11 June 2016

The Durrells on Corfu and their animals: 1935-1939.

I was very familiar with the Durrell Wildlife Park on the Channel Island of Jersey that naturalist-author Gerald Durrell (1925–1995) founded in 1959. Beautifully set in large grounds, the zoo is in Trinity, 8ks north of Saint Helier. Vis­it­ors can enjoy the important collection of endangered species, both native (eg voles and shrews) and imported (red squirrel and hedgehogs).

But the Durrell family did not seem to have a particular connect­ion to Jersey. It was a passing suggestion from his first wife Jacquie that directed Gerald’s search for an animal sanctuary towards the Channel Islands. It turned out to be a great suggestion. Within an hour of landing in Jersey in the late 1950s, the beautiful Les Augres Manor had been secured for the purpose, its grounds providing the perfect venue.

Now I have to rethink the family history since they really did live on the Greek island of Corfu from 1935-39. Lawrence Durrell (1912–1990) and his new wife Nancy were freethinkers whose uninhibited lifestyle would have been unwelcomed in 1930s England. In Corfu the couple thrived. Visiting writers like Henry Miller could take up residence in their home at Kalami, a former fisherman's cottage.
 
Corfu. off Greece's north west coast.

In an interview with Gerald’s second wife Dr Lee Durrell (1949– ), Country Life Travel 2015/16 suggested that the spirit of both Lawrence and Gerald Durrell lives on intensely in Corfu, nursed by a succession of locals, expats, wandering scholars and visiting naturalists. Lee explained that it was Law­rence and Nancy who initially urged the family to move to Corfu.

Gerald Durrell at 10 was the youngest sibling and he quickly began to collect and keep the local fauna as his pets. He was home-schooled during this time by various friends of his eldest brother Lawrence. Dr Theodore Stephanides, a friend of one of Gerald's tutors, became Durrell's greatest friend and mentor, and his ideas left a lasting impression on the young naturalist. Nancy was an artist and taught Gerald to draw, just as Lawrence encouraged Gerald's writing.

Gerald Durrell and animal friends 
Corfu in 1936

The three grand houses occupied by the Durrells on Corfu are still private homes. 1] The first house, Villa Agazini, was renamed by Gerald as the Strawberry Pink Villa. It was too small for Lawrence’s many house guests, so the family moved to 2] the Daffodil Yellow Villa on the coast road, in the north of Corfu, where Lawrence could have his Bohemian friends to stay. Today this Venetian mansion is immaculate. When news came that a relative was about to descend on them, the family rapidly downsized, moving south of the town to 3] the Snow White Villa beyond the airport. It stands secluded on a hill thick with sentinel cypresses. These years were later the basis of the book My Family and Other Animals (his 6th book, published 1956), and then Birds, Beasts and Relatives and The Garden of the Gods.

The villa at Kalami, where Lawrence and Nancy moved in early 1936, is now a smart and elegant taverna with a lovely terrace on the sea. The modern naturalist can rent a flat above the taverna, and can cruise around a shop stocked with reprints of most of the Durrell books.

Corfu Old Town was designated a World Heritage Site in 2007. Like Venice it has alleys, not main roads. The Venetians built two mon­u­mental fortresses - the Old Fort retains British barracks and an imp­osing but empty British Naval Hospital. More handsome still is the very fine British Garrison Church, built as a Greek Doric Tem­ple.

The family left Corfu in 1939, just before the outbreak of WW2. The subsequent German occupation of the island was ruthless. Spiros Americanos, the taxi driver who became the Durrells' guide and mentor in Corfu, missed them terribly.  As did the neighbourhood children who had relied on the Durrells for bags of lollies. Alas the blissfully happy Corfu days were over, for both a very troubled Lawrence and a moderately troubled Gerald.

Today Snow White Villa belongs to an absentee landlord and there was talk over the years of acquiring this jungle-like retreat as a Durrell study centre. Fnally the Durrell School in Corfu really was established in 2002 by the Irish literary and music critic Richard Pine. The school runs a lively series of annual symposia, mostly on Lawrence Durrell themes: India, travel writing, trans­lations and border lands that brought nations together. It also maintains a huge library of 4,500 books. Potential students might be interested to rent out the top floor of the Durrells’ old villa which features Lawrence’s desk, plus great water views.

In 1936 Lawrence and Nancy rented a fisherman’s cottage in the tiny village of Kalami in N.E Corfu. Spiro Amerikanos, the Durrell’s friend and chauffeur, found the house for them, to which they eventually added another floor.
Photo credit: The Durrell villas 


Daffodil Yellow House
Photo credit:
 Corfu World

Imagine a busy, blissful week of nature studies and walks and readings from My Family. Guests walk in Gerald’s footsteps, inspired by his descriptions of how ‘the myriad holes in each tree provided sanctuary to a dozen different creatures from Scops owls… to squirrel dormice’, or look into the roots for ‘centipedes as long as a pencil or toads with silvery skins blotched with green so they looked like those medieval maps of the world where the continents were all misshapen’. The 30 participants of all ages leap about ancient tracks, on the hills covered in yellow broom and Jerusalem sage. Almost every house and taverna has a glorious sea view as the coast road winds round a continuous series of enchanting coves. 




11 comments:

Andrew said...

We can but dream of such a life.

joseph said...

Why did the family leave their wonderful lifestyle in Corfu in 1939, a couple of years before the Italians invaded?

Annie ODyne said...

'When news came that a relative was about to descend on them, the family rapidly downsized, moving south' - oh hilarity. Thanks for all that Ms Hels.

Hels said...

Andrew

nod..the Greek Islands are most people's idea of heaven on earth - warm temperatures all year, clean sand, blue sea water, white painted village homes, simple fresh food, decent wine and few traffic jams.

Hels said...

joseph

I has assumed that the locals knew that war was imminent in 1939 and advised all foreigners to go home, while they could still travel safely. But you are correct... the Italians didn't arrive until 1941. And Corfu was not bombarded by the Luftwaffe until Sep 1943.

Corfiot Magazine said that war was seen as inevitable by the family early in 1938, but they probably would have left for home, even had there not been a war. Mrs Durrell had initially followed her son Lawrence to Corfu in 1935 because it was somewhere where her pension could go much further. But by 1938 she was in financial difficulties and needed to return to England anyway. And Gerald, the youngest, needed to be schooled.

Hels said...

Annie

:) Anyone who has had a holiday home in a beautiful resort town will know that family and friends always feel free to lob into the spare bedroom, without bothering to pay rent. While the Durrells were delighted to have their famous literary and arty friends in Corfu, they were less keen to support every aunt and cousin from the UK, India and South Africa.

Annie ODyne said...

Yes indeed I recall my formative years living beachside 1950's Mornington Peninsula [paradise then] when my mother went mental over Melbourne relatives having a day in the sand then surprise dropping in late on weekends for a shower before their return drive. I think she kept voodoo dolls for after they'd gone.
Now I am thinking of https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Patrick_Leigh_Fermor 'in tearing haste' with his Thank Yous, the eternal guest living in the best villas chateaux and country piles without having a penny to his name. he must have been more charming than I am. sigh.

bazza said...

Hi Hels. I suppose the BBC adaptation of Gerald Durrell's 'My Family and Other Animals' into a six-part drama has, or will, be shown, in Australia. It's excellent.
The world seems to have a way of not allowing idylls to last forever!
CLICK HERE for Bazza’s fabulous Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

Hels said...

Annie

your free loading relatives probably didn't have any money between them, although they still could have given your mum a dozen eggs or two kilos of fruit each visit.

The Beautiful People, on the other hand, were literate, glamorous and privileged people. They had such a sense of entitlement that they believed they "paid" for their free loading by being charming and cultivated company.

Hels said...

bazza

"My Family and Other Animals" was written when Gerald was an adult and a naturalist, about the time when he was a still a child on Corfu. So I was a bit surprised that we were given the book to read for English Literature in high school. I disliked Dickens intensely, but I loved Jane Austen, Anthony Trollope, Lucy Maud Montgomery and Gerald Durrell.

The ITV series will be starting here soon. Thanks for the heads up.

Yahoo7 said...

A new home in a Greek Island paradise. No family is perfect, but they might just fit in perfectly. You've never met anyone like The Durrells. Based on Gerald Durrell's three autobiographical books about his family's four years on Corfu 1935-1939, The Durrells starts on Channel 7 after the Olympics.