I was a voracious reader as a child. If it came between endboards, I read it. Too young for me (I loved the Peter Rabbit tales for years longer than I should have), too old for me (I first read Gone With the Wind when I had whooping cough, age ten. That was also when I read all of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series, at not much more than one sitting). Novels, poetry, plays, history, biography, I didn’t care. I read all of it, precociously and voraciously, and I enjoyed it all.
But a few books and their authors became beloved friends for life. Beatrix Potter, Kenneth Grahame, James Herriot, and, first among equals, Gerald Durrell (it’s no accident that all these authors and their books dealt almost exclusively with animals. Those of you who know me won’t find that odd at all–yes, that’s me in the photo at the start of this post).
Gerald Durrell was born in Jamshedspur, India in 1925, and died in the British Channel Islands in 1995 of septicemia and complications from liver failure. In the intervening hard-lived seventy years, he changed the way the world thinks about zoos and the preservation of species, and he engendered, in my case at least, a lifelong love of animals, and a fascination with the world of zoology.
Many of his books detail his collecting escapades in Africa and South America (The Bafut Beagles, A Zoo in My Luggage, and Three Singles to Adventure are three of my favorites), and of his decision to stop collecting animals to turn over to the zoos of the time, which he found confining and soulless, and of his struggle to find a location for, and start his own zoo, with a view to giving animals living conditions more similar to their native surroundings. He also wanted to focus his efforts on breeding and preservation, rather than on simply showing off the most unusual, or the most sought-after, animals, penned up in cages on concrete pads.
The result was the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, and a zoo based in the grounds and buildings of the eighteenth-century Les Augrès Manor, on the island of Jersey. And somewhere on my bucket list, there it is.
Still, much as I love Gerald Durrell’s books about his adventures with animals, it’s a book in which humans feature front and center that I love most of all.
My Family and Other Animals is a marvelous and gentle recollection of Durrell’s childhood on the Greek island of Corfu in the years before World War II. I still have my original copy, well over half-a-century old, with a broken spine, and pages falling out all over the place, and reading it can still reduce me to helpless snorts of laughter as I revel in the adventures of the young Gerry, his widowed mother Louisa, and his siblings Larry (the novelist Lawrence Durrell), Leslie and Margot. He paints an amused and loving picture of the “natives” (who turn up from time to time to rescue the hapless Durrells from the consequences of their move to warmer, but alien climes), and as is always the case with his writing, the descriptions of the landscape and its denizens are picture perfect.
Good as this book is (and it’s awfully good), I’m sure it held a special fascination for me because I could, in a sense, see myself in it. I grew up in Northern Nigeria, enjoying a childhood that was idyllic in many respects, and especially so for me because I could indulge my own love of the natural world. So a book about a family of free spirits taking off on an adventure, and enjoying an unusual lifestyle in a house full of oddballs and animals was very satisfying to me. In fact, it probably made me feel a bit less odd. After all, doesn’t everyone have a bathtub full of snakes, or at least a couple of lambs in the living room, at one point or another in his life?
I’d like to think that if I wrote a memoir of my childhood, it would be half as good, a quarter as interesting, and a tenth as poignant as Gerald Durrell’s. I’d leave out the sad bits (there were some), concentrate on the funny bits (Lord, there were plenty of those), and tell stories about the events that taught me something about life, about others, and about myself. And when I got to the end, I’d try to let my reader down gently and with a smile.
At the end of My Family and Other Animals, the Durrells sadly, and en masse, leave warm, inviting, beautiful, exotic Corfu just before the War, and return to a land none of them feels particularly fondly towards–rainy, cold, dull, and depressing, England. Of course, they take as many of Gerry’s animals with them as they can. And so he sets the final scene, on the train home:
. . . we sat in silence, not wishing to talk. Above our heads, on the rack, the finches sang in their cages, the Magenpies chucked and hammered with their beaks, and Alecko gave a mournful yarp at intervals. Around our feet the dogs lay snoring. At the Swiss frontier our passports were examined by a disgracefully efficient official. He handed them back to Mother, bowed unsmilingly, and left us to our gloom. Some moments later, Mother glanced at the form the official had filled in, and as she read it, she stiffened.
“Just look at what he’s put,” she exclaimed indignantly, “impertinent man.”
Larry stared at the little form and snorted. “Well, that’s the penalty you pay for leaving Corfu,” he pointed out.
On the little card, in the column headed Description of Passengers, had been printed, in neat capitals: ONE TRAVELING CIRCUS AND STAFF.
“What a thing to write,” said Mother, still simmering. “Really, some people are peculiar.”
The train rattled towards England.
After all this time, I laugh myself almost to tears when reading that passage. Because, it could have been written about my own weird and wonderful family. My Dad. My own Mother. Me. My brother and sister. Somehow, although we didn’t know Gerald Durrell (I did see him speak once, in Pittsburgh, in the early eighties), I felt as though he knew us.
And isn’t that the thing, above all, that makes a book great?
I’d love to know what books, especially from your childhood, speak to you this way.
PS: There’s a recent Masterpiece series, The Durrells in Corfu with (I think) four season’s worth of episodes. It’s on Amazon Prime, and probably other streaming services. I know several people who really enjoyed it, but perhaps because I’m so enchanted by the book, I didn’t really take to it, just not finding it as sweet or magical. YMMV.