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as company, Mother took to mourning the death of my father in earnest with the aid of Demon Drink’, wrote Gerry, in an unpublished autobiographical fragment of which Haag has made good use.