Golden Bats and Pink Pigeons – Gerald Durrell

Having finished rereading (for the umpteenth time) the Harper Hall-trilogy by Anne McCaffrey as comfort-reading before Christmas, I fished about for something else that would be sufficiently engaging while also sufficiently easy to read. I decided a reread of one of Gerald Durrell’s books might be just the ticket, and rather randomly landed on Golden Bats and Pink Pigeons. It only partly fit the bill, as I was less engaged than I’d hoped (but with my reading mojo more or less dead I am inclined to blame myself rather than Durrell for this) and while Durrell’s prose is certainly readable, my edition of this book is really not well typeset. The print is small and cramped, and while not completely unreadable, certainly not easy on the eyes.

However, with possibly my only New Year’s Resolution being to make sure I read (which basically means being a little more disciplined and not choosing Twitter or TV just because a book isn’t gripping me 100 %) I did just that, so having ambled rather slowly through the first 100 pages since before Christmas I actually finished the last 50 or so in one gulp yesterday.

My preference for Durrell’s books are in order: 1. Collecting expeditions. 2. Tales from the Zoo. and 3. Familiy memoirs. Golden Bats and Pink Pigeons is type 1, and so we’re off to a good start. It is the tale of two collecting trips made to Mauritius and neighbouring islands in the 1970ies, and since I have a soft spot for the islands, especially Rodrigues, all due to Patrick O’Brian, The Mauritius Campaign and Jack and Stephen, the dears, we are not talking a hard sell.

The narrative ambles along in Durrell’s usual style, interspersing lovely descriptions of enchanting scenery and wildlife with quite hilarious observations of animals and people, including some self-deprecating humor. My edition has a postscript detailing some of what happened next with the captive breeding attempts, which is a bonus.

On this occasion I found it interesting to compare and contrast Durrell’s style with another Englishman; I was just finishing up reading Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to my youngest at the same time. There is certainly a touch of paternalism in the way Durrell describes «the natives» and more race-centered vocabulary than feels entirely comfortable with my 2020 sensibilities. However, Durrell’s racism (if you can even call it that) is of the benevolent sort, and his zoologist instinct to describe both species and individuals in the animal kingdom spills over into the description of people (including, I haste to add, his fellow white men). Which doesn’t necessarily make things better, I know, but there you are. Dahl is a different kettle of fish, and I find it difficult to know what to do with my knowledge of his (now fairly well documented) racial prejudices while reading about the Oompa-Loompas. This time round I simply chose to ignore it, which I am quite aware speaks to my privilege. Please don’t let these reflections scare you off Durrell, though. I just find it helps me to see my own internalised racism if I attempt to name it in the books and other media I consume. Mind you, it does affirm my resolution to read less «old white men» (and women), even the ones I actually like, and actively seek out other voices.

Boka har jeg kjøpt sjøl.

Three by Gerald Durrell

Rereading non-fiction seemed to work even in the middle of the funk, so I reread three Gerald Durrell books in row. The first one I picked up was A Zoo in my Luggage, in which Durrell has finally decided to start his own zoo rather than just collect for other zoos. The year is 1957 and in his optimism he – and his wife Jacquie – decide to do the collecting first, assuming that any town in Britain would be happy to house them once they get back. Who wouldn’t want a zoo? Thus in in the first part of the book they return to the Cameroons, where Durrell has been before, and go to stay with the Fon of Bafut.

What follows is an account of the antics of the animals, the hunters and the Fon and his «court». The narrative follows a path that will be familiar to anyone who has ever read a book by Durrell, a mixture of hunting and stalking episodes (a fair amount of which end in failure), quite a few hunters turning up with «beef» to sell and ensuing haggling, accounts of how the animals fare once caught, some take well to captivity, some don’t, and the social interaction with the people of Bafut.

I find the narrative fascinating, not least because I am interested in the animals and the practicalities of catching them and keeping them alive and happy. The books from the Cameroons are especially fascinating, though, as Durrell faithfully records all dialogue in the original «pidgin» (including his own, as he speaks it fluently, as far as I can tell), and for a language nerd this is obviously great fun. The aforementioned «beef» for example means any animal (whether mammal, bird, amphibian, reptile or insect). And a conversation may progress like this:

‘Na whatee dere for inside?’
‘Na squill-lill, sah.’
‘Na whatee dis beef squill-lill?’
‘Na small beef, sah.’
‘Na, bad beef? ‘E go chop man?’
‘No, sah, at all. Dis one na squill-lill small, sah… na picken.’
‘Dis beef, my friend. Na fine beef dis, I like um too much. But ‘e be picken, eh? Some time ‘e go die-o, eh?’
‘Yes, sah,’ agreed the hunter gloomily.
‘So I go pay you two shilling now, and I go give you book. You go come back for two week time, eh, and if dis picken ‘e alive I go pay you five five shilling more, eh? You agree?’
‘Yes, sah, I agree,’ said the hunter, grinning delightedly.

I am not blind to the inherent racism in the narrative, there is more than a little condescension in the way Durrell describes the people of Bafut, even while he obviously regards the Fon as a friend he also presents him as something of a spectacle. Durrell himself is not unaware of this, he is nervous when first contacting the Fon to ask if he may return as he is not entirely sure how the Fon will have reacted to the way he was presented in Durrell’s previous book from the area (The Beagles of Bafut, which I read next). It turns out the Fon is delighted to be a celebrity, and even his reactions in this regard add to the somewhat «simple savage» image Durrell presents (whether consciously or not).

The latter part of the book deals with the difficulty of getting the animals to Britain alive, healthy and happy, and then the naively unforeseen difficulty of finding somewhere to house the zoo. Some quite funny episodes occur while the animals are housed temporarily as a Christmas attraction in a department store basement, for example, while the serach for a permanent location continues. Spoiler: It all turns out well.

Having finished A Zoo in my Luggage it seemed natural to follow it with The Beagles of Bafut, which chronologically comes first (the trip was made in 1949). It follows much the same pattern, but ends once the collection is safely in Britain where the animals are sent off to various zoos both in Britain and in the rest of Europe.

Not feeling up to anything else and not being quite done with Durrell, I then picked up The Drunken Forest, in which Gerald and Jacquie make a collection trip to Argentina and Paraguay (in 1954). The setting is therefore completely different, but the narrative follows the same familiar pattern. In this case the trip is complicated by a coup and unfortunately the Durrells have to leave without their collection, which gives another insight into the possible troubles one can run into as an animal collector.

A sort of postscript: There are many opinions about zoos, and my own feelings on the subject are ambivalent. On the one hand keeping animals captive to provide entertainment for humans is obviously problematic. On the other hand, modern zoos are part of the global conservation effort, with captive breeding programmes for endangered species (and Durrell was a pioneer in this area, «Durrell Wildlife Park was the first zoo to house only endangered breeding species» according to Wikipedia, and Durrell refused to exhibit animals simply for show) and there is much to be said for their role in educating the general public, creating interest in biodiversity and thereby helping push initiatives to conserve the animals in their natural habitats.

Since the middle of February

The Tale of Desperaux – Di Collofello
Very sweet. Not exceptionally good, though, and with an underlying sort of morality which bothered me. Since I rather like rats I objected to the description of them being so nasty to look at and touch (especially in comparison with mice, which are, apparently, not nasty at all), but I can understand how it might be necessary for the story. However, I can’t quite excuse the idea that a rat is a rat and can never change his nature, it smacks – to me – a little of the I’m-trying-to-be-politically-correct-but-I’m-a-racist-really premise that all, say, negroes are lazy, but it’s in their nature and they can’t really help it. Balderdash.

Small Wars Permitting – Christina Lamb
Very interesting, highly readable. My father just finished this when I was trying to get through Sorting Out Billy (see below) and there was no competition, really, I jumped at the chance to read something else. Lamb manages to be both informative, profound and thought-provoking and at the same time laugh-out-loud funny in places. The book contains both newly written context material and quite a few of Lambs articles from various papers and both are equally readable and absorbing. Highly recommended.

Then, a bit of a Durrell reread going on – in between all the other stuff – if I find the time and energy I might write a more detailed post on Durrell, but for now, here’s a list:
The Bafut Beagles – Gerald Durrell
Fillets of Plaice – Gerald Durrell
The Stationary Ark – Gerald Durrell
A Zoo in my Luggage – Gerald Durrell
Catch me a Colobus – Gerald Durrell
The Dunken Forest – Gerald Durrell
Himself and Other Animals – David Hughes (biography)

Sorting Out Billy – Jo Brand
I read only the first half, or thereabouts and then gave it up in disgust. Abysmally bad, actually.

The Book of Lost Things – John Connolly
Entertaining, slightly scary in parts. Well worth the time.

Anybody Out There? – Marian Keyes
Excellent. I was a little worried, not being a great fan of spiritualism and trying to speak to the dead, however, Keyes managed the issue beautifully, I think, and I didn’t cringe even once.

Slam – Nick Hornby
Hornby’s first «young adult» novel, which probably should be compulsory reading for most British teenagers as a sort of literary contraception. Not Hornby’s best book – by far – from an adult point of view, but then that’s hardly the right point of view for judging it.

American Gods – Neil Gaiman

A Ramble Round the Globe – Thomas Dewar
Disappointingly unoccupied with whisky or with advertising, the two main reasons I am interested in Tommy Dewar, but a rather interesting read nonetheless.

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid – Bill Bryson
Just what you’d expect from Bill Bryson: Very good.

Watermelon – Marian Keyes

Having a break in Middlemarch (because I couldn’t be bothered to carry it to Scotland with me), I reread My Family and Other Animals and The New Noah by Gerald Durrell, partly because they are both good, but mainly because I had spare copies which meant I could «lose» them along the way. Hopefully they’ll be picked up and enjoyed by someone else.

While on the last chapters of The New Noah, I conveniently found Marianne Keyes’ Watermelon in a PDSA charity shop in Helensburgh on the 26th and had read it by the 28th. It’s a very good read, entertaining and reasonably light (without being Mills-&-Boon-fluffy) and definitely of the feel-good variety. However, I don’t think it’s one I’ll want to reread (as opposed to Sushi for Beginners), so I left it in the B&B in Dufftown. My bags were stuffed in any case.

I came home to find The Road to McCarthy in the mailbox. I had completely forgotten that I ordered it from The English Bookclub to avoid receiving the editor’s choice, and so was A. pleasantly surprised and B. mightily relieved that I had not bought it while in Britain (despite looking at it in bookshops several times, I kept thinking «Nah, later»). Middlemarch will have to wait while I laugh my way through this on the bus.