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Gerald DurrellThe Authorized Biography
By Douglas Botting
Carroll & Graf PublishersCopyright © 2000 Douglas Botting
All right reserved.
Gerald Malcolm Durrell was born in Jamshedpur, Bihar Province, India, on 7 January 1925, the fourth surviving child of Louisa Florence Durrell (née Dixie), aged thirty-eight, and Lawrence Samuel Durrell, forty, a civil engineer.
When Gerald was older his mother told him something about the circumstances of his entry into the world. During the later stages of her pregnancy, it seems, she had swelled up to a prodigious degree, her enormous girth accentuated by her diminutive height, for she stood only five feet tall in her stockinged feet. Eventually she had grown so ashamed of her immense rotundity that she refused to leave the house. This annoyed her husband, who told her she ought to get out and about and go down to the Club, the social and recreational centre where all the local members of the British Raj used to congregate. 'I can't go to the Club looking like this,' she retorted. 'I look like an elephant.' Whereupon Gerald's father suggested building a howdah in which she could pass unnoticed, a flippancy which so annoyed her that she refused to speak to him for two days.
'As other women have cravings for coke or wood shavings or similar extraordinary foods when they are in this state,' Gerald was to record in an unpublished memoir about his Indian childhood, 'my mother's craving was for champagne, of which she drank an inordinate quantity until I was born. To this I attribute the fact that I have always drunk excessively, and especially champagne, whenever I could afford it.'
Gerald was by far the largest of his mother's babies, which might explain why she had grown so huge during her pregnancy, and when he was fully grown he would stand head and shoulders not only above her but above his sister and two brothers, who were all almost as small as their mother. But his birth, when it came, was simple. 'I slipped out of her like an otter into a pool,' he was to write, relating what his mother had told him. The staff from the household and from his father's firm gathered round to congratulate the sahib and memsahib on the arrival of their latest son. 'All the Indians agreed that I was a special baby, and that I had been born with a golden spoon in my mouth and that everything during my lifetime would be exactly as I wished it. Looking back at my life, I see that they were quite right.'
Both of Gerald's parents, as well as his grandfather on his mother's side, were Anglo-Indians in the old sense of the term (not Eurasians, but British whites with their family roots in India) who had been born and brought up in the India of the Raj. His father had been born in Dum Dum in Bengal on 23 September 1884, and his mother in Roorkee, North-West Province, on 16 January 1886. Her father too had been born in Roorkee, and was six years old when the Indian Mutiny polarised the subcontinent in 1857.
Gerald's family thus had little knowledge or experience of the distant but hallowed motherland of England. The depth of their association with India, which they regarded as their true home and native land, was such that when, many years later, Gerald's mother applied for a British passport, she was to declare: 'I am a citizen of India.' Though Gerald was not to live long in India, its influence on his sense of identity was palpable, and at no point in his life was he ever to feel himself entirely English, in terms of nationality, culture or behaviour. For his three older siblings, who lived a good deal longer in India -- Lawrence George (not quite thirteen when Gerald was born, and at school in England), Leslie Stewart (seven, and also about to go to school in England) and Margaret Isabel Mabel (five) -- the sense of dislocation was even stronger.
Gerald's mother was of pure Protestant Irish descent, the Dixies hailing from Cork in what is now the Irish Republic. It was to this Irish line that two of her sons, Gerald and Lawrence, were to attribute their gift of the gab and wilder ways. Louisa's father, George Dixie, who died before her marriage, had been head clerk and accountant at the Ganges Canal Foundry in Roorkee. It was in Roorkee that she first met Lawrence Samuel Durrell, then aged twenty-five, who was studying there, and in Roorkee that the couple married in November 1910. 'God-fearing, lusty, chapel-going Mutiny stock', was how Gerald's eldest brother Lawrence was to describe the family's Indian roots. 'My grandma sat up on the veranda of the house with a shotgun across her knees waiting for the mutiny gangs: but when they saw her they went the other way. Hence the family face ... I'm one of the world's expatriates anyhow.'
Louisa Durrell was an endearing woman, rather shy and quietly humorous, and totally dedicated to her children. She was so protective towards her brood that she was for ever rushing home from parties and receptions to make sure they were safe and sound -- not without reason, for India was a dangerous place for children: her second-born, Margery Ruth, had died of diphtheria in early infancy, and Lawrence and Leslie were often ill with one ailment or another. Her husband adored her, but forbade her from involving herself in most of the usual routines and duties of a wife and mother of her era (including the daily practicalities of running a home and family, all of which were attended to by the native servants) because he felt she should observe the proprieties of her status as a memsahib of the Raj.
But though she was utterly devoted to her dynamic, patriarchal and largely conventional husband, and seemingly compliant to his every wish, there lay behind Louisa's quiet, non-confrontational façade a highly individual and unusual woman, independent of spirit and not without fortitude, who unobtrusively went her own way in many things and quietly defied the rigid codes of conduct laid down for her sex in that era of high empire. As an Anglo-Indian, she was less mindful of her exalted status than the average white memsahib who passed her time in the subcontinent in a state of aloof exile. As a young woman she had defied convention and trained as a nurse, and had even scrubbed floors (unheard of for a white woman in India then). When her husband's work took him upcountry or out into the wilds, his young wife, along with their children, would go with him and rough it without complaint. When he was back in town, and out at the office or on a construction site, she would spend hours in the heat and smoke of the kitchen learning from cook the art of curry-making, at which she became very adept, and developing a taste for gin at sundown, though Lawrence Samuel made sure she limited herself to no more than two chota-pegs a day. It was probably from his mother that Gerald (like his two brothers) inherited his humour and the alcohol gene. But it was from his father that he inherited his bright blue eyes and hair type (full and flopping over his eyes) and his height, exceptional in an otherwise very short family.
Physically minute, impractical, fey and seemingly somewhat bewildered as a person, Louisa was also in a way rather Oriental in her outlook and mindset -- her son Lawrence was to describe her as a kind of born-again Buddhist. If Father was the respectable, uncomplicated patriarch, Mother was to a degree his opposite. 'My mother was the neurotic,' Lawrence Durrell once remarked. 'She provided the hysterical Irish parts of us and also the sensibility that goes with it. She's really to blame for us, I think -- she should have been run in years ago.' Not altogether surprisingly, she had an interest in the paranormal. Perhaps it was the Irish in her, perhaps it was the miasma of India, but she had a fondness for ghosts, and felt no fear of them. In one of the family's Indian postings their house backed on to a wild forest, and the servants, shivering with fright, would complain to Louisa of the lonely spirit that cried there at night. She would then take a lantern -- so the story goes -- and set off into the depths of the forest on her own, with the servants trying to stop her, crying, 'Oh memsahib, oh memsahib,' until she was swallowed up by the trees and all they could hear was her voice calling out, 'Come on, come on,' as if trying to placate the lonely, desolate spirit.
Mother was to remain a hugely important figure in the lives of her offspring. 'I was the lucky little bastard that got all the attention,' Gerald was to recall years later. 'She was a most marvellous non-entity; a great mattress for her children.' But though Gerald was always the closest to his mother, it was Leslie who was her favourite, perhaps because she realised he might have the most need for her. Everyone loved Louisa -- everyone, that is, except her eldest son Lawrence, who never forgave her for allowing him to be sent to England to complete his education, abandoned among the 'savages'.
Gerald's father, Lawrence Samuel Durrell, was, strictly speaking, not a Durrell at all. The facts of the matter are buried in a tangle of relationships involving his grandmother, Mahala Tye, in the depths of rural Suffolk in the early years of the Victorian era. After the suicide of her first husband, William Durrell, it seems that Mahala gave birth to an illegitimate son, whose biological father was a Suffolk farmer by the name of Samuel Stearne. Shortly afterwards Mahala married Henry Page, a labourer, who became the baby's stepfather and by whom she had five other children. Later in life the illegitimate son -- the future grandfather of Gerald Durrell -- sailed to India, and in Lucknow in 1883 he married for the second time, to Dora Johnstone, the twenty-one-year-old daughter of a sergeant-major in the Royal Horse Brigade, by whom he had eight children. Grandfather Durrell went on to serve with distinction in the Boxer Rebellion in China, rising eventually to the rank of major and dying in Portsmouth in 1914, shortly after volunteering for active service in the Great War at the age of sixty-three. The first of his children by his second wife was Gerald Durrell's father, Lawrence Samuel, elevated from birth by his illegitimate father's steady climb through the social scale from yokel stock to officer class.
Lawrence Samuel Durrell by all accounts was a decent but rather distant and often absent figure to his children, for his work as an engineer took him across the length and breadth of British India, from the Punjab and the Himalayas to Bengal, and as far away as the jungles of Burma. According to his eldest son, Lawrence, he was a good, serious, sincere man, deeply imbued with the Victorian faith in the overriding power of science to solve all things. He was not an imaginative man, nor was he particularly cultured, but though he was a straightforward servant of empire, he was not an entirely conventional one; he did not live like the British but like the Anglo-Indians, and he resigned from his club when an Oxford-educated Indian doctor he had proposed for membership was blackballed, even though he had saved his eldest son's life. This disregard for racial distinctions was shared by his wife.
Gerald's father was clearly a man of exceptional ability, determination and industry who rose from relatively modest beginnings to become a trail-blazing railway builder and civil engineer of the kind celebrated by the laureate of the Raj, Rudyard Kipling -- an empire-builder in the classic mould. Dedicated to playing his part in laying down the infrastructure of a modern, industrialising India, from the construction of roads, railways, canals and bridges to the building of hospitals, factories and schools, Lawrence Samuel slogged away in monsoon and jungle, carting his family around with him like a band of privileged gypsies, and earning the highest commendations from his employers. 'A splendid man at his work,' went one report, 'full of energy and careful over details ... With tact and gentle persuasion, Mr Durrell has managed his workmen splendidly.'
By 1918 Lawrence Samuel was Chief Engineer with the Darjeeling and Himalaya Railway on the India-Tibet border, leaving two years later to found his own company -- Durrell & Co., Engineers and Contractors -- in the new industrial boom town of Jamshedpur, planned and built as a 'garden city' by the giant Tata Iron and Steel Company, but in those days a raw-edged place in the middle of a hot, dusty plain. In the four years preceding Gerald's birth he became one of the fat cats of British India, successful, rich -- and desperately overworked.
Most of the major construction projects that Durrell & Co. helped to build in Jamshedpur still stand today, among them extensions to the Tata works, the Tinplate Company of India, the Indian Cable Company, the Enamelled Ironware Company and much else beside, including 'Beldi', the home in which Gerald was born and in which he spent the first years of his life. 'Beldi' was a regulation D/6 type bungalow in European Town, Jamshedpur, a residence appropriate to Lawrence Samuel Durrell's status as a top engineer -- a rung or two below the Army and the Indian Civil Service, a rung or two above the box-wallahs and commercials. It was not grand, but it was comfortable, with cool, shuttered rooms, a large veranda with bamboo screens against the heat of the sun, and a sizeable garden of lawn, shrubs and trees, where Gerry the toddler took his first steps.
Gerald was never much aware of his three older siblings during his infant years in India. His elder brother Lawrence had already been packed off to school in England by the time he was born, and Leslie (now back in India) and Margaret (five years his senior), had advanced far beyond baby talk and infant toys. He was even less aware of the outer fringes of the Durrell family network -- the army of aunts and his daunting paternal grandmother, Dora, the overweight, doom-preaching, oppressive and rather terrifying matriarch known as 'Big Granny', who circulated around the family and was destined not to expire until 1943. For much of his time Gerald was left in the company of his Indian surrogate mother, or ayah. 'In those days children only saw their parents when they were presented to them at four o'clock for the family tea,' Margaret was to recall. 'So our lives revolved around the nursery and our Hindu ayah and Catholic governess. Gerry would have had more to do with the ayah than we older children did, so the biggest influence in his Indian years would have been the Indian rather than the European part of the household.'
In later years Gerald claimed to remember a number of incidents from his early life in Jamshedpur. One of the most vivid of these, often recounted, was his first visit to a zoo, an experience so memorable that he attributed to it the beginning of his lifelong passion for animals and zoos. In fact there was no zoo in Jamshedpur in Gerald's day, though there is one now. Even if there had been a zoo, it is highly unlikely that Gerald could have remembered it, for when he was only a toddler of fourteen months he left Jamshedpur with his father, mother, sister Margaret and Big Granny Dora, never to return. On 11 March 1926 the Durrell party sailed from Bombay for England on board the P&O ship SS Ranchi, and by April they were in London.
In the India of that time it was normal for British servants of the Raj to take a furlough in Britain roughly every two years, but it seems that the Durrells also had a mission to perform during their visit. Lawrence Samuel was keen to find a property to buy in London, either as an investment or as a place to retire to, or both. As a successful engineer of empire he had begun to amass a small fortune, and had already invested in a large fruit farm in Tasmania, which he had purchased unseen. He was now forty-two, and his workload was punishing. Many years later his future (albeit posthumous) daughter-in-law Nancy, first wife of his eldest son Lawrence, was to recall as she lay dying: 'Father decided he'd had enough of this sort of life and wanted to go to England and live an entirely different sort of life. His ambition was to go on the stage and partner Evelyn Laye in the music hall.' Whether this was true (which seems improbable) or was one of Lawrence's numerous canards (which seems very possible), it appears that Father did intend to strike camp at some time, and leave an India where the clamour for self-rule was growing noticeably more vociferous and militant. But not yet. In due course he purchased a suitably grand eight-bedroomed house at 43 Alleyn Park in Dulwich, not far from Lawrence and Leslie's schools.
On 12 November 1926 Big Granny sailed back to Bombay on board the SS Rawalpindi after a six-month spell in England. A little later Louisa, Leslie, Margaret and Gerald followed her. They returned not to Jamshedpur but to Lahore, where Lawrence Samuel, who was engaged on contract work in the region, had established a new home in a substantial bungalow at 7 Davis Street. It was in Lahore that such memories as Gerald retained of his life in India were formed -- though these were fragmentary and fleeting, and undoubtedly coloured by what his mother, brothers and sister later told him.
From an early age, it seems, Gerald was endowed (like his brother Lawrence) with a highly developed, almost photographic memory. He was to recall in an unpublished memoir:
My handful of memories of this time were just little sharply etched vignettes in brilliant colour, with sight and sound and smell and taste added -- the scarlet of the sunsets, for example, the harsh singing cries of a peacock, the smell of coriander and bananas, the tastes of different kinds of rice, especially the wonderful taste of my favourite breakfast, which was rice boiled in buffalo milk with sugar. I remember I used to wear little suits made out of tussore. I remember the lovely colour of it -- a very pale biscuit brown -- and the delicious soft silky feel of it and the rustling sound it made as my ayah dressed me in the morning. I remember my ayah refused to wake me in the morning unless it was to the strains of Harry Lauder on the gramophone, because otherwise I would be grumpy and morose and she couldn't do anything with me. The gramophone was a wind-up one and although it was very scratchy, like a lot of mice in a tin box, it was wonderful to my ears, and I would wake up with a beaming smile on my face, which made my ayah heave a sigh of relief.
It was in the India of his infancy that Gerald's intense sense of colour was born, but it was the young child's first glimpse of other life forms that was to have the profoundest impact on him. That glimpse was brief and unpromising, but for Gerald it was unforgettable, and from it all else was to follow. He was walking with his ayah, he remembered, and happened to wander to the edge of the road, where there was a shallow ditch.
Here I found two enormous slugs, at least they appeared enormous to me, though they were probably not much more than three or four inches long. They were pale coffee colour with dark chocolate stripes and they were slowly sliding about over each other in a sort of dance 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. When my ayah discovered I was slug-watching she pulled me away and told me that I must not touch or even watch such disgusting creatures as they were dirty and horrible. I could not understand, even at that age, that she could think such beautiful creatures could be dirty, and throughout my life I have met so many people who think things are disgusting or dirty or dangerous when they are nothing of the sort but miraculous pieces of nature.
Before long the infant Gerald really did set foot inside his first zoo, and his life was transformed for evermore. The zoo was in Lahore (not, as he was later to recall, in Jamshedpur), and the impact of this modest establishment was overwhelming. Gerald was to recall of this landmark in his life:
The rich ammonia-like smell coming from the tiger and leopard cages, the incredible chatter and screams from the small group of monkeys and the melodious song of the various birds that inhabited the little zoo captivated me from the start. I remember the lovely black freckles on the leopard's skin, and the tiger, as he walked, looking like a rippling golden sea. The zoo was in fact very tiny and the cages minuscule and probably never cleaned out, and certainly if I saw the zoo today I would be the first to have it closed down, but as a child it was a magic place. Having been there once, nothing could keep me away.
According to his mother, 'zoo' was one of the first words Gerald ever uttered, and whenever he was asked where he wanted to go he would say 'zoo', loudly and belligerently. If he didn't go to the zoo his screams of frustration could be heard 'from the top of Everest to the Bay of Bengal'. Once, when he was too ill even to visit the zoo, Gerald was provided with a sort of substitute zoo of his own by the family butler, Jomen, who modelled a whole menagerie of animals -- rhinoceros, lion, tiger, antelope -- out of red laterite clay from the garden. Perhaps it was this collection of little mud replicas that gave Gerald the idea -- that was to become an idée fixe by the time he was six -- of having a real zoo of his own one day.
Other creatures that reinforced Gerald's love of animals made their appearance at this time:
One day my Uncle John, Mother's favourite brother, a great shikar [hunter] who lived at Ranchi, and was employed by the government to shoot man-eating tigers and rogue elephants, sent us, in a moment of aberration, two fat Himalayan bear cubs. They were weaned but had come straight from the wild and no attempt had been made to tame them. They had very long, sharp claws and very sharp, white teeth and uttered a series of yarring cries of rage and frustration. They were housed temporarily under a big, dome-like basket on the back lawn and a man was detailed to look after them. Of course, having your own bears was a wonderful thing, even though they did smell very lavatorial. Unfortunately, at that age Margaret was ripe for any sort of mischief, and as soon as the bears' minder went off for some food she would overturn the bears' basket and then run screaming into the house, shouting, 'The bears are out! The bears are out!' After two or three days of this my mother's nerves could stand no more. She was terrified that the bears would escape and find me sitting on my rug and proceed to disembowel me. So the bears were packed up and sent down to the little zoo.
The long, golden days of Gerald's privileged infancy, with an army of servants and all the perks of an imperial elite, were to come to an abrupt stop in a tragedy of great consequence for all the Durrells.
Early in 1928 Gerald's father fell seriously ill. Though the illness was never satisfactorily diagnosed, the symptoms suggest a brain tumour of some kind. Margaret remembered her father suffering from severe headaches, and talking and behaving in a very odd and frightening manner. One day, for example, she was dismayed to see him reach for the inkwell on his desk and drink its contents as if it were a glass of whisky or a cup of tea. Friends and relatives suggested it might help if the ailing man was taken up into the cool of the hills, away from the heat of the Lahore plains, and eventually he was transported to the hill station of Dalhousie, which at a height of nearly eight thousand feet crowned the most westerly shoulder of a magnificent snowy range of the lower Himalayas. Dalhousie had a small English cottage hospital looking out over the mountains, the air was crisp and the ambience calm.
Lawrence Samuel was made as comfortable as possible, but his condition continued to deteriorate. Louisa stayed at the hospital to be near him, while the younger children were billeted at a nearby house with their Irish governess. Sometimes the family would drive out into the surrounding hills, where in the cool pine forests, loud with the rustle of the trees, the throbbing chorus of birdsong and the bubbling of the shallow, brownwater streams, Gerald was given a broader vision of the world of nature. Occasionally he was given rides on his father's large bay horse, surrounded by a ring of servants in case he fell off. Not even the death of the horse, which fell down a cliff when Gerald suddenly startled it as it grazed with its feet tethered near the edge one day, could wean him off his burgeoning passion for the animal world.
On 16 April 1928, when Gerald was three years and three months of age, his father died of a suspected cerebral haemorrhage, and was buried the next day at the English cemetery at Dalhousie. Neither Gerald nor Margaret attended the funeral. Mother was entirely shattered.
Within the family there was a general feeling that Father's premature death, at the age of forty-three, was brought on by worry and overwork. He had made a fortune as a railway-builder, but had fared less well when he turned to road construction, on one occasion undertaking to build a highway on a fixed-price contact, only to find that the subsoil was solid rock. His sister Elsie believed he had 'worked himself to death', and was told that at the moment he was taken ill he was 'out in the heat of the midday sun supervising a critical piece of work on a bridge'. According to Nancy Durrell (who would have got it from her husband Lawrence), her father-in-law had quarrelled with the Indian partners in his business. 'They apparently turned a bit nasty, and there was a very gruelling lawsuit, which he handled all by himself, he wouldn't have a lawyer. But he got overexcited, and what exactly happened I don't know, but in the end he had a sort of brainstorm, and he died rather quickly.'
In July 1928 Lawrence Samuel's will was granted probate, and Louisa, now embarking on almost half a lifetime of widowhood, was left the sum of 246,217 rupees, the equivalent of £18,500 at the exchange rate of the time, or more than half a million pounds in today's money. Financially enriched but emotionally beggared, she was left bereft: grieving, alone and helpless. So great was her despair that years later she was to confess she had contemplated suicide. It was only the thought of abandoning Gerry, still totally dependent on her love and care, that restrained her. Mother and child were thus bound together for ever in a relationship of mutual debt and devotion, for each, in their different ways, had given the other the gift of life.
'When my father died,' Gerald was to recall, 'my mother was as ill-prepared to face life as a newly hatched sparrow. Dad had been the completely Edwardian husband and father. He handled all the business matters and was in complete control of all finances. Thus my mother, never having to worry where the next anna was coming from, treated money as a useful commodity that grew on trees.'
Gerald himself was seemingly unscathed by the family tragedy:
I must confess my father's demise had little or no effect upon me, since he was a remote figure. I would see him twice a day for half an hour and he would tell me stories about the three bears. I knew he was my daddy, but I was on much greater terms of intimacy with Mother and my ayah than with my father. The moment he died I was whisked away by my ayah to stay with nearby friends, leaving my mother, heartbroken, with the task of reorganising our lives. At first she told me her inclination was to stay in India, but then she listened to the advice of the Raj colony. She had four young children in need of education -- the fact that there were perfectly good educational facilities in India was ignored, they were not English educational facilities, to get a proper education one must go 'home'. So mother sold up the house and had everything, including the furniture, shipped off ahead, and we headed for 'home'.
Mother, Margaret and Gerald took a train that bore them across half the breadth of India to Bombay, where they were to stay with relatives while they waited for the passenger liner that was to carry them, first class, to England. So Gerald sailed away from the land of his birth, not to return till almost half a century had gone by and he was white-haired and bushy-bearded. Like most of the other children on board, he was a good sailor -- unlike the grown-ups. 'Two days out,' he wrote in his unpublished memoir, 'we were struck by a tumultuous storm. Huge grey-green waves battered the ship and she ground and shuddered. All the mothers immediately succumbed to sea-sickness, to be followed very shortly by the ayahs, who turned from a lovely biscuit brown to a leaden jade green. The sound of retching was like a chorus of frogs and the stifling hot air was filled with the smell of vomit.'
The reluctant crew were forced to take charge of a dozen or more children of around Gerald's age. Twice a day the children were linked together by rope like a chain gang, so that none of them could fall overboard, and taken up on deck for some fresh air, before being taken back down again to play blind man's buff and grandmother's footsteps in the heaving, yawing dining saloon. One of the crew had a cine projector and a lot of 'Felix the Cat' cartoon films, and these were shown in the club room as a way of diverting the children during the long haul to Aden and Suez.
'I was riveted,' Gerald remembered. 'I knew about pictures but I had not realised that pictures could move. Felix, of course, was a very simplistic, stick-like animal, but his antics kept us all enthralled. We were provided with bits of paper and pencils to scribble with, and while the others were scribbling I was trying to draw Felix, who had become my hero. I was infuriated because I could not get him right, simple a drawing though he was. When I finally succeeded, I was even more infuriated because, of course, he would not move.'
Whether it was a real live creature, or an animated image, or a drawing on a page, the child brought with him a passion and a tenderness for animals so innate it was as if it was embedded in his genes. In the years to follow, come hell or high water, this affinity was not to be denied.
So young Gerald came to a new home in a new country -- and a new life without a father. The loss of the family's patriarch was to have a profound effect on the lives of all the Durrell siblings, for, deprived of paternal authority, they grew up free to 'do their own thing', decades before the expression came into vogue.
Excerpted from Gerald Durrell by Douglas Botting Copyright © 2000 by Douglas Botting. Excerpted by permission.
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