Monday Book: A dinosaur and other animals

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