Summer readings: My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell
A family holiday on the Greek island of Paxos was the perfect setting for my first encounter with hermit crabs and a classic tale.
I am not sure quite why I have such an affection for My Family and Other Animals: my brother referred to me as Margo for quite some time, not because of my effortless ability to attract various languid Greek youths, but because I was a bit spotty, and so was she: "swollen up like a plate of scarlet porridge", as Larry puts it. How unfair.
Yani the shepherd's tale of a man stung in the ear by a tiny scorpion, whose head "had swollen up as though his brains were pregnant" before he died in terrible pain, also put the fear of god into me when it came to scorpions – I can remember sleeping curled into a ball in my bed, terrified that one might scuttle by and be tempted to bite any limb protruding over the mattress. I survived, though, and at home again in England, I was (briefly) inspired to become a collector, like Gerry and Theodore, although my bits of broken bird egg and stag beetles were, in retrospect, rather pathetic when compared to their trapdoor spiders, pet owls and pigeons.
When I was young, I loved My Family and Other Animals for its minutely detailed descriptions of animals and insects. Now, it's the human portraits which I adore – the wonderful Spiro, "a short, barrel-bodied individual, with ham-like hands and a great, leathery, scowling face surmounted by a jauntily-tilted peaked cap", the magical Rose-Beetle man, the myriad bonkers bit-players. Here's just a taster, from one of Margo's beaus (not too spotty to have beaus, then, huh, little brother?). "'I have no fear,' said the Turk modestly. 'I am a superb swimmer, so I have no fear. When I ride the horse, I have no fear, for I ride superbly. I can sail the boat magnificently in the typhoon without fear.' He sipped his tea delicately, regarding our awestruck faces with approval. 'You see,' he went on, in case we had missed the point, 'you see, I am not a fearful man.'" Impeccable comic timing.
Rereading the novel this summer, in Greece again for a friend's wedding, I notice a slight tendency to overwrite (Durrell refers to tortoises as "the shelled owners of the hills"). But it still caused me to snort with laughter on several occasions, and to wonder what on earth the Durrell family made of its publication, particularly Lawrence, who comes across as a pompous prat. "'What an entry,'" he says bitterly, as they arrive as chaotically as ever in Corfu. "'I had hoped to give an impression of gracious majesty, and this is what happens ... we arrive in town like a troupe of medieval tumblers.'"
But a quick Google tells me he didn't mind too much: "This is a very wicked, very funny, and I'm afraid rather truthful book – the best argument I know for keeping 13-year-olds at boarding schools and not letting them hang about the house listening in to conversations of their elders and betters," he said, according to a Gerald Durrell biography.
It is also a heart-warmingly affectionate portrait of Corfu and its inhabitants and, for me at least, utterly evocative of sun-soaked summer holidays.