After the hedonism, madness, and squalor of the first two Moonshake Book reviews, this time out I’m having a detailed look at a delightful classic.
I first read My Family and Other Animals in the summer of 2005. University had ended for the second year and there were two months of peace and quiet before the onslaught of the third year began – I used this time to opportunistically cram in a few extra novels. Not as part of my English course (which, over three years, offered little of interest for me – Beowulf, anyone?), but more as a means to discover new writers.
Back in 2005, this one was perfectly timed for the sunny summer months. I remember feeling like the sunshine from Corfu positively radiated from the pages of Gerald Durrell’s comedic masterpiece, and went into my third year feeling extremely cheerful due to it.
The British author lived a hectic life from 1925 until his death in 1995. He spent his childhood growing up on the island of Corfu, and although he liberally changes details about his family’s antics on the island, it doesn’t matter a jot. The book is simply one hell of an uplifting and beautiful read from a gifted writer, who also championed conservationism and environmental causes throughout his life – this is a legacy ongoing to this day.
Welcome, then, to one rather eccentric family on a sunny island crammed full of exotic creatures!
I should mention, as I didn’t bother on my other posts, spoilers are ahead. The aim of these reviews is to highlight fantastic works, with certain plot points given away not so much as to ruin the story, but to add insights for this review.
The only way you can really get the true power of a novel, even if you know its beginning, middle, and end, is to read the whole thing through – this is what I’m hoping to encourage people to do. Plus, there are no secret twist endings or anything here, so you’re quite safe here. Gerald Durrell does not turn out to be a robot.
First published back in 1956, it’s split up into three parts to denote different villas the eccentric family lived in. It’s all true, of course. The Durrells did indeed move to Corfu in 1935 and were there up until 1939. Do note, though, although in the introduction Durrell says all the events are true, this isn’t entirely the case. It’s artistic license, such as not mentioning the rumblings of World War II are what eventually forced the family off the island. However, his brother Lawrence did acknowledge the book depicts the family’s personalities extremely accurately. They are as follows:
Gerry: 10 years old upon his arrival in Corfu, the young Gerry is obsessed with the natural world but maintains a youthful naivety about him, as well as a general sense of awe at this remarkable world around him.
Lawrence (Larry): An intellectual who was also a published writer, Lawrence Durrell is depicted as a rather pretentious and flamboyant character who’s kind of like Withnail from the famous cult film.
Margo: The relatively well-behaved daughter who causes a minor commotion when she begins dating one of the local boys. She’s concerned about her appearance a lot but generally immerses herself into the local community well.
Mother: The beleaguered, widowed (her husband died in 1928) head of the family who is level headed and generally treats her often eccentric family with good cheer and optimism.
Leslie: The gun-toting member of the family is rather brusque and generally views himself as a gun expert, which leads to several explosive incidents during the course of the book.
Roger the dog: A blundering dog who is at once incredibly affable and good fun, but bothersome in being so and rather prone to causing unnecessary incidents.
There are many other characters the family meet during their time on the island, principally the introverted Dr. Theordore Stephanides (1896 – 1983) who Gerald Durrell befriended, amongst many others. What ho, then! Stiff upper lip, old bean, and let’s do this!
The book begins with the quote: “There is a pleasure sure in being mad, which none but madmen know” from Dryden, the Spanish Friar. This sums up the family’s arrival on the island rather well.
Lawrence Durrell (known as Larry from this point on, okay?) was the one who instigated the move. According to our author, Mr. Gerald Durrell:
It was Larry, of course, who started it. The rest of us felt too apathetic to think of anything except our own ills, but Larry was designed by Providence to go through life like a small, blonde firework, exploding ideas in other people’s minds, and then curling up with cat-like unctuousness and refusing to take any blame for the consequences.
After this, the opening of Chapter 1 sums up the family rather succinctly.
Larry walked swiftly, with head thrown back and an expression of such regal disdain on his face that one did not notice his diminutive size, keeping a wary eye on the porters who struggled with his trunks. Behind him strolled Leslie, short, stocky, with an air of quiet belligerence, and then Margo, trailing yards of muslin and scent. Mother, looking like a tiny, harassed missionary in an uprising, was dragged unwillingly to the nearest lamp-post by an exuberant Roger, and was forced to stand there, staring into space, while he relieved pent-up feelings that had accumulated in his kennel.
After causing this commotion for the Corfu locals, the family soon commandeered a cab driven by the exuberant Spiro. He immediately decided to become the family’s protector and guide of sorts and ferried the family across the island over the next few years.
Finding a home was a key priority, of course, and the Durrell brigade were all set to live in a succession of different coloured villas, with the first being a tiny building which caused much belligerence.
The Strawberry-Pink Villa
Having moved into the small square thing with “an air of pink-faced determination”, the Durrell family got on with their lives. Margo immediately took to sunbathing in skimpy swimsuits, drawing the attention of many local peasant boys – “you only die once”, she said to her concerned mother.
Meanwhile, Larry’s horde of literature dominated his room and he would take to his typewriter all day, emerging “dreamily” at night. Either this or he’d be in a foul mood and begin arguing with Leslie or Mother.
Elsewhere, Leslie’s fondness for guns almost immediately became a problem.
Leslie meanwhile had unpacked his revolvers and startled us all with an apparently endless series of explosions while he fired at an old tin can from his bedroom window.
Inevitably, he and Larry almost came to blows and the two bickered about what the best solution would be. In the meantime, though, little Gerald Durrell took up his interest in the animal kingdom with gusto.
It’s at this stage one of the central elements of the book comes alive. Whilst My Family and Other Animals is part dysfunctional family comedy caper, it’s also a nature book which documents the local wildlife with the sense of wild-eyed awe only dimwitted children can achieve.
At first I was so bewildered by this profusion of life on out very doorstep that I could only move about the garden in a daze, watching now this creature, now that, constantly having my attention distracted by the flights of brilliant butterflies that drifted over the hedge.
Soon out and about perambulating across the countryside, Durrell came across a local eccentric he dubbed the Rose-Beetle Man. From this bloke he managed to purchase a little tortoise.
The new arrival was duly christened Achilles, and turned out to be a most intelligent and lovable beast, possessed of a peculiar sense of humour. At first he was tethered by a leg in the garden, but as he grew tamer we let him go where he pleased. He learned his name in a very short time, and we had only to call out once or twice and then wait patiently for a while and he would appear, lumbering along the narrow cobbled paths on tip-toe, his head and neck stretched out eagerly. He loved being fed, and would squat regally in the sun while we held out bits of lettuce, dandelions, or grapes for him. He loved grapes as much as Roger did, so there was always great rivalry.
Little Achilles also took up an extreme fondness for strawberries which drove the little mite “positively hysterical” (owning a hamster myself, it’s presumably like offering a pumpkin seed to my little dude – mania follows). The little beast thoroughly endeared himself to the family (an unusual achievement – many of Gerry’s pets met with mush disdain) and will probably make you want to own a tortoise.
Unfortunately, Achilles later fell to his death in a disused well.
Even Leslie’s attempts at artificial respiration, and Margo’s suggestion of forcing strawberries down his throat (to give him, as she explained, something to live for), failed to get any response.
Not missing a beat, Durrell soon picked up a pet pigeon from the Rose-Beetle Man, naming him Quasimodo after Larry suggested the bird resembled the famous literary character.
Owing to his unorthodox upbringing, and the fact that he had no parents to teach him the facts of life, Quasimodo became convinced that he was not a bird at all, and refused to fly. Instead he walked everywhere. If he wanted to get on to a table, or a chair, he stood below it, ducking his head and cooing in a rich contralto until someone lifted him up.
After eventually laying several eggs, it became apparent Quasimodo wasn’t all he was cracked up to be. As she entered motherhood, the bird became increasingly distant and would have nothing to do with the humans at all. So there.
Barely 50 pages into this 380 page book and the charm, by now, is simply overflowing from every paragraph. The book exudes a relentless awe for the world and you’re carried along with the author, which is why My Family and Other Animals is unquestionably a modern classic.
In the second part of the book, Durell’s education was ramped up. His mother, deciding he was “running wild”, realised the boy needed some local tutoring. It’s at this point Larry introduced shy local intellectual Dr. Theodore Stephanides, who immediately bonded with young Durrell and took him under his didactic wing.
Also around this time Larry decided to invite his creative peers over from England which, of course, meant more hassle at a tiny villa. With the place turned into Student Halls and overrun individuals camping all over the place, this signalled the move to the…
The “enormous” new home was a big hit with the family. Fully content with a very large sounding property, they could properly indulge themselves with life on the island. It’s at this stage Gerry Durrell took to examining the local wildlife in greater detail, fearlessly observing even jet black scorpions in their natural environment.
He recalls a particularly eye-opening experience with some tortoises who would lounge on the hills near his villa, with the males intent on mating (bloody men). The blokes would regularly do battle to win a lady toirtoise’s affections.
On more than one occasion these battles became so furious that a male in a fit of misplaced enthusiasm would deliver a broadside to his lady-love by mistake. She would merely fold herself into her shell with an outraged sniff, and wait patiently until the battle had passed her by. These fights seemed to me the most ill-organised and unnecessary affairs, for it was not always the strongest tortoise that won; with good terrain in his favour a small specimen could easily overturn one twice his size. Nor, indeed, was it invariably one of the warriors that got the lady, for on several occasions I saw a female wander away from a pair of fighting males to be accosted by a completed stranger and go off with him quite happily.
With these budding observational skills and evident love for animals, it’s of little surprise to learn Durrell became one of the world’s leading conservationists. Indeed, he was a naturalist, zookeeper, author, and TV presenter. Although Durrell died in 1995 his legacy more than lives on. Sir David Attenborough said on the 50th anniversary of the book: “I do assure you, the world needs Durrell.”
If you’d like to learn more, a website supporting the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust provides animal rights support and helps the future of the planet by protecting endangered species. It’s wonderful to see this near 100 year legacy still intact, which began with a wide-eyed boy in the 1930s who found his path in life on the island of Corfu.
Guests & Scorpions
With extra room, Larry could invite a range of guests to stay at the villa.
Far from being the ordinary, charming people that Larry had promised, they all turned out to be the most extraorindary eccentrics who were so highbrow that they had difficulty in understanding one another.
Durrell describes the Armenian poet Zatopec, who arrived wearing a swirling black cloak and a carriage piled full of wine. Elsewhere there was the jittery wreck Durant, somnambulistic Michael, and cockney Jonquil. This lot caused a heck of a lot of problems, with snippets of intellectual debates dropped into the book simply to highlight most of them were pretentious Hipsters.
On the whole, however, the Durrells appeared to be able to stumble on by despite their bickering, but calamitous events were seemingly never far away. In Chapter 9, Durrell describes picking up a pet scorpion which had a “fur coat” of babies on her back. Eager to raise this family, the young lad stowed them away into a matchbox and returned to the villa. As he entered his home, lunch was called and he placed the matchbox on the mantelpiece in the family’s drawing-room.
Larry, having finished lunch, went to retrieve his cigarettes, lay back on his chair, and continued “talking glibly” as he opened the matchbox. One very angry scorpion promptly emerged and scuttled onto his hand. Busy talking, the intellectual looked down to see what had clambered onto him.
He uttered a roar of fright that made Lugaretzia [their gardener] drop a plate and brought Roger out from beneath the table, barking wildly. With a flick of his hand he sent the unfortunate scorpion flying down the table, and she landed midway between Margo and Leslie, scattering babies like confetti as she thumped on the cloth. Thoroughly enraged at this treatment, the creature sped towards Leslie, her sting quivering with emotion. Leslie leapt to his feet, overturning his chair, and flicked out desperately with his napkin, sending the scorpion rolling across the cloth towards Margo, who promptly let out a scream that any railway engine would have been proud to produce.
Lawrence Durrell’s observation was”It’s that bloody boy again! He’ll kill the lot of us!”, whilst Leslie suggested “slaughtering” the scorpion family. The babies were eventually collected with a teaspoon, returned to the mother (who was in a teacup) and returned to the wild.
Ordered to double his educational efforts, young Durrell penned his first novel (featuring his family battling wild animals) and also picked up a baby male pet Scops owl – the family was mightily pleased with this new arrival, this time.
Although he would have fitted comfortably into a tea-cup, he showed no fear and would unhesitatingly attack anything and everyone, regardless of size.
This bird was named Ulysees, clearly indicating Lawrence Durrell’s infatuation with literature was influencing all of those around him. His brother Leslie, however, was an ever-present force as well.
The Bootle-Bumtrinket & Leslie’s Lunacy
During one summer, young Gerry pestered Leslie relentlessly until he caved in and made the young lad a boat. Eager to observe the wildlife out at sea, he had visions of a grand thing which would take on storms and help him defeat a figurative Moby-Dick.
Eventually, Leslie crafted a bizarre 7ft long thing which was apparently almost circular in shape (the planks had been “too short for the frame”, according to Leslie). Delighted, the family indulged in much bickering until the boat was named the Bootle-Bumtrinket.
This set up an unusual series of events which ensured Leslie’s gun obsession became something of a concern for the Durrells. It was instigated by Margo’s relationship with a local called Peter, with Mother pointing out they were “too fond of one another.”
Eventually Mother dispensed with Peter’s services, he left hurriedly and furtively and we had to cope with a tragic, tearful, and wildly indignant Margo, who, dressed in her most flowing and gloomy clothing for the event, played the part magnificently. Mother soothed her and uttered gentle platitudes, Larry gave Margo lectures on free love, and Leslie, for reasons best known to himself, decided to play the part of the outraged brother and kept appearing at intervals, brandishing a revolver and threatening to shoot Peter down like a dog if he set foot in the house again.
An upset Margo locked herself in the attic and refused to leave the building. According to Durrell, she was up there for a solid week into an explosive incident triggered her out of hiding.
Leslie had been noticing items disappearing from the family’s other boat the Sea Cow. Believing this to be local fishermen, he took it upon himself to rig an elaborate lesson-teaching ruse.
He attached to his bedroom window three long-barrelled shotguns aiming down the hill at the jetty. By an ingenious arrangement of strings he could fire one barrel after the other without even getting out of bed. The range was, of course, too far to do any damage, but the whistling of shot through the olive-leaves would, he felt, act as a fairly good detterent. So carried away was he by his own brilliance that he omitted to mention to anyone that he had constructed his burglar trap.
Thusly, the family was sleeping merrily one evening when “a rapid series of colossal explosions” caused the family to break into complete pandemonium. This incident did, however, trigger Margo’s arrival back to the real world. It also later ensured Larry would take interest in Leslie’s game hunting exploits, which led to yet another memorable incident for the Durrells.
Lawrence Durrell’s eccentric behaviour peppers the entire book with a Withnail-esque sense of flamboyance and grandeur. For the record, he did indeed turn out to be a respected novelist and intellectual, although his brother certainly outdid him in terms of legacy.
Regardless, Leslie’s hunting trips brought out Larry’s pomposity, with grand claims he could easily outdo whatever Leslie and his hunting friends could achieve. Inevitably, this led to a trip out into the wilderness and, upon attempting to shoot some birds, Larry fell over a bridge into an irrigation ditch.
Stuck waist deep in mud, it took the others some time to yank him free, by which point he was suffering the effects of the cold mud. By the time they had trudged home, with Larry effing and blinding all the way back, he’d become ill.
He refused all offers of assistance, collected a bottle of brandy from the larder, and retired to his room, where, on his instructions, Lugaretzia built a huge fire. He sat muffled up in bed, sneezing and consuming brandy. By lunch-time he sent down for another bottle, and at tea-time we could hear him singing lustily, interspersed with gigantic sneezes.
After a third bottle Larry was apparently drunk and belligerent, shouting at his family members and telling his mother: “You’re a horrible old woman… I’m sure I’ve seen you somewhere before.” He later denied being drunk and accused his family of being delusional and too stupid to recognise an obvious fever.
After this, to ensure irritating relatives wouldn’t arrive and stay at the villa, the Durrells realised it was time to move to a smaller one and claim they had no more room for visitors.
It’s at this stage I was introduced to the word “salubrious” for the first time in the summer of 2005, with one aunt suggesting the warm weather would be good for her health. Larry’s reaction has stuck with me, for some reason, and remained a favourite bit of dialogue of mine:
Salubrious! What a word to use!
With this in mind, and the noble tradition of avoiding relatives as a driving force, the family left behind their daffodil-yellow villa forever more.
The final section begins to wind down the story. By this stage you’re so used to the antics of the Durrells you feel as if they’re family members. Whilst reading, you may quietly chastise Larry’s pomposity or Leslie’s borderline psychosis, but it’s always with a great sense of fondness for this oddball British family.
It seems quintessentially British to be “eccentric”, as if it’s a national stereotype. Along with an extremely regal renounced pronunciation, the ubiquitous cup of tea, bad teeth, and a tendency to burst into tears whenever the Queen is mentioned, these seem to be some of the longstanding beliefs about British people.
The truth is, as a multicultural society which is toing and froing between left and right wing ideologies, such considerations are hopelessly out of date. Most Brits drink coffee these days, there are very few posh people, and at least half of the nation doesn’t give a damn about the monarchy system.
However, in My Family and Other Animals the Durrells certainly live up to the perceived notions of Britishness in many respects. As this books has turned into a classic and is read all the way across the world, perhaps it’s inadvertently fueling the concept Brits are quirky, buck-toothed endearing oddballs. I assure you, a lot of us are bloody horrible, I say!
The new villa was “perched on a hill-top” and featured a broad veranda, with a white as snow appearance, and grapevines hanging from the building.
Gerry Durrell familiarised himself with the mantid population during this time, describing a fearful battle between two rivals fighting over turf. A local gecko also caught his eye. He named his favourite Geronimo and the beast allowed him to mop its back with cotton wool after a particularly brutal battle left the lizard “battered, limp, exhausted, but victorious”.
Happily, the beast reappeared the next day waggling its stump of a tail, and later reappeared again with a female lizard partner after a successful night on the pull.
I’ve not mentioned Dr. Theordore Stephanides much during this review, but he’s an ever present tutor for young Gerry throughout the book, but he also drops terrible puns all the time. I’ll have none of that here, thank you!
With Stephanides often busy with his work, this did mean Gerry had a number of different tutors to rely on. Perhaps the most bizarre was the ornithologist Kralefsky.
I decided immediately that Kralefsky was not a human being at all, but a gnome who had disguised himself as one by donning an antiquated but very dapper suit.
Introduced to the man’s birds nest, upon opening the door he revealed to Gerry a “deafening chorus of bird song; it was as if Kralefsky had opened the gates of Paradise in the grubby corridor at the top of the house.”
As I’ve occasionally mentioned in the review, some characters resemble others from a certain British cult film. Indeed, if Larry is Withnail then Dr. Theordore Stephanides is I, and Krafelsky is most certainly Uncle Monty. You’ll have to watch Withnail and I to understand what I’m on about, but these characters have similar personality traits.
Anyway, whilst being tutored naïve young Gerry can’t quite believe it when Kralefsky says his mother is still alive and living in the house. He dismissed this as an impossibility, so when the tutor ever announced, “Excuse me a moment, I must go and see mother” the lad presumed he was being polite and was simply retiring to the lavatory.
Another morning, Gerry, being a stiff upper lip British polite sort, enquired if he could also pay a visit to his mother (meaning the toilet). Krafelsky, slightly baffled informed Gerry:
I’m sure she’ll be delighted to see you, of course, but I’d better just go and see if it’s convenient.
He soon returned announcing the lady was well up for it, but Gerry must excuse her “being a little untidy”.
I thought it was carrying politeness to an extreme to talk about the lavatory as if it were a human being, but, since Kralefsky was obviously a bit eccentric on the subject, I felt I had better humour him. I said I did not mind a bit if his mother was in a mess, as ours frequently was as well.
Kralefsky gave the young lad a startled glance before he led him through to a positively ancient old woman in her bed. Obviously, this was in the 1930s and Gerald Durrell (who died aged 70 in 1995) didn’t reach similar years, but this chapter really captures your childhood feelings about grown ups and how confusing and awe-inspiring they can be.
When you’re 10, coming across people who’ve already essentially lived out their lives and are in their final years is quite the experience. I remember it from when I was even younger than Gerry in the early 1990s, when a local man named Charles offered life tips with a sense of humour and charm.
It was a distant world, but now nearly 32 I believe I, too, am in a position to teach young whippersnappers what for with life tips. My main one would be this – stop taking Selfies and read more canonical literature!
Several chapters remain after this, but this seems like a good point to end on such a high note of childhood wonder.
There’s no denying My Family and Other Animals captures the magical nature of childhood, primarily as it was written by a wonderfully compassionate man with great intelligence and wit to add to his CV.
Subsequent chapters deal with the Dandie Dinmont dog Margo picks up (“Good God! It looks like a sea-slug!” was Leslie’s response) and the family’s eventual departure from Corfu. This was due to the arrival of World War II, but this isn’t mentioned in the book. This isn’t as it’s merely a children’s tale as there are some adult themes crammed in there, but it would certainly add an unnecessarily unpleasant end to such an uplifting book.
With his book published a decade after the end of the war, it must have been something of a welcome arrival for a world in the grips of the threat of nuclear war and more destruction. What can be a better antidote to this? Some marvellous, occasionally twee humour mixed in with animals.
Now 60 years after its publication, the Durrell family members depicted in the book may be long gone, but the story does hold a lasting charm which I think will ensure it remains essential reading for future generations. It also stands as an important reminder to the world to make a concerted environmental effort for the good of future generations.
As such, I can only heartily recommend you pick it up this autumn or winter in order to add a ray of sunshine into your existence.