[ilds] durrell's cicadas (redux)

slighcl slighcl at wfu.edu
Mon Jul 30 10:27:14 PDT 2007

How to explain these various returns upon /The Tree of Idleness/?  Like 
combing the beach and being surprised by the return of things thought 

But then I suppose summer holidays are upon us. . . .


[Brian Patten wrote the essay, which appeared in the /Independent /on 
Sunday, 29 July and in the Belfast /Telegraph /on Monday, 30 July.  The 
online editions mistakenly attribute the piece--"by Lawrence Durrell."]

*A visit to Corfu offers a fascinating window into the past life of 
writer Lawrence Durrell

[Published: Monday 30, July 2007 - 15:22]


In my early twenties one of my favourite places was a tiny bookshop in a 
narrow alleyway off Kensington High Street in London. Every Saturday for 
many years the bookseller Bernard Stone would uncork bottles of the 
cheapest decent wine available and the day would pass in a blur of 
visiting writers and vanishing wine, the rickety little drinks table at 
the back of his bookshop constantly being replenished by visitors.

I remember buying a second-hand copy of a slim volume of poems by the 
author Lawrence Durrell. It was called The Tree of Idleness, and the 
title poem is in my head still. The poet talks about being in a house, 
listening through the window to where: "Perhaps a single pining 
mandolin/Throbs where cicadas have quarried/To the heart of all 

A few weeks later, Bernard introduced me to Durrell. It was no great 
coincidence, for whenever Durrell was visiting London from France, where 
he was living, he would use Bernard's shop as a kind of unofficial club 
or vibrant poste restante, a place to catch up with old friends and the 
latest literary gossip. The writers I admired then I often respected for 
other than their literary merit. It was how they lived their lives that 
fascinated and impressed me -- and often still does, because the 
question we want answered in most literature is: "How do we best live 
our lives?"

Though Durrell was from an earlier generation than my then-heroes, I was 
still much impressed by him. Far more so than by his younger brother, 
Gerald, who wrote My Family And Other Animals, and who at that point was 
still the lesser known of the two brothers.

Lawrence Durrell belonged to a group of writers whose restlessness 
represented a spirit of freedom for many people who had suffered the 
deprivations of the war years and the austerity that followed. In 
particular, his book Prospero's Cell inspired a longing to escape from a 
dull English landscape to a more magical island -- in this case, the 
island of Corfu, where he lived in the late 1930s. When he told me: "You 
must go to Corfu; it's still unspoilt", I was keen to follow his advice. 
As it turned out I ended up in an unspoilt corner of a different island 
-- Majorca, where Robert and Beryl Graves had made their home in Deià, 
then still an inexpensive and easygoing village.

Nearly 40 years after failing to take Durrell's advice, the chance came 
up to stay in his former home in Corfu -- where he had written 
Prospero's Cell and which figures strongly in the book. Would I find 
anything remotely similar to the world he had known? Well, yes and no... 
The house where Durrell lived as a young man perches directly on the sea 
front at the southern end of the bay of Kalami, in north-east Corfu.

He described it in Prospero's Cell: "We have taken an old fisherman's 
house in the extreme north of the island ... 10 sea miles from the town 
[Corfu] and some 30 kilometres by road, it offers all the charms of 
seclusion." It was the perfect setting for a writer: "A white house, set 
like a dice in a rock already venerable with the scars of wind and 
water. The hill runs clear up into the sky behind it, so that the 
cypresses and olives overhang this room in which I sit and write."

With his wife Nancy, he occupied the top storey of the house: "The rooms 
look lovely and gracious with their whitewashed walls, and the few 
bright paintings and books. The windows give directly on to the sea, so 
that its perpetual sighing is the rhythm of our work and our sleeping."

As I opened the door to the White House, after collecting the key from 
Tassos Atheneos -- grandson of the fisherman from whom the Durrells 
rented their home -- that description rang in my ears. The door opens 
directly into an old-fashioned oblong room at the end of which sliding 
doors open in turn onto a small balcony that hovers over the Ionian Sea. 
>From the balcony you can see, maybe two miles or even less away, the 
mountains of Albania rising up through the early evening heat haze, a 
mixture of lilac and blood-red peaks. Turn back into the whitewashed 
room and among the photographs on the wall is one showing a line of 
people standing outside a ramshackle house. There are eight people in 
the photograph. Several are formally dressed Greek gentlemen in black 
suits, there are two European women, girls really, and next to them two 
slightly older Greek women in traditional dress. At the end of the row 
is a casually dressed young man in slacks and a white jumper. He appears 
slightly smaller than the other men and is grinning and at ease. In a 
corner of the photograph is a date: Corfu, 1938. The man is the 
26-year-old Lawrence Durrell.

There are other photos in the room. In one, a much older Durrell grins 
down from the wall, -- the Durrell I remember from my youth -- here on a 
return visit to see the Atheneos family. (Tassos is his godson.) But it 
is the group photograph that's the most telling. It captures Durrell in 
a time and a place when life was at its most optimistic. It is like 
looking at the past through a window.

Thankfully, some things take more than a lifetime to destroy, and nearly 
70 years after that photograph was taken, Durrell would still recognise 
the interior of the house and its surroundings. The house is still the 
most imposing building on the shoreline -- and although there is now a 
popular taverna on the lower floor, the apartment above is much the 
same. It even still has his old pine writing table.

Durrell would be saddened that the village of Kalami has grown, which of 
course it has. But, in truth, this corner of Corfu has so far escaped 
mass tourism, and Kalami has been developed far less than many other 
places. There are a few small supermarkets in the village selling 
everything you could possibly need for your stay. There's one public 
telephone, three or four tavernas and a couple of bars, and houses and 
apartments for rent, but at night it is mostly quiet, well away from the 

There is nowhere on Corfu more beautiful than the dozen or so sea miles 
between Nissaki and Kassiopi on the island's north-eastern coast, where 
Mount Pantokrator spills down to pine and cedar-coated cliffs before 
plunging into crystal clear and temperate waters.

And Kalami is still at the heart of the region. You can explore in both 
directions, just as Durrell did -- either on foot or (as he often did) 
by small boat. A half-hour walk to the north of Kalami is the tiny 
horseshoe bay of Kouloura, one of the loveliest and most unspoilt 
waterside settings in Greece, with its single taverna overlooking 
fishing boats and a small, undeveloped beach at the edge of a pine 
grove. It is reached by following the main road that snakes around the 
headland, then dipping down a track to sea level. Or to the south, you 
could follow the coastal path. Often this is more a scramble than a 
path, first across Yaliskari beach -- totally undeveloped and great for 
snorkelling -- and then through groves of olive and ilex to the idyllic 
enclave at Agni.

Agni means "unspoilt" in Greek. The bay is renowned for its three 
tavernas, each with its own jetty, set along a sunny pebble beach. 
Pinned up on the walls inside the tavernas are black and white 
photographs of people both the Durrell brothers would have known -- 
early holiday makers and locals, sun-bleached ghosts staring across the 
years. Agni has remained virtually unchanged, with the family-owned 
tavernas run by successive generations over the decades. That said, two 
summers ago the trio were joined by an unpopular new pretender selling 
burgers -- but it has been resolutely ignored by visitors and locals 
alike, and so is hopefully not likely to remain a permanent fixture.

 From the southern end of Agni bay you can follow a path that winds up 
through olive groves above the shore and then makes a long descent back 
down to a tiny chapel on the rocks just above the waterline. This squat 
grey chapel tucked into a fold in the rocks is the shrine of Saint 
Arsenius. It is perched above what was a favourite swimming spot for 
Durrell and his wife: "The Shrine is our private bathing-pool; four 
puffs of cypress, deep clean-cut diving ledges above two fathoms of blue 
water and a floor of clean pebbles."

In Prospero's Cell he describes an idyllic morning dropping cherry 
stones into the water directly below the shrine. He describes the stones 
looming " like drops of blood" on the sandy floor, with his wife then 
"going in for them like an otter and bringing them up in her lips". 
Nowadays the shrine is best visited in early morning or late afternoon 
to avoid day trip boats from Corfu Town. At those moments, all can still 
feel totally unchanged. And of course much of Corfu is still unchanged: 
the deep turquoise sea, the mountains with their curtains of dark green 
cypresses, and Durrell's cicadas, still "quarrying to the heart of all 

Brian Patten's 'Collected Love Poems' is published by HarperPerennial 

Charles L. Sligh
Department of English
Wake Forest University
slighcl at wfu.edu

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