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My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell

An Appreciation by Stewart McFarlane 

I found a copy of this book in Dasa books in Bangkok recently. I bought it without hesitating. Seeing it again was like meeting an old friend. It has been one of my favourite books since the age of ten. This was also the age of Gerald Durrell, when he began his five-year sojourn on the Greek Island of Corfu in the mid-1930s. The book was published in 1956, so Durrell must have written it in his 30s.

The account of his life on the island, and his formation as a naturalist and animal collector, is an enchanting read. His explorations of the island and encounters with its people and wildlife are warm, funny and very informative. He wanders through the olive groves and over rocky shores and beaches, with his faithful dog Roger; and delights in the wildlife. His skills as a naturalist are honed and nurtured by the wise and kindly Dr Theodore Stephanides, who was a Greek physician, poet, naturalist and translator, and a good friend of Lawrence Durrell, the writer and older brother of Gerald. Dr Stephanides wrote a definitive study of the freshwater life of Corfu which is still cited as a standard reference work. He initiates Durrell into the fascinating life and courtship of trapdoor spiders, as well as beetles and many other species.

Gerry was not a scholar in the formal sense, but the young Durrell quickly learns the colloquial Greek of Corfu. This helps him befriend the locals. Thus equipped, he is quickly welcomed by the neighbours, mainly shepherds, olive growers and fishermen, who he can interrogate about the local wildlife. It also helps ensure that he is never short of food and hospitality on his explorations of the island. Typically, he struggles with French under the formal instruction of a tutor, but picks up his Greek quite naturally. He even manages to communicate effectively with the mute Rose Beetle Man. An eccentric wandering hawker who wears patched up multi-coloured clothes, and to Gerry’s delight has a hat decorated with tethered rose beetles, which take off and fly around him as he plays his flute. He proceeds to sell Gerry a young tortoise after an elaborate mimed session of bargaining. The fact that Gerry isn’t carrying any money at all is not a problem. The hawker will meet up with him the next day and collect his payment.

Part of the appeal of the book is the account of his succession of tutors’ attempts to provide him with an education. One tutor, George, a lanky Englishman, discovers that the only way to progress is to make every session, regardless of the subject, somehow relate to natural history. So maths problems become questions about how long it would take different numbers of caterpillars to eat through eight leaves. Maps drawn in Geography lessons are quickly populated with the appropriate wildlife, with the produce of these countries as an after-thought. Hannibal’s journey through the Alps to attack Rome is illuminated by Gerald knowing the name of every elephant in his invasion force, as well as how they were cared for. Before the Battle of Trafalgar, Nelson was bird watching with his telescope as the French fleet approached.

The account of the Durrell family and their long-suffering mother is one of the delights of the book. As the author explains he intended the book to be an account of the natural history of Corfu, “… but I made a grave mistake by introducing the family into the book in the first few pages. Having got themselves on paper, they then proceed to establish themselves and invite various friends to share the chapters”.

Actually, they help make the book so appealing. Witnessing the antics and humour of the young writer Lawrence Durrell (Larry) at the tender age of 23 to 28, is highly entertaining. The account of Gerry’s magpies ransack of his room is hilarious. No doubt Larry didn’t see it that way. The dismantling of his typewriter and the decoration of his precious work in progress with magpie-shit and ink, does not seem to have hindered Lawrence Durrell’s progress as a writer. In my view, he was one of the greatest English writers of the twentieth century. Typically humane, in response to the magpie’s attempted sabotage of Lawrence Durrell’s writing career, the family don’t order young Gerry to get rid of the magpies, but arrange to build a large aviary for them in the garden. It is Larry who provides the names for many of Gerry’s animals, including the two new puppies, Widdle & Puke. In addition, he provides the name for Gerry’s boat, the Bootle-Bumtrinket, built by the other brother Leslie, to aid Gerry’s explorations of the Corfu coastline.

One of the heroes of the book is Spiro, the local taxi driver who worked in Chicago for seven years before returning to Corfu. He adopts the family and takes over any tricky negotiations with local officials. He adores Mrs Durrell, and haggles on her behalf for the best deals for any goods and services they need. When their long awaited luggage is retained by customs, Spiro takes the entire family down to the customs office and launches a typical tirade on the customs officer, who is claiming it is his duty to examine the luggage of imported merchandise. Spiro explodes… “What you mean dutys? Is it your dutys to attack innocent foreigners, eh treat em like smugglers, eh?” He picks up their two huge cases and heads for the door, saying, “I know you Christakis, sos don’ts you go talking about dutys to me. I remember when you was fined twelve thousand drachmas for dynamiting fish. I won’t have any criminal talking to me about dutys”. All this is taken in good part, even by Christakis the customs officer; who later appears as one of the guests at a party hosted by Mrs Durrell. I should add at this point that Mrs Durrell insisted that Gerry explains in his introduction to the book that, she is a widow, “…as she penetratingly observed, you never know what people might think”. The book is also dedicated to Mrs Durrell.

Sadly, the Durrell family’s Greek idyll came to an end in 1939, due to the impending War with Germany. They returned to England. Lawrence Durrell and his wife remained on Corfu and had to escape to Alexandria when the Nazis arrived in 1940. Many Greeks suffered greatly under Nazi occupation. Lawrence Durrell’s book, “Prospero’s Cell” which he wrote in the 1940s, is also set in Corfu and recounts his life there. He wrote most of the book while serving as Press Officer for the British Embassy in Egypt.

It was Lawrence Durrell who encouraged Gerald to write and publish, and Gerald Durrell produced many other books, mainly about his collecting expeditions for the Jersey Zoo and Conservation Centre, which he founded. All Gerald Durrell’s books are highly readable. I have always been a voracious reader, and between the age of ten and fifteen, I devoured almost everything that Gerald Durrell wrote. He became a hero of mine for his pioneering work in rare species conservation and environmental protection, and his complete delight in animals.

My Family and Other Animals remains his greatest work in my view. Almost fifty years later, it was this book that partly inspired me to write about the fascinating animals which have enriched my life, and some of the unusual places I encountered them. These include, a smart and helpful dog in a Buddhist temple in Taiwan, enterprising mice in a Zen monastery in Northumberland, a ferocious guard dog in a Chinese martial arts training centre in Penang, Malaysia, a devoted Thai ridgeback dog in a village in Northeast Thailand, friendly but independent-minded elephants and mild-mannered water buffalo in central Thailand, approachable sharks off islands in the Andaman Sea, engaging proboscis monkeys in Sarawak, East Malaysia, and not forgetting an heroic Irish Setter at a University in the North of England, and a certain monster in Loch Ness in the Scottish Highlands.

 

Dr Stewart McFarlane is the author of:

“Of Mice and Zen: Animal Encounters in the Life of a Wandering Buddhist” Mowbray Publishing, 2013, E-book on Amazon (Kindle) or in EPub format from: http://www.taichi-exercises.com/of-mice-and-zen/