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Last Updated: Friday, 15 September 2006, 07:17 GMT 08:17 UK
Gerald Durrell's lasting legacy
Naturalist Bridget Nicholls marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Gerald Durrell's My Family and Other Animals, which is celebrated in a Radio 4 Archive Hour this weekend.

Gerald Durrell, 1961
Durrell was a much-loved author, naturalist and TV presenter
Published in 1956, My Family and Other Animals is one of those books that crosses boundaries and time.

It sees the natural world through a child's eyes, making it seem sane in comparison to the author's delightfully oddball family.

The autobiographical work has been filmed twice by the BBC, memorably in 1987 with Brian Blessed as the larger-than-life Spiro Hakiaopulos.

Growing up in the midst of an animal sanctuary in Worthing, I remember vividly the moment when my mother produced Durrell's book.

After reading it there was no turning back. I was going to set up an endangered animal breeding centre, just like the one Durrell founded on Jersey.

Holistic approach

That has not happened yet, but as a fully paid-up naturalist, I'm at least on my way.

Brian Blessed in My Family and Other Animals
Blessed starred in the 1987 version of My Family and Other Animals
It is hard to imagine that when Durrell started broadcasting back in the 1950s, his ideas about conservation and the need for captive breeding of endangered species were seen by many as irrelevant.

Watching and listening to the vast Durrell archive at the BBC, I was amazed to find he was talking about his holistic approach to conservation right from the start.

Back in an era when most animals were still things to be gawped at or shot and stuffed, "saved'' was not really a word that held much currency.

Durrell, however, realised the importance of habitat maintenance and education in the endangered species' countries of origin if they were to survive long-term.

"The world is as delicate as a spider's web," he wrote in his 1972 book Catch Me a Colobus.

Artistic license

"If you touch one thread, you send shudders running through the other threads. We are not just touching the web, we are tearing holes in it."

I met Durrell's wife, Lee, in the flat they used to share at the top of Les Augres Manor House, in Jersey, which contains first edition Durrells in all languages as well as wildlife memorabilia from numerous friends and trips.

Jersey Zoo
The Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust was set up in 1964 in Jersey
But Lee had another surprise in store: a hand-painted volume of poems that she uncovered in her loft while looking for correspondence for Durrell's official biographer.

Called Animal Pie, the unpublished volume of poetry was written by Durrell at his sister Margaret's house in Bournemouth in the 1950s.

Each animal poem from the spectacled bear to the anteater is illustrated in the most dedicated and painfully detailed way.

Despite some artistic license - an orange spectacled bear? - that unique Durrell magic poured off the page.

Durrell might not be here today but his legacy and memory is very much alive.

It can be found not just in the endangered species he saved that are still flying and swimming the planet, but also the magic in our eyes that he inspired to appreciate the natural world around us.

Bridget Nicholls presents Radio 4's Archive Hour: Discover Your Inner Durrell on 16 September at 2000 BST.



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