Monkeying about in the suburbs


The young Gerald Durrell in Corfu with pigeons and a tortoise.                              Picture courtesy of Dr Lee Durrell


By Jeremy Miles

Author and naturalist Gerald Durrell found fame in the 1950s and 60s as the outspoken, larger-than-life best-selling writer who went on to establish the pioneering Jersey Zoo. Known these days as the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, it is revered by conservationists across the world. It is also one of the biggest tourist attractions in the Channel Island’s.

However had a few local government big-wigs taken a more enlightened view 50 odd years ago, the zoo may well have found a home right here in Dorset. For Durrell, author of nearly 40 books including worldwide best sellers like My Family and Other Animals, originally wanted to establish his groundbreaking captive breeding programme at Upton House near Poole.

Sadly the local authority felt it was an unsuitable use for the  grand Georgian property and the project was strangled by red tape. An environmental campaigner years ahead of his time, Durrell had been determined to start work on a project that would save threatened species from extinction.

By the late1950s he had amassed a bewildering collection of animals in the back garden of his sister Margo’s home in the Bournemouth suburb of Charminster. He was already a well-known author and well on the way to establishing the project he named The Stationary Ark. He would have loved it to have been at Upton which has beautiful parkland and even its own island in Poole Harbour, but stymied by council bureaucracy, he lost patience and took his life’s work to the Channel Islands instead. Margo’s son, Gerry Breeze, describes the loss of the zoo to the local area as “a tragedy.” 

Now 68 and still living just a half-a-mile from his childhood home, young Gerry used to feed and clean the animals in the back garden while his uncle was off on his globe-trotting expeditions He would later help build the cages for the Jersey Zoo and lived and worked there for a while, looking after the reptile house. Gerry - a seventh dan karate expert - invited me into his happily chaotic home, where Japanese and African masks adorn the garden walls, kiwi fruit grow in abundance and he still studies is beloved reptiles. It is a typically Durrell-like environment. Although as Gerry himself unwittingly pointed out this isn’t always obvious when viewed from the inside.

“When you’re growing up you just accept your family and the people around you as being normal,” he told me.  “It was only years later that I realised what an extraordinary and interesting family I had.” Interesting indeed. Apart from Uncle Gerald there was also Uncle Larry (the writer Lawrence Durrell)  and the gun-mad Uncle Leslie who used to keep a small armoury of weapons “including elephant guns, revolvers..everything” in the flat over the Bournemouth off-licence he ran with his wife Doris,

Then of course there was young Gerry’s mother, Margo - another charismatic character who would go on to write her own highly praised autobiography. The Durrell siblings are of course familiar from Gerald’s best-seller My Family and Other Animals. Although set on the Greek island of  Corfu, the book  actually opens on the precise cold, miserable, rainy day in Bournemouth that originally inspired the family to head for the sun.

His years in Corfu consolidated  an interest in animals that had been growing since he was a toddler and collected wood-lice, earwigs... anything that crawled. He had already decided that school was an irksome business and had been removed from formal education after a single unhappy year. With private lessons and a freedom that few are privileged to enjoy, Gerald Durrell would go on to become a world-renowned expert in his field.

The man David Attenborough described as “magic” and whose Jersey project has saved entire species from extinction was not the easiest of people. He drank heavily, had a fearsome temper and didn’t suffer fools gladly.“He certainly had his moments.” Gerry Breeze told me.  “He drank far too much and could swear like no one else I’ve ever heard. He was a remarkable man though. He used to go off on expeditions and bring all sorts back - we had monkeys, mongooses, snakes, birds, just about everything in that garden.  I remember one day all the monkeys escaped. We found them as far away as Boscombe Gardens.”

“What on earth did the neighbours say?” I ask.  “Not a lot.” replied Gerry. “The ones on the left used to grumble a bit but I don’t think they actually did anything.”  The Durrell’s urban menagerie including a chimpanzee called Chumley who used to enjoy an occasional cigarette and drink. Thumbing through a dog-eared family album, Gerry finds a fading black and white picture.  “Look there he is swinging on the curtains,” he chuckled. I can’t help noticing that Chumley is wearing clothes. “Gran used to make those,” explained Gerry. Looking at this handful of images that have now become history, he says he wishes he had taken more photographs. “I just didn’t realise how important it was at the time.”

Since Gerald Durrell’s death in 1995  at the age of 70, The Wildlife Conservation Trust has been run by his widow, Dr Lee Durrell. The couple met in the mid 1970s when the then recently divorced 53-year-old Gerald was on a lecture tour of America and Lee was a 27-year-old graduate student completing a PhD in animal communication. “I remember the moment he came into the room. It instantly seemed to light up. He was very high wattage person,” she tells me. Durrell was clearly taken by the young Memphis belle and the pair fell into deep conversation about Madagascan Lemurs. Two years later they were married.” 

Lee believes that the loss and degradation of habitat is the biggest threat facing many of the world’s endangered species. Gerald, she says, may have been hard-drinking, volatile and in many ways a rather old fashioned character, but he was also a man of vision. He understood the threats facing the natural world long before most people had even given it a second thought. She gives an example “Gerry loved Corfu but when he went back in the 1950s and tourism was beginning to take off, he was appalled. He felt the Island was being ruined. He ranted and raved about it.Yet when he took me there in the 80s and tourism had more or less done its wicked thing. I thought it was magical. It’s a matter of perception.”

She now works tirelessly to promote the work of the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust. Encouraged by Gerry Breeze, she recently returned to Bournemouth, where she so often spent happy times with the extended Durrell family, to give a lecture at Talbot Heath School. It was the first of a series of illustrated talks which she hopes to give at locations around the UK and she was impressed by what she found.

“I spoke to the sixth form and it was so encouraging that the subjects they are studying in their science and geography classes are exactly the kind of things that we are working on. They knew all about biodiversity. They knew about the various world treaties and conventions that have been set up to regulate trade and protect different species, habitats and eco-systems. Twenty years ago you’d go into a school and the curriculum would be completely conventional. Now kids like these are really beginning to look at how the world actually works.”

*You can visit The Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust at Les Augrès Manor, La Profonde Rue, Trinity, Jersey, Channel Islands JE3 5BP. For more information about how you can help their work protecting endangered species by becoming a Trust  member go to www.durrell.org or telephone +44 (0) 1534 860000



.

© Jeremy Miles 2017