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A spell of indisposition with dental issues led me to rediscover my first idol. The person I worshipped and wanted to become, in my very early teens, was not a poet or musician or even tennis player (though my admiration for Ilie Nastase was only just this side of idolatry), but a naturalist: the conservationist and founder of Jersey Zoo, Gerald Durrell.
I suppose the already somewhat rotund and gravelly voiced Durrell was extremely visible and audible in those days, appearing on BBC TV and radio in series such as Two in the Bush (1963) and Encounters with Animals (1957). What drew me to Durrell, however, was not his TV and radio appearances but his books.
Looking back at Durrell’s career nearly 20 years after his death in 1995 at the age of 70, I am astonished at how much he managed to pack into his relatively short life. As well as founding the Jersey Zoo in 1963 (renamed the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust after his death), setting up wildlife sanctuaries all over the world, and broadcasting especially in his later years at a tireless rate, he also wrote almost 30 non-fiction books, not to mention novels, volumes of short stories and children’s books. The amazing thing about this fecund literary production is that he didn’t rate it at all highly: comparing himself with his brother, the novelist Lawrence Durrell, Gerald said, “the subtle difference between us is that he loves writing and I don’t.”
You can believe that if you like, but I won’t, especially when it comes to his sixth book, and undoubted masterpiece: the first volume of his autobiographical trilogy about the time his family spent in Corfu between 1935 and 1939, entitled My Family and Other Animals (1956).
This book effortlessly combines various genres: the memoir (an unusually un-egocentric one, placing the family, rather than the heroic author, centre stage), the naturalist’s journal (in the line from Gilbert White and Darwin), and the get-away-from-it-all Mediterranean idyll, the forerunner of books such as Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence (1989), Frances Mayes’ Under the Tuscan Sun (1996) and Chris Stewart’s Driving Over Lemons (1999). What sets it apart from those books is the sheer quality of the prose, the unforced lyricism, the feeling for character and the inimitable Durrellian humour.
Durrell is one of the very few writers who can reduce me to helpless laughter. This happened recently on the Tube as I was reading the description of his sister Margo’s entanglement with a phoney spiritualist called Mrs Haddock. At his best Durrell is as funny as P.G. Wodehouse, and that is something you could say about very few other natural history writers. Who can forget characters such as Spiro, the taxi driver who became the Durrells’ general factotum on Corfu, or the deceptively vague yet indomitable Mrs Durrell herself? And what schoolchild would not envy Gerald, left free to wander the island at will, taught (sporadically) by a succession of eccentric tutors?
But Durrell’s capacity for comedy does not mean he is not also serious. There is nothing whimsical about his passion for natural history, begun at a remarkably early age and pursued with fanatical dedication until his dying day. Durrell’s love of animals, unlike mine, had little to do with books and everything to do with first-hand observation starting in the gardens of the various villas occupied by the Durrells in Corfu and extending all over the olive-grey island and its then deserted beaches and shoreline.
What makes My Family and Other Animals a great and lasting book is its haunting sense of a curious child discovering the original beauty of the world; Corfu for Durrell is a kind of paradise. But what makes it paradisal is nothing vague or folkloric, but the marvellousness of its rich and intact dowry of plants, insects, reptiles, birds. Durrell’s genius is in making all these creatures come alive, as characters no less vivid than his human ones; who else could make a praying mantis so sinister, or the efforts of a pair of dung beetles to roll a ball of dung into their burrow so touching? This kind of approach has gone out of fashion and is criticised for anthropomorphism, but Durrell’s animals are surely no less themselves for being also so human.
Durrell was not content with making creatures come alive in words; he wanted to keep them alive in the wild. Books such as The Bafut Beagles (1954) and The Whispering Land (1961) recount his adventures collecting animals, first for other zoos and then for his own, in places such as west Africa and Patagonia.
Nowadays, for many, the whole idea of zoos is suspect. But Durrell was ahead of his time in envisioning zoos not as places of entertainment but primarily as resources for conserving and reintroducing species into the wild. Long before most, he foresaw the terrible loss of the planet’s biodiversity; to him the destruction of an animal species “is a criminal offence, in the same way as the destruction of anything we cannot recreate or replace, such as a Rembrandt or the Acropolis.”
More columns at ft.com/eyres