This was really the perfect book for me to take to my sick bed with. I have been really ill with a very severe cold, chest infection and major flare up of asthma. I have said before how re-reading old favourites are like meeting up again with old friends, and when better to do that, than when one is feeling rotten.
Gerald Durrell was a world famous conservationist and founder of the Jersey zoo which specialised in conservation of endangered species. He is however just as famous for his series of books about his family and his animals. The first in that series of books is My Family and other animals, and from the moment that Gerald Durrell introduces us to his hilarious eccentric family, the reader is hooked.
“I have attempted to draw an accurate and unexaggerated picture of my family in the following pages; they appear as I saw them. To explain some of their more curious ways, however, I feel that I should state that at the time we were in Corfu the family were all quite young: Larry, the eldest, was 23; Leslie was 19; Margo was 18; while I was the youngest, being of the tender and impressionable age of 10. We had never been certain of my mother’s age for the simple reason she could never remember her date of birth; all I can say is she was old enough to have four children. My mother also insists that I explain that she is a widow for, as she so penetratingly observed, you never know what people might think.”
When young Gerry and his family move to Corfu it is 1935. The world in general and Corfu in particular are very different places to today. Gerry is allowed at first to run fairly wild, later he is instructed by a series of unusual tutors. This wonderful freedom allows the young boy, who is already fascinated by everything to do with the natural world, to fully explore the beautiful island that he finds himself on. With his trusty dog Roger at his heels Gerry explores, finds all manner of species to further fascinate him, all while making friends with the locals. Over the next five years Gerry takes all manner of creatures home to his long suffering family, an owl, a giant gull, scorpions, and a gecko among other things. Remarkably perhaps, these various pets are greeted by Gerry’s mother with surprising relaxation, although his pompous elder brother Larry is often driven to distraction. The consequences of these animal guests are often hilarious, one memorable incident involving a mother scorpion with dozens of tiny babies fastened round her body being put in a matchbox and left on the mantelpiece by Gerry as he rushes off to eat his dinner. I’m sure you can imagine the rest. Gerry’s family are every bit as entertaining as his animal friends, more so in fact. Larry the future novelist is a small terror, often furiously inconvenienced by Gerry’s animals; he has more interest in literature and writing. Leslie’s passion is shooting and guns, while Margo concerns herself with diets and beauty regimes. For me though it is Gerry Durrells mother who is the real star, at times rather vague, she nevertheless manages to manage her peculiar squabbling family with both charm and a marvellously laid back attitude.
Almost as soon as the family arrive on Corfu they meet the excitable Spiro, who immediately takes the family under his wing. Spiro busies himself arranging their villa accommodation, generally looking after the family and making himself indispensable. The Durrells soon collect around them a collection of good eccentric friends to add to the menagerie at home. As well as Spiro, is Gerry’s tutor the bird loving Mr Kralefsky and scientist and philosopher Theodore Stephanides who befriends Gerry on a wonderfully equal footing, the two regularly exploring and investigating together, their shared enthusiasm taking no account of a vast difference in ages. Gerry seems to have had as much of a talent with people as with animals, as he makes friends with a shepherd, The Rose-Beetle Man and later a convict in his travels around the island.
Gerald Durrell writes with wonderful humour and affection, and into the story of his and his family’s time in Corfu he weaves his immense enthusiasm and curiosity for the natural world.