One of the books set for study for my English Literature O Level* was My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell. At that time—around 1979-80—I must confess to not having heard of the book, its author or his brother Larry, also a writer. Back then, I was reading horror novels by James Herbert and Stephen King, or fantasy by David Gemmell and Tolkien.
As a young teenager I had read and fallen in love with Cider With Rosie by Laurie Lee. There was something about Lee’s writing and his reminiscences about life in rural Gloucestershire in the period after the Great War that called to me.
My Family had the same effect. I was instantly captivated by Durrell’s writing—it’s been many years since I last read the book, but I can still recall the wonderfully evocative way he described the cold from which he was suffering (and which partly prompted his mother to uproot the family and transport them almost two thousand miles to Greece). He wrote that the British summer had brought cattarh, ‘pouring it into my skull like cement’.
In case you haven’t read it (or seen one of the TV adaptations), the book and its two sequels are about the family’s sojourn to Corfu in 1935 when Gerry (Gerald) was aged ten. A keen student of natural history at even such a young age, he recounts his many and varied adventures with the Greek wildlife. But the real joy, for me, lies in the anecdotes about his family and the locals they encounter during their four-year stay on the island before war forces them back to Britain. There are also the eccentric guests Gerry’s eldest brother, Larry, invites to stay with them, usually at short to no notice, much to his long-suffering mother’s despair.
Larry (Lawrence) became an accomplished novelist, best known for The Alexandria Quartet. He provides the impetus for most of the funniest escapades, although Gerry’s bullish older brother Leslie and his flighty sister Margo, as well as their mother, have their share of comic moments.
As soon as we started reading the book in class, I was hooked and there was no way I could wait to read the book at the pace set by our English teacher. I continued reading it at home that evening and had finished it long before the deadline set by the teacher. Re-reading the book two or three times in preparation for the exam was no hardship.
That’s a long-winded way to explain why the island of Corfu has held a fascination for me since my mid-teens. Over the years, I have visited the island four or five times and have just come back from a fortnight in Glyfada on its west coast. The landscape, despite the paucity of summer rain, is surprisingly verdant, the sea is molten aquamarine and wonderfully cooling in the heat of the day, the sunsets are spectacular, and the locals are amongst the friendliest people I have ever encountered.
Although this holiday was intended as a total chill-out, recharge-the-batteries laze around the beach and pool—and was—we did take a couple of trips into the baking heat of the island’s capital, Corfu Town. They have a cricket pitch near the castle and harbour; on a previous trip, I’ve drunk a beer and watched a match taking place. Not far away, is a park dedicated to Lawrence and Gerald Durrell.
In My Family, the Durrells live in three villas during their stay on the island: apparently, two of the three still stand and they’re not far away from Corfu Town. Next time I visit Corfu (there will definitely be a next time), I want to find a trip that takes tourists to view the villas. Sure, they and the surroundings in which they stand probably bear little resemblance to the 1930s versions, but it’s still something I’d love to do. Short of time travel, I can’t imagine a better way of bringing one of my favourite books to life.
( * for those who don’t know, O Levels are the qualifications that teenagers used to sit in the UK at around the age of sixteen. They’ve since been supplanted by GCSEs.)