Book review / The lunch bunch

Himself and Other Animals by David Hughes, Hutchinson, pounds 15.99
David Hughes first met the naturalist and writer Gerald Durrell in 1956. An aspiring novelist, Hughes was then working as an editor with the publishing firm of Rupert Hart-Davis in Soho Square, and spent his days rephrasing the memoirs of men of action. Durrell - then in his early thirties, and five years his senior - had just published a bestseller in the irresistible form of My Family and Other Animals, becoming a household name. An ebullient, overpowering young man with fair hair and a "bulbous wedge of a nose", Durrell suggested lunch at Bertorelli's. Doubtless a great deal was drunk - the pages of Hughes's memoir are awash with alcohol, and resound to the pulling or corks - and a friendship was forged that lasted until Durrell's death in 1995.

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.

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