A Hero for a Lifetime
A few weeks ago I wrote a blog post, Old Friends, about the powerful impact books can have during childhood. The photo I used to illustrate the post was of a selection of books that had influenced me as a child. If you look carefully at that photo, you’ll see one of the books in the bottom row is My Family and Other Animals, by Gerald Durrell. I think I must have read it first when I was about 13 years old. I suspect it was the nifty title that caught my eye one morning as I browsed my parents’ book shelves. The oddly dull cover, of a faded dragonfly clinging to a grassy stem, would not have excited me. But the blurb inside, describing Gerald’s early life, his numerous wild animal pets, and his far-flung expeditions would certainly have fired my imagination enough to read the first pages. And that was all it took to get me hooked.
Gerald couldn’t have known, at the time of publication in 1956 when he was 31 years old, that his bestselling book would inspire hundreds, perhaps thousands of readers, young and old, from all walks of life, and from all corners of the world, to enjoy and value nature, and to follow careers in wildlife biology and conservation (as I have done). He had a genius for describing the most ordinary creatures in such a beguiling way you felt a small shock of recognition and a burst of pleasure at his words: “Lady-birds moved like newly painted toys... among the anaemic flocks of greenfly. Humming-bird hawk-moths whipped up and down the paths with a fussy efficiency, pausing occasionally on speed-misty wings... Among the white cobbles large black ants staggered and gesticulated. All these discoveries filled me with a tremendous delight, so that they had to be shared...”
And share them he did, with the skill of a born writer and the enthusiasm and open mind of a child. Animals were he’s and she’s to him, his equals, with personalities of their own as distinct and unusual as those of his family. But instead of being sentimentally anthropomorphic, his lively, warm anecdotes are full of his astute observations and passionate interest in all living things, including people. Instead of being preachy, he sweeps you along in a celebration of life and a heartfelt plea to the world to help save vulnerable species.
Gerald was my hero when I was a child because he loved animals like I did, he had a deep affinity for them that had me green with envy, and because he lived a life, surrounded by creatures, that I longed to emulate. But, during my teens, he also inspired me in another way. In large part because of his talent with words and the effect they had on me, I began to experiment with writing myself. I wrote some stories I know would be excruciating to read now, if I still had them lying about. Thankfully I don’t (although I can remember one about a stallion - naturally, it couldn’t be a plain, old horse - who went rearing and galloping his way through the hills, with a mane like black flames flowing over his mighty shoulders, and a young mistress with amber eyes who understood his every gesture as though they spoke the same language. You get the picture). But it was the start of something, a seed which germinated then, and which has been growing quietly ever since, leaves unfurling and angling towards the sun.
Last year I read Douglas Botting’s frank and moving authorized biography of Gerald Durrell. Botting described Gerald as “one of the finest nature writers of the last hundred years”; he published no fewer than 37 books in 31 languages. So I was fascinated to learn that writing was never a passion in itself for Gerald; far from it. It was merely a means to an end, one he often resented. It seems extraordinary that a man who wrote with such humour, compassion, and charm and with such apparent ease, should have found it such a chore. But Gerald had a dream, a vision formed when he was 10 years old and from which he never wavered, and writing books was one of the most effective ways to make it happen. He wanted to build a zoo of his own, but unlike other zoos at the time, his would have a unique, core purpose: the establishment of breeding colonies of rare and threatened species, especially those he called ‘little brown jobs’, in order to protect them from extinction.
His ambition, and the total dedication with which he eventually achieved it in the shape of Durrell Wildlife Park and the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, is the third reason why Gerald is still my hero today. I don’t use the word ‘hero’ lightly – it has a touch of melodrama about it – but the resolute way he championed the cause of endangered wildlife, in the face of severe setbacks and illness, was nothing short of heroic.
Just like his equally famous and critically acclaimed author brother Larry was a mentor for Gerald, so Gerald is a role model for me. I write now to connect people with nature. If I can be a fraction as dedicated and successful as Gerald in achieving my aim, if I can inspire just one young person to become a champion for wildlife, I will be more than satisfied.