A look back: Lawrence Durrell in Sussex
The British ex-patriot novelist, poet, playwright and travel writer Lawrence Durrell had very little feeling for England or the English. He resisted any close association, spending most of his life outside England – in India, Corfu, Egypt, Argentina, Yugoslavia, Rhodes, Cyprus, and the south of France. He spent so little time here that due to changes in immigration law in 1962, he was defined as ‘non-patrial’, and so had to apply for visas to enter Britain. It may be fascinating, then, to consider that for a time, this most cosmopolitan of artists lived and worked in the wooded village of Loxwood in Sussex’s quintessentially English Weald district; an idyll of farms, bridle-ways, streams and ancient forest.
Durrell was born on 27 February 1912 at Jullundur in British India, the son of Lawrence Samuel Durrell, a civil engineer, and Louisa Durrell, who was of Protestant Irish descent. Durrell described his parents, who had not seen England, as “God-fearing, lusty, chapel-going Mutiny stock”. The lack of allegiance to England is discerned in his mother’s feelings when applying for a passport: “I am an Indian citizen”. There are a few glimpses of this life, as recalled from pre-adolescent memory in his first and least successful novel, Pied Piper of Lovers (1935), which he was working on when living in Loxwood.
In 1923 Durrell sailed with his family for England and was schooled in Southwark, Canterbury, and Cambridge. On the death of his father in April 1928 and with an £150 annual patrimony, Durrell (aged about 18) took to London, convinced that he could become a poet. He whiled away hours in the reading room of the British museum, earning his keep as an estate agent, jazz pianist, and a studio photographer.
He met Nancy Myers, a tall and striking art student at Slade, when they were both 20, while she starred in a West End musical about lesbian schoolgirls. Nancy was taken by Durrell’s vulnerability, intellect and wit, and they quickly fell in love. The couple pursued a bohemian lifestyle despite Durrell’s generous funds and Nancy’s small fortune gained in inheritance when she was 21.
Their newfound economic freedom allowed them, in the summer of 1933, to exchange the sociability and intellectualism of Fitzrovia, for the solitude of Loxwood, Sussex. The couple were accompanied by their friend, George Curwen Wilkinson.
Part of the reason behind the decision to leave London was to enable the two men to write novels for a £300 prize competition announced by the publishers, Cassell (Durrell’s effort, the afore-mentioned Pied Piper of Lovers, was subsequently published, notwithstanding a failure to win the prize). They used Durrell’s Hillman car to search in the Guildford area for an “old beamy cottage”. About ten miles from Guildford, they found a fifteenth century two-room farm labourer’s cottage called Chestnut Mead at the north end of Loxwood.
Built in the traditional Sussex method, the ceilings were very low, held up by oak timbers salvaged from broken-up ships in Portsmouth which the carters sold off on their way inland.
The cottage was fairly primitive, with no phone, electricity or bathroom. They furnished the cottage with bare chairs and a table and two beds. Nancy bought Larry (as he was called by those close to him) a second-hand baby grand piano for £60, which took up the majority of the tiny sitting room. George acquired a drum kit and in the evenings they played jazz, with Larry singing and playing the piano.
They lived a simple life. The men chopped wood for the open fire while Nancy did the cooking. The household was messy, with George cleaning up only occasionally and Larry emptying the chemical lavatory in a pit at the end of the garden every fortnight or so.
The authors spent every morning working on their novels, and after lunch, they would embark on long walks in the primeval surroundings. The trio never entertained, and made no attempt to enter into village life; thus the locals were dubious about them.
If the trio were considered outsiders, then the local population were in for a surprise when some of their rare guests turned up. During their adventures in literary London, Durrell and Nancy became acquainted with pretender to the Polish throne Geoffrey Potocki de Montalk (1903-1997), poet, pagan, pamphleteer, and with his brother Cedric.
The brothers were known to wear sandals, tunics and cloaks, medieval-style. Geoffrey was once imprisoned in Wormwood Scrubs for his translation of erotic material by Rabelais and Verliane, as well as his own bawdy poems.
So Loxwood was in for a shock one day when Cedric Potocki turned up at Chestnut Mead in full regalia and a scarf wrapped round his head due to toothache, accompanied by an American mistress who was only ever addressed as “Madame”. With the political volatility of the times, and the fact that London would have been dangerous for Cedric when war broke, he came to Sussex to look for a retreat. Nancy provided a meal for the pair, purchasing the luxury of a tin of chicken in aspic, to which Cedric retorted that the future ruler of Poland would not deign to touch tinned food.
There were tensions in Chestnut Mead throughout the brief time the bohemians lived there. Durrell was incandescent with activity, and had become purposeful and focused with the move from London. George became thoroughly de-motivated by his friend’s progress and Nancy was also at a loose end. When Larry asked her to provide illustrations for a book he wrote as a gift for his little brother Gerry (Gerald Durrell, later to become a famous naturalist, zookeeper, author and TV presenter), her perfectionist nature and shaky confidence left her with artistic block, and she become more and more unfocused and upset.
With no novel to show after a year in the countryside, George wanted out of the strange ménage à trois, having heard you could live extremely cheaply in Corfu, where he travelled soon after with his new wife, Pam. Durrell and Nancy were destined to follow. Following a sojourn with Durrell’s family in Bournemouth after the lease on Chestnut Mead had ended, the couple married on 22nd January 1935. Durrell and his bride set off for the Greek island, where they were later joined by his mother and siblings. In 1956 Gerald published his comic version of these adventures in My Family and other Animals.
Despite the myth of sun, sea, sand and endless days of happy paradise, the couple became more estranged. They had always rowed, but things deteriorated to the point where he swore and screamed at her, bullied her and forbade her talking to any man taller than his own 5 foot 4 inches. Although they had by then produced a daughter, the marriage was finished by the time war broke.
Durrell went on to serve as a press attaché to the British embassies in Egypt and Rhodes. Appointed director of the British Council Institute, he lectured on cultural topics in Argentina, after which he moved to Yugoslavia via London. He moved to Cyprus as to carry out public relations work for the British government, later writing Bitter Lemons (1957)about his time there.
He finally settled in Provence, France, where he lived for the rest of his life. Among his later works was his most famous, the Alexandria Quartet, which presents four perspectives on a single set of events in Egypt, before and during World War II.
Durrell was married four times with two daughters by each of his first two marriages. Durrell died of a stroke at his home in Sommières, on November 7, 1990.