ETCETERA / How We Met: 56. Gerald Durrell and Lee McGeorge Durrell

Author, animal-lover and zookeeper, Gerald Durrell, 67, was born in India, the son of a civil engineer. Much of his childhood was spent on Corfu, which inspired the hilarious 'My Family and Other Animals'. His latest book, 'The Aye-aye and I', is about a rescue expedition to capture the legendary black creature with huge eyes and slender fingers that lives only in Madagascar. His American wife Lee McGeorge Durrell, 43, is leading a campaign to save the world's rarest tortoise, the ploughshare, also from Madagascar. The couple live in Jersey and the South of France.

GERALD DURRELL: I knew absolutely nothing about Lee's existence. But when I heard that Duke University's lemur collection might close down, I was absolutely horrified, and I thought, 'I'll go and have a look - perhaps I can offer some of them a home at my zoo in Jersey.'

So I went to Duke, which is in North Carolina, and was given the real one-two, buckle-my-shoe treatment. All the professors were there, and they laid on a party for me. They always pour pint-sized glasses of scotch in America, so we were well away pretty quickly. And then I spotted this creature sitting on a couch, and I went up to her, and said: 'Hello, my name's Gerry Durrell.'

'I know,' she said

'Who are you?'

'Lee McGeorge.' I looked at her hands. They were ringless. And I looked around to check if there was a large hunky male looming over protectively, and there wasn't. So I thought: 'Hi-ho, here we go.'

She said she was studying animal communication, which happened to be one of the things I was really interested in. Then I found she'd been to Madagascar, where I had never been. So I thought this is taking a turn for the better, and the better, and the better. I decided to spend the rest of the evening with her.

We drove to the restaurant in her car, which was full of dead leaves and dog hairs, and we were talking so much we got lost. We had this funeral cortege of professors in limousines following us, going round and round in circles like Japanese waltzing mice.

But we got there and we had a very long and boozy evening. I had a crashing hangover the next morning, but I remember thinking, well, she was undeniably attractive, but was she really as intelligent as I thought she was? Or was it just the drink?

So I decided to find out. The first person I called was a great doyenne of Madagascan studies, and I asked her: 'Do you know a girl called Lee McGeorge?' She said: 'Yes. One of the most brilliant students I've ever come across.' So I said: 'Oh good. Now I know the answer.' But how, I thought, does a lecherous old bugger like me, who's old enough to be her grandfather, get her over to Jersey? Because I knew that if I could get her to Jersey she'd get hooked. Not on me. But on the project.

So I phoned her up and I said: 'I've just heard that a little old lady, a widow, has died and left me a small legacy - to me personally, not to the (Jersey Wildlife Preservation) Trust - to use as I see fit. I'd like to set up a studio of animal communication in Jersey. Would you like to do it?' Of course, there was no little old widow lady but I couldn't very well tell her I'd pay her way over myself. Anyway, she came, and after a couple of weeks she was hooked. So before she left I asked her to marry me. I'm the only man in history who's been married for his zoo.

I'd been married before and was on the point of getting divorced. I kept my ex-wife waiting a couple of years because I refused to be divorced on grounds of cruelty. If I'd known I was going to meet Lee I would have hurried the whole procedure through much more quickly.

I was very disappointed with my first marriage. I'm not pointing fingers at anybody. But we were married for 25 years, which is a long time. After my wife left me, I thought: 'Well, OK. Now let's play the field. To hell with it. I don't want anything more to do with women except in bed.' I suppose it was rather an arrogant attitude to adopt. But it was the result of being hurt. But then, of course, I met this creature, and made the fatal mistake of falling in love with her. Absolutely fatal. A man of my age, falling in love with a woman who's young enough to be his great great granddaughter.

The extraordinary thing is it works. All our likes and dislikes match absolutely: food, music, everything. Even animals. For our 10th wedding anniversary I gave her four tarantulas.

We work together all the time. We went to Madagascar together on the aye-aye expedition, and to check up on the project that Lee's masterminding to save the ploughshare tortoise, which is the rarest in the world.

Lee is very, very organised. She's a terrible stickler. When we write a book together, she provides the hard facts and things, and I just touch it up with bit of purple prose here and there. She's as passionate about the work as I am. And she'll keep it going after I'm gone. That's why I always say I married a good widow.

LEE McGEORGE DURRELL: I was living in Madagascar doing field research for my dissertation in zoology. When I wasn't actually out in the bush I would come back to the closest town, Fort Dauphin, where the only English speakers were a whole load of Lutheran missionaries. They had a library in which there were books by this man Durrell. I'd never heard of him, but somebody said: 'Oh, you must read him.' I started with My Family and Other Animals. I remember sleeping in the attic, and I had a pet fruit bat, still just a baby. Because they're nocturnal he would go around the room - which had a wooden floor - and you could hear his wings and elbows clunking on the floor. I would be immersed in this book, by the kerosene lamp.

So that's how I first read Gerald, and of course I never imagined in the world that I would actually meet him. But I did. He came over to see our lemur-breeding programme at Duke University, when I was writing up my research. I was invited to a couple of parties along with all my professors. I was just a student then, but in walked this man, and he came right up to me. Then I was the only person who knew where this restaurant was, so he said: 'I'll ride with you, Lee.' But I got hopelessly lost, and we didn't get there till 10. It was a disaster. But the reason we got lost was that we were talking about what we were passionately interested in, not just in animals, but also in saving them.

Gerald's divorce came through in the spring of 1979, and we got married that summer. Now we live half in Jersey, half in the South of France, which is where we write. We're early risers - 6.30 or so. More often than not he makes the tea and brings it to me in bed. Then I'll go and wrestle with my plants and he'll start work on something. Then we might go to the market in Nimes together and have a coffee in the square, after which we come back and cook lunch. And Gerry always has a nap in the afternoon.

In the early 1980s, we signed an agreement with the Malagasy government that included an expedition there to choose animals for our breeding programme in Jersey. But it wasn't until 1990 that we were able to go.

We collected several different species. We'd been there for about six weeks looking for the aye-aye, and we were so depressed. Our people were going out every night, and actually seeing them, but catching nothing. We had a whole television team there, too, who were paying for half the expedition. They'd come expressly to film the aye-aye and nothing else.

One day Gerry was feeling rotten because his hips were hurting - he's had two hip replacements - so he was trying to sleep. It was a hot afternoon and two old men from the country came up with a filthy old tattered basket. People had been bringing in all sorts of smaller animals all the time once they heard we were interested. So - rather wearily - I said: 'What's that?' And they said, 'Aye-aye.' They pronounce it 'hi-hi'. I didn't believe them, but I looked inside and there was this great lump of black fur, about the size of a big cat, with a big bushy tail. It really couldn't have been anything else.-

(Photograph omitted)

Arts and Entertainment
Cold case: Aaron McCusker and Christopher Eccleston in ‘Fortitude’
tv Review: Sky Atlantic's ambitious new series began tonight with a feature-length special
Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
Arts and Entertainment
Ready to open the Baftas, rockers Kasabian are also ‘great film fans’
musicExclusive: Rockers promise an explosive opening to the evening
Arts and Entertainment
Henry VIII played by Damien Lewis
tvReview: Scheming queens-in-waiting, tangled lines of succession and men of lowly birth rising to power – sound familiar?
Arts and Entertainment
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

    Cabbage is king again

    Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

    Paul Scholes column

    The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
    Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee