white house, green water

This Unimportant Morning

This unimportant morning
Something goes singing where
The capes turn over on their sides
And the warm Adriatic rides
Her blue and sun washing
At the edge of the world and its brilliant cliffs.

Day rings in the higher airs
Pure with cicadas, and slowing
Like a pulse to smoke from farms,

Extinguished in the exhausted earth,
Unclenching like a fist and going.

Trees fume, cool, pour – and overflowing
Unstretch the feathers of birds and shake
Carpets from windows, brush with dew
The up-and-doing: and young lovers now
Their little resurrections make.

And now lightly to kiss all whom sleep
Stitched up – and wake, my darling, wake.
The impatient Boatman has been waiting
Under the house, his long oars folded up
Like wings in waiting on the darkling lake.

(published in Cities, Plains and People, Durrell’s second book of poetry for Faber)

This Unimportant Morning condenses all that is wonderful about Durrell’s experience on Corfu. The island is a living being, awaking from slumber, unfurling, shaking itself awake. The house is the White House, the villa in the tiny village of Kalami where Durrell and Nancy lived for most of their time on the island; the boat with its long oars is the Van Norden, which Nancy bought as a gift for Durrell.

the white house, kalami bay

“I have bought us a twenty foot cutter, carvel built and Bermuda rigged,” she wrote in a letter, which Durrell included in Prospero’s Cell. “I am terribly excited – the whole world seems to be open before us.”

Themes of water and waking are important to Durrell; not least in his writings about Corfu. “It is a sophism,” he wrote in Prospero’s Cell, “to imagine there is any strict dividing line between the waking world and the world of dreams. N. and I for example, are confused by the sense of several contemporaneous lives being lived inside us.”

According to Theodore Stephanides, Durrell and Nancy chose to move from the Daffodil Yellow villa to Kalami after visiting a friend in the north of Corfu and admiring the natural beauty and peaceful atmosphere there; both were looking for a place where they could create. “A white house set like a dice on a rock already venerable with the scars of wind and water” is how Durrell described the fisherman’s house they rented; the water in the bay was “a milky ferocious green when the north wind curdles it.” In this bay, Durrell and Nancy swam naked, dived for cherries dropped into the water, and sailed.

Green water and the white house are among Durrell’s last memories of Corfu.

The day war was declared we stood on the balcony of the white house in a green rain falling straight down out of heaven on to the glassy floor of the lagoon…In April of 1941, as I lay on the pitch-dark deck of a caique nosing past Matapan towards Crete, I found myself thinking back to that green rain on a white balcony in the shadow of Albania…

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The Durrell villas

England was a painful experience for the young Larry. He told Malcolm Muggeridge that being transported from the Indian jungle to a tidy suburb in East Dulwich had really staggered him– a paralysing trauma. To have exchanged the rich pageant of exotic cultures, the dazzling scenery and sense of freedom and privilege which he had enjoyed in India for the cold, grey, gloomy London, where everyone seemed miserable, was a shock to the system.

Gordon Bowker, Through the Dark Labyrinth, A Biography of Lawrence Durrell

When Lawrence’s great friends George and Pam Wilkinson emigrated to Corfu in 1934, and began to send letters filled with their impressions of the beautiful Ionian landscape, Lawrence began to consider following them. He persuaded his family – who had in any case not put down any real roots in England – to leave behind the grey drabness of Pudding Island for the dazzling beauty of Corfu.

“He headed for Corfu as unerringly as a ruminant to a salt-lick or an ailing hound to grass,” wrote Patrick Fermor.

The Villa Agazini

The first villa the Durrells rented was the Villa Agazini, just above the road from Perama to Benitza on the coast, about 4km south of Corfu Town. This is the house that Gerald named the Strawberry Pink Villa in My Family and Other Animals (Lawrence nicknamed it the Villa Bumtrinket and the Villa Agabumtrinket.)

The Strawberry Pink Villa is still standing, but it has been renovated extensively and enlarged. It’s now available for rent as a holiday villa.

Despite bestowing upon it a silly name, Lawrence was by all accounts delighted by the villa’s beautiful surroundings. In a letter to his friend Alan Thomas, he makes a noticeably Gerald-like remark about the local wildlife: “Yesterday,” he wrote, “I caught a tortoise eavesdropping on us”.

It is in the Villa Agazini that Lawrence and Gerald first became acquainted with Dr Theodore Stephanides, who would become a lifelong friend and mentor. According to Stephanides, the villa was ‘somewhat cramped’, and in September 1935, the Durrells decamped to more spacious quarters 8 km further north. (In My Family, Gerald of course blames Lawrence for the move, noting that the family needed a larger residence to accommodate his many house guests.)

The Villa Anemmoyani

The Villa Anemmoyanni, or the Daffodil Yellow Villa as Gerald named it, still stands at Sotiriostissa near Gouvia bay, 4 km north of Corfu Town.

A large Venetian mansion set in its own grounds and overlooking the tiny island of Lazareto, the villa would be home to most of the Durrell family until September 1937.

The Durrells had their own private jetty at the villa, where they moored their boats, including Gerald’s Bootle Bumtrinket (it seems Lawrence really liked that word). In nearby Gouvia bay, Gerald recalls, Theodore enjoyed watching seaplanes landing.

According to a memoir by Theodore Stephanides, Lawrence and Nancy initially occupied a “bright and airy room with two large windows” in the villa, where Lawrence wrote and where Nancy presumably also painted. However, the couple did not live in the villa for long; sometime in early 1936 they moved to Kalami, 30km to the north, for a more peaceful place to work. (Stephanides mentions the move away from the rest of the family might have been also prompted by incidents involving scorpions and medicinal leeches).

The White House, Kalami

Lawrence and Nancy rented a fisherman’s cottage right on the bay at Kalami in northeastern Corfu, a tiny village that in 1936 consisted of about five small cottages. Spiro Amerikanos, the Durrell’s friend and chauffeur, found the house for them, to which they eventually added another floor. Lawrence describes life in the villa in his beautiful Prospero’s Cell and in his poem The Unimportant Morning (the topic of a later post!)

The villa is now a holiday home, is often rather fancifully described by local tour guides as the house that Gerald Durrell lived in and where he wrote my family.

The Villa Cressida

The last villa in which the Durrells resided on Corfu was the Villa Cressida (Gerald’s Snow White Villa) near Lake Halikiopoulou (and the Venetian salt-flats dubbed the ‘Chessboard Fields’ by Gerald). The villa, which is no longer standing, was just south of Corfu Town.

More information about the Durrell Villas can be found here.