‘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.

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Lawrence Durrell’s Irish ancestry

Historian and writer Michael Haag has a very interesting blog post about Lawrence Durrell’s supposed Irish ancestry. I’d recommend popping over and having a read and also a look at the photos, and while you’re there do peruse his archives for more Durrell-related stuff!

But the truth about Durrell is that he had good English roots on both sides of his family.

Haag is writing a biography about Durrell, which given his past work both on Durrell and on Alexandria looks set to be rather fascinating.

 

‘Can you help Gerald Durrell’s family document his life?’

Bournemouth photos from ‘Whatever Happened to Margo?’

This week, the Bournemouth Echo is running an appeal by Lee Durrell, Gerald Durrell‘s widow, asking for information on Gerald’s life in Bournemouth.

Together with Gerald’s nephew (Margo’s son) Gerry Breeze, Lee is organizing an exhibition on Jersey about Gerald’s Bournemouth days. The text of the Echo story is below, plus a link to the site. Anyone with information is invited to email Echo reporter Faith Eckersall, whose email address is given at the end of the piece.

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‘Durrell pasta salad’

A recent travel piece about Corfu from the Irish Times, featuring a review of the White House at Kalami, now a Durrell-themed tourist attraction, including a very special menu…

LAWRENCE DURRELL’S WHITE HOUSE sits at one end of Kalami Bay, its turquoise waters twinkling gently in the midday sun. It looks rather as he described it in Prospero’s Cell, his account of life on Corfu, that “brilliant little speck of an island in the Ionian Sea”, where he lived with his family from 1936 to 1939.

The red-tiled, three-storey, square house is indeed “set like a dice on a rock already venerable with the scars of wind and water”. Durrell fled England, whose culture and weather he loathed – “English death” he called it rather harshly – for his “unregretted” Greek island home.

A former fisherman’s house, it’s a rather simple building, yet utterly beautiful – sturdy and tranquil at one and the same time. You gaze upon it at the far end of the crescent-shaped beach and think: “My God, what would it be like to live there and write every day in the morning?”

It must be a little gold mine for the Atheneos family, Tassos and Daria, whose ground floor taverna spills onto the venerable rock on which the house stands, as well as on to the boardwalk jetty. From May to September, they are rarely short of customers. The upper floors of the White House, which Durrell helped the Atheneos family to build, contain rooms to let.

One imagines Lawrence would have been terribly amused.

Review: Amateurs in Eden

Finally – a chance to review (well, partially – I would like to write more later) Joanna Hodgkin’s biography of her mother, and Lawrence Durrell’s first wife, Nancy Myers.

I bought the book on Kindle, which saved me the excessive shipping costs, but as with all Kindle books loses out a bit when it comes to viewing the photographs. However, some of the photographs can be seen on Joanna’s fantastic website.

I imagine that many biographers become close to their subjects – if they did not feel an affinity with them before they began to write – but Hodgkin’s book is slightly different in that her biography of Nancy (it’s impossible to call her anything else!) is also very much a journey to understanding her mother. It is also a very touching and deeply loving tribute to a woman who, with almost “Stalinist efficiency”, as Hodgkin puts it, was almost completely airbrushed out of the Durrell family story.

Hodgkin succeeds, I think, in bringing Nancy to life as an individual, an artist, a woman and a complex, contradictory human being and not just a beautiful silent consort to a literary genius, a mysterious figure half-glimpsed through abbreviated allusions to “N”. This is not an academic biography, it’s very personal, a memoir and I do feel like I know Nancy, now!

She argues that Nancy was misunderstood, or at least misrepresented, either during her marriage to Lawrence Durrell or afterwards in memoirs.

It was particularly, Hodgkin says, during the time Nancy and Lawrence spent in Paris in the court of Henry Miller and Anais Nin that “gave rise to most of the misconceptions” about her mother.

“Several people commented on her silences and reserve,” Hodgkin writes, “and Betty Ryan, the young American artist whose flat they first stayed in, even went so far as to say she lacked ‘spark’ and kept herself aloof.”

People assumed Nancy was naturally shy and overshadowed by her vivacious, brilliant husband, Hodgkin adds, whereas the reality was “more complex” (when is it ever not?)

It was Larry, as Hodgkin calls him, who set out from the beginning to dominate the Villa Seurat – and who pushed Nancy back deliberately while fascinating his friends.

Nancy’s early years – particularly her time as a student in London before she met Durrell – are the most amusing section of the book, and show Nancy’s determination and resilience as well as her dawning realization that she is something of a beauty!

For those who read and loved Gerald Durrell’s Corfu books, then later realized ‘Brother Larry’ had a wife, the section of the book dealing with those years provide an interesting perspective – Hodgkin tries (and succeeds as far as possible) to plead her mother’s case and to give Nancy’s perspective. It’s clear that the Corfu years shaped Lawrence Durrell as a writer, and Nancy must have played an important role there.

Surprisingly, despite what Hodgkin calls Nancy’s “passion for honesty” and the fact that Gerald did not mention her at all in the book, Nancy was “charitable” to the memoir, according to Hodgkin.

Not just Nancy, but all women apart from Gerald’s sister Margo are excised from the story, Hodgkin notes.

“George Wilkinson appears as Gerry’s tutor, but there is no Pam [George’s wife]. Theodore is a childless bachelor and Larry never even has a girlfriend,” she writes.

While Gerald portrays his beloved mother as spending hours in the kitchen cooking up delicious, exotic meals for her offspring, Hodglkin tells us that Mrs. Durrell was often joined by Nancy and Pam. Perhaps the omissions are more a reflection on young Gerald’s adoration of his mother, who in his memory must have expanded to include all older women.

Interesting for me, also, that Nancy ended up in Jerusalem!

Anyway, I enjoyed Hodgkin’s writing, and would like to try one of her fiction books.

The story of a Bohemian marriage

Amateurs in Eden: The Story of a Bohemian Marriage, Joanna Hodgkin’s book about her mother, Lawrence Durrell‘s first wife Nancy Myers Durrell, is going to be released in three days, (according to Amazon.co.uk), in time for the celebrations of Durrell’s centenary  – and though sadly it will take me time to get my hands on a copy (shipping costs to Israel from Amazon are ridiculous), there are a couple of advance reviews to read in the meantime:

Hodgkin has created a website about the book, which is really rather good and has some nice photos of Nancy.

The Guardian gives the book a very positive review, saying it reveals a great deal about Nancy’s marriage to Durrell, but concludes that Nancy’s “strange knack for self-erasure” is present in the book too.

And if you are in the UK, the Durrell2012 website has a link on this page to a special discount that UK-based readers can enjoy for the book (scroll down to the image of the book’s cover on the left side of the page!)

‘Frothy, but witty’: Fillets of Plaice

Over the next few posts, I’m going to look at some of Gerald Durrell‘s lesser talked about books, i.e. those outside the “Corfu Trilogy”.

I’m going to start with Fillets of Plaice, collection of short autobiographical stories published in 1971, even though that is one of the later books. Mostly, though, I want to look at Gerald’s tales of his animal collecting expeditions, which he started to write after his marriage to Jacqui Wolfenden in 1951. Gerald and Jacqui, who had eloped, were living in a tiny bed sitter in Margo’s Bournemouth guest house and the couple needed a way to make money. It was Jacqui who persuaded Gerald to write, as well as his brother Lawrence, who helped connect him with a literary agent.

There seem to be several reprints of Fillets, with a large variety of covers. The latest shows a photograph of Gerry as a boy on Corfu, with Roger the dog; the edition I have inexplicably shows a large white parakeet.

Lawrence Durrell’s influence on Gerald and the close relationship between the two brothers is also apparent in Fillets, whose title is a parody of Spirit of Place, a collection of Lawrence’s letters. The two brothers decided upon that title, explains Gerald in the preface, as they shared a drink of retsina (of course) on Corfu (also of course).

The first four Fillets stories are chronological in order. The first, and I think the most successful, deals with the family’s misadventures during a cruise to mainland Greece during Gerald’s now-famous childhood on Corfu, and it really could have been taken from any of the Corfu books.

The next story, ‘A Transport of Terrapins‘, is set in 1939 London immediately after Gerry, his mother and brother Leslie returned from Corfu. In his typical manner, Gerald includes a dialogue with Larry, in which his older brother backs up his decision to take a job in a pet store, although Larry did not return to London with his family.  For me at least, the sense of magic realism with which Gerald imbues his stories of Corfu (where anything can happen!) works rather less well in a London story. The row of shops tucked away off Kensington High Street and all resolutely not selling anything sounds rather unlikely, although it makes for a nice yarn. (And there is not, to my knowledge, a Potts Lane near Kensington High Street.)

The next stories deal with Gerald’s adventures in Africa and his sojourn as a patient in a nursing home after being diagnosed with “overwork and over-worry”.

The final story, ‘Ursula’, jumps back in time to Gerald’s life in Bournemouth after returning from Corfu, where the late teenage Gerry is surprisingly sophisticated when taking his girlfriend, Ursula Pendragon-White (the Miss Malaprop of the South Coast) to restaurants and concerts.

A contemporary review of the book in a 1971 copy of the Sydney Morning Herald describes Gerald’s style as “frothy” but says his “story line is starting to wear a bit thin”. I can see where that attitude is coming from, for while Fillets is definitely laugh-out-loud in parts, some of the stories (particularly the Africa one) are less successful.

“He has been smart enough to realize that his slightly oddball family are a viable writing proposition too,” the reviewer continues. “And he has been an able enough writer to make his light-hearted verbatim reports of family activities into best sellers.”