Words: Jeremy Miles
The famously free-spirited Durrell family probably didn’t realise it at the time but when they ditched their digs in dank 1930s Bournemouth and headed for the sunshine of Corfu they were writing a little piece of history.
Widow Louisa and her children Larry, Margo, Leslie and Gerry spent only a few idyllic years on the Greek Island but it was long enough to sow the seeds of a legacy that lives large to this day.
Eighty years later millions tuned in each week to watch The Durrells, the good-hearted ITV drama series based on their exploits. What many don’t know is that by the 1950s and 60s the family was firmly back in Bournemouth.
Gerald was finding fame as a pioneering naturalist, conservationist and best-selling author and would go on to establish the famous Jersey Zoo and Durrell Wildlife Trust.
Eldest brother Larry meanwhile had become literary superstar, Lawrence Durrell, author of The Alexandria Quartet. Fans of the TV show will not be surprised that Leslie made a rather less spectacular impact. Always the most vulnerable of the siblings, he was living over a Bournemouth off-licence with his gun collection and lurching from one failed business venture to the next.
But what of sister Margo? In TV version of The Durrells she is a force of nature, a scatty, fun-loving teenager determined to make her presence felt amidst the creative chaos of her brothers. By all accounts it was a fairly accurate reading of her character. For the real Margo was loved by everyone and remained at the hub of the Durrell family for the rest of her life. She died aged 87 in 2007.
Despite being charismatic, joyful to know and leading an extraordinary life, she never sought the limelight and as a result was rather eclipsed in the public-eye by her famous brothers.
In the 1960s she quietly set about redressing the balance by penning her own fascinating memoir. It was called, of course, Whatever Happened to Margo? It remained unpublished for nearly 30 years until her granddaughter Tracy Breeze found the dusty manuscript covered in handwritten corrections hidden away in a drawer in Margo’s Bournemouth home.
Tracy laboriously retyped it and, in 1995, Whatever Happened to Margo? finally arrived on the nation’s bookshelves. It was a fascinating, rather madcap tale. It was well received but by the time The Durrells hit the small screen it had been out of print for years. Two years ago Penguin republished Margo’s book to coincide with the final season of the Tv series and no one was more delighted than Tracy, the daughter of Gerry Breeze the elder of Margo’s two sons.
At the time she told me. “I loved my nan. She was such an amazing person and we were incredibly close because she actually brought me up from the age of 11 when my mother died.” She remembers Margo being open-minded, adventurous and above all lots of fun. “She was the heart and soul of the family.”
In the opening episode of that last season of The Durrells, mother Louisa describes Margo as having “a mind like a roomful of starlings.” Was she really that scatterbrained? Tracy didn’t hesitate. “No, free-spirited would be a more accurate term.” The Tv show, she admitted, was a little exaggerated but she loved it, telling me: “The impact it’s having on the Durrell family is fantastic. It’s helping to sell Uncle Gerry’s books and promoting the Jersey zoo which is continuing his work with endangered species. For me that ticks all the boxes. As for seeing my grandmother portrayed as a teenager, that’s absolutely fine. It just makes me smile.”
Whatever Happened to Margo? lifts the lid on what happened after the family left Corfu. It finds Margo, now in her late 20s, returning to post-war Bournemouth in 1947. Her marriage to a dashing RAF pilot, Jack Breeze, is sadly over and she has two small children to bring up. She spends an inheritance on buying a substantial property in the Bournemouth suburb of Charminster with the intention of running a boarding house.
It doesn’t quite turn out the way she’s planned. She will soon have brother Gerald keeping a small menagerie of exotic animals in her back garden and several chimpanzees and a six foot python as house pets.
As for the paying tenants? Her boundless good nature finds her acting as landlady to a stream of characters who are guaranteed get the net curtains of Charminster twitching like mad. There’s a painter of nudes and a pair of glamorous nurses whose revolving gentleman callers lead to suspicions that she is running a brothel.
Tracy remembered the house, at 51 St Albans Avenue, well recalling that Margo’s open-mindedness and live and let live philosophy meant everyone was welcome. “She would probably have taken in the tenants that other people were turning away. She just accepted everyone for who they were. The Durrells were all very down earth despite coming from a privileged background. One minute Uncle Gerry would be talking to Princess Diana and the next he’d be asking the dustman in for a cup of tea. There were no barriers.”
Tracy insists that growing up as a member of the Durrell family just seemed normal to her. “As a child I don’t think I realised how special it was. You just accept things, but I was very lucky indeed to be brought up by my nan. She was my best friend and we had great adventures. We even went back to Corfu which she had always felt such strong connection to.”
Margo was described at her funeral by Gerry’s widow, Lee Durrell director of the Durrell Wildlife Trust, as “One of a kind who sparkled with her own special joie de vivre and enriched the lives of everyone around her with an aura of happy serenity and a marvellous sense of fun.”
Her friends and family in Bournemouth knew Margo as a woman who loved reading, art exhibitions, walking by the sea and visiting churches. Needless to say this latter interest crossed all faiths. Even though she was a chanting Buddhist she worked for a time as an enthusiastic guide to Christchurch Priory.
She also somehow found time to write another book. The manuscript tells of a time when her children had grown up and she was looking for another adventure. She answered a small ad in the local newspaper took a job with the crew of a Greek cruise line sailing the Caribbean. Her second memoir is called Growing Old Disgracefully and now Tracy is hoping to find a publisher for that too. Watch this space.