Book review / The lunch bunch
Himself and Other Animals by David Hughes, Hutchinson, pounds 15.99
Saturday 25 January 1997
A few years later, Hughes and his first wife went to live not far from Jacquie and Gerald Durrell in the South of France. Durrell liked to get his writing done before breakfast, leaving the rest of the day free for more congenial pursuits, and since he was never averse to "pressing something liquid to the left kidney", the two couples enjoyed some bibulous encounters, at which they were sometimes joined by Durrell's elder brother, Lawrence. They remained in touch after the Hugheses had returned to England; and when, in 1974, the younger man suggested that he should write a biographical portrait of his friend, Durrell was happy to co-operate. Hughes's own life was in turmoil at the time, and the book seemed to lack vigour and conviction. "Not you at your best, old boy," his subject suggested, after which the typescript was consigned to a bottom drawer.
Not long after Durrell's death, his authorised biographer asked Hughes if he could make use of the discarded memoir. Torn between the desire to help a fellow-author and a sudden spasm of self-interest, Hughes tracked it down in a hayloft in Wales; and as he read on from the promising opening paragraph - in which Durrell is spotted snoring on his back, like a "bearded matron on the verge of going into labour" - he realised, rightly, that it more than merited publication if trimmed and set in context.
Himself and Other Animals describes a week spent with the Durrells, incorporating a brief biography, interviews with family and - most interestingly of all - Hughes's own observations of his friend. They begin, festively enough, in the house in the South of France rented from brother Larry, before driving to Le Havre to catch the Southampton boat, spending a day in Bournemouth with sister Margaret, and flying on to Jersey, where Durrell's celebrated zoo housed many of the rare and threatened species he had brought back from his travels. For all his apparent joie de vivre and amiability, Durrell comes across as a melancholy, even misanthropic man, drowning his sorrows in drink and haunted by the spectres of over-population and environmental ruin. No doubt he was haunted too by his own deterioration as a writer, the wit and elegance of the early books giving way to routine jocularity; but Hughes is too kind and too close a friend to labour so sore a point.
Like Lawrence Durrell in his books on Rhodes and Corfu, the family's paradise lost, David Hughes has a genius for evoking hot Mediterranean days given over to long, liquid lunches which begin in the early afternoon and end at suppertime, and far and away the best pages in this likeable, affectionate memoir are those in which he discards his tape-recorder and writes, in his own voice, about Durrell at home in his beloved France. He's good, too, on the vicissitudes of his own life, hinted at rather then spelt out; and it's one of the curious ironies of his book that one ends up more intrigued by the biographer than by his ostensible subject- matter.
Glastonbury Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend will perform with Paul Weller as their warm-up act
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Katie Hopkins gives rare glimpse of sensitive side with heartfelt open letter to her children penned in case she dies from epilepsy
- 2 Rihanna's Met Gala dress took one Chinese woman 2 years to make, was reduced to omelette meme in 2 seconds
- 3 Top Gear: Jodie Kidd, Philip Glenister and Guy Martin 'in advanced talks' to replace Jeremy Clarkson and co
- 4 Women think Irish men are the sexiest, survey finds
- 5 Florida couple forced to register as sex offenders for having sex on public beach
Penny Dreadful, series 2 episode 1, review: It is still gloriously silly
Top Gear: Jodie Kidd, Philip Glenister and Guy Martin 'in advanced talks' to replace Jeremy Clarkson and co
Eurovision 2015: What date and time is the song contest and who are the favourites to win?
Indiana Jones sequel confirmed by Lucasfilm - but will Harrison Ford return to the franchise?
How the Other Half Eat, Channel 4 - TV review: Swapping food trolleys shows how food and class are closely connected
In defence of liberal democracy
General Election 2015: Post-election 'shambles' looms as 70 per cent of voters say SNP 'should not be able to veto UK government policies'
The Rothschild Libel: Why has it taken 200 years for an anti-Semitic slur that emerged from the Battle of Waterloo to be dismissed?
General Election 2015: UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power, Labour warns
General election live: SNP suspends two members for disrupting Labour rally
Schools forced to act as 'miniature welfare states' with teachers buying underwear and even haircuts for poor pupils