If you were to place a gecko in front of me, I’d probably scream, jump up on something, and cuss you out until you took the damned slimy thing out of my sight. And as you took it away from me, I’d jump up and down and screech “Kill it! Kill it! Kill it!” with a vim perhaps unseen since the French sent their aristocrats to the guillotine.
Nothing personal against geckos. They’re very cute in that ad. It’s just that I do not like little things with wings, bulging eyes, multiple legs, antennas, slime trails, sticky tongues, the ability to walk on walls, tentacles, etc. Especially the ones that lay eggs and can regenerate body parts. They might be fine and necessary for the food chain but I prefer it when they’re not participating in the food chain right in front of me.
So how ironic is it that the one writer I love above all others, the hero of my childhood and the inspiration of my adulthood, the man who never fails to amaze me or make me laugh, is Gerald Durrell?
All too often, when one grows up, the delights of one’s childhood turn out to be “less”, if you know what I mean. Your childhood house is a lot smaller, the fields are a lot less green, the people who towered over you shrink overnight, the trees don’t really kiss the sky, the flowers don’t smell as good, the fruit isn’t as sweet, the animals are annoying instead of cute, the folks who slipped you contraband candy are now nosy-parkers, airplanes are a source of aggravation… adulthood can be a disappointing experience.
So I was delighted to find that Durrell, like the Asterix comics, only improved on acquaintance.
Rosy is My Relative, the zany tale of a bumbling clerk with grandiose fantasies who inherits a dashing lady elephant with a taste for gin (or any booze, really), can still make me laugh until I run crying for the bathroom holding on to my aching abdomen. No, it doesn’t give me diarrhea (ew) – it makes me tear up with laughter and want to pee. I’m telling you, the thing is extreme.
And I sometimes think I could read the Corfu trilogy (My Family and Other Animals, Birds Beasts and Relatives, and Garden of the Gods) all my life and discover new things to appreciate in every reading.
According to those who knew him best, he didn’t really think of himself as a writer (the acknowledged writer in the family was elder brother Lawrence) and only picked up pen and paper when he either had nothing better to do or needed some cash to further his true love: the establishment of zoos that would see conservation as one of their primary goals. I’m just glad he had occasion to write at all.
Consider this excerpt from My Family and Other Animals where he discusses the musical if unfortunate looking pigeon Quasimodo, acquired from a vagrant (and occasional specimen supplier) he only ever identifies as the Rose Beetle Man:
One sad day we found, on waking Quasimodo, that he had duped us all, for there among the cushions lay a glossy white egg. He never quite recovered from this. He became embittered, sullen, and started to peck irritably if you attempted to pick him up. Then he laid another egg, and his nature changed completely. He, or rather she, became wilder and wilder, treating us as though we were her worst enemies, slinking up to the kitchen door for food as if she feared for her life. Not even the gramophone would tempt her back into the house. The last time I saw her she was sitting in an olive-tree, cooing in the most pretentious and coy manner, while further along the branch a large and very masculine-looking pigeon twisted and cooed in a perfect ecstasy of admiration.
Only to transition smoothly and beautifully to the following just one paragraph down:
The last time I saw the Rose-beetle Man was one evening when I was sitting on a hill-top overlooking the road. He had obviously been to some fiesta and had been plied with much wine, for he swayed to and fro across the road, piping a melancholy tune on his flute. I shouted a greeting, and he waved extravagantly without looking back. As he rounded the corner he was silhouetted for a moment against the pale lavender evening sky. I could see his battered hat with the fluttering feathers, the bulging pockets of his coat, the bamboo cages full of sleepy pigeons on his back, and above his head, circling drowsily round and round, I could see the dim specks that were the rose-beetles. Then he rounded the curve of the road and there was only the pale sky with a new moon floating in it like a silver feather, and the soft twittering of his flute dying away in the dusk.
It’s this mix of eloquent prose, his ability to paint landscapes with words (the hardest thing to do in my estimation) and populate them with personalities both human and animal that bring me back to his writing again and again.
Although it doesn’t hurt that his writing pretty much personifies my sense of humor. There’s this scene in Garden of the Gods, where young Gerry convinces his gun-mad elder brother Leslie to shoot him a few birds to feed to one of his many pets. Leslie decides to shoot enough critters to suffice the pet for a week at least. The brothers solemnly make their way to the terrace of their villa and proceed to pick off the smaller birds one by one until Gerry is satisfied. Except, when they make their way down to collect them, there’s their mother sitting frozen in the middle of the killing field – with the members of the local animal protection society.
Just imagining that scene makes me scream with laughter. (I know what you’re thinking, but it’s a lot funnier to read his version. I promise.)
And that’s another one of the things that makes me love Durrell even more. Unlike a lot of people who go about talking animal rights, not only did Durrell walk the talk, he did it without any kind of sentimentality or preaching. There is no holiness about his beliefs, nothing that suggests he’s a better person than you or I for caring about the animals who share this planet with us; he didn’t wave placards in your face or counsel you to turn vegetarian (quite the contrary in fact).
Books like The Stationary Ark make the case for conservation and better standards for zoos from a rational and compassionate standpoint without ever crossing over into fanatic zeal. He was, in the simplest of terms, cool about it. And yet he cared so much.
“The zoo has been enormously successful,” he told a visiting reporter in the mid-1980’s, “but not successful enough in the sense that it is such slow progress. You have to grope around for money and persuade governments and every year you read more horrible reports of what is being done to the world about us. The world is being destroyed at the speed of an Exocet and we are riding about on a bicycle. I feel despair twenty-four hours a day at the way we are treating the world and what we are piling up for ourselves. But you have to keep fighting, or what are we on earth for? I believe so much in what I am doing that I cannot let up.”
Above pic from Durrelliana