s happened isn’t black and white the way Durrell writes it – the old man remembering a childhood idyll – isn’t bad or good in any easy sense. It’s both tragedy and comedy as Chekhov intended his wonderful play to be, and about which audience, directors and critics have debated since. Of damaged Corfu “If you want to find a place” advised my stepfather – familiar with rural change in the last 50 years – ‘be sure to choose somewhere already ruined”. That’s Corfu in 2012. I embrace with such gratitude the happiness that yet remains here; that we’ve found in this place. Its beauty, joy, love, light, come only in part from the precious remains of its ravished landscape – worst of all the littered shores – but from the people we know here.

      • I’d still like to know where the article appeared. When I saw Jim and Maria last year. We were debating among other things Maria’s cautionary and passionate parable The Pimping of Panorea. http://mariapotts.blogspot.co.uk/2009/03/pimping-of-panorea-abridged-and.html Of course it is about her island. I posed an ‘exam’ question for discussion into which we plunged into after the arrival of crusty bread and wine. ‘Is the architectural, environmental and spiritual desecration of Corfu offset by the alleviation of the material and mental poverty of its population?’
        We agreed the question one depended what you meant by ‘desecration’, and by ‘poverty’. No-one railing against the concreting of Corfu should be unaware of the historical record of poverty and injustice on the island. Lawrence Durrell gave passing reference to the fate of peasants – especially girls, and I mean ‘girls’ rather than ‘women’ – when they married. He did not celebrate picturesque poverty, but had another artistic agenda. He was not political until forced by war. Gerald, who eventually and admirably was, who cared for and learned so much about the flora and fauna of Corfu as a child – enchantingly described – reserves for most humans the role of serpent in Eden. Maria, of an old Corfiot family, speaks of her own land and fellow citizens, angered at the way they so abandoned themselves to the gold rush, like a farmer who overworks his fields, draining them of nutrients, making them sterile, facing just retribution.
        It need not have been like that. It wasn’t poverty versus ill-gotten gains. They could, with more love and attention and respect, have been well-gotten. We spoke of how the Scandinavian countries through good governance had remedied the deep poverty of their people in the early part of the 20th century; how they had planned the terms on which they would adapt to the tectonic changes of modernism and mechanization. But we also recognized all was no longer cosy in the Scandinavian welfare system. People yearn for a personal right to dispose of the income they pay in taxes for collective goods like health, education and care of children and the old. The juxtaposition in question one was worn out. There was another question to be framed, about how you manage social transition….

    • I visited Corfu in the mid 1980s. It was getting pretty bad then in respect of hordes of oafish tourists along the coast, but you could still find quiet places with Corfiot people, like in the middle of the island away from the beach. Meanwhile 30 or so years have passed; I shudder to think what it’s like now. The problem is that places like that attract the very worst kind of tourist. Tourists are always a complete pain in the neck, but those of them who visit the Greek Islands for cultural reasons are not so bad.

  2. And in response to other comments elsewhere – I intend to scan the entire article and put it up here so that people can read the whole thing, but it will take me some time because my scanner is not working and I am so very busy that I don’t have time to deal with it yet, sadly.

  3. As Gerry says, tourism is like leprosy. An incurable cancer that eats away the original idyllic beauty of the place in question. It may bring in money, but it destroys everything. It is a great pity that their native common sense apparently deserted the Greeks – whom I love very much – when it came to sacrificing their stunningly beautiful country to a parcel of ignorant uneducated barbarians from northern Europe. Other, more culpable parties include those who set up cheapo-cheapo air flights from Northern Europe to Southern Europe. Thereby opening the floodgates to mass tourism and total destruction.

  4. By the way … you must be in Greece (whitemetropolis), I posted my comment above at 20:26 CET but Greece is an hour ahead, so it appeared at 21:26!

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