The impatient Boatman has been waiting
Under the house, his long oars folded up
Like wings in waiting on the darkling lake.
Lawrence Durrell, This Unimportant Morning
I’m gazing, somewhat bleary eyed, at the view Lawrence Durrell overlooked from The White House. The view that inspired him to write Prospero’s Cell. And wondering whether it will inspire me in quite the same way. The mist-shrouded blue mountains and faintly luminous sun-kissed sea certainly make me want to get out my paints – until the bumps and grinds of Greek building work shatter the early morning peace and make me dream of retiring to snooze on the beach instead. The lovely lady from whom I bought my beach shoes last night promised that her bar stopped playing music at 10pm and, surprise, surprise it did. But she didn’t mention the 6.30am start for builders anxious not to work in the heat of the day. The enthusiastic dawn chorus from the cute birdlife in the olive grove started well before that but I could doze through them. I find it strange that my sensitive ears can enjoy one ‘noise’ while bulldozers and loud music sends me screaming for cover. But then, my ears are attuned to more subtle sounds.
Sitting here, I’ve been pondering the difference between ‘reality’ and ‘illusion’. The White House, and view that my balcony overlooks, is the one that Lawrence Durrell and his wife Nancy enjoyed each morning while living on Corfu. No mention of the wife in the t.v. series. No mad girlfriend while he struggled with his muse in real life, at least not then. Gerald Durrell and the rest of the family lived in the next bay over. They were not together on the island as they are in the t.v. series. But it makes for better television that way, or so I’m told by a scriptwriter friend.
And, in any case, isn’t that exactly what we do with our own memories. We edit, reframe, erase, to suit our view of ‘reality.’ Which comes in handy during past life work, whether for this or any other life, as it’s always possible to change how we view the past. It’s too long since I read the My Family and Other Animals trilogy to know how true to the book the television depiction is, but it’s bound to have more than a few distortions and the book itself was based on memory. Being here has prompted me to revisit both Durrells’ work again. I’m exploring Lawrence’s poetry and I’ve just found that Catch Me A Colobus is available on Kindle to enliven my days.
I have fond memories of Gerald Durrell. Many years ago at his zoo in Jersey a friend and I were looking at the colobus monkeys with their tails hanging down like dirty bellropes. “I used to sit and watch them from the stoup”, I told him. “Gerald Durrell was also a few miles away in Sierra Leone searching for them at the time but apparently found it hard to spot more than a couple. We sent messages to say that we had a whole troupe in the trees around the house. The rarer red as well as white.”
“Where were you?” a growling voice interrupted me.
“On Mobimbi mountain.”
“Oh bugger!” Gerald said. “We had a message about that but I thought they’d be just as elusive.”
“Nope, you could have enjoyed them from the comfort of my sunbed – and watched the chimp family breakfast on my sugarcane.”
There followed a most pleasant tour of the conservation program. This was fifty years ago and the monkeys were being hunted to extinction even then. I still shudder when I remember the beating drums and randomly fired rifles of a monkey fest. And the almost-human screaming that followed. Not a noise I relished. Goodness knows how the colobus have fared since then, but the Jersey zoo was intent on preserving them. They were such incredible characters, I do hope they survived.
So, some things are under your nose if only you can allow yourself to believe it. I keep hoping that the t.v. series, which I never saw back in the day, will turn up on some obscure channel. But for now, the white pebbled beach and startling blue sea are calling – not to mention the olive grove.
We go to The White House for supper. Where once Lawrence Durrell lolled, the beautiful people arrive by boat, disconcerted to find themselves alighting on a bobbing, unfenced jetty and walking a plank that threatens to topple them into the sea at any moment – and that’s on a dead calm day. What happens when it’s rough? Had I been here the week before I could have found out: it was storms every day. But now, it’s perfect weather. The rest of us stroll along the ubiquitous potholed road lined with white painted olive trees, or scramble across the rocks. Once there was an elegant promenade, but that’s disappeared into the sea.
Faded grandeur. Lamppost on the beach on the way to The White House.
The resident fishercat, a natural poseur. Well, you can’t have a blog about Greece and not include a cat or two, can you? So here you are. Those fish scraps are finger-licking good.
You can tell this place is upmarket, and not only from the prices. It has a restaurant dog called Jack – who, sadly, is camera shy – and exquisitely polite waiters dance attendance. The food is slow in coming and disappointingly mediocre when it does. But the people-watching and the pearlescent pink sheen of the sunset sea while we wait more than makes up for that.
All of life is here in miniature. The love-at-first-sight couple feeding the fish. The heart wrenching sobs when his parents take him home to bed. Love is tough when you’re not yet five and meet your beloved. Helen has already spurned another suitor. When not quite six the rejection is devastating but soon forgotten as another fish rises to the bait of soggy bread. When I was first in Corfu fifty years ago ‘the bread’ was the euphemism for the service charge. But in these days of Greek austerity that is blatantly added to the bill regardless and the waiter tends to keep the change. Not that you’d know in this idyllic tucked away corner that Greece is still experiencing great financial hardship. The people are as generous and friendly as ever. The Lawrence Durrell bookstore gives away free paperbacks donated by visitors. But the prices for a Durrell book bite deep. Although there’s nothing quite like holding a proper book in your hands in the spot where the author wrote it, however. So I’ll save the Kindle for another day.
There is great heart-break in an evening sea;
Remoteness in the sudden naked shafts
Of light that die, tremulous, quivering
Into cool ripples of blue and silver…
So it is with these songs;
The ink has dried,
And found its own perpetual circuit here,
Cast its own net
Of little, formless mimicry around itself,
And you must turn away, smile…
Lawrence Durrell Finis
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