August 18, 2011


The books we simply won't allow you to borrow.

The Corfu Trilogy by Gerald Durrell
768 pages, Penguin

Hoarder: Pat Black

It's always summer somewhere. Except here. Or so you would think, going by the constant rain this week alone.

Still, it could be worse. There could be economic chaos and rioting. Fingers crossed.

My first encounter with the Durrell family was a BBC TV adaptation of My Family and Other Animals from the late 1980s. The Greek island scenery, the blue water and the crazy creatures made a big impression on a kid watching from a scrubby tenement flat in a grim housing estate. Plus, it starred Brian Blessed. Everything would be automatically improved by the presence of The Blessed. It's true. Think about it.

But this encounter was a mild flirtation compared to when I finally encountered the books - collected in this handsome volume - and was swept off my feet.

My Family And Other Animals, and its sequels, Birds, Beasts and Relatives and In The Garden Of The Gods, forms the colourful autobiography of young Gerald Durrell from the age of about 10 to 15. This covers the time he lived in Corfu with his very English, very bonkers family, just prior to the outbreak of the Second World War.

Gerald - or Gerry, as he is known to his family - went on to become a very famous conservationist and naturalist, and his obsession with living creatures forms the spine of this book. With his faithful dog Roger, Gerry scours the Greek landscape looking for all manner of living creatures to add to his collection, encountering many no less exotic local characters on the way. Other than lessons from a retinue of oddball tutors who attempt to teach him monstrously boring subjects such as mathematics, there's no school experience for Gerry on this paradise island - only his own observations on all manner of life, and his attempts to collect specimens for study.

The word I've been dying to use all along is "idyllic".

Scorpions, spiders, owls, spiteful magpies, lizards, puppies... nothing is exempt from Gerald's menagerie. But, as the title tells us, it's the depiction of Durrell's mad, moneyed family and their various friends and acquaintances that helps create the magic of the book.

Durrell is somewhat merciless with his widowed mother and elder siblings. The matriarch comes across as a dotty old mamma who puts up with her offspring's off-the-wall lives and friends with a mixture of prim exasperation and befuddlement. The eldest Durrell, Larry - or Lawrence, the famous novelist, as he is better-known - comes across as a snipey snob with a fantastic line in put-downs and quite incredible pretentiousness; he's forever exasperated by Gerry’s shrieking, squawking, chittering creatures which regularly infest the house and befoul his airs and graces. The next-eldest, Leslie, is a gun-obsessed outdoorsman who would rather put a bullet through living creatures than study them. And finally there's put-upon Margo, always spotty, always dieting, and always luring lovesick Greeks and poets intent on her red-flecked English flesh to the family household - whereupon they are dashed to pieces on the rocks of the males' sarcasm.

Colourful local characters abound, too; at the top of the tree is the fiercely loyal taxi driver Spiro ("Watch them Turkish bostords, Mrs Durrells!"), aided by Theo, a polymath who becomes Gerry's mentor, and the crackpot tutor Mr Krafelsky, forever fighting duels for the honour of young ladies in his own mind.

There are so many wonderful moments from the three books that it's difficult to focus on the best. Clear candidates include anything relating to When Animals Run Amok, usually coinciding with visits from authority figures to the Durrells' home; or the voyages of the Bootle Bumtrinket, surely the best-named boat in nautical history; or the weird, poignant and beautiful moment when Gerry observes a human birth, to the daughter of a local peasant family; or the "literary salon" party that Mrs Durrell is conned into hosting by Larry, destined to end in chaos. But I would probably choose the closing lines of Birds, Beasts and Relatives, when all the major characters sail home from a party in the night, singing songs into the darkness with the War looming, as they all realise that their days in Eden are coming to an end.

True to form, elder brother Lawrence Durrell once remarked of My Family: "This is a very wicked, very funny, and I'm afraid rather truthful book - the best argument I know for keeping thirteen-year-olds at boarding-schools and not letting them hang about the house listening in to conversations of their elders and betters." I reckon he's being kind on the "truthful" part; but despite the odd embellishment or artistic liberty, The Corfu Trilogy is a wonderful, affectionate look at family, in all its strangeness. And if any hardships were encountered, they're recalled with a smile.

But I love these books for their promise of adventure. For me, they evoke that feeling I had on the first day of the summer holidays as a kid. Except that instead of middens, red ash football pitches and waste ground, Gerry has an entire island to play on, and the sea surrounding it is a shade of blue you thought only existed in paintings. He's just a young boy, fired by curiosity and a love of all of the world's creatures, going on adventures with his collecting jar, specimen net, magnifying glass and his best friend, Roger the dog. Life could not be as good as that ever again.

The Corfu Trilogy also gives me a strange comfort, especially in these mean times. If our cities ever do become warzones, if our political and cultural edifices should crumble into dust - or even if the whole lot should be burned to ashes - the birds will still fly overhead, the bugs will meander over the rubble, the dandelions will sprout through the cracks and life will continue on its merry way, with or without us. That notion gives me a great sense of peace and calm.

And that's why you simply cannot borrow this book from me.

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