In 1984, Gerald Durrell and his wife Lee made an unprecedented trip to the then-USSR to make a 13-part TV series consisting of 30-minute documentaries about Soviet wildlife reserves. The Durrells’ visit behind the Iron Curtain preceded Mikhail Gorbachov‘s perestroika and glasnost reforms, and they and their film crew (funded by Soviet and Canadian interests as well as the UK’s Channel 4) were the first Westerners to film Soviet wildlife. Continue reading
“It is always the “cross-patriates,” the hyphenated, who are drawn to Durrell,” writes Peter Pomerantsev in an article this week celebrating Lawrence Durrell’s centenary.
Pomerantsev notes that Durrell, who was born in India, educated (badly – he hated it) in “Pudding Island”, left for Corfu and never returned to his pseudo-native shores, was not highly-thought of in Britain and even now is better remembered abroad. (Pomerantsev notes that he had trouble finding a copy of the Alexandria Quartet in London: I had no problem finding multiple copies in Tel Aviv.)
The feeling, however, was mutual – Durrell disliked England and the “English death”, calling himself a “professional refugee” – a smart quip, but one which has more than a ring of truth to it.
“I have an Indian heart and an English skin,” he said. “I realized this very late, when I was twenty-one, twenty-two. It created a sort of psychological crisis. I nearly had a nervous breakdown. I realized suddenly that I was not English really, I was not European. There was something going on underneath and I realized that it was the effect of India on my thinking.”
Pomerantsev argues that Durrell, however, would have felt at home in contemporary London with its multicultural, multiracial mix and its seediness – echoes of Alexandria. Durrell was ahead of his time, this argument goes, foreseeing maybe the transformation of Britain’s capital into a postmodern melting pot:
Durrell would have been at ease in this new London, a city that has completely lost its moorings: with its wines, halal butchers, Russian oligarchs, identity crises, religious terrorists.
“We are all Alexandrians now,” he concludes, referring to Kennedy’s Berlin speech. Are we? The old Alexandria is gone, Egypt is “for the Egyptians”, modern London to me is nothing like the descriptions of Alexandria in Durrell’s work and in any case Durrell’s Quartet is far from postmodern. Pomerantsev’s description of London reminds me more of Martin Amis (but the Quartet is the “study of modern love”, and Amis’s London Fields is a modern love story, it’s anti-hero is “modern, modern”.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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....
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.
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.)
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.
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.