My Family and Other Animals – Gerald Durrell

I often say this, but I can’t believe it has taken me so long to get around to reading Gerald Durrell’s memoir of his childhood in Corfu, My Family and Other Animals. It’s been on my tbr shelves for a long time & I eventually listened to it as an audio book, so beautifully read by Nigel Davenport. It was actually Nigel Davenport who led me to the book. I’d watched the 1970s TV series, South Riding, in which he played Robert Carne. I loved it but I especially loved Davenport’s voice & wondered if he’s narrated any audio books. When I saw that he had read this one, I knew what I would be listening to next. So, I’ve spent the last few weeks listening to the adventures of the Durrell family as I drove to work, cooked & ironed.

The Durrells – Mother, Larry, Leslie, Margo & 10 year old Gerry – are suffering through a miserable winter when Larry decides that they should move to Corfu to get away from the awful English climate. The decision is no sooner made than they set off through Europe, eventually arriving on Corfu with a mountain of luggage & Gerry’s dog, Roger. They are taken over almost immediately by Spiro, a giant of a man who thinks he speaks perfect English & who protects the Durrells from being robbed or taken advantage of during their stay on the island. They find a strawberry-pink villa with a bathroom (Mother’s main requirement) & settle in. Larry is a writer & fills his room with books. Leslie is gun-mad, hunting anything that moves while Margo spends her time sunbathing & reading fashion magazines.

Gerry is mad on natural history & he & Roger explore the island observing & collecting the animals, mainly insects, that they come across. Unfortunately the rest of the family aren’t as excited about scorpions in matchboxes as Gerry is & there are regular eruptions when his latest specimen is discovered in the fridge or the bathtub. Every so often, Mother becomes concerned about Gerry’s education & employs a tutor for him, all of them lovable in varying degrees but none of them very useful as tutors. Gerry’s best friend on the island is Theodore, a lovable man who is just as absorbed by natural history as he is. Every Thursday, Gerry has tea with Theo & they discuss Gerry’s latest acquisitions or go on expeditions themselves to look for new animals to observe.Gerry’s animals & his observations of the natural world are one of the many delights of the book. The adventures of Achilles & Cyclops the tortoises, Ulysses the owl, & especially the Magenpies (Spiro’s mispronunciation of magpies) are very funny. As well as the mad adventures, there are also the quiet moments when the island truly seems a paradise.

Though I spent many days voyaging in the Bootle-Bumtrinket, and had many adventures, there was nothing to compare with that first voyage. The sea seemed bluer, more limpid and transparent, the islands seemed more remote, sun-drenched, and enchanting than ever before, and it seemed as though the life of the sea had congregated in the little bays and channels to greet me and my new boat. A hundred feet or so from an islet I shipped the oars and scrambled up to the bows, where I lay side by side with Roger, peering down through a fathom of crystal water at the sea bottom while the Bootle-Bumtrinket floated towards the shore with the placid buoyancy of a celluloid duck. As the boat’s turtle-shaped shadow edged across the sea-bed, the multi-coloured, ever-moving tapestry of sea life was unfolded.

The Durrells moves from the strawberry-pink villa to a daffodil-yellow villa when Larry invites hoards of people to stay without considering where they’re to stay then, later, to a snow-white villa to avoid a visit from a miserable old aunt. Mother just calmly tries to keep the peace as all she wants is for everyone to be happy. She’s remarkably calm when Gerry brings yet another creature into the house or Larry, in his superior, sarcastic way, invites his literary friends to stay for indefinite periods. She calmly goes along to chaperone Margo on a date with a very unsuitable young man & seems able to cater for a large party at a moment’s notice. Eventually, after five years, the family reluctantly decide to return to England for the sake of Gerry’s education, & their final farewell to Corfu is incredibly poignant as the boat takes them away from this little paradise.

The success of the book is partly due to the picture of Corfu before tourism made the Greek islands so popular. To a child like Gerry, it seemed to be a paradise where he could spend whole days wandering through the olive groves & on the seashore exploring & observing. The descriptions of the natural history are fascinating but really, it’s the eccentricities of the Durrell family that make it so very funny. I laughed out loud many times as I listened to stories of Larry’s pomposity being squashed by the puppies Widdle & Puke destroying his room, or Margo’s forlorn lovesickness over one of Gerry’s tutors leading to her taking the puppies out on a boat trip that nearly ends in tears. Every time Leslie appeared with a gun, I laughed over his complete obsession with firearms over everything else. To Leslie, Corfu was just somewhere to hunt, he couldn’t see the natural beauty of the place at all.

Apparently the book takes some liberties with the facts (Larry was married & living in another part of Corfu & the Durrells left because of the outbreak of war rather than for Gerry’s education) but it seems the essential truth of the book was recognized, even by Larry (the writer Lawrence Durrell) who later said “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 just think it’s one of the funniest books I’ve read in a very long time.

Naturally I’m going to find myself collecting copies of this book as I seem to collect copies of all my favourite books. I already own one paper copy & the audio book & next month, I’ll have another copy as My Family and Other Animals is the new Slightly Foxed Edition & I collect those too.
There are also secondhand copies available from Anglophile Books.

24 thoughts on “My Family and Other Animals – Gerald Durrell

  1. I love this book! I read it to my kids about 10 years ago and we all loved it. There is a film version of it that I remember as good too. Since I had borrowed it from the library then, I purchased a used copy later on and reread it. Still as great as the first read! The sequels are quite good too.


  2. It's been recommended to me many times & I'm glad I finally got around to reading it. I haven't seen either of the TV versions (there was a 1980s series with Hannah Gordon & Brian Blessed that I'd love to see). Hopefully I'll get around to the sequels one day.


  3. Do you know I have only just got around to audio books? What a wonderful invention. This one is on my Lyn List, thanks.
    Last night I started “The Sunday Philosophy Club” by Alexander McCall Smith, four pages in I knew I had met a new author I will love.


  4. The sequels are also excellent as are the short stories “Fillets of Place” (named after his brother published “Spirit of place” ) all his books are lovely, real favourites and great fun! His first wife's book is great too.
    I know what you mean by actor's voices ..I have an especial fondness for Robin Bailey's and am listening to his reading of A Town Like Alice at the moment.


  5. Audio books are wonderful. Podcasts have taken over a little bit but I still love audio. AMS's Isabel series is my favourite of his.I love the picture of Edinburgh he paints.


  6. I've got FOP on the tbr shelves so I may get to it soon. On the other hand, I may not! I have lots of favourite narrators. Unfortunately the end of AudioGo in the UK means that a lot of them won't be narrating. I've noticed that the authors are being picked up by other audio book companies but the narrators are often unknown to me. I'll have to find some new favourites.


  7. I have this book and a couple of his others in my vintage Penguin collection. I love their covers but sadly have to admit I have not read them yet. It is one of those books that I come across at home every time I move another book. There it is. Probably trying to tell me to read it! A lovely review.


  8. I really enjoyed this book when I read it. I did not know about the liberties that were taken with the truth but I am not surprised. I am amused by older brother Larry's comments. He does come across as very pompous in the book.


  9. Yes, I always listen to the samples on Audible if it's an unfamiliar narrator. There's nothing worse than a narrator that annoys or puts you to sleep (especially as I often listen in the car!)


  10. I read MFAOA when graduating from children's books to adult ones. I still have the old Penguin and still find it funny. Much more interesting to me than his later travel books. If you know Lawrence Durrell's novels it's amusing to see him strutting about as 'the great writer'.


  11. I adore this book – and so did my mum, so much so that my brother is called Theodore after Gerry's tutor! I think my mum was hoping that some of Theo's gentle nature (and love of nature!) would rub off on my brother… it didn't quite work out that way!


  12. This has always been a great favorite and I reread it periodically. The film, which my grandsons and I have watched several times, never fails to please and it is fairly close to the book. My grandsons (almost 10 and 12 plus) also love THE GODS MUST BE CRAZY and THE TITCHFIELD THUNDERBOLT as well as WHISKY GALORE. Great films! Great books (well some of them)


  13. I've never really fancied Larry's novels although I just recently read a review of his Bitter Lemons & I'd like to read that one of these days. I do like the good humour of his comment about MFAOA though, it makes me think more kindly of him.


  14. Oh, Theo was my favourite character. How lovely to think your brother was named after him. I don't think children ever do take after their namesakes though, do you?


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