‘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 in Russian

When Gerald Durrell and his wife Lee visited the then-USSR to film Durrell in Russia, Gerald was surprised to be mobbed by fans of his books.

Durrell’s books were and still are immensely popular in Russia and other post-Soviet bloc states. Here’s a glimpse at the various editions of My Family and Other Animals.

1971 – paperback edition by Mir, Moscow.

The book is titled ‘Moya Semya i Zveri’, which translates as ‘My Family and Wild Animals’, translated by by L. Derevyankinoi.

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coiner of oaths and roaring blasphemies

Spiro and Gerry, with the ‘battered old Dodge’ in the background

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.

Brian Blessed played Spiro in the 1986 TV adaptation of My Family

memory, memoir and family chronicles

Spiro Amerikanos and Gerald Durrell on Corfu, 1930s.

In order to compress five years of incident, observation, and pleasant living into something a little less lengthy than the Encyclopaedia Britannica, I have been forced to telescope, prune, and graft, so that there is little left of the original continuity of events. Also I have been forced to leave out many happenings and characters that I would have liked to describe…

Gerald Durrell, from the introduction to My Family and Other Animals, 1956.

Indeed, to create a memoir that would engage an outside audience and for the sake of narrative simplicity, Gerald altered the timeline of the events he describes, omitted people (like Nancy Durrell) who would have been an important part of the Durrell family‘s life on Corfu, and depicted his elder brother Lawrence as living in the same house as his mother and siblings, something he and his wife Nancy did for only a short time of the family’s five-year sojourn on the island.

What do we look for in a memoir? Do we expect absolute truthfulness, perhaps at the expense of the reader’s interest, or do we want a more interesting narrative that still reveals an essential truth about a person, a time and a place? We know that the witty and hilarious dialogues in My Family cannot be literally true, for example. It is unlikely that Gerald would have remembered these conversations verbatim 20 years later. Yet very probably they convey something essential about the flavour of the family’s life on Corfu, of the family atmosphere and relationships.

It certainly seems that Gerald had an ear for dialogue. His rendering of Spiro Amerikanos’ broken English, for example, is likely accurate, given that Lawrence’s close friend Alan Thomas described it in the same way in his 1937 diary. (1)

This is what Thomas has to say about My Family in his introduction to Spirit of Place, a collection of Lawrence Durrell’s letters and essays on travel:

Again and again people who came into my bookshop would ask me: “Is it true? Was it really like that?” From my own brief experience of life on the island I can certainly affirm that the book is true in essence, but Theodore Stephanides, who was in Corfu for the whole time, confirms that virtually every incident described really took place. Not necessarily in the same order, of course, not in one uninterrupted series, but it all actually happened.

And Gerald’s portrayal of his sister Margo, while clearly a caricature, is likely a good caricature; the exaggerated character traits Gerald imbues her with in My Family are discernible in her own writings in her memoir, Whatever Happened to Margo.

Gerald, of course, is not the only Durrell who pruned, telescoped and grafted his memories in the service of a memoir. In his own Corfu book, Prospero’s Cell, Lawrence Durrell does not mention that his mother, brothers and sister who also lived on the island. He also later claimed that he barely met his family during their sojourn on Corfu, though he and Nancy did visit his mother’s house regularly. Of course, it was Lawrence who suggested the entire family move to Corfu in the first place.

Remembrance, like Rembrandt, is dark but festive. Remembered ones dress up for the occasion and sit still. Memory is a photo-studio de luxe on an infinite Fifth Power Avenue.

Vladimir Nabokov, Ada or Ardor, a Family Chronicle

Notes:

(1)(See Lawrence Durrell and the Greek World, edited by Anna Lilios, Susquehanna University Press, 2004)

(2) Spirit of Place, Letters and Essays on Travel; Lawrence Durrell, edited by Alan G Thomas, 1969 (reissued 2011 by Axios Press)

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.