When I was in my teens and twenties, I thought Gerald Durrell was utterly, delightfully, quirkily hilarious. He could make me laugh until I almost burst. Once I remember reading one of his books on a train and having to put it away because I could sense other passengers getting irritated.
But that was a long time ago. Now with curiosity, I have pulled down The Drunken Forest (1956) from my bookshelves and reread it. My old paperback copy, a 1963 reprint, with my maiden name inscribed in the front, managed not to fall to pieces in the process – odd how some do and some don’t.
Sad to say, I was deeply disappointed. Yes, Durrell remains almost unsurpassed as an evocatively descriptive writer capable of “ … birds the size of a sparrow but with jet black upper parts and throats as white as ermine. They perched on convenient sticks and dead trees, and now and again one would flip off, catch a passing insect and return to its perch, its breast gleaming and twinkling against the grass like a shooting star” or “Gradually the grey [of dawn] faded to be replaced by a purplish-red which spread across the horizon like a bruise.” But in 2022, his patronising anthropomorphism and willingness to disturb and remove wildlife is both repugnant and disturbing. If you want to see just how much attitudes to nature have changed in 66 years then read The Drunken Forest.
It was one of a series of bestsellers (alongside his very famous My Family and Other Animals which is still engendering TV spin-offs) written partly to fund the author’s collecting trips. Fascinated by animals from childhood, he wanted to start a zoo which, eventually, he did. Jersey Zoo is now run by the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust and is, actually, quite an inspiring place to visit. But there was certainly no emphasis on conservation in the early books.
The Drunken Forest describes a trip he and his first wife Jacquie made to Argentina and Paraguay to collect native fauna. Once the locals understand what he wants, they bring animals to him for money. One of the worst stories is the arrival of the baby giant anteater, whom they call Sarah. She is less than a week old, having been – presumably – snatched from her mother’s back. No wonder she literally clings to Gerald and Jacquie as parent substitutes. Then there’s the unashamed account of breaking into the nest of burrowing owls and removing two chicks and the dreadful harassing of a group (bevy? herd?) of rheas and their young simply to get them on camera. And so it goes on … snakes, birds, monkeys and anything else which lives (or did in the 1950s) in the wildness of Paraguay: all are pursued and caged ready for export to England often having been shoved into sacks first. I hope that is no longer legal. The modus operandi seems so crude that I wonder how many animals died in Durrell’s care during capture or transit although, of course, he never tells you that.
Actually in the event, there was a revolution in a nearby city which made transport home difficult so many of the animals had to be released. Some had become humanised, used to an easy life with food laid on and were reluctant to leave. Durrell uses this as an argument to dismiss “knowledgeable sentimentalists” and “twee individuals” (his words) who object to caging animals. “I’d just like them to see how eagerly our furred and feathered brothers rush back to the wild as soon as they’re given the opportunity”. More revulsion – I just hope those creatures readjusted and hadn’t lost their natural survival skills.
Many animals, of course, fight quite hard against being caught and caged. Several times, Durrell gets hurt. He is, for instance, bitten by a tiger bittern – cue for puns which I no longer find funny in this context. I actually found myself rejoicing, all sympathy entirely with the bird.
The Drunken Forest is just one account of a single trip. Durrell made many such collecting journeys which are described in other books. I’m through with him, personally, and shall not be returning to the rest of his oeuvre. In fact I was surprised to find The Drunken Forest still in print but there was a 2016 edition. I’m glad I re-read it because it confirms – in a world where it sometimes feels as if everything is getting worse – that some things have got better.
Next week on Susan’s Bookshelves: The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini