Gerald Durrell

Remembering the last summer

On arrival in Bournemouth, I had made my way as rapidly as possible to my favourite bookshop, H. G. Cummin in Christ-church Road. Here, in a tall, narrow house, is housed a vast and fascinating collection of new and second-hand books. On the ground floor and in the basement all the new books glare at you somewhat balefully in their multicoloured dust-jackets, but climb the creaking, uneven staircase to the four floors above, and you are transported into a Dickensian landscape. Here, from floor to ceiling in every room are amassed arrays of old books. They line the walls of the narrow staircases, they surround you, envelop you, a wonderful, warm, scented womb. Pluck the books out; and each smells different. One smells not only of dust but of mushrooms; another, autumn woods or broom flowers in the hot sun, or roasting chestnuts; and some have the acrid, damp smell of coal burning; and others smell of honey. And then, as if smells alone were not enough, there is the feel of them in the heavy leather bindings, sleek as a seal, with the golden glitter of the type buried like a vein in the glossy spine. Books the dimensions of a tree trunk, books as slender as a wand, books printed on paper as thick and as soft as a foxglove leaf, paper as white and as crisp as ice, or as delicate and brittle as the frost layer on a spider s web. Then the colours of the bindings: sunsets and sunrises, autumn woods aflame, winter hills of heather; the multicoloured, marbled end-papers like some Martian cloud formation. And all this sensuous pleasure to drug and delight you before you have even examined the titles: (The Great Red Island Madagascar; Peking to Lhasa; Through the Brazilian Wilderness; Sierra Leone it s People, Products and Secret Societies), and come to the splendid moment when you open the book as you would a magic door. Immediately the shop around you disappears and you stand, smelling the rich smell of the Amazon with Wallace, you bargain for ivory with Mary Kingsley, you face a charging gorilla with du Challu, you make love to a thousand beautiful women in a thousand novels, you march to the guillotine with Sidney Carton, you laugh with Edwardian gentlemen in a boat, you travel to China with Marco Polo; all this you do standing on the uneven, uncarpeted floor, with a magic passport in your hands, without the expenditure of a penny. Or perhaps I should say one can do this without the expenditure of a penny, but I seem incapable of entering a bookshop empty-handed or of leaving it in the same condition. Always, my cheque book is slimmer, and I generally have to order a taxi to transport my purchases.

The Havoc of Havelock, in The Picnic and Suchlike Pandemonium, Gerald Durrell

Gerald Durrell · life · reading

Nature, reading and who else but Gerald Durrell

I’m picnicking under a tall pine tree, slightly bent towards the river. Situated on the rocky ground, its roots were given the chance to play with their shapes – some decided to form a considerably wide, cozy-looking cave, while others, with a determined help of a boulder, made a set of steps leading to the entrance of the said cave and down onto the two square meters of welcoming beach.. The spot is enchanting – it looks like the perfect home for tomtar, gnomes, that I am in a serious danger of believing it really is.

Mild wind is blowing, gently disturbing the surface of the incredibly still river as if trying to make it flow a bit faster. The sun is high up in the sky, making everything very vivid and vibrant. There are birds, its names unknown to me, calling one another cheerfully from their branches of choice somewhere up in the treetops; and there’s an occasional dragonfly, beautifully royal blue, taking a rest on a leaf of a baby birch, only for a moment or two, before flying away on its business. The warm scent of pine is making the air sweet and the tiny blackberry bushes are already half way through to getting the berries deep purple and delicious. From above this all come the wailing and squawking of the seagulls that I love so much…

I have no books with me for I found it’s impossible to focus on a narrative when thus surrounded. I made several attempts during the previous weeks and failed every time:

On a first picnic, I was seated upon a great rock just at the root of a small and very narrow lake peninsula, rich with pine trees. There were no boats that day, no people around the summer houses along the coast either. Even the seagulls were quieter than usual. The sky was clear blue. The gigantic, shining white clouds were floating above the lake, almost too slowly to notice, and the faint rain started to tenderly poke its surface. I just sat there, gazing at this vast mirror stretching in front of me.

The second time, I was in the park on the other side of the lake, laying in the shadow of a birch tree. Small children were playing in the shallow, their parents sunbathing or watching over; a group of scouts was looking for some hidden treasure and, on the terrace of a guest house, sat small groups of people, having their meals and drinks. I thought I would have no problem concentrating on my book but my attention was soon caught by numerous wild ducks enjoying the warmth of the sun some five meters away. One of them went for a short swim and, getting out of the water gagged pensively across the earthy beach. Passing by my blanket, at a safe distance, he was eyeing me suspiciously, strangely resembling a wary, slim, and tall but slightly bent old man.. I almost burst out laughing.

Of course, I was not out in the nature day and night, so I did read. My choice, or rather, the only option since I really had no choice, was Birds, Beasts and Relatives and, consequently, The Garden of the Gods. Neither was as good as My Family and Other Animals (with Garden being better executed than Birds), but that is not to say they weren’t delightful. The usual combination of luscious descriptions of nature, of exciting animal observations and portraits, a palette of extraordinary guests and a bunch of hilarious family anecdotes was the only thing I could and wanted to read.

I am looking forward to adding these two to my collection… I hear his Picnic and Suchlike Pandemonium is wonderful as well. Soon to be found out!