‘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 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.

Overloaded Ark: A Crocodile Wrestling Boy’s Own Adventure

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.

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‘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.

Gerald Durrell, unexpected poet

Lee and Gerald Durrell

Although it is Lawrence, and not Gerald Durrell who is known for his poetry, Gerald also had a talent for verse.

On Corfu, one of his tutors, Pat Evans (a friend of Lawrence’s) taught the young Gerald literature and the boy wrote several poems that show some talent. At the tender age of eleven, Gerald wrote a poem, ‘Death’, which Lawrence included in a letter to Henry Miller:

On a mound a boy lay

While a stream went tinkling by.

Mauve irises stood round him as if to

Shield him from the eye of death

Though as an adult Gerald never wrote poetry and said that his many books were written only for money, his writing talents still shone through and one of the most beautiful pieces he wrote was perhaps a love letter to Lee McGeorge, who would become his second wife. In a 1992 interview, Gerald described in rather prosaic terms how, in 1977, he met McGeorge, then a PhD student at Duke University.

I’d been married before and was on the point of getting divorced. I kept my ex-wife waiting a couple of years because I refused to be divorced on grounds of cruelty. If I’d known I was going to meet Lee I would have hurried the whole procedure through much more quickly.

I was very disappointed with my first marriage. I’m not pointing fingers at anybody. But we were married for 25 years, which is a long time.

After my wife left me, I thought: ‘Well, OK. Now let’s play the field. To hell with it. I don’t want anything more to do with women except in bed.’ I suppose it was rather an arrogant attitude to adopt. But it was the result of being hurt. But then, of course, I met this creature, and made the fatal mistake of falling in love with her.

Here’s the text of Gerald’s beautiful and moving letter – it was published in Douglas Botting‘s official biography of Durrell. It’s long, but it’s worth reading:

I have seen a thousand sunsets and sunrises, on land where it floods forest and mountains with honey coloured light, at sea where it rises and sets like a blood orange in a multicoloured nest of cloud, slipping in and out of the vast ocean. I have seen a thousand moons: harvest moons like gold coins, winter moons as white as ice chips, new moons like baby swans’ feathers.

I have seen seas as smooth as if painted, coloured like shot silk or blue as a kingfisher or transparent as glass or black and crumpled with foam, moving ponderously and murderously.

I have felt winds straight from the South Pole, bleak and wailing like a lost child; winds as tender and warm as a lover’s breath; winds that carried the astringent smell of salt and the death of seaweeds; winds that carried the moist rich smell of a forest floor, the smell of a million flowers. Fierce winds that churned and moved the sea like yeast, or winds that made the waters lap at the shore like a kitten.

I have known silence: the cold, earthy silence at the bottom of a newly dug well; the implacable stony silence of a deep cave; the hot, drugged midday silence when everything is hypnotized and stilled into silence by the eye of the sun; the silence when great music ends.

I have heard summer cicadas cry so that the sound seems stitched into your bones. I have heard tree frogs in an orchestration as complicated as Bach singing in a forest lit by a million emerald fireflies. I have heard the Keas calling over grey glaciers that groaned to themselves like old people as they inched their way to the sea. I have heard the hoarse street vendor cries of the mating Fur seals as they sang to their sleek golden wives, the crisp staccato admonishment of the Rattlesnake, the cobweb squeak of the Bat and the belling roar of the Red deer knee-deep in purple heather. I have heard Wolves baying at a winter’s moon, Red Howlers making the forest vibrate with their roaring cries. I have heard the squeak, purr and grunt of a hundred multi-coloured reef fishes.

I have seen hummingbirds flashing like opals round a tree of scarlet blooms, humming like a top. I have seen flying fish, skittering like quicksilver across the blue waves, drawing silver lines on the surface with their tails. I have seen Spoonbills flying home to roost like a scarlet banner across the sky. I have seen Whales, black as tar, cushioned on a cornflower blue sea, creating a Versailles of fountain with their breath. I have watched butterflies emerge and sit, trembling, while the sun irons their wings smooth. I have watched Tigers, like flames, mating in the long grass. I have been dive-bombed by an angry Raven, black and glossy as the Devil’s hoof. I have lain in water warm as milk, soft as silk, while around me played a host of Dolphins. I have met a thousand animals and seen a thousand wonderful things… but –

All this I did without you. This was my loss.

All this I want to do with you. This will be my gain.

All this I would gladly have forgone for the sake of one minute of your company, for your laugh, your voice, your eyes, hair, lips, body, and above all for your sweet, ever surprising mind which is an enchanting quarry in which it is my privilege to delve.