Saturday, 22 April 2017

Louisa Durrell's Corfu Romance?

The television Durrells, 2017.
The Times television critic Andrew Billen previews the second season of The Durrells, which starts tomorrow night, and wonders about mother Durrell's love life.  The following is an extract.


The biographer Michael Haag has just published an excellent book, The Durrells of Corfu, in which he pieces together the true story of the family’s stay on the island. I phone to inquire if he had uncovered any indications that Louisa had romantic interludes on the island.

“None whatsoever. Zero. Gerry made that up. Never happened. I have spoken to her grandson and other people and they say she was straight up and down, with no interest in other men whatsoever — purely her late husband. I am not quite sure what Gerry was doing there. He might have been ragging his brother Leslie, who was very protective of his mother. If you look in my book, there are two photos in which Leslie literally has his mother in his clutches, holding on to her in a very controlling way. And that comes through in this series.”

Nye happens to be a neighbour of [Haag's] and he says that his programme makes him smile. He also gives it some credit for subtly acknowledging the tale’s roots in tragedy, the death of Louisa’s husband, Lawrence Samuel Durrell, at the age of 44 from a brain haemorrhage in 1928, when Gerry was three. The photograph twice held up by Hawes in the first series is of the real man, an intimation, Haag writes on his blog, that “something more was going on than Gerry would ever admit as he turned to his world of animals”.

Some of that “more” was that in Bournemouth Louisa fell into alcoholism and had a nervous breakdown. Larry may have wanted to move to Corfu to live alone on a rock and write, but his conscience never allowed him to leave his family behind. After such eruptions, it is perhaps not surprising that Gerry made friends with the animal world that would later, when he was a conservationist, become his career.

The real Durrells at the Daffodil Yellow Villa c1936. Leslie is missing; he was taking the photograph.

Thursday, 20 April 2017

The Spectator Review of The Durrells of Corfu

You can read Charlotte Moore's review below or go directly to The Spectator website.
Spiro Americanos cooks an eel in tomato sauce for Gerry. Spiro's big Dodge is in the background. 

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. 

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

My First Touch of Waterstones' Durrells of Corfu


The Waterstones version, bright and bold as a holiday poster, was put into my hands this morning by a courier.  Hot off the press and not a moment too soon as it goes on sale in Waterstones shops tomorrow.

(Both the regular version and the Waterstones version have embossed titles; a nice touch, literally.)

Waterstones Presents The Durrells of Corfu


Waterstones gives pride of place to The Durrells of Corfu.

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

The Durrells of Corfu Jumps the Gun at London Heathrow

Among the Bestsellers at Heathrow.
Spotted by a traveller this morning among the bestsellers at the W H Smith bookshop in Terminal 5 at Heathrow Airport. But The Durrells of Corfu is not officially published until 20 April.

Monday, 17 April 2017

Corfu a Healing Experience for the Durrells


Review in The Express, 17 April 2017, of The Durrells of Corfu

THE Durrell family and their hilariously wild adventures in Corfu have been immortalised in print, most famously in Gerald Durrell’s classic memoir My Family And Other Animals, and on screen, most recently in ITV’s The Durrells. But who were the real-life Durrells? For his new biography, written with the blessing of the family, author Michael Haag gained access to maps, diaries, letters, unpublished autobiographical fragments, letters and unseen photographs.

He reshapes the story of this extraordinary family by unearthing new facts and offering fresh insights into their lives and loves. He starts by exploring the life of matriarch Louisa, portraying a richer, more interesting character than the long-suffering mother living in “happy anarchy” with her brood on the Greek island. Born and bred in British-ruled India, she led a rich and vibrant life as an Anglo-Asian colonialist. She married engineer Samuel Lawrence in 1910 and two years later gave birth to their first son Lawrence, later an award winning author.

Although the death of her second child Margery at four months old cast a shadow over her life, she went on to have another three children, Leslie, Margaret and Gerald. Samuel has always been a footnote to the Durrell family’s story but Haag reveals his incredible achievements such as helping to build a railway which transformed Burma. The family’s period in India is just as fascinating as their lives in Corfu.

Haag vividly evokes the time and the place with sumptuous descriptions, transporting readers to a magical, mystical and exotic bygone era of colonial India under the Raj. However Haag doesn’t shy away from tackling painful subject matter that the Durrells themselves struggled to confront. Louisa was devastated by Samuel’s death in 1928 and, as she mourned her husband “in earnest”, as Larry later put it, grief sadly turned her into an alcoholic.

Then he reveals that in 1932 she suffered a nervous breakdown, a hitherto-unknown fact tackled by Gerry in his unfinished, unpublished autobiography. So Haag shatters any illusions that the move to Corfu in 1935 was the whim of a family seeking adventures in warmer climes:

“They laughed and wrote beautifully of their island idyll, but nobody mentioned what had really brought them to the island.” 

However, in the end Corfu proved to be a healing experience for the grief-stricken Durrells. Louisa, Larry and Gerald all come to vivid life in these pages but compared to their siblings, Margaret and Leslie barely wrote so their voices never quite come across.

With an illegitimate child and misappropriated funds to his name, Leslie must have been quite a colourful character. However, Haag has written a love letter to an extraordinary family. As families and other animals go, the Durrells are a breed of their own.

NEELA DEBNATH

The Durrells of Corfu Already a Top Bestseller


The Durrells of Corfu was the fourteenth best selling book on Amazon UK yesterday, Easter Sunday (though it will not be published for another three days, on 20 April).

 
Amazon UK today shows The Durrells of Corfu as number four in the hottest new releases.



Amazon USA also shows The Durrells of Corfu as a bestselling title in America.










Sunday, 16 April 2017

The Durrells of Corfu: What a Family, What Lives Well Lived


From India Knight's review of The Durrells of Corfu by Michael Haag in The Sunday Times today:

'Gerald Durrell once wrote that some people had a childhood that trailed behind them "like some sort of English ectoplasm". His, he said, trailed behind him "like a magic carpet". This was in great part due to his family’s time on Corfu, immortalised so vividly in My Family and Other Animals. Michael Haag’s delightful book, a sort of group biography, tells the story of that time, and of their life before. All the Durrells were "masters of fabulation", tremendous embellishers and exaggerators — though the kernel of their stories was always true — and Haag sorts out precisely what happened when, and to whom...

'The story of the Durrells is really a story about the nature of love and home. ... Haag adds sadness and depth to a story that is superficially golden and charming, and which never stops being so. There is so much lustre here that nothing can tarnish it; the complications and grievances only make you admire the Durrells more. What a family, and what lives well lived.'

Saturday, 15 April 2017

Alexia Stephanides, Gerald Durrell's Closest Friend in Corfu

Alexia and Gerry at the Daffodil Yellow Villa. This photograph and more about Alexia appears in my book The Durrells of Corfu.
'I realise that my father always hoped that Gerry and I would marry. I think the Durrells hoped the same.'

Alexia Mercouri is the daughter of Theodore Stephanides, the friend of the Durrell family and Gerry's mentor in Corfu.

Recently I spoke with Alexia about this photograph which she had never seen before.  

'This photograph of me and Gerald Durrell brings back such very pleasant memories of our years in Corfu. We are playing in the garden of the Durrells’ Daffodil Yellow Villa; it must have been taken around 1937 when Gerry was about 12 and I was nine or 10. I am 90 now. I am the only living person who knew those magical years described in Gerry’s book My Family and Other Animals. But all that belongs to another world.'

My interview with Alexia is published online today in The Telegraph Magazine (complete with mispelling of Gerry's name in the heading).  
And this is scan of how the interview appears on the magazine page (where they got the spelling right).


As printed on the page.

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Waterstones Edition of The Durrells of Corfu

Waterstones bookshops have placed a large and special order for The Durrells of Corfu with their own cover, reminiscent of a 1930s travel poster.

The contents of the Waterstones edition are otherwise identical to those of the standard Profile edition; both cover versions are published on the same day, 20 April 2017.

A Family Story Worth Telling: The Durrells of Corfu



Libby Purves reviews The Durrells of Corfu in The Daily Mail.

Any family is a tapestry: woven into its history are flaws, tragedies and adventures, glittering fictions and jokes enlivening the solid texture of fact and the rips and darns of wider historic events.

Family stories are worth telling, and this one is fascinatingly put together by Michael Haag. For few families present such an entertaining patchwork tale as the Durrells, three of whose members were writers.

The eldest was celebrated novelist Lawrence (Larry) Durrell, who wrote the Alexandria Quartet and the glorious spoof Antrobus stories of diplomatic life.

The baby of the family was the naturalist and founder of Jersey Zoo Gerald Durrell, beloved for tales of collecting specimens in Africa and his memoir of their years in Corfu, My Family And Other Animals (which inspired the current ITV series starring Keeley Hawes).

Their sister Margo, teasingly portrayed as a girlish airhead by her brother, but, in fact, a resolute woman, had her own memoir published in 1995.

Haag draws on all these writings, but casts sidelights on the characters (two, at least, were mischievous exaggerators) and covers the more sober parts of their history before Corfu, using diaries, letters, friends and unpublished notes.

Reading about the harder bits, you admire their loyalty, rackety, harmless squabbles, exasperated tolerance and, above all, an unspoken bond of care for a fond, but fragile mother.

The baby of the Durrell family was the naturalist and founder of Jersey Zoo Gerald Durrell, beloved for tales of collecting specimens in Africa and his memoir of their years in Corfu, My Family And Other Animals (which inspired the current ITV series starring Keeley Hawes)

They were a colonial family living in the beauty and harshness of India in the Twenties. Louisa, the mother, lost one baby to diphtheria and gave birth to the next in a cholera epidemic; there was the risk of snakebite, poison, rabies, leprosy and yellow fever.

She had long periods of looking after children alone amid the hot scents, jungle sounds and soft-footed servants while her husband built railways.

There were also two pet Himalayan bear cubs. The young Gerry remembered: ‘Having our own bears was a wonderful thing, even though they did smell very lavatorial.’

Larry was away at school by then, but Margo and their other brother Leslie would overturn the bears’ basket and shout: ‘Mother, the bears are out!’

Louisa would run to save baby Gerry, who’d be busy grubbing in the dirt for slugs even then.

The children would eat random berries, necessitating a visit from Dr Chakravati on his old bicycle to say: ‘What is the trouble today dear lady... Oh dear dear, castor oil must be given to all!’

Leslie, the second son, was dosed with chicken’s blood, tonsils were removed in a scrubbed dining room, while Margo relied on a secret bottle of holy water from Lourdes, given to her by a devout governess, to stave off ill health.

But in 1928, their father died. Louisa, heartbroken, contemplated suicide.

They returned to an England they hardly knew; first London, then Bournemouth. Left mainly alone with little Gerry, Louisa took to drink.

At one point in 1932 she vanished and his notes mention a ‘nervous breakdown and rest cure’.

This crisis is never mentioned in the memoirs, but is one reason the family moved to Corfu. Also, Gerry had been slapped at school and was removed aged nine, never to go again. Larry may have tired, too, of London life, where he ‘hymned and whored... playing jazz in a nightclub, working in real estate, tried everything’.

There he met his first wife, Nancy Myers, an art school dropout, who reported that he ‘dramatised everything — mad mother, ridiculous children, mother drunk throwing fortune to the winds, hellish, foolish, stupid woman... beetles in the soup’.

Mother, in turn, threw her out of the Bournemouth house after finding them in bed: ‘I’m not having Gerry corrupted.’

Two weeks later, she welcomed Nancy back again and fed her delicious curries.

Gerald defended himself, as the baby of the family always will, with bursts of outrage. When his eldest brother emptied a sink full of interesting marine life in order to shave, he cried: ‘You — you — you AUTHOR, you!’

The Corfu years are told in My Family And Other Animals and, while characters are familiar — their Greek protector Spiro, Theodore the naturalist, George the tutor — Haag adds some useful modifications.

The family arrived in poor health and Louisa’s drinking was worry-ing. It was a tough paradise at first — they did not speak Greek and had trouble getting money sent.

Homesick Margo wrote: ‘Don’t believe a word they say about this smelly island.’ Larry says his sister carried on like ‘a blue fart — says the heat is too much, flies too many, Greeks too insanitary’.

The Durrells were not members of the professional or officer classes and were certainly not gentry. They associated with the peasants and villagers in a way that offended both those below and above their station... they did not fit.
A few neighbours were agreeably eccentric — unpublished writings reveal one man who kept the skull of his former mistress on his desk, and a lady who stored empty tin cans in a native Indian canoe hung from the ceiling.

But not everyone took to the Durrells. Larry and Nancy’s nude swimming shocked the local church so much that young men threw stones. A fellow expat describes them as noisy, shouting ‘clowns’ who scandalised the established Brits of Corfu.

‘The Durrells were not members of the professional or officer classes and were certainly not gentry. They associated with the peasants and villagers in a way that offended both those below and above their station... they did not fit.’

War in 1939 drove them back to England. Margo tried to ‘stick it out with her Greek friends’, but finally fled.

In the bombing of Corfu, Spiro’s parents were killed and the town flattened. Back home, the young men were conscripted (Gerald was sent to work on the land) and Margo, as a single mother, took in lodgers in Bournemouth.

She mentions that her youngest brother still marked his territory ‘not with musk and urine, but with a marmoset, which happily did both for him’.

This book marks out the Durrells’ territory in the fine, bold history of British bohemianism.

Sunday, 9 April 2017

The Durrells of Corfu in The Observer







The Durrells of Corfu in The Observer today.