Zoological Green Fingers

By Moorehead, Caroline | The Spectator, March 20, 1999 | Go to article overview

Zoological Green Fingers


Moorehead, Caroline, The Spectator


Zoological green fingers

Caroline Moorehead

GERALD DURRELL: THE AUTHORISED BIOGRAPHY

by Douglas Botting

HarperCollins, 24.99, pp. 604

When Gerald Durrell was a small boy in India, out walking with his ayah, he came across two huge slugs. Later he recalled the experience with love and delight:

They were pale coffee colour with dark chocolate stripes. . . and the slime from their bodies made them glitter as though they were freshly varnished. They were glutinous and beautiful and I thought they were the most marvellous creatures I had ever seen. As Douglas Botting observes in his biography of Durrell, the animal kingdom was not only the world he liked best, but one towards which he felt great moral responsibility.

Gerald Durrell was the fourth and last child of a civil engineer and railway builder in India. Both his parents were born and grew up in the days of the Raj. His father had every expectation of a long and prosperous career when he died suddenly, in 1928, leaving a loving, highly dependent and chaotic young wife to bring up four anarchical children. The move from India to Bournemouth was so shocking that they soon fled the drizzle for Corfu, and there, as Lawrence began to write, the ten-yearold Gerald turned to the natural world. It was long before the tourists arrived, and the island was beautiful, wild and primitive. There was no schooling, beyond a weekly meeting with a remarkable Greek doctor and biologist, under whose tutelage he learnt not only the natural sciences but a sense of humility about man's place on the planet. He filled the baths and matchboxes with snakes, scorpions and toads. There were many family quarrels.

The Durrells might have remained on Corfu for ever, but in 1939 the war drove them back to Bournemouth where the family slowly splintered. All were to remember Corfu as paradise. What saved the largely uneducated Gerald was his focused obsession with the need to preserve endangered species and a love of literature, instilled in him by Lawrence, 13 years his senior. At 15, he started work in a pet shop, then moved on to a zoo. It was not long before he was off on collecting expeditions to Africa, and not so very long after that that his dream of starting a zoo of his own, in Jersey, came true, except that it was not exactly like other zoos in that it collected endangered species, to breed and eventually reintroduce into their own habitats. …

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