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273 pages, Paperback
First published January 1, 1956
My Family and Other Animals is the semi-autobiographical account of prepubescent Gerald's expat life on the Greek island of Corfu with his upper crust, eccentric, English family.
Happily, this entertaining book far-exceeded my expectations. I rediscovered the same Mediterranean island from my boyhood wish list; a sun-drenched idyll of olive groves, cypress trees and hidden coves.
The author's personification of animals extends to goats, whose "udders swing like bagpipes" and also in respect of some tortoise-shagging (the tortoises with each other, not any deviant behaviour on Durrell's part).
Set in the 1930s, before the hedonism of mass tourism had descended upon the Greek islands, Gerald Durrell puts the 'Cor!' into Corfu.
This is not just a novel for bookish school kids. I enjoyed it as a boy and I relished it even more as an adult.
Methinks it was three shillings and sixpence well spent!
There was something decidedly queer about the culprits, I decided; instead of flying away as quickly as possible they remained squatting among the tattered flowers, swaying rhythmically, their eyes bright, uttering tiny chucks of satisfaction to each other. Having gazed at me with rapt attention for a moment, one of them walked very unsteadily across the table, a flower in his beak, lost his balance on the edge of the cloth, and fell heavily to the ground. The other one gave a hoarse cluck of amusement, put his head under his wing, and went to sleep. I was mystified by this unusual behaviour. Then I noticed a smashed bottle of beer on the flagstones. It became obvious that the Magenpies had indulged in a party of their own, and were very drunk. I caught them both quite easily, though the one on the table tried to hide under a butter-bespattered napkin and pretend he was not there.It was also the day Dodo the other dog came into season and had just about the entire island's dogs bursting through the front door to be of service to her. There were the two water-snakes in the bath tub who needed resuscitation after being left out in the sun for too long. It resulted in Leslie almost losing the towel around his loins and his dignity running out the front door and in front of the guest as he tried to describe the size of the monsters in the bath. They were suffering from sunstroke, poor things, said Mrs. Durrell. The whole circus resulted from obtaining Old Plop, a regal and ancient terrapin, who did not do well residing with the snakes in the same pond. Old Kosti, the man who murdered his wife and who received only three years of imprisonment, was Gerry's fishing mate and partner in passion in collecting rare and endangered fauna species. So by the way, a five year prison sentence was regarded much more important and only meant for people who dynamited fish - a very serious offense.
I said I liked being half-educated, you were so much more surprised at everything when you were ignorant...A family friend became the tutor and quickly realized that young Gerry is only willing to study anything if a zoological tinge is added to the lessons.
Geography:The lectures were attended by Gerry, his dog Roger, Achilles the tortoise and Quasimodo the pigeon. The four musketeers doted on the juicy big grapes of Corfu. Achilles loved the wild strawberries the best though.
We would draw giant maps, wrinkled with mountains, and then fill in the various places of interest, together with drawings of the more exciting fauna to be found there. Thus for me the chief products of Ceylon were tapirs and tea; of India tigers and rice; of Australia kangaroos and sheep, while the blue curves of currents we drew across the oceans carried whales, albatross, penguins, and walrus, as well as hurricanes, trade winds, fair weather and foul. Our maps were works of art...
George discovered that by seasoning a series of unpalatable facts with a sprig of zoology and a sprinkle of completely irrelevant detail, he could get me interested. Thus I became conversant with some historical data which, to the best of my knowledge, have never been recorded before. Breathlessly, history lesson by history lesson, I followed Hannibal’s progress over the Alps. His reason for attempting such a feat, and what he intended to do on the other side, were details that scarcely worried me. No, my interest in what I considered to be a very badly planned expedition lay in the fact that I knew the name of each and every elephant. I also knew that Hannibal had appointed a special man not only to feed and look after the elephants, but to give them hot-water bottles when the weather got cold. This interesting fact seems to have escaped most serious historians...
'So the French and British Fleets were slowly drawing together for what was to be the decisive sea battle of the war. When the enemy was sighted. Nelson was on the bridge bird-watching through his telescope … he had already been warned of the Frenchmen’s approach by a friendly gull … eh? … oh, a greater black-backed gull I think it was … well, the ships manoeuvred round each other … of course they couldn’t move so fast in those days, for they did everything by sail … no engines … no, not even outboard engines … The British sailors were a bit worried because the French seemed so strong, but when they saw that Nelson was so little affected by the whole thing that he was sitting on the bridge labelling his birds’-egg collection, they decided that there was really nothing to be scared about …’The characters on the island were as picturesque as the prose. There was Yani, the goat shepherd.
'Today I should have taken my goats to Gastouri. But it was too hot, much too hot. In the hills the rocks will be so hot you could light a cigarette from them. So I went instead and tasted Taki’s new white wine. Spiridion! what a wine … like the blood of a dragon and as smooth as a fish … What a wine! When I came back the air was full of sleep, so here I am.’There was Spiros who took the family under his wing upon their arrival on the island and who would become a big influence in the author's life.
Yous English? Thought so … English always wants bathrooms … I gets a bathroom in my house … Spiro’s my name, Spiro Hakiapoulos … they alls calls me Spiro Americano on accounts of I lives in America … Yes, spent eight years in Chicago … That’s where I learnt my goods English … Wents there to makes moneys … Then after eight years I says: “Spiros,” I says, “yous mades enough …” sos I comes backs to Greece … brings this car … best ons the islands … no one else gets a car like this … All the English tourists knows me, theys all asks for me when theys comes here … Theys knows theys wonts be swindled … I likes the English … best kinds of peoples … Honest to Gods, ifs I wasn’t Greek I’d likes to be English.’Don't you just love the title of this book? It caused a few giggles on this side of the equation. Gerald Durrell wrote autobiographical accounts of his family and all the animals in his life. Wikipedia describes his work as of such kind — characterised by a love for nature and animals, dry wit, crisp descriptions, and humorous analogies of human beings with animals and vice versa.
This is the story of a five-year sojourn that I and my family made on the Greek Island of Corfu. It was originally intended to be a mildly nostalgic account of the natural history of the island, but I made the grave mistake of introducing my family into the book in the first few pages. Having got themselves on paper, they then proceeded to establish themselves and invite various friends to share the chapters. It was only with the greatest difficulty, and by exercising considerable cunning, that I managed to retain a few pages here and there which I could devote exclusively to animals.Well I, for one, am not complaining. Durrell's family is as funny and eccentric as his animals; and even the friends they pick up seem to inhabit the twilight zone between amusing eccentricity and brilliant lunacy.