Saturday, March 29, 2014

John DeLorean and Gerald Durrell: born on the same day?

I noticed an interesting coincidence recently: two very different men with very different lives and outlooks share the same birth date. The automobile engineer and executive John DeLorean was born on January 6th 1925 in Detroit; the author, naturalist, zoo keeper and wildlife conservationist Gerald Durrell was born in India on January 7th 1925. Allowing for time differences, they were born at much the same time – and under the sign of Capricorn.

One appears to be on the whole one of the good guys, the other was a fraudster. From his obituary in The Guardian:

Almost everyone who had business dealings with car-maker John DeLorean … suffered either money losses in the millions, public vilification for the vanished cash, or both. Through all this turbulence, DeLorean remained unscathed: even if he did lose a fortune, he had not been entitled to it in the first place… DeLorean was a world-class conman, despite a brilliant early engineering career at General Motors. Among his victims of fraud, embezzlement, tax evasion or defaulted loans, were the governments of Britain, the US, and Switzerland

John DeLorean called the British government ‘suckers’ and his Irish workers ‘dummies’; Gerald Durrell built good relationships with various authorities and made friends with and allies of ordinary people wherever he went. John DeLorean ruined the livelihoods of many people; Durrell saved several species from extinction.

DeLorean appears to have been all take and everything he did was to benefit and promote himself: he seems to me to have been the sort of person who wants fame, fortune and the jet-setting, celebrity filled life for their own sakes and flaunts his belongings and lifestyle to make the peasants feel wiped out; Durrell did everything for the sake of the wildlife and his zoo: he shared his life, his travels and expedition experiences and his animal collections with everyone via his unforgettable books, which entertain and inform and have given good feelings to millions of people.

Some episodes are hysterically funny; I found one of his books in a charity shop while on a day trip and bought it to read on the return journey: I had to stop as it was just too funny to read in public. Durrell’s books make the reader feel that they were actually there, living in Corfu as described in My Family and Other Animals or travelling in Cameroon, which he wrote about in A Zoo in My Luggage; I feel as though I have made several African expeditions, met the Fon of Bafut and captured wild animals myself.

“My childhood in Corfu shaped my life. If I had the craft of Merlin, I would give every child the gift of my childhood.” 
Gerald Durrell, My Family and Other Animals

He had the craft, and while he could not give he certainly could and did share not only his childhood but everything else. DeLorean gave the world the gift of his gullwing door car. I think that Durrell’s books and life’s work are the greater gift.

John Delorean died in Summit, New Jersey (so he did actually get right to the top!); Gerald Durrell died in Jersey in the Channel Islands.

Friday, March 7, 2014

A coincidence involving Levelers and Huguenots

A good example of a ‘coincidence’ happened to me this week. It began when for no obvious reason I started to think about The Children of the New Forest, a children’s classic written by Captain Frederick Marryat in 1847; it was one of the first historical novels written for young people. Such books never gripped me the way that fantasy and science fiction did, but I learned a lot of history from reading them. I had not read, seen or thought about this book since I was at school, but suddenly some fragments of dialogue popped up in my mind:

“Levelers, to horse!” and “What’s a Leveler?” (Levelers or Levellers were radical supporters of the Parliamentarian cause at the time of the Civil War). I tried to remember what I had learned about them from this book at the time.

I had also decided recently to learn more about the Huguenots, persecuted French protestants, many of whom who took refuge in England.

I went out for the day to a town of great historic interest but decided to cut my losses and come back early as it was a bit of a disappointment. There were some people on the train whose conversation was very loud and very boring.

This reminded me of a day trip I took by coach a few years ago. On the way out, I sat behind two women whose conversation was purely about people and was mind numbingly boring. I put ear plugs in to escape having to listen to what seemed to me to be pure drivel. On the way back, I sat behind two men who started to discuss Bletchley Park, where code breakers tried to decipher German secret messages during WWII. One of them knew a lot about the machines, prototype electronic computers, that were used in the process. I learned a lot, and wanted to beg them to stay and continue their conversation when they got up to leave the coach. Remembering this, I wished that I could have sat close on this occasion to people whose conversation was equally interesting.

When I got back from the over-hyped town, I decided to get something to eat, but the first place I chose was very full. I remembered somewhere else I could go, and found that they had plenty of empty tables. I placed my order, and chose a high level table with a good view of a park. The food was not very good – another disappointment – but some conversation I overheard made up for that.

I had only vaguely noticed two elderly gentlemen at a table nearby, but I was rivetted when one of them suddenly said “What’s a Leveler?” One of these men knew a lot about history, and told his companion many interesting things. Once he had given a lot of information about the Levelers, he started talking about the Huguenots! Again, I gained a lot of new information.

Something got me to the right place at the right time, despite the fact that I was rather tired and stressed at the time. Distress signals attract predators, and two days earlier I had encountered a neighbour whom I had not seen for many years and would want to avoid.

Children’s fiction is a great interest of mine. I wonder how many classics will survive now that children are more sophisticated and have many more options than was the case when some of the books were written. The Children of the New Forest seems very dated now.