Gerald Durrell

An element of self-indulgence will doubtless be suspected in the last couple of writers I shall include in this series, though I feel there are good reasons for including them. In the first place, they represent genres that are a significant part of English letters, in the one case travel, in the other history. Secondly, they have interesting literary connections, of different sorts, and also exemplify factors I have found recurring again and again in the biographies of the writers I have included in the series.

To begin with Gerald Durrell, he belonged to what used to be termed an Anglo-Indian family. In the old sense that meant Britishers who worked in India. The same was true of George Orwell (who like Durrell was born in India) and Terence Rattigan and of course Kipling. Writers who spent time in India, many of them writing about the country, included Forster and Simon Raven and Paul Scott and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, and of course the Indians, Naipaul and Rushdie and Seth.

Durrell moved back to England when he was three, following his father’s death, but the family obviously continued to have a wanderlust, and in 1935 they moved to Corfu, an island off the coast of Greece. That provided my first introduction to the Durrells, Gerald and his eldest brother Lawrence, a much more famous writer of course. Gerald, in 1956, wrote My Family and other Animals, ostensibly an autobiographical account of the family’s time in Corfu.

The book functions at several levels. It is firstly a beautiful account of a strange childhood in an exotic setting, full of the joys of long leisure hours in wonderful weather and the wonder of new places. Second, it deals specifically with the young Gerald’s burgeoning interest in animals, which led to a distinguished career as a naturalist, a collector of rare species, and the creator of a new style zoo.

Then it is a marvelous account of a highly idiosyncratic family, Lawrence with his unorthodox literary friends and loves, the sister Margot with her boyfriends and aspirations to orthodox elegance, the other brother Leslie who is an ordinary British youth with hearty interests and a passion for guns and sport, their long suffering mother who copes with her varied brood while also trying to have an individual life – and of course Gerald himself, with his whimsical interest in other animals as well as his exciting family. And finally it introduces us to a host of fascinating characters, inhabitants of Corfu as well as all the unusual and generally incompatible visitors the family members invite to stay, including the differently constituted and reacting youngsters who were supposed to tutor the young Gerald.

I had not realized until I wrote about Lawrence Durrell that in fact the book is as much fiction as autobiography. I had assumed of course that a work that prompted so much laughter must have been exaggerated, but I was fascinated to discover that Gerald had in fact taken liberties with the truth, most notably in presenting Lawrence as having lived with the rest of the family, in the three very different houses they occupied during their time on the island. It turned out that in fact Lawrence was married by then, and stayed separately. It was however a stroke of genius to include him in the larger household, and thus his odd guests too, which made for splendid confusion in interactions with the rest of the family.

Life after Corfu must have been disappointing. The family came back to England in 1939, before the outbreak of war, and Gerald had to find work without the benefits or qualifications of any formal education. However he fitted in happily enough into work with animals, an aquarium and a pet store before being employed at a zoo. This led to collecting expeditions after the War, and over the next forty and more years he travelled all over the world in search of birds and animals. His initial focus of interest was Africa, and in particular the Cameroons, though he later went on to Sierra Leone and Mauritius and Madagascar. He was also soon enough in South America, in British Guyana first, but later Argentina and Paraguay and Belize and Mexico. He also made trips to Australia and India and Russia, the latter two for television documentaries, in which he was a lively star.

From all these expeditions came books, which captured not just his exploits in catching animals, but also the landscape and lifestyles of the various countries he visited. Characters such as the Fon of Bafut, in the Cameroons, were also rare species of a type of local ruler destined not to survive the modern world, and Durrell gives him due weight in what strike me as the first descriptions of the world at large written by a Britisher without imperial undertones. Trying to differentiate between the various books may not be useful, though I believe it is generally accepted that the earlier books are more interesting. I myself remember in particular The Bafut Beagles and The Whispering Land, a wonderful title for a book about Patagonia, which still makes me anxious to visit the place.

But, if Durrell’s travel books seemed to become formulaic, he branched out in new fields, writing stories for children and youngsters, adult stories and novels (though generally dealing with animals), and also technical guides for naturalists. He was also prolifically busy, in founding Trusts for Wildlife Conservation as well as his own zoo, which exemplified his belief that animals should have, not just a nice, but also an interesting, environment. His view was that zoos were really undesirable, but necessary as a breeding place for endangered species. Naturally this led to conflicts with those who had more traditional views of zoos, conflicts that I believe are reflected in Angus Wilson’s Old Men at the Zoo, which traces also the psychological and political implications of the different perspectives.

Gerald Durrell claimed that, unlike his brother Lawrence, with whom he always had a very positive relationship, he was not really a writer, but simply wrote in order to make money to carry out his ideas about the conservation of animals. Certainly his legacy in that respect is impressive. But in the process he also produced a wonderful array of written work, which is innovative, instructing and interesting. And he has preserved for posterity a range of fascinating characters, as well as the animals they live and work with.