of All Animals
The hard-working, hard-drinking life
of the great naturalist Gerald Durrell
is described in an authorized biography
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THERE was much about Gerald Durrell that was "xtrordenry," not the least of which that he so accurately predicted the course of his life at such a young age.
Not bad for a kid who only had one year of formal education, and uneven homeschooling. (He had a series of home tutors of varying quality; his elder brother, novelist Lawrence Durrell, helped him learn to write; and as a boy he became close friends with genius naturalist Theodore Stephanides.)
Here's how long ago I started reading Gerald Durrell: My oldest books by him are paperbacks that each cost 60 cents, brand new. I was about 10 years old myself at the time, and hadn't yet figured out much more about my future than that if I could read some more books by Durrell, I would do so.
My family and I loved reading about Durrell's adventures in Africa and South America on collecting trips, illustrated by drawings of snakes, anteaters, lemurs, chimpanzees and countless other animals destined for zoos and refuges in Great Britain. At age 10, I had no idea that millions of other people all around the world were reading these same books, translated into dozens of other languages.
Durrell was a charming, inviting, amusing writer with an eye for natual beauty, a fascination for animals of all kinds and a gift for delivering a joke.
All through Durrell's older years, when he was head of his own animal refuge on Jersey, a prolific author and filmmaker and the spark for wildlife trusts in England and around the world, he would meet other naturalists, zoologists and biologists who had read and loved -- and taken direction from -- his books as children.
In a sense, Durrell had written his own biography already, in the course of his 38 books, most of which were about his adventures as an animal collector and keeper, including "My Family and Other Animals," "Three Tickets to Adventure," "A Zoo in My Luggage." But, writing episodes is one thing; putting together a cohesive story of a rather full life is another.
Writing an autobiography was on his list of things to do when he finally became too ill to write. He'd only met Douglas Botting once -- shaking his hand briefly at a reception -- but after reading Botting's biography of naturalist Gavin Maxwell, felt that Botting could be his biographer, and planned to meet with him to discuss the project. He died before that, however, so it was his widow, Lee, who gave Botting authorization to write the book, and access to Durrell's notes, letters and other effects. Among these are a collection of elder brother Lawrence's letters to writer Henry Miller, interviews with family and friends and Gerald's diaries and letters to friends -- and lots of photographs, a few of which we reproduce here.
Botting has the good sense to quote Durrell prolifically. For instance:
Most people's idea of an animal collector is a brawny, Tarzan-like kind of bloke, but in fact most animal collectors look half dead from birth. To be successful at his job it's best if a collector is born a bit mental and grows up with a highty developed sense of humour and no sense of smell (I mean, have you ever smelled a monkey cage first thing in the morning?).
Durrell was, luckily, born into an extraordinary family, and it's clear from this book how much his family meant in his development as a human being and as an eventual leader in movements to save animals.
He was born in India on Jan. 7, 1925, fourth surviving child of Louisa Florence Durrell and Lawrence Samuel Durrell, a civil engineer. While some women crave "extraordinary foods" while pregnant, Durrell wrote in an unpublished memoir, "my mother's craving was for champagne, of which she drank an inordinate quantity until I was born. To this I attribute the fact that I have always drunk excessively."
The Durrells were part of the Raj -- the British empire in India -- and father Durrell traveled all over that huge nation doing the work of the empire. He was unlike much of the other British in India at that time, living more like an Anglo-Indian, Botting reports. He resigned from his club when an Oxford-educated Indian doctor he had proposed for membership was blackballed. "This disregard for racial distinction was shared by his wife,'' Botting writes.
That lack of racist attitude is clear in most of Gerald Durrell's writing -- he wrote beautifully of people of all nations and races from the Fon of Bafut in Africa to the children of Siberia.
The elder Lawrence Durrell died, probably of a brain tumor, when Gerald was three and a half. He left his family a fortune that would be worth a half a million pounds at today's rates. Botting writes of Louisa:
Financially enriched but emotionally beggared, she was left bereft: grieving, alone and helpless. So great was her despair that years later she was to confess she had contemplated suicide. It was only the thought of abandoning Gerry, still totally dependent on her love and care, that restrained her. Mother and child were thus bound together for ever in a relation of mutual debt and devotion, for each, in their different ways, had given the other the gift of life.
Meanwhile, an extraordinary family life was continuing. Nancy Myers, who was the girlfriend of Gerald's brother Lawrence at the time, was to remember:
I was fascinated to be meeting this family, because Larry dramatised everything -- mad mother, ridiculous children, mother drunk, throwing their fortune to the winds, getting rid of everything ...
Really it was the first time I'd been in a family -- in a jolly family -- and the first time that I'd been able to say what I liked -- there was nothing forbidden to say. ... So I really fell in love with the family.
As Gerald was to recall later, "It's curious -- something one didn't realise at the time -- but my mother allowed us to be."
The entire family eventually followed brother Lawrence to Corfu, where, it was thought, their fortune might be stretched a little farther. It was a formative paradise for Gerald, who spent his pre-World War II youth wandering the island with Stephanides, or rowing a small boat by himself around the island, collecting animals.
In later years he was to visit almost every corner of the world, observing, collecting and saving many species.
Gerald was fascinated by all animal life -- not just the lions and tigers and other large, exotic creatures that were the focus of most zoos when he was young. As a boy he collected everything from scorpions to fish to small mammals, and as an adult, he helped change the focus of zoos to include the collection and preservation of many previously ignored species, ranging from lemurs to pigmy owls. He was one of the first to promote, and to succeed at, the preservation of a species in captivity.
As he got on with his life, and the Earth and its life forms became more and more endangered by the spread of human life and industry, the weight of trying to save life bore down more and more heavily on his shoulders.
He became a crusader for life and worked extraordinally hard. He wanted to observe, collect and preserve animals, but to finance that he had to write his books. So after a 12- or 14-hour day in the bush, smoking out lemurs or crawling through muck to catch a boa constrictor, the great naturalist sat down to write books, or letters to friends or family or to financial supporters.
His work cost him his first wife, Jackie, but helped him get his second, Lee, who was herself an ambitious naturalist and who gained a great deal by marrying the famous Gerald Durrell. He also gained from marrying her -- not only was she young and beautiful, she understood his work and was not overwhelmed by it, as Jackie had been.
In fact, Durrell spent his last years helping Lee prepare to take over the world-wide animal-preservation work he had begun.
All that hard work and hard living had been accompanied by a great deal of hard drinking, too. That, and a number of tropical diseases Durrell had picked up over the years, led to the destruction of his liver. He received a transplant in his 69th year.
But, his health continued to deteriorate, and he died on Jan. 30, 1995, not a month after his 70th birthday -- leaving the world a better place than it would have been were it not for him.