Followers of this blog will know that I recently enjoyed reading the adventures of an unconventional childhood spent abroad in Esther Freud’s book Hideous Kinky. Reading that book brought to mind another book about an unusual childhood – Gerald Durrell’s wonderful memoir, My Family and Other Animals, which I decided I would re-read. (I actually had to go and purchase a third copy, as the two previous copies of this book I owned have both been lent out to friends never to be seen again. Humpf.)

My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell

Between 1935-1939 Gerald Durrell (then aged 10 to 14) moved out to the sunny Greek Island of Corfu with his family. This classic book provides a charming and amusing account of that experience and of the many eccentric people and animals that Gerry befriended whilst there. Here are the opening lines:

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 a grave mistake by 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.

The book is divided into three sections, each covering the period of time the family spent in a particular villa. In addition to the young Gerald, the family comprises their widowed mother, the bookish Larry, the gun-mad Leslie, the diet-obsessed Margo, and Gerry’s trusty canine companion Roger.

 In addition to the core family, other key characters include Spiro (Spyros “Americano” Chalikiopoulos), their devoted driver and protector, and the polymath Theo (Dr Theodore Stephanides), who provides the young Gerald with his education in natural history. Then, taking a smaller role, there are also a few other private tutors, an assortment of Larry’s artistic friends, and of course the local peasants, whom Gerry befriends.

Each day had a tranquility a timelessness about it so that you wished it would never end. But then the dark skin of the night would peel off and there would be a fresh day waiting for us glossy and colorful as a child’s transfer and with the same tinge of unreality.

The human comedy is interspersed by descriptions of the animal life that the young Gerry observes on his expeditions around the family homes and seashore. Several of these discoveries he then brings back to keeps as pets, including Achilles the tortoise, Quasimodo the pigeon, Ulysses the owl, not to mention the numerous other birds, spiders, beetles, mantids, snakes and geckos. He also gets given two puppies by some local peasants, which he affectionately names Widdle and Puke, after their initial contributions to the family dining room.

The book really is a gem; brilliantly written, highly entertaining, memorable and informative. There are not many books that manage to achieve such feats. I heatedly recommend this to children and adults alike. In fact, I think every doctor’s waiting room and airport lounge should be furnished with a copy or two, as it is also the kind of book that you can pick up in a dead ten minutes and enjoy reading an excerpt from. Truly a slice of the English at their eccentric best!

My childhood in Corfu shaped my life. If I had the craft of Merlin, I would give every child the gift of my childhood.