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 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.

My Family and Other Animals, 1987

I recently rewatched the 1987 BBC version of My Family and Other Animals, a wonderfully indulgent adaptation of a wonderfully indulgent book. I was an avid viewer of the series when it first came out, which was my introduction to Gerald Durrell‘s books as a child.

Gerald wrote three books in total about the magical five childhood years he spent with his family  on Corfu – and experience which according to his elder brother Lawrence helped shape his future path as an animal collector, zoo owner and conservationist. Gerald’s first and most famous Corfu book, My Family and Other Animals, was written in about two weeks in 1956; he returned to his childhood in Birds, Beasts and Relatives in 1969 and again in Garden of the Gods in 1978. All the books follow a similar pattern – tales of Gerald’s encounters with the local flora and fauna of Corfu interspersed with amusing incidents with his various family members and family friends, particularly Theodore Stephanides.

(1959 Penguin edition of My Family and Other Animals)

The books were very successful – particularly My Family, which has not lost its charm even half a century after it was written. (There were negative consequences to this success though; when Corfu became a popular tourist destination in the 1980s, and thus lost much of its unspoiled charm, Gerald fell into depression, railing in a 1987 newspaper article against what he called the ‘disease of tourism’.)

The BBC series, which also came out in 1987 (perhaps Durrell’s article was written on the back of it?) is excellently done in many ways; the casting and acting  are spot on, particularly the young Darren Redmayne as Gerry. The BBC took great pains to incorporate some of the book’s memorable animal scenes into the filming. The photography shows Corfu as an unspoiled idyll, with plenty of lingering shots of beautiful blue seas, olive groves and crumbling villas. (Quite an achievement in itself.)

The screenplay, interestingly enough, incorporates material from all three of Durrell’s Corfu books, including a dialog from Garden of the Gods in which ‘Mother’ reminisces about the glory days of her life in India, where all four of the Durrell children were born.

In following the books, the screenplay also includes Gerald’s liberal use of artistic license. Lawrence Durrell is depicted as a bachelor (he does not have even a hint of a relationship), who lives with the rest of his family. In reality, he was married to a painter, Nancy Myers, and most of the time lived separately in a villa in Kalami, rather a distance from his mother and siblings.

Though the Durrell family were Anglo Indians who did not really feel a great connection with England,  the TV series portrays them as unswervingly English: the single dialog about Mother’s past in India notwithstanding, the family describe themselves as being ‘from Bournemouth’. While young Gerald is shown learning Greek and befriending locals, the others maintain their aloof Englishness throughout – although according to Gerald’s biographer, Douglas Botting, the whole family joined in enthusiastically with life on the  island.

When Gerald wrote ‘My Family‘ in 1956, he gave  concerns over his education as the main reason for the family’s return to England in 1939. In the other books, he is more overt in mentioning the impending threat of World War II and the family’s growing financial issues. The series also does not mention the War – and since having the entire family remove to England ‘for Gerry’s education’ would be rather implausible, the screenplay also has Lawrence mention the family’s money troubles.  Perhaps a discussion of the war would be too depressing a note on which to end such a delightfully escapist series. In any case, the final episode has the entire family leaving together. (Actually, Margo, depicted by Gerald as a rather scatterbrained young woman, and in the series as a demure and rather insipid young lady, was by all accounts considerably more independent and Bohemian. When Gerald, Leslie and Mother left Corfu in 1939, she had already departed for England alone, but returned a few months later to live with a Greek peasant family; she looked after Henry Miller during his visit to the island, before departing Corfu with a British airforce pilot, Jack Breeze, whom she later married.)

One problem the series has is in depicting the length of time the family live on Corfu; since the young actor playing Gerald appears to be the same age throughout, it is hard to determine the series’ timeframe. It seems that the family spends just a few months on Corfu rather than five years.