The first time I ever travelled to a real land via a book was at age 12 when I read My family, and other animals by Gerald Durrell.
The island of Corfu, his family and every one of the animals was a joy and a revelation. My own weird life at that time may have been a major factor, but I truly identified with a kid whose primary companions were three dogs named Roger, Widdle and Puke – in the midst of a family comprised of bizarre adults. I know that it was the first book that made me laugh out loud many times, and it made me homesick for a place I’d never been to.
I read all his subsequent books and got to travel vicariously to places like Argentina, Patagonia, Cameroon and Borneo – all the while learning about capybaras, peccaries, giant anteaters, and guanacos, and laughing a lot.
Only later in life did I realise what a pivotal role Durrell had played in raising awareness regarding conservation and the imminent extinction of species – together with contemporaries such as Sir David Attenborough, he changed the way we look at animals and the environment.
To me he was just a lovely, lovely man – full of human frailties, humour and incredible vision, he felt like a favourite uncle whose visits had made hard days bearable and sad days light. I’m not given to outpourings of grief when celebrities die, but on the day Gerald Durrell passed away my sadness was real – it expressed itself in one line: I was so sorry that he was no longer in the world.
But watching the nature channel tonight, seeing people tracking and fighting to preserve everything from tigers to bats, I realise that he is still in the world.