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exaggerators) and covers the more sober parts of their history before Corfu, using diaries, letters, friends and unpublished notes.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.