When I was at boarding school in the early 1970s, the Durrells, or at least Gerald, were immensely popular. My Family and Other Animals made us laugh out loud; we squealed as the scorpions skittered across the family’s dining table and groaned empathetically when Margo kissed the mummified feet of St Spiridion in an attempt to banish her acne. ‘Gerald Durrell was my ideal man,’ recalls one animal-loving friend. Those of us with intellectual pretensions tackled Lawrence’s Alexandria Quartet, with mixed success.
Now a popular TV series has brought the family, and Corfu, into the lives of a new generation. But how literally should we take the tales of colourful chaos from these ‘masters of fabulation’? ‘I never know what’s fact and what’s fiction in my family,’ complained Margo, who felt traduced by Gerald’s version of her. Michael Haag is not keen on dishing dirt. He likes the Durrells; one senses that their descendants trust him. But he does try to show how the ‘real’ story was overlaid with reworked versions, and on the whole he succeeds.
All the young Durrells were born in India. Their father was a talented civil engineer, whose early death from a brain tumour sent the rest of them into free fall. ‘I have missed him, his image and his strong presence all my life’, wrote Margo. Heat, light, strong colour, spices and exotic flora and fauna had shaped their lives; no wonder their relocation to grey, cold England was so traumatic.
The children were sent to a series of dismal boarding schools, with the exception of Gerry, the youngest, who was his mother’s chief companion. ‘Incarcerated in this gigantic house [in Bournemouth] with only a small boy as company, Mother took to mourning the death of my father in earnest with the aid of Demon Drink’, wrote Gerry, in an unpublished autobiographical fragment of which Haag has made good use.
In 1932, Mother briefly disappeared. It seems that she suffered some kind of breakdown. She booked a passage back to India for herself and Gerry, but their names on the passenger list have been crossed out, indicating a last-minute cancellation. Haag wonders whether the by-then adult Lawrence (Larry) intervened to prevent his mother’s flight. Certainly it was the expansive, bohemian Larry, together with Nancy, his glamorous young artist wife, who masterminded the move to Corfu in 1935.
The Durrells have become so closely identified with Corfu that it is a shock to realise they were only there for four years, before war scattered them and maimed the island they loved so deeply. Larry was ‘a small blond firework, exploding ideas in other people’s minds’; his lyrical Prospero’s Cell evokes prewar Corfu as a paradise, where he and Nancy were ‘reborn’ through their ‘sacred immersion’ in sun and sea. The boy naturalist Gerry was free to roam anywhere, as long as he wore Wellingtons against snakebite:
… leaf to bud, caterpillar to butterfly, tadpole to toad or frog, I was surrounded by miracles. I was surrounded by magic, as though Merlin had passed through and casually touched the island with his wand.
Mother continued to drink, but far away from the gloomy oppression of Bournemouth it didn’t matter so much. In family snapshots her children lean against her or clutch her arm, as if to keep her upright. She cooked brilliantly, made friends with Corfiots, and, in Gerry’s words, allowed her children simply ‘to be’. Leslie, the second son, was the child who floundered in the ‘uproar’ of their upbringing. A friend recalled Leslie ‘crowing, like a devoted mother, over his collection of unlicensed firearms’; according to Margo, he was to sink ‘deep in the intricacies of guns, boats, beer and women’. He impregnated the family maid, was sacked when, as a school bursar, he misappropriated funds, and ended as a janitor for a block of flats near Marble Arch. He told his drinking companions in a Notting Hill pub that he was a civil engineer, like his father, and died there of heart failure in his mid-sixties.
Leslie was the only Durrell who left no written account. Haag treats him gently, charting his downward trajectory, but recording his youthful charisma, and pointing out that Gerry appropriated some of his best stories — for instance, it was Leslie, not Gerry, who was befriended by Kosti, the convicted murderer. Haag judiciously balances the Durrells’ own versions of themselves with those of other witnesses. For Gerald, ‘my family has always shown symptoms of flamboyant idiocy as far back as I can remember, so Corfu was the ideal greenhouse to bring this to full fruition’; but for a member of the longstanding British merchant community, the Durrells ‘did not fit’. They were ‘ill-disciplined… without the sensitivity or upbringing to participate in the ancient and settled culture of Corfu’.
However the reader feels about the family, one has to mourn the Nazi assault on this ‘ancient and settled culture’, enjoy our shared ride on Gerry’s ‘childhood like a magic carpet’, and be glad that Michael Haag has produced this entertaining and warm-hearted reappraisal.