‘She was always sitting outside her house with a spindle of sheep’s wool, twining and pulling it into coarse thread. She must have been well over 70, but her hair was still thick and lustrous, plaited carefully and wound round a pair of polished cow’s horns, an ornament that some of the older peasant women adopted. As she sat in the sun, like a great black toad with a scarlet head-dress draped over the cow’s horns, the bobbin of wool would rise and fall, twisting like a top, her fingers busy unravelling and plucking, and her drooping mouth with its hedge of broken and discoloured teeth wide open as she sang, loudly and harshly, but with great vigour.’
So writes Gerald Durrell in My Family and Other Animals. What a little gem this book is. I’ve long wanted to read it, but I didn’t get around to it until a friend pushed it into my hands after a wine-filled dinner together. I rugged up against the windy night, hugging the book tightly, and jumped straight into bed with my hot water bottle and started reading it. I had to begin it again the next night, but that wasn’t the book’s fault.
Gerald was only 10 years old when he moved with his family to the Mediterranean. There was his unflappable mother, eldest brother Larry (or Lawrence, as we may better know him), Leslie (the hunting-, shooting- and fishing-mad brother who would build Gerald a boat) and elder sister Margo (or Margaret, who would later open a boarding house in England and write a book about it) and the youngest child, Gerald, who had a passionate fascination for living things. They were an eccentric family who carried the oddest things in their luggage – such as caterpillars – on their way to this new country. The locals must have been bemused as the family landed on their shores – or maybe they just thought them to be very English.
And what a change it was for the Durrells as they escaped the ‘gloom of the English summer like a flock of migrating swallows’ to the sunny bright colours of the Greek isle of Corfu. Gerald had been fascinated by wildlife all his short life, and the island provided a whole new level of exploration and discovery for him. He went on to dedicate his life to the preservation of wildlife and became a renowned naturalist and writer who published more than 37 books. He also stood up for the less attractive and less popular animals facing extinction, especially the not-so-good-looking toads.
I love Gerald Durrell’s writing. It’s effortless to read and just flows along, eliciting the occasional giggle. And I often find myself smiling while I’m reading; it’s a feel-good book. I’m right there alongside Gerald as he introduces us to the quirky people he meets on the island and as the world of wildlife discoveries opens up to him. And I’m there with Roger the dog as he lopes happily at Durrell’s side, seemingly understanding every word the young man says, giving him a nudge with his nose or lying down with a sigh as some new insect grabs his master’s attention.
My Family and Other Animals is a mix of memoir and novel. As Durrell admits, he exaggerates, but he also excludes some information. I expect it’s a bit like how a 10-year-old would like to remember things.
Why did I wait so long to read it? Better late than never, I say!
And Baxter superdog, who loves to run madly in circles.