‘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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‘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 in Russian

When Gerald Durrell and his wife Lee visited the then-USSR to film Durrell in Russia, Gerald was surprised to be mobbed by fans of his books.

Durrell’s books were and still are immensely popular in Russia and other post-Soviet bloc states. Here’s a glimpse at the various editions of My Family and Other Animals.

1971 – paperback edition by Mir, Moscow.

The book is titled ‘Moya Semya i Zveri’, which translates as ‘My Family and Wild Animals’, translated by by L. Derevyankinoi.

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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.

‘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.”

Whatever happened to Leslie

Since I started this blog, I have received several emails asking me if I know anything about what happened to Leslie Durrell. Gerald Durrell writes about Leslie in such a compelling way in the Corfu trilogy that it is impossible not to wonder what happened to the hunting, shooting and fishing mad brother who so kindly built young Gerry a boat on Corfu.

Although all the other three Durrell siblings – even Margaret – wrote about their lives, Leslie did not, and never sought the public spotlight and one can imagine he would be surprised at the interest in his life.

Leslie is actually the only Durrell sibling that Lawrence mentions in his Corfu memoir, Prospero’s Cell, and Margo mentions him many times in her own, considerably less famous memoir, Whatever Happened to Margo?

Born in 1918, Leslie was the second-eldest Durrell sibling. When the Durrells moved from India to England after the death of their father, Leslie went to an English school but was apparently not happy there (neither were his brothers). On Corfu, though, Leslie felt at home, drank with the local peasants and hunted local game.

Leslie returned to England with his mother, Gerald, Margaret and the family’s Corfiot maid, Maria Kondos when the Second World War broke out. (Margaret, of course, soon afterwards went back ‘home’ to Corfu.) The Durrells settled in Bournemouth and Leslie tried to enlist in the army but was rejected on the grounds of ill-health, something that was a setback for him. Instead, he spent the war working in an RAF factory.

Shortly after the family returned to England, Leslie had a brief romance with the family’s Corfiot friend and live-in maid, Maria Kondos, that produced a son, Anthony. However, the romance was short-lived.

Leslie also had the Durrell artistic streak – he was a painter. This is how Margo describes him in her memoir, Whatever Happened to Margo?:

Leslie, that squat, Rabelaisian figure lavishing oils on canvas or sunk deep in the intricacies of guns, boats, beer and women

Margo refers to Leslie as having “the hint of an entrepreneur”, and he certainly tried his hand several businesses, but had bad luck. When he came of age and received the inheritance his father left him, he used it to set up a boat business, spending all his money on a fishing boat that sadly sank before its maiden voyage out of Poole Harbour, accordintg to Margo.

Leslie and Margo were close, with Margo recalling several of their childhood antics in her memoir. Leslie was a generous brother – Margo also tells the tale of how he saved a puppy from being put to sleep and brought it to live with Margo.

Two photos of Leslie, one with his wife Doris Hall

In 1952, Leslie married his long-term girlfriend, Doris Hall, whose family ran an off-license in Bournemouth. Doris, “big-hearted, big-voiced, laughing”, was older than Leslie, and the relationship was a happy one. Soon after the couple married, they left England to start a new life in Kenya, where they wanted to run a farm. Sadly, though, that business did not work out and Leslie and Doris were forced to return to England in 1968.

Leslie got work in London as a concierge in a smart Marble Arch hotel. In 1983, he died of heart failure while in a Notting Hill pub. It is rather tragic that none of Leslie’s siblings attended his funeral.

coiner of oaths and roaring blasphemies

Spiro and Gerry, with the ‘battered old Dodge’ in the background

Lawrence’s Corfu memoir, Prospero’s Cell, was published in 1945, eleven years before his younger brother Gerald’s more famous memoir, My Family and Other Animals. Though Gerald’s memoir is structured around his nuclear family, and Lawrence’s does not mention his mother or siblings (except for Leslie), there are several characters and situations that appear in both books.

Lawrence’s description of Spiro Americanos, the Corfiot taxi driver who became a friend of the family, is like a deft and beautiful pencil sketch compared with Gerald’s later comic caricature:

…his Brooklyn drawl, his boasting, his coyness; he combines the air of a chief conspirator with a voice like a bass viol. His devotion to England is so flamboyant that he is known locally as Spiro Americanos. Prodigious drinker of beer, he resembles a cask with legs; coiner of oaths and roaring blasphemies, he adores little children and never rides out in his battered Dodge without two at least sitting beside him listening to his stories.

In My Family, Spiro is a primarily a comic figure, and one that is constantly in the background: he drives young Gerry about, helps Mother with the shopping, and even brings the family’s mail. He’s often cast in the role of the lovable fool, a foil. If he has a life beyond the Durrell family, we don’t know about it: Gerald does not mention Spiro’s wife or children (though he must have met them) in any of his three Corfu books.

Here’s how Gerald describes the family’s first meeting with Spiro in My Family:

…we saw an ancient Dodge parked by the kern, and behind the wheel sat a short, barrel-bodied individual, with ham-like hands and a great, leathery, scowling face surmounted by a jaunty-tilted peaked cap. He opened the car door, surged out onto the pavement, and waddled across to us.

Look at the similarities in the descriptions: like Lawrence, Gerald also immediately associates Spiro with his old Dodge car; he is a “barrel” (compared with Lawrence’s “cask”).

Later, Gerald describes Spiro as a “great brown ugly angel”, who protects the family.

Lawrence, however, shows us a different side of Spiro, beyond his role as a character in the Durrell family saga. In Prospero’s cell, Lawrence recalls how Spiro once gathered flowers at 4 in the morning for the English wife of a seaplane pilot (one of the seaplanes Theodore so loved to watch land), near Gouvino Bay, close to the Daffodil Yellow Villa.

…it is the kind of little devotion that touches the raw heart of Spiro as he pants and grunts up the slopes of canon, his big fists full of wet flowers, and his sleepy mind thinking of the English girl who tomorrow will touch the lovely evidence of this island’s perpetual spring. Spiro is dead.

Spiro’s death “in his own vine-covered house” during the war is also recorded by Henry Miller in his Corfu travel book, The Colossus of Maroussi. Gerald never mentioned the fate of his Corfu friends, perhaps because he could not bear to.

Brian Blessed played Spiro in the 1986 TV adaptation of My Family