first part written on the 20th September 2010
This post is about Gerald Durrell, protagonist of the Durrells, and about the synchronistic events which led me to Corfu. Life can be miraculous at times. Makes one feel certain there is more to it than meets the eye. Take today for instance, sitting on the lush garden settee under the enormous umbrella at Isabella Country House in Gouvia, Corfu. Just a few feet away the blue swimming pool shimmering in the sunlight is begging to come enjoy her. The garden, well kept, with a perfect, green lawn, bordered by huge bougainvillea and oleander, still flowering although maybe a bit more sparsely than at the beginning of the summer. Tall grown palm trees and other exotic ones of which I don’t know the name, softly moving in the silky wind. While autumn was setting in in the UK where we flew in from only three day ago, the summer seems to linger on lazily on this paradise island where the sun warms our milky white bodies which need intense protection with high factor sunscreen to avoid the massive sunburns. The sun is lovely. Such a delight.
I am reading the enchanting, very well-written and thoroughly detailed authorised biography of Gerald Durrell, authored by Douglas Botting who takes you on a fabulous journey through Durrells life. Page after page you feel the admiration of the biographer for his subject, and page after page you get more and more immersed in the passion and enthusiasm of a person who, although described as an eccentricity due to his quaint upbringing, you sense to have been a credit to humanity and a truly lovable person.
I am deeply pleased the biography counts over 600 pages and contains some photographs showing Gerald during his adventurous life. I believe I paid less than 2 pounds for it on Ebay, the cost of shipment exceeding the price of the book. What amazes me is that someone would want to part with it in the first place. But even more so, that Gerald Durrell might fade into oblivion. However, maybe I am not the adequate person to be the judge of this, since I cannot know how popular his books still are in the UK. Being born on the continent in Holland, I simply don’t know his popularity in Great Britain. I do know that in Holland the film ‘My family and other animals’ starring Imelda Staunton, impersonating Gerald’s beloved mother, to whom, we readers, are greatly indebted for raising this special child without dis-forming him. Obviously, Durrell will always be remembered as the founder of the wildlife foundation in Jersey, which will be familiar to any living zoologist and naturalist. (Note added in 2017: the 2016 tv series ‘the Durrels’ proves that no one has forgotten Gerald Durrels books, and very rightly so in my opinion.)
On discussing where to go on a weeks vacation after the summer season, two requirements had to be met. Firstly: we needed the sun, and secondly: it should not be too far a flight away. Last year we had visited Luxor. I had been absolutely thrilled by the wonderful weather and exotic surroundings. Floating at the edge of the infinity pool, watching the cruise ships go by on the Nile, while silver herons, funny Egyptian ground peckers (I suppose them to be related to the woodpecker or the jay, they had this long curvy beak which they used to peck the earth) and, ‘honest to Gods’, real pelicans flying by without any awareness of the exotic impression they made on this not so well travelled tourist from the Netherlands.
It would by no means have been a punishment to return to that lovely place, however the world was so full of unknown places, so after some thorough consideration we decided Greece was to be our next destination.
The problem with Greece was just the countless number of islands to pick from, and since decision making isn’t one of my qualities, I wondered where to go. Luckily a colleague of mine happened to offer the solution to this decadent problem. Upon her arrival at a reunion in my practise, she was much admired for her colourful blouse adorned with a lovely coloured necklace made of painted wooden buttons. I complimented her on her attire, asking her if she had made them herself. Which would have been highly probable since we are all art therapists. ‘Actually I got it from Corfu, where we just were on a weeks holiday last week.’ She told me.’ So I jotted down the name of the place she had been staying at: Isabella Country House, Gouvia. A few weeks later I mentioned this to my partner and next thing I knew he booked us up for a week at that same apartment hotel. Already something must have been stirring in my subconsciousness, I got out my old yellow paged penguin copy of ‘My family and other animals’ and leafed through it. And yes, I remembered correctly, Gerry had spent his magical youth on Corfu which was now exactly where we were going. I hope, you, who are reading this, can relate to the feeling of bubbling excitement and inner anticipation which you sometimes get when joy overwhelms you. Like a three year old. I simply could not stop smiling. There was no way to hide my happiness at the foresight of visiting Corfu, where the author of my all time favourite book had lived and developed his passion for animals.
Old Penguin copy 1964 versus modern version
And so there we landed at Kerkyra airport. It was 22.00 pm and the sky was pitch black. During the drive in the taxi from the airport to Isabella’s, we managed to catch some outlines of dark mountains against the even darker sky. We got a glimpse of lights surrounding a half moon shaped bay, but that was it. The taxi dropped us inside a gate and drove off. There were two villas. Which was the one to turn to? My friend baldly went up the steps of one of the villas and returned with a gentleman by the name of Mr Socrates. I forget his last name. A friendly rather slim Greek gent with smiling soft dark eyes and a strangely careful demeanour, almost as if he was moving constantly in a room filled with priceless crystal and Lalique glass ornaments or so, which his every move was intent on preserving with all his might. His English was adequate although limited to my ears. Being Dutch, the Greek accent needed adjusting to. It was a sweet accent cuting up his English, but to me somewhat puzzling. For instance, when he kept referring to the bath as the tube making me wonder what tubes could be and confusing me into thinking there was an underground on the island. All was cleared up to me in due course, when after Mr. Socrates’s carefully trodden departure, as if going through a mine field, my partner informed me there was no bath in our apartment and did I mind? As it dawned upon me that Mr Socrates had been referring to a tub not a tube.., I pondered the question for a moment concluding we would see about all that in the morning. I proceeded to put the kettle on. Since the act of tea drinking to me is as normal to me as endless smoking is to a chain smoker, one of my traits which does not distinguish me from the Brits and which rather inclines me to think I must have been British in a former life.
How to describe the feeling after awaking in the morning and opening the door to the little patio of our studio? Let me attempt it, but mind you the real thing was way better. The patio was overlooking the lawn and the lovely green garden. Considering the heat on this island, I was astonished to see everything so green. Out of nowhere a very slim, although skinny is probably the better word, cat appeared. Her ear was strangely askew which gave her a bit of a shabby look. She was friendly and started meowing to me, clearly she had just had kittens since her teats were swollen. She was craving food incessantly. Incidentally, the weak hearted guests staying in other apartments all bought her food, as I understood from the number of saucers on the patios.
I walked over to the pool where luxurious wooden sunbeds were neatly arranged to compliment rather than to disturb the picture of quiet luxury of the premises. Standing at the pool I looked at the villa in which our apartment was situated. I smiled: the villa was strawberry pink. Just like the villa’s the Durrells stayed at when they got to Corfu (after they stayed at the Hotel upon arrival). A little more to the front, closer to the pool, there was the other villa. Reader, I promise this is no fib and I kid thee not: this villa was daffodil yellow. My heart made a little leap. It was such a thrill. I felt this was going to be a lovely week. For those familiar with the book, they need no further explanation. For those new to it, please take a look at the contents:
So there I was, sitting on the huge garden settee, absorbed in the autobiography, while continuously aware of my luck and filled with gratitude for the marvellous temperature and surroundings. We were transferred from the Strawberry Pink Villa to the Daffodil Yellow one, since my decadent luxury loving ego wanted a tube, I mean bath. This was the only thing missing in the tiny apartment really, which otherwise was very sweet. What with the pale yellow furniture and the Greek blue tiles it looks a picture to be sure. However we wanted that bath, and were just waiting for the Greek housekeeper Angela to tell us when the cleaning would be done. A discrete young man apparently from the Philippines was charged with this task which he carried out meticulously and almost like a fly on the wall, since one did hardly hear him, we just saw him move about silently, starting early mornings when he took care of the pool and garden furniture. Angela, both housekeeper and manager made sure the guests were completely satisfied. She was in her late thirties with black hair and a pleasant smile. In a sudden impulse I asked Angela could I ask her a question and in her Greek accent she immediately welcomed me to it.
‘Of courrrse you can, please’
‘I wonder if you can tell me if there is a tourist office in Kerkyra town?’ Angela listened intently to me, but the frown on her forehead caused me to think she did not seem to know what a tourist office actually was.
‘Do you know what I mean? A place for tourists to collect information and maybe a map and ideas about the sights to be seen on this island?’ I explained.
‘Ah, I see yes, but no we don’t have that, I think. Maybe tourrrists shops will have maps, yes in Corfu town, and maybe in Gouvia. Why you need?’ It was obvious that being a tourist probably was not so much on Angela’s list of daily activities. I now said I was looking to see if there was any information about Gerald Durrell. Frowning again Angela did not understand the name clearly I suspected. I held up the book and showed her the cover, pointing out the name of the author to her. Rather expecting her to look even more puzzled I was happy to see that she wasn’t.
‘Ah yes, I maybe heard about him before. Wait. I will go ask Mr Socrates and let you know.’
Now that was very sweet of Angela, I was pleased but did not expect much of it. I had not been able to trace anything of great help on the internet before leaving. Which surprised me, as it was such a shame.
This expectation was very doubtful of me and not showing any confidence in my fellow human being. On Angela’s coming back I was both humbled and wonderfully delighted.
‘Mr Socrated knows very well about Misterrr Durrrrell’ She hesitated about the name.
‘Mr Durrell’ I pronounced showing her the name on the cover of the book again.
‘Yes Misterrrr Durrrrrel, Mr Socrates has asked Doctor Giourkos who is the person who arrrrrranged forr the making of the statue of the Misterrr Durrelll in Corfu.’
My eyes must have started to shine instantly because Angela smiled broadly at my great enthusiasm.
‘A statue? Of Gerald Durrell? Where is that? In Corfu?’
‘Yes, the statue is in the park in Corfu.’ Angela explained to us in detail how to get there. Thanking Angela profusely I looked at my friend who smiled. He knew the lazing by the pool was over. We were heading to Corfu town. A hire car had been delivered to us an hour or so earlier and so we got ready and headed for adventure.
Rest of this post written 27th March 2012
There we were. This is the park. The sign on the gate says it all. Not only is there a statue of Gerald to be found, but also one of his elder brother Lawrence Durrell, also a well-known author. Gerry actually became an author by chance, Larry had always been an author by choice. As from the age of two Gerry had a fascination for nature. When one day the family moved to Corfu, Gerry could feed this fascination because of the lush flora and fauna at Corfu. He was destined to become a zoologist and a biologist. Durrell dedicated his life to the preservation of wildlife. He went on expeditions to collect species on the verge of extinction in order to prevent exactly that. Because he needed money to fund his expeditions, he started writing. Little could he know his books were to become best sellers making him a famous author. Gerald Durrell founded the Jersey Zoological Park in 1959. It still exists today. His first book was My family and other animals which is truly a bewitching book, not only to the Sunday Times, but definitely to me. I will share with you a few excerpts of the preface:
It already gives a very good hint of the modesty and wit of this exceptional Englishman. The book is a joy to read. Now let’s go back to the statues I promised:
Plaque would be more accurate probably than calling it a statue, however it’s a true tribute and a well deserved one in my opinion. Since both Gerald and Lawrence Durrell wrote about their lives in Corfu, which actually affected the island economically in a very positive way.
Lawrence Durrell has written quite a few books. His first was the Pied Piper of Lovers, another, Prospero’s Cell, is set in Corfu. He won a the Duff Cooper Prize for Bitter Lemons and it was later speculated he would win the Nobel prize for literature, but this was not to be. Larry was born in Jalandhar India 27th january 1912 and died in Sommières Languedoc, 7th nov. 1990 aged 78). Gerald was born in Jamshedpur, India on the 7th of january 1925, he died the 30th jan. 1995 aged 70.
I was thrilled to have found these statues and was to live even more joy soon. On returning to Isabella’s the excellent Angela had collected for us the telephone number of a Doctor by the name of Giourkous, who would be able to tell us more about the Durrells. By now I felt like a hound on a trail. I was determined to find out where the Durrells had lived on the island. So we called the doctor. It was his pleasure to receive us and give us more information. So off we went again to Corfu city.
Above you can see me standing in the doorway of the doctors surgery. A poster was hanging in the waiting room. This told us we were in the right place. Lee Durrell was Geralds wife. Another interesting frame in the waiting room:
It’s an article in the Guardian stating that Corfu plays a belated tribute to the Durrells. We were asked in by the doctor.
He was true to his word and gave us a treasure of information. Not only could he tell us a bit about the whereabouts of the Strawberry-Pink, Daffodill-Yellow, and Snow-White villas, he also told us there actually was a Durrell ‘School of Corfu which had been founded and could be found in Corfu city. The wonderful doctor showed us a map and indicated the whereabouts of the school. Furthermore he was happy to show us some locations himself if we would like and would come back another day. Unfortunately we had no time to do so, and anyway the doctor already had been more than helpful. We set off to the Durrell School..
Below in italics you will find a part of the introduction of the schools webpage:
The Durrell School of Corfu offers a variety of activities, ranging from a series week-long seminars to excursions that explore the rich cultural history of the Mediterranean basin. Past and future field classes include Butrint (Albania), Old Perithia (Corfu), Lia (mainland Greece) and Kalami (Corfu) as well as walking tours of historic Corfu Town and its colonial architecture.
The Durrell School now also hosts visiting courses and workshops, providing unparalleled organizational support and background to the history and culture of the area, as well as an introduction to the work of Lawrence and Gerald Durrell and other writers connected with the region. If you are interested in bringing a writing workshop or a visual arts workshop to the Durrell School, please click here.
Moderators and Distinguished Visiting Writers for 2008 and 2009 included David Bellamy, Hugh Bennison, Joseph Boone, Jan Morris, and Mark Morris.
By the way. I’m sorry about the quality of some of the pics. I did not know I was going to write a blog at the time and so please forgive me. However if you want to know more about the school please visit their website: www.durrell-school-corfu.org
We were expected since the good doctor had called the school to announce our arrival. We were ushered in by a very friendly British lady who told us she was working as a secretary (I think) at the school. We went up some steep wooden stairs. I was thrilled to find this school existed. I felt Gerald and Lawrence deserved it. Some pictures of the library:
Anthony Hirst was introduced to us and he explained us about the intention of the school and he obligingly allowed me to take some pictures of the library with books by both Durrells in various translations.
We did not want to take up too much of Mr Hirsts valuable time, we had already come rather unexpectedly. We thanked them very much and were given some books. Upon leaving I was determined to write about this experience in a blog. It took me a while, but here we are..
We managed to find the hotel the Durrell family first stayed at upon their arrival in Corfu:
The family arrived at Corfu in 1935. It consisted of Mother (Geralds father had died), Lawrence, Leslie, Margo and Gerald. When they arrived on the island, they met a formidable Greek named Spiro. When you read the book I hope you will enjoy Spiro’s accent just as much as I did. He somehow managed to add an s to nearly every word. When the family just arrives at the island, they need to find a taxi. Since they only speak English and the Greek people do not, they are in a bit of a predicament, then suddenly:
‘At that moment everyone was startled into silence by a voice that rumbled out above the uproar, a deep, rich, vibrant voice, the sort of voice you would expect a volcano to have. ‘Hoy!’ roared the voice, ‘whys donts yous have someones who can talks your own language?’ Turning, we saw an ancient Dodge parked by the kerb, and behind the wheel sat a short, barrel-bodied individual, with ham-like hands and a great, leathery, scowling face surmounted by a jauntily-tilted peaked cap. He opened the door of the car, surged out on to the pavement, and waddled across to us. Then he stopped, scowling even more ferociously, and surveyed the group of silent cabdrivers. ‘Thems been worrying yous?’ he asked Mother. ‘No, no,’ said Mother untruthfully; it was just that we had difficulty in understanding them.’ ‘Yous wants someones who can talks your own language, ‘ repeated the new arrival; ‘thems bastards… if yous will excuse the words… would swindles their own mothers. Excuses me a minute and I’ll fix thems…”
Just a tiny example of the delicious read…
Presently we were off on a hunt for the three villa’s. Unfortunately they have not been preserved as museums. We managed to find the location but the strawberry-pink villa has vanished alas. In my opinion a terrible mistake. But then again the header of the article in the Guardian says it correctly: Corfu pays BELATED tribute to Durrells. Such a shame, this means some things have been lost forever.
The only picture I can produce of the daffodil-yellow villa is one from Gerald biography, here we see the family posing in front it.
Picture taken by Leslie (Geralds other brother) in the winter of 1936. From left to right: Margo, Gerry’s sister; Nancy, Larry’s girlfriend; Larry; Gerald and Mother.
In this picture we see the young Gerald with an owl. In one of the woollen pullovers which at some point his mother allowed him to stop wearing, since Corfu was way to hot.
The picture below is the Snow-White villa, last of the Durrells’ three houses. It was built at Criseda as the weekend retreat of the British Governor of the Ionian Islands in 1824.
We did manage to find the house in which Lawrence Durrell lived when he married. It still exists, oh joy of joys, and actually is a taverna annex hotel.
It is called the White House. There is a sign:
And so we turned the corner and walked down to have tea and take some more pics. The White House is located in a lovely spot overlooking one of Corfu’s sweet beautiful bays and where one starts to wonder what the heck one does living in cold Holland…
There are some books for sale. Gerry’s biography and of course My family and other animals. And needless to say books by Lawrence who lived in the White House.
The taverna rents out boats. I was enthusiastic about that. I thought Corfu would be great to see from the water. It would give us a feel of the life on an island, since all islanders have boats. Gerald had a boat : the Bootle-Bumtrinket, made for him by his brother Leslie. I thought it was a great idea to hire a boat. I needed to convince my dear friend since he was a tiny bit concerned about not being able to steer a boat. I must say I did not have any experience with a motor boat myself, since in my youth I used to only do canoeing. However I managed to persuade him and after getting used to the driving of the boat he was pleased I did push him into it.
See how well he managed? I felt elated. I was trying to think how it must have been in the days of the Durrells. Hardly any foreigner on the island of course. No tourists, hardly anything to disturb the peace. Boating from lagoon to lagoon and diving into the wonderful blue water warmed by the ever present sun. It was heavenly.
Turning a corner and feeling a little peckish we just steered the boat to this little jetty and got off to sit ourselves on the terrace of one of the many tavernas. It felt great to be able to enjoy such a wonderful time. Totally unexpected and savoured to the core.
These pictures I joined to show you what a true animal lover Gerald was. Unfortunately I never met him. It’s a weird thing to say but even though I never did meet him, I feel such warm feelings for him. A person who writes such books and who loves animals so deeply I can so relate to. I hope I was able to convey my love for Gerald Durrell on this page. Unfortunately I have not yet been to Jersey. But as soon as I have, you will be able to read all about it on this blog…