‘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.

Continue reading

‘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.

whatever happened to nancy – II

A few more snippets about Nancy Myers, Lawrence Durrell‘s first wife, ahead of the publication of a new biography about her by her daughter, Joanna Hodgkin.

Lawrence Durrell with Penelope, his daughter with Nancy Myers (Life)

According to Durrell’s friend Alan G Thomas, Durrell met Nancy after he moved to London from Dorset in the 1930s; the young Durrell wanted to live a ‘Bohemian life’ and had a number of odd jobs in London including as a pianist in a jazz club called the Blue Peter. Nancy was an art student at the Slade, and for a while the young couple ran a photography studio together.

In a 1962 memoir (cited in Spirit of Place), Durrell had this to say about his early life with Nancy:

I had moved to London at the behest of my mother who, tired of my antics, said one day: “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 as much.” So I left Bournemouth to study Bohemianism at first hand. I had some help in my researches from a young and beautiful student at the Slade School whom I married, but while we weren’t actually starving money was short, so she went on the stage as a temporary measure.

According to Thomas, Nancy was indeed a beautiful and striking young woman:

>Nancy was a striking and beautiful girl, very tall and slim, with a clear white complexion and light blonde hair; more than once I have heard people in the street call out as we passed: “Look – Garbo.”

But Nancy did not get to tell her own story; she is merely ‘N’ in Durrell’s Corfu memoir Prospero’s Cell – as poet Derrek Hines so beautifully puts it in his 1996 poem Van Norden, written after a week’s sojourn at the White House in Kalami (with Joanna Hodgkin and her half-sister Penelope, Durrell’s daughter with Nancy):

Because she
never brought herself free of the island
with her own version of their stay,
Nancy remains,
trapped in the strong sun of those years,
casting no shadow.

Van Norden was the name of the boat that nancy bought on Corfu for Lawrence, and which the couple sailed frequently. Hines uses the boat as a metaphor for the Durrells’ marriage. Like the couple, it was moored at the White House, and was a symbol of freedom, yet by the time war was declared and Durrell and Nancy fled Corfu, the marriage was on the rocks. The Van Norden was scuppered when the Germans invaded the island, and Nancy left Durrell, taking her small daughter Penelope with her.

Take this, Van Norden's mooring,
the iron wedding ring that joined sea to garrigue.
Salt jealousies, wordless divorces of rust,
have gnawed away the marriage to a stain....

Whatever Happened to Margo?

Margaret Durrell, younger sister to Lawrence and older sister to Gerald, is known to the world via her depictions in Gerald’s Corfu Trilogy and in a handful of his other autobiographical stories.

There, known as ‘Margo’, she is portrayed as a rather scatterbrained young woman, prone to malaproprisms like ‘it never rains but it snows’, and with an interest in diaphanous garments, doomed romantic encounters and skin cream.

What is rather less well known is that Margo also turned her hand to writing. Apparently written sometime in the 1960s, her autobiographical book, Whatever Happened to Margo, describes her adventures as a Bournemouth landlady in 1947. Margo also includes a good splash of Gerald-style Durrell family antics, particularly mentioning Gerald several times.

Here’s the thing, though – though the book is supposed to have been written sometime in the 1960s, when both Lawrence and Gerald had become well-known writers, Whatever Happened to Margo was published only in 1995. The story goes that Margo’s manuscript was forgotten about and later discovered in an attic.

Why was Margo’s book not published at the time? It does seem that she intended her memoir for publication. Lines like this one, addressed to ‘readers’ and referencing Gerald’s popular tome do give the impression that Margo intended her book as part of the Durrell canon.

The Durrell menage had fled Bournemouth in the thirties to bask in the magic of a Greek island… the appealing account by my brother Gerald in My Family and Other Animals will surely entice any reader to do likewise.

It presumably was not meant to languish unseen in an attic for decades. What happened?

Whatever Happened was published in 1995, the year of Gerald Durrell‘s very sad death, when presumably there would have been a surge of public interest in his life. The book also contains previously unpublished photographs of Gerald, and other members of the Durrell family, which one can imagine to have been warmly received by Gerald’s many fans.

Perhaps this is why Margo’s book finally saw the light of day. Perhaps in the 1960s or whenever she  wrote it, the book was eventually deemed unworthy of publication, and shelved? Or perhaps this manuscript is a first draft that never got any further.

Whatever Happened is definitely amusing, and there are plenty of weird and wonderful characters, in the form of Margo’s lodgers and her overbearing relatives, to fill the pages.

The problem is that the end result is just not engaging. The dense and frequently disorganized prose is hard to wade through, and I found myself skipping over several pages. There are some funny dialogues, but unlike Gerald Durrell, Margo doesn’t do speech well and her comic timing is off, so the jokes are flubbed or drawn out too long.

Another issue is the characters. Gerald knew how to sacrifice veracity for literary neatness, cutting Lawrence’s wife Nancy Myers out of the Durrells’ life on Corfu for example. Margo has included everyone. As a result, there are so many characters so its hard to keep track of them all, and some of them are just not interesting. The narrative thread gets tangled in parts, too – there is no sense that each chapter has its own story to tell;

It’s a shame, because Margo’s memoir reads like a first draft that, had someone taken the time to edit ruthlessly, could have been much better. Here’s a sample:

“Gerald is always saying “gorgeous” to some animal or some female: I’m sick of him. Leslie’s quite right, a bullet would take care of either,'”  I said wickedly, feeling daringly voluble, now sustained by liquor.

Mother interrupted me nervously. “Don’t encourage Leslie to murder, please. Shooting someone between the eyes is not a matter for joking. You’d better pour me another gin. How I’ve managed to live so long with you children is a miracle….”

“Well, Gerald shouldn’t say gorgeous to everything. Last time he called something tangible gorgeous, it was that droopy blonde who sat about with her hair flowing in a silvery cascade of abandon down her neck, while we were left to do the housework. Do you remember, Mother?”

But Mother refused to take sides.

“She was a natural blonde, however dumb. That was one thing in her favour,” Leslie said reflectively.

As it is, the book appeals only to those who are looking for further tidbits about the Durrell family. It’s hardly a standalone book, the way My Family and Other Animals is – Gerald’s book is worth reading even if you did not know or care who he was. That’s not the case with Whatever Happened.

Margo does share her brother’s penchant for flights of fancy (as Gerald points out in his preface) – one does wonder how Margo managed to recall details of conversations that supposedly took place twenty years earlier).

A note on that, though – Margo’s story often strays onto the gossipy side. While Gerald did lampoon his family mercilessly, he always portrayed them with affection and good humour. Margo includes personal information about brother Leslie that he might not have wished to be made public.

On the positive side, though, Margo’s character does shine through her writing. She’s enterprising, although scatterbrained. She has a penchant for odd malapropisms. She’s interested in diaphanous garments. I believe face cream is mentioned. (She also has a crush on a man several social classes beneath her. Like the infamous Turk she dated in My Family, Margo’s new crush seems a bit of a bore.)

Especially poignant is Gerald Durrell’s preface to the book. Dated 27 November 1994, just two months before he passed away, he once again refers to his childhood memories of Corfu:

And yes, sharing again the charms of Corfu, looking for and finding the deserted olive groves and sea caves where we were all so happy.