Himself and Other Animals

Edward Whitley<P>

We Remember Him Well

Himself and Other Animals

By David Hughes

(Century 256pp £15.99)

I feel extremely sorry for Gerald Durrell's official biographer, Douglas Botting, who is due to publish his version of Gerald Durrell's life next year: he has been gazumped. In many ways he has only himself to blame since he reminded David Hughes, Gerry's first editor and long-standing friend, about the book he had written in 1976. 'If I use any of it,' Botting kindly said to Hughes, 'I'll give you full acknowledgements of course, but there won't be anything else.'

Hughes promised to dig it out. His first thought, as a fellow author, was to give Botting every assistance. As he then confesses, his second thought as a fellow author was not to. He felt reluctant to let Botting plunder it, and he resented Botting as Gerry Durrell's biographer since he had only met Gerry once, while he had been a great friend for twenty years. Hughes found the manuscript and started reading. As he says, 'On the first page I smiled involuntarily; and Gerry was back.'

David Hughes wrote this portrait of Gerald Durrell in 1976, when he days stayed with Gerry in France, Jersey, and Bournemouth. The official biographer may have much to say about Gerry's last twenty years, but nothing can be as true to life as this book. The reason why I can be so certain of this, is that I had more or less exactly the same experiences with Gerry as Hughes about twenty years later: I too stayed with Gerry in his house outside N”mes and at the zoo in Jersey; indeed, I went a step further than Hughes and joined Gerry on his last great animal-collecting trip to Madagascar in 1992. David Hughes's portrait rings absolutely true; reading this book is uncanny because he manages to bring Gerry so vividly back to life. I found myself really living this book in a way I can only explain with a rather Durrell-like metaphor: most biographies preserve their subject rather like museum curators who carefully dissect, label and pin out butterflies on a piece of white cardboard. Hughes's portrait doesn't really bother with much of this analysis, but rather throws the reader straight into the colourful, impatient, exasperated, chaotic world of Durrell - it releases Durrell with all his energy flapping around your ears. This portrait kept reminding me of aspects of his character I had forgotten.

The first of these surprises was remembering how patient Gerry was. Hughes describes Gerry as a young boy in Corfu, and, of course, everyone knows what a madcap world it was with Larry opening a matchbox full of baby scorpions, and Spiro driving the whole family off for picnics, but this is the real reason why Gerry was such a good naturalist:

Engaged as an informal tutor, Theodore was at once impressed by the boy Durrell's enthusiasm and energy. Gerry had a capacity to invent new ways of collecting specimens or preserving them, to deduce by intuition, to home in on observations that had eluded his teachers. Theodore found that the essential qualities of a naturalist, equally those in his view of a well-rounded man, were present in Durrell from the moment he first set foot on the island. The prime quality was tremendous patience. The boy lost all sense of time when on the track of something. Perched utterly still in the branches of a tree, he stared for hours at the life of some unhurried creature. And he took animals on their own terms, the hardest discipline of all for anyone in serious quest of knowledge.

Beneath the great hilarity which always surrounded Gerry's writing, this ability to take animals on their own terms was the core of Gerry's life. I have sat with him while he watched a slug gradually ease itself along a bench, and Gerry was enthralled, genuinely enthralled. When we were together in Madagascar, we were trying to collect some rare lemurs so that a captive-bred population could be set up to prevent their extinction. We built a collection of wooden cages in Gerry's hotel room, where branches of bananas, grapes and reed stalks lay piled alongside empty beer bottles.

Soon we managed to find some lemurs and put them in the cages. For me, that was the end of the job: we had got the lemurs, now let's get on to the next job. For Gerry, it was the start. He sat and watched the lemurs for hours. He explained that you could learn a great deal about an animal even while it was in a wooden cage. And so when the next lemur was saved, a young male, he put it in with an old female which he thought had been taken away from its young. Sure enough, rather than killing this orphan, the elder female allowed him to climb up on her back, and in due course to suckle from her.

Gerry was also unafraid of experimenting with his animals' diet. 'All these animal experts tell me that I shouldn't feed my lemurs with condensed milk,' he said. 'Rubbish! They love it. It's like introducing an Englishman to eating octopus. They've never had it before, but they love it.'

As Gerry grew up and left Corfu, he began to find that the natural world he loved was being ruined. Hughes is perceptive about Gerry's lack of a childhood. Without a father, the Durrell family all seemed to have an equal say in the family's affairs, and from an early age Gerry's opinion was treated as a grown-up's. As Gerry said to Hughes:

Certainly in Corfu I was spoilt. There was a proper degree of licence, but I also came in for a lot of criticism and abuse - in other words being brought up as an adult and so never really behaving as a child. I loved dinner parties, no less than nowadays. Moths in the lamps, two in the morning, the food gobbled up but the night only just starting, talk of matters I had no means of understanding but found utterly riveting. That's why when I returned to England, children my age seemed to me to be confined in such circumscribed lives.

Gerry's first wife Jacquie, to whom he was married for some fifteen years, summed up this strange childhood in the Eden that was Corfu:

Of course, Corfu is not good for Gerry. It's almost as if he's fighting against the place that produced such beautiful memories and can't any longer sustain them. He becomes quite intolerable from the moment he sets foot on the quay and realises it will never be what it was. He's emotionally involved in something that can't and won't come up to his standards, and at such times he's just not very nice to know. That's why I loathe Corfu - for what it does to him now.

This strikes a true note. Gerald Durrell was famously somebody who went exploring into beautiful, remote parts of the world and then wrote about them. But even as he paved the way to the remote rainforests of Madagascar, he was encouraging people to follow in his footsteps - and the paradise would be ruined. Gerry never managed to reconcile these two sides of his life, and when he did contemplate the damage which these visitors caused, he was not a very nice person to know. In fact, a good deal of Gerry's character was that of a very angry man. While his books continued to sell well and established him as a wonderfully comic writer, his own moods grew increasingly blacker. The more he saw of the outside world, the more infuriated he became. But he knew that if he told the truth and wrote books full of despair, nobody would want to read them and thus he - and his zoo - would receive no royalties to carry on his work.

In order to cope with this Gerry sought refuge in a close circle of friends. His favourite situation was sitting over a long gourmet meal where he would alternate between telling wonderfully colourful stories and laughing as much as everyone else, and then suddenly lashing out at some example of human folly. These switches of mood were abrupt and David Hughes captures these outbursts perfectly.

Although Gerry was married to Jacquie rather than to his second wife Lee, their role as placator remained the same. Gerry would take great trouble over preparing wonderful meals - pigeon, quail, oysters, curries - and be just as likely to ruin them with a violent explosion. It is astonishing how little Gerry changed from 1975 when Hughes spent so much time with him to 1992 when I did. As Hughes points out, it was a strange combination of ingredients which made up Gerry: he was an adult who had had no real childhood; he thus remained rather childlike as an adult. He needed a wife to mother him, pack for him, organise his life and drive him long distances up and down France. He needed to eat and drink to excess and let off his temper. And he only liked doing this within a tiny circle of friends.

It is because Hughes was one of these friends that this book will be the most definitive picture of Gerald Durrell. Hughes was there. For all Gerry's philosophy about animal conservation, it is really his radiance as a man which is impossible to forget and which we need to cherish.

David Hughes does not update his 1975 portrait beyond a Prologue and an Epilogue. In many ways Gerry changed so little that there was no need to. The final image of Gerry is one of the most poignant. With a liver replacement, Gerry was officially not meant to drink. But the operation was a failure, and despite a large amount of drugs, it became clear that Gerry would never recover. Gerry was incarcerated in the Cromwell Hospital, and just before his health insurance ran out, he asked the nurses to do him one final favour: he insisted upon drinking a glass of champagne in the bath with his nurses around him. It was a classic Durrell mixture of recklessness, adventure, alcohol, luxury and wit. The pleasure only lasted for one glass, the after-effects were awful, but it was well worth it. Durrell's life was a combination of great pleasure and great desperation, and this portrait of him perfectly captures these extremes which pull you along in their wake.