Not only did I grow up reading and re-reading Gerald Durrell’s books, but I also have never wanted to be someone else as much as I wanted to be Gerald Durrell. Sunday evenings watching the marvellous television adaptation of My Family and Other Animals, his autobiographical tale of his childhood running free and wild in Corfu, a paradise existence if ever I saw one, combined with the intense enjoyment of Durrell’s animal collecting memoirs to make me want to have a zoo when I grew up. While this wasn’t to be for me, it did, of course, become a dream come true for Gerald Durrell. After years of collecting species in the wild for other zoos during the 1940s and 1950s, Durrell established his own zoo in Jersey in 1958 and, quickly turning its purpose into the preservation of endangered species, founded in 1963 what has become the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust. His death in 1995 was such a loss but, fifty years after some of them were published, we still have his wonderful humorous and compassionate books to enjoy. I was delighted to learn that Bello had reprinted them in 2012, making them available to another generation of animal lovers as well as people of all ages who love to read a good tale.
Menagerie Manor is a great place to begin among the 25 or so autobiographical books. Written in 1964 to fund the zoo, it tells the story of the zoo’s origins, driven in large part by the urgency to save his sister Margot’s London house and garden from its hundreds of wild occupants, housed in suburbia while Gerald found somewhere to house them. Jersey was the perfect choice – a beautiful old house and grounds surrounded by wealthy philanthropic neighbours. Much of the book, though, is about daily life in the zoo for a man who might have been the boss but could not tear himself away from ‘the frontline’. Woken each dawn by Trumpy, the grey-winged trumpeter who looked like a ‘badly made chicken’ and clambered up into Durrell’s bedroom each morning, the day is full of characters and personalities, some human, but most not.
I laughed out loud at the antics of Delilah the porcupine and Topsy the baby woolly monkey with her guinea pig while the story of Louie the gibbon is heartwrenching. Many of the anecdotes are supported by gorgeous sketches of the animal in question.
Attitudes towards animals have changed over the last half century and modern eyes might roll a little at the tendency of Durrell to name animals or sometimes to anthropomorphise. However, as Durrell’s Senior Mammal Keeper says in the closing tribute to Durrell’s legacy, much of this was a result of Gerald’s desperate drive to protect the future of these animals, to raise funds to do so, and one huge way to do this was to make potential donors empathise with the animals in his care. This was a time when captive breeding was rare and very unsuccessful. Once the zoo was established, Durrell made a determined effort to shift the nature of its collection, moving towards animals in need of preservation and conservation. The fact that he also had an extraordinary knack of writing about animals, his zoo, his keeps and himself in such a charming and attractive manner can only have helped his cause.
Above all else, Durrell writes in the most captivating style about animals that are scene stealers. Whether it’s rescuing baby gorillas from animal dealers, chasing escaped tapirs through beautifully manicured gardens or the mammoth efforts to get two skinks to breed, there is a treat on every page. I can’t think of another writer who has made me laugh so much over the years.
May these stories live forever.
I am so grateful to Bello Books for my set of books! My old copies are battered, bruised and loved to bits. Now I can enjoy Durrell’s life all over again.