Monday Book: A dinosaur and other animals

GERALD DURRELL: THE AUTHORISED BIOGRAPHY BY DOUGLAS BOTTING, HARPERCOLLINS, pounds 24.99

GERALD DURRELL had good fortune in nearly everything. True, he didn't have a father, which may have been why he was a three-wheeled wagon. But there was something in the air in the Fifties which made his accounts of animal collecting, and especially My Family and Other Animals, his 1956 reminiscence of a pre-war Corfu childhood, very welcome and recognisable. Perhaps it was mostly that the postwar world needed romance.

John Minton's illustrations on the covers of Penguin books of the period capture it: golden boys in stripy jerseys with bare feet on sun-baked Mediterranean boat-decks were as much a part of Elizabeth David cookery books as they were of Durrell's blissfully unschooled childhood.

Gerald's work appealed to the same sensibility as that of John Betjeman and John Piper, and indeed his brother, Lawrence. Later, part of the appeal may have been a nostalgia for what were taken to be Edwardian certainties, while all around a feverish social shift was going on.

Durrell was a pre-Beatle figure all his life, as Douglas Botting makes plain in this huge book about a man who began his life as a slim and harum- scarum figure, but towards the end was huge and intermittently pathetic. But he was lucky to have been born into a family which took eccentricity as the norm. Lucky to have decamped with them to Corfu when he was a bug-infested, bug-interested boy. Lucky to have met a true Edwardian gentleman naturalist-scholar there.

And he also was lucky in his two wives. The first, Jacquie, was perfect when he was immature but busy and needed organising. His second, Lee, seems to have been ideal when his activities badly needed an element of academic respectability, which she could provide. She just about saw this charismatic dinosaur of a man into the modern world.

Durrell was also fortunate in his admiring official biographer. Botting gives us a full-on Durrell, with just enough of the rages and the insecurity and the bad jokes and the lovelorn doggerel and the mammoth selfishness to be real. An unofficial writer might easily have taken this material and delivered a hatchet-job.

But this book doesn't reach the heart of the problems with, and the probable enduring interest of, Gerald Durrell. He is up there with David Attenborough, Peter Scott, Konrad Lorenz and even - very differently - Peter Singer as one of the people who shaped the way we see animals. In his case, there is a dash of the Edward Lear to go along with the ethology and ecology which is more truly of this age.

Durrell was interested in animals, obviously. However, he wasn't really very interesting about them. For a start, his descriptions of them are anthropomorphic. Perhaps only by making them comic could he make the money with which to save them, but his private letters portray them in the same way.

Like most naturalists, Durrell was weak in his approach to human affairs. Botting shows us that he raved on, in rather the Prince of Wales way, about the ravages wrought by man. Yet he was at the very top of the planet's food chain. A carnivorous jet-setter, his anger, which seems to have comprised little self-criticism, was humbug.

It may be that Botting doesn't get into these issues because his subject didn't either. But, if Durrell did not, we are free to conclude that he was essentially a shallow man. It seems safe to assume that Durrell believed what is no longer fashionable: that animals are amusing and useful, as well as interesting and moving. But even this matter-of-fact approach could not save him from the abiding mistake of our time - to glamorise the natural at the expense of thinking about people. Durrell is attractively anthropocentric and vastly sociable, but his conservation thinking is modishly and lazily misanthropic.

The book's most glaring omission is to give us no sense of whether Durrell's conservation work mattered very much. We do hear a little about the breeding success at his zoo on Jersey with many of the species Durrell collected so bravely and entertainingly. We hear a bit about the training work his trust undertakes with conservationists in the Third World. We are told clearly enough that Durrell himself was kept too busy writing and fundraising to have much to do with developing this work. But there is little about whether there have been many re-introductions from Jersey into the wild. There is little about the ethical value of conserving species only in a zoo, like paintings in a gallery.

Douglas Botting has given us a wonderfully detailed account of an amateur naturalist, animal collector and humorist who built a zoo and a conservation trust out of enthusiasm. The emotional problems of the man are laid bare, though sympathetically. But one wearies of the blow-by-blow account of drinking, travelling and loving, and longs for a discussion of whether Durrell was an important - let alone an intelligent - conservationist.

Richard D North

Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat

Arts and Entertainment
Fake Banksy stencil given to artist Alex Jakob-Whitworth

art

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?
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