The British naturalist Gerald Durrell is probably best known for his trilogy about his childhood in Corfu (which begins with My Family and Other Animals), but he also wrote a large number of other books, many of them describing his journeys to faraway countries to bring back animals for Britain’s zoos. Thanks to Open Road Media, who are reissuing his books in ebook form, I have had the opportunity to read two of them: Three Singles to Adventure and Golden Bats and Pink Pigeons.
First published in 1954, Three Singles to Adventure is an account of Durrell’s animal-collecting expedition to British Guiana (now Guyana) in 1950. Using the capital city of Georgetown as a base, Durrell and his two companions, Bob and Ivan, begin their mission by purchasing three tickets to Adventure, a village chosen at random from a map because of its intriguing name. First in Adventure, then in two other locations elsewhere in the country, the three begin to gather specimens of the mammals and birds, reptiles and amphibians, which live in that area of South America. These range from lizards, frogs and anteaters to anacondas, opossums and tree porcupines.
Durrell’s enthusiasm for his work really shines through on every page. His descriptions of the animals and birds he discovers are vivid and detailed, full of wonder, fascination and admiration; he even manages to capture the individual personality of each one. My personal favourites were the two-toed sloth who tries to escape in the middle of the night, the capybara who keeps everyone awake by gnawing on the wires of his cage and a big, lovable curassow bird called Cuthbert who gets under everybody’s feet at the most inconvenient of times!
While Bob was absorbed in the job of disentangling the hammocks from their ropes, Cuthbert cautiously approached across the floor and lay down just behind his feet. During the course of his struggles with a hammock Bob stepped backwards and tripped heavily over the recumbent bird behind him. Cuthbert gave a squawk of alarm and retired to his corner again. When he judged that Bob was once more engrossed, he shuffled forward and laid himself across his shoes. The next thing I knew there was a crash, and Bob fell to the floor together with the hammocks. From underneath the wreckage of mosquito-nets and ropes Cuthbert peered, peeting indignantly.
There’s one funny anecdote after another, many of them involving the hapless Bob, who only came along to paint pictures and finds himself joining Durrell in the most hair-raising of escapades!
As an animal lover myself, I couldn’t help feeling sorry for some of the animals, who clearly weren’t meant to be kept in captivity and were transported in sacks, boxes and cages, but having said that, I could see that Durrell did genuinely care about them and treated them in as humane a manner as he was able given the time and place. He would later become known as a conservationist, founding the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust with his own zoo in Jersey dedicated to helping endangered species.
The second Durrell book I read, Golden Bats and Pink Pigeons, was originally published in 1977 and describes a trip to Mauritius in search of endangered animals to bring back to Durrell’s Jersey Zoo. Accompanied by his assistant John Hartley and secretary Ann Peters, Durrell was hoping to find specimens of the pink pigeon, of which only a few remained, the golden fruit bat of the island of Rodrigues, whose numbers had also dropped, and three types of rare reptile from Round Island, another island near Mauritius. All of these creatures, like the dodo before them, were at risk as a result of habitat change and new predators – cats, dogs, rats etc – which had been introduced to the islands with the arrival of human beings. Durrell’s intention was to take a small number of each animal to be bred in captivity and eventually re-released into the wild.
This is another fascinating read, with some lovely descriptions of the beautiful scenery – including a whole chapter which describes a swim through a coral reef. I didn’t like it quite as much as Three Singles to Adventure, though, which I think was partly because the types of animals and birds featured in this one appealed to me less. It’s not as funny as the other book either, although Durrell still has some amusing stories to tell about his time in Mauritius. I loved the episode where, on the day of their bat-catching expedition, he and his companions arrive at the airport carrying a large quantity of fruit to use as bait (including a large and particularly smelly Jak fruit), only to find that they are over the weight limit for the plane.
Frantically, we discarded all the heavy items of clothing and equipment we could manage without. It made an interesting pile. If there had been any doubts about our sanity before this, they were soon dispelled, for what sane person would discard shirt, socks, shoes and other items of wearing apparel in favour of bananas, mangoes and a Jak fruit that one was conscious of at fifty paces?
I really enjoyed reading these two books! Each of the new editions includes biographical information on Durrell and a selection of family photographs; Three Singles to Adventure also has an index of the animals and birds mentioned in the text. I would highly recommend either or both of these books and am looking forward to reading more of them.
Thanks to the publisher Open Road Media for providing review copies via NetGalley.