‘Dear Mr. Durrell,
I am ten years old and in my opinion you are the best zoologist in the British Isles (except Peter Scott).
Would you please send me your autograph?’
This very endearing letter was meant for Gerald Durrell, the most enjoyable zoologist we have ever come across.
Born in Jamshedpur in India in 1925, Durrell’s family moved back to Britain after his father’s death.
Gerald Durrell was and still is one of Britain’s most popular and delightful writers, an avid zoologist and a passionate naturalist.
‘My Family and Other Animals’ is the most celebrated in the series of books this amazing man went on to write.
By his own admission, he wrote in order to finance his innumerable expeditions to various parts of the world – missions to collect rare specimens for preservation in his zoo.
Thank Dogness he chose to raise funds this way, for otherwise we would never have had the pleasure of knowing this wonderful pawson as we do now.
His unique brand of humour, his extraordinary wit, his childlike enthusiasm and his dedication to save the unique wildlife of our planet is an inspiration that is powerful enough to motivate both the old and young alike.
No wonder his work lives on after him and is very efficiently carried on by the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust
Mummy came across ‘My Family and Other Animals’ in a seconds-sale book store some years back.
At first she wasn’t very sure.
‘An autobiography you say?’ she enquired of the man who was trying hard to push this book into Mummy’s already stuffed bag.
And then Mummy read the prologue.
Well, Gerald Durrell doesn’t call it that. He calls it ‘The Speech for the Defence’.
The moment she was through the first 5 lines she had decided, ‘Do you have any more of this author’s works?’
The shopkeeper was afraid he did not.
That didn’t deter her from researching this wonderful writer and over time we have collected many of his works.
You might be wondering about the words that were responsible for our instant change of heart about autobiographies.
The Speech for the Defence
‘Why,sometimes I believe in as many as six impossible things before breakfast.’
The White Queen – Alice Through the Looking-Glass
This is the story of a five-year sojourn that I and my family made on the Greek island of Corfu. It was originally intended to be a mildly nostalgic account of the natural history of the island, but I made a grave mistake by introducing my family into the book in the first few pages. Having got themselves on paper, they then proceeded to establish themselves and invite various friends to share the chapters.
It was only with the greatest difficulty, and by exercising considerable cunning, that I managed to retain a few pages here and there which I could devote exclusively to animals.
Gerald Durrell dedicates this delightful book to his mother.
‘I should like to pay special tribute to my mother, to whom this book is dedicated. As my brother Larry rightly points out, we can be proud of the way we have brought her up; she is a credit to us.’
Never have we come across a more engrossing, delightful and amusing autobiography in our entire lives. Not that we read many autobiographies, we don’t. But this particular one is just ‘un –putdownable’!
It is amazing that a single man’s tale about his life with a fleet of animals and birds will prove to be so delightfully bewitching.
We can go on and on about Durrell but we chose to quote his brother Larry who has, very succinctly, summarised all that anyone could say about him.
‘The child is mad, snails in his pockets!’ – Lawrence Durrell, 1931
‘The child is mad, scorpions in matchboxes!’ - Lawrence Durrell, 1935
‘The child is mad, working in a pet shop!’ - Lawrence Durrell, 1939
‘The boy is mad, wanting to be a zoo keeper!’ - Lawrence Durrell, 1945
‘The man is mad, crawling about snake-infested jungles!’ - Lawrence Durrell, 1952
‘The man is mad, wanting to have a zoo!’ - Lawrence Durrell, 1958
‘The man is mad.
Invite him to stay and he puts an eagle in your wine cellar!’ - Lawrence Durrell, 1967
‘The man is mad.’ - Lawrence Durrell, 1972
Obviously, after getting engrossed in the enthralling ensemble of Gerald Durrell’s books, the only ‘E’ word that emerged is ‘ESMERALDA’.
To introduce Esmeralda to you as a pig would be nothing short of sacrilege for Monsieur Clot, to whom she belonged, regarded her with a reverence accorded to a saint!
Gerald Durrell’s encounter with this illustrious Esmeralda is worth a read.
Had it not been for his many sojourns, this specific one in a delectable little French village of Perigord, and for his wish to explore the glorious countryside that particular autumn afternoon, we would never have known of Esmeralda!
Presently, I sat down on the sturdy carcase of an elderly oak to enjoy my lunch and just as I had finished there was a rustling in the dead ginger-coloured bracken and an enormous pig appeared. She was as surprised to see me as I was to see her. We gazed at each other with interest.
She had small golden eyes full of wisdom and mischief, her ears drooped down each side of her face like a nun’s habit.
She had about her an aura not, as one would assume, of pig but a delicate fragrant scent that conjured up spring meadows ablaze with flowers.
I had never smelt a pig like her.
Durrell proceeded to lure her into his station wagon, drove down to the village inn he was staying in and found the redoubtable owner, Jean.
‘Oh!la la!’ said Jean. ‘It is Esmeralda. Oh, Monsieur Clot will be out of his mind. You must take her back to him at once, Monsieur. Monsieur Clot thinks the world of that pig. You must take her back immediately.’
‘Monsieur Clot lives in “Les Arbousier ’s”, he said.
‘And where is that?’ I asked.
‘You know, his land joins on to Monsieur Mermod’s.’
‘I don’t know Monsieur Mermod.’
‘Oh, but you must know him, he’s our carpenter. He lives down in the valley by the river.
Well, you drive through the village.’
‘That way,’ he said, and pointed.
‘You turn left at Mademoiselle Hubert’s house and…’
‘I don’t know Mademoiselle Hubert or her house. What does it look like?’
‘It is brown.’
‘All the houses in the village are brown. How can I recognise it?’
He thought deeply.
‘Ah’, he said at last, ‘today is Thursday. So she will be cleaning. So, elfin, she will hang her little red mat out of the bedroom window.’
‘Today is Tuesday.’
‘Ah, you are right. If it is Tuesday, she will be watering her plants.’
‘So I turn left at the brown house where the lady is watering her plants. What then?’
‘You drive past the war-memorial, past Monsieur Pelligot’s house and then, when you come to the tree, you turn left.’
‘The tree at the turning where you turn left.’
‘The whole of Perigord is filled with trees. The roads are lined with trees. How can I distinguish this tree from the others?’
Jean looked at me in astonishment.
‘Because it is the tree against which Monsieur Herolte killed himself,’ he said, ‘and it is where his widow goes and lays a wreath in his memory on the anniversary of his death. You can tell by the wreath.’
‘When did he die?’
‘It was in June1950,sixth or seventh, I can’t be sure. But certainly June.’
‘We are now in September – will the wreath still be there?’
‘Oh, no, they clear it away when it fades.’
‘So is there any other way of identifying that tree?’
‘It is an oak,’ he said.
‘The countryside is full of oaks – how will I know this particular one?’
‘It has a dent in it.’
‘So there I turn left. Where is Monsieur Clot’s house?’
‘Oh,you can’t miss it. It is a long, low,white building, a real oldstyle farmhouse.’
‘So I just look for a white farmhouse.’
‘Yes, but you can’t see it from the road.’
‘Then how will I know when I am there?’
He thought about it carefully.
‘There is a little wooden bridge with one plank missing,’
He said. ‘That is Monsieur Clot’s drive.’
Whether Durrell manages to find Monsieur Clot's farmhouse and bring back Esmeralda to him is for you to find out!
We envisage that our efforts at reviewing Gerald Durrell’s books have left you duly enamoured by this enchanting man and that you are sufficiently enticed to go explore his enthralling world yourself.
Well, buy, beg, borrow or steal one if you have to, but please just go read Durrell.
As for ‘Esmeralda’, her story is the first in the collection published as ‘Marrying off Mother and Other Stories.’
This is our entry for this week’s ABC wednesday with Denise Nesbitt and her encouraging team. Because we missed posting last week, we have encumbered you with both ‘D’ and ‘E’ this week.