I devoured Gerald Durrell when I was young. I don't remember who first put me on to him - but we were still in the old Lloyds Bookshop, in Elizabeth Street, Brisbane and I took all the Durrell's we had in stock home and read them one by one, mourning when I came to the end of my stash. I was heartbroken when I discovered he was married. It was so intense a reading experience that it became an unrequited reading romance.
I would have started with My Family and Other Animals and fallen in love with the small boy Durrell, fossicking around Corfu for turtles and scorpions, sailing out to sea on his flatbottomed boat and tramping around olive groves followed by his circus of dogs. I also fell in love with his family - the remote Larry, forever typing, Margot sunning herself to the admiration of the Corfu locals, and his mother's vagueness a blurred but benign background pottering around with her particular dog and trying to discipline the young Gerald at least to not house the scorpions in matchboxes which might be picked up by unsuspecting guests.
When I saw The Bafut Beagles for sale at Dromana, I knew I had to have it.
I'm so glad I picked it up. His close observations of animals are a joy to read. Yes, he anthropomorphises his animals - but with such detailed and hands-on observations, they are seamlessly threaded into his more scientific reflections.
My two Brow-leafs squatted side by side on a bed of fresh grass in the bottom of the basket and gazed up at me with expressions of withering scorn. I tipped the basket on its side, and they waddled out on to the floor with all the indignation and dignity of a couple of Lord Mayors who had been accidentally locked in a public lavatory. They walked about three feet across the floor and then, apparently exhausted by this effort, squatted down, gulping gently. They surveyed me very fixedly for some ten minutes with what appeared to be ever-increasing disgust. Then one of them wandered away and eventually crouched down by the leg of the table, evidently under the impression it was the trunk of a tree. The other continued to stare at me, and after mature reflection he summed up his opinion of my worth by being sick, bringing up the semi-digested corpses of a grasshopper and two moths. Then he gave me a pained and reproachful look and joined his friend under the table.
I've been thinking a lot about writing lately, and I wonder if with the emphasis on minimalism we/I haven't lost something. Sometimes I think I write too fast, to get the story down, concentrating on characters and their interaction, rather than the both the texture of language and the importance of images. Some of this might industry pressure, time poverty etc. etc. but some of it is simply me not slowing down sufficiently.
We don't slow down to read, either - and the result of this is a reduced vocabulary and an impatience with language that stretches beyond the banal. Of course, too much emphasis on language can lead to a rather empty kind of overwriting, but I'm not talking about that. I'm talking about the confident, measured passage where every word has been considered and placed exactly so as another building block for the image or emotion the writer wants to place in the reader's mind.
I'm making an attempt, this year, to slow down both my writing and my reading. I'm banning those shorthand words - cool, awesome - and learning again to speak in whole sentences. Thank you, Gerald. I forgive you for marrying, not once but twice and also for being born in 1925. You are one of this year's writers who has reminded me of the pleasure of enjoying the landscape, of pausing to see in the mind's eye the unfolding scene the writer has painted.
Gerald Durrell may have said, when comparing himself as a writer with his brother, Lawrence: The subtle difference between us is that he loves writing and I don't. To me it's simply a way to make money which enables me to do my animal work, nothing more. But his own writing nonetheless reflected the man who was unceasingly curious about the world around him and spent time observing it and it's diverse inhabitants.