Chumley the Chimp Held Up a No 53 Bus, Molested a Woman Passenger and Flattened a Nightclub Bouncer. but Still Gerald Durrell Never Forgave the Zoo Bosses Who Shot Him; Concluding Our Fascinating Series on a Much - Loved Author.

Daily Mail (London), March 1, 1999 | Go to article overview
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Chumley the Chimp Held Up a No 53 Bus, Molested a Woman Passenger and Flattened a Nightclub Bouncer. but Still Gerald Durrell Never Forgave the Zoo Bosses Who Shot Him; Concluding Our Fascinating Series on a Much - Loved Author.


Byline: DOUGLAS BOTTING

ON SATURDAY we told how Gerald Durrell, author of the classic book My Family And Other Animals, was dumped by his wife before falling for a zoologist half his age.

Here, in the concluding part of our series, we examine his idyllic childhood in Corfu and reveal how his friendship with a chimp called Chumley ended in tragedy.

OLD, sick and near death, Gerald Durrell recalled with all the pain and longing of remembered youth the magical landfall that had transformed his life .

'It was like being allowed back into Paradise,' he whispered. 'Our arrival in Corfu was like being born for the first time.' Corfu was arguably the most beautiful Mediterranean island then and when the Durrell s arrived in 1935 it was virtually untouched by modern development.

Later, as a celebrated novelist, Gerald's brother Lawrence would recall this Eden as 'one large flea - one enormous, hairy, gnashing flea - and several kinds of bedbug as well, mostly elephant-sized'.

But, then, Larry never shared his ten-year-old brother's delight in the natural world.

'The boy's mad!' exclaimed Larry once. 'Snails in his pockets. . !' As a six-year-old in Bournemouth, several years before the family decamped to the Med, Gerald would take a tribute of slugs, snails, earwigs and other creepy-crawlies, sometimes in matchboxes and sometimes in his pockets, to his kindergarten teacher.

It was about this time that Gerald, walking with his mother along the promenade, announced his wish to have a zoo of his own, listing the species, the cages they would be housed in and the cottage in which he and his mother would live within the grounds.

CORFU, then, was the perfect place for a boy besotted by nature. Every day began with the rising sun striking the shutters of his bedroom windows, followed soon by the smell of a charcoal fire in the kitchen, cock-crows, yapping dogs and goats' bells clanging as the flocks wended their way to the grazing grounds.

After a breakfast of coffee, toast and eggs under the tangerine trees of the Durrells' first island home, the Strawberry-Pink Villa, Gerry would saunter forth into the cool of the morning, his butterfly net in hand, empty matchboxes in his pockets, following the black, bouncing form of Roger the dog, his constant and dearly loved companion on all his forays.

The cornucopia of wildlife was matched only by the island's singular inhabitants. One of the most extraordinary characters was the Rose-beetle Man, a wandering pedlar of extreme eccentricity.

When Gerald first encountered him in the hills, playing a shepherd's pipe, the Rose-beetle Man was fantastically garbed in a battered hat that sprouted a forest of fluttering feathers of owl, hoopoe, kingfisher, cockerel and swan, and a coat whose pockets bulged with trinkets, balloons and coloured pictures of the saints.

On his back he carried bamboo cages full of pigeons and chickens, together with several sacks, one of by Douglas Botting which contained tortoises, and a large bunch of fresh green leeks.

'With one hand he held his pipe to his mouth and in the other a number of lengths of cotton, to each of which was tied an almond-sized rose-beetle, glittering golden green in the sun, all of them flying around his hat with desperate deep buzzings,' Gerald wrote later.

The beetles, the man mimed - for he was dumb as well as strange were substitute toy aeroplanes for the village children.

From him Gerald obtained a tortoise and several other small creatures that took up residence in the Strawberry-Pink Villa, including a frog, a sparrow with a broken leg and the man's entire stock of rose-beetles, which infested the house for several days, crawling into beds and plopping into people's laps 'like emeralds'.

Perhaps the most idiosyncratic of these acquisitions was a young pigeon which refused to learn to fly and insisted on sleeping at the foot of Gerald's sister Margaret's bed.

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Chumley the Chimp Held Up a No 53 Bus, Molested a Woman Passenger and Flattened a Nightclub Bouncer. but Still Gerald Durrell Never Forgave the Zoo Bosses Who Shot Him; Concluding Our Fascinating Series on a Much - Loved Author.
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