The Corfu Trilogy
Gerald Durrell (1925–95) moved from England to Corfu with his family when he was eight. He immediately became fascinated by the island’s natural history and spent much of his time studying the local wildlife and keeping numerous, and often unusual, pets. He grew up to be a famous naturalist, animal-collector, and conservationist.
Durrell dedicated his life to the conservation of wildlife and it is through his efforts that creatures such as the Mauritius pink pigeon and the Mallorcan midwife toad have avoided extinction. Over his lifetime he wrote thirty-seven books, went on dozens of animal-collecting trips and presented numerous tv shows. He founded the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust in 1959 as a centre for the conservation of endangered species – of which his wife Lee is still Honorary Director. He was awarded the obe in 1982.
The Corfu Trilogy
My Family and Other Animals
Birds, Beasts, and Relatives
The Garden of the Gods
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My Family and Other Animals
First published in Great Britain by Rupert Hart-Davis Limited 1956
First published in the United States of America by The Viking Press, Inc. 1957
First published in Penguin Books 1977
Copyright © Gerald M. Durrell, 1956
Copyright renewed Gerald M. Durrell, 1984
Portions of this book appeared in Mademoiselle
Birds, Beasts, and Relatives
Published in Penguin Books 2004
Copyright © Gerald M. Durrell, 1969
The Garden of the Gods
First published by Collins, 1978
Copyright © The Estate of Gerald Durrell, 1978, 2003
All three books first published together as The Corfu Trilogy by Penguin Books 2006
All rights reserved
The moral right of the author has been asserted
Except in the United States of America, this book is sold subject
to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent,
re-sold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s
prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in
which it is published and without a similar condition including this
condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser
My Family and Other Animals
To My Mother
THE SPEECH FOR THE DEFENCE
1 THE UNSUSPECTED ISLE,
2 THE STRAWBERRY-PINK VILLA
3 THE ROSE-BEETLE MAN
4 ABUSHEL OF LEARNING
6 THE SWEET SPRING
7 THE DAFFODIL-YELLOW VILLA
8 THE TORTOISE HILLS
9 THE WORLDINAWALL
10 THE PAGEANTOFFIREFLIES
11 THE ENCHANTED ARCHIPELAGO
12 THE WOODCOCK WINTER
13 THE SNOW-WHITE VILLA
14 THE TALKING FLOWERS
15 THE CYCLAMEN WOODS
16 THE LAKEOFLILIES
17 THE CHESSBOARD FIELDS
18 AN ENTERTAINMENT WITH ANIMALS
It is a melancholy of mine own, compounded of many simples, extracted from many objects, and indeed the sundry contemplation of my travels, which, by often rumination, wraps me in a most humorous sadness.
– SHAKESPEARE, As You Like It
The Speech for the Defence
‘Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.’
The White Queen – Through the Looking Glass
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.
I have attempted to draw an accurate and unexaggerated picture of my family in the following pages; they appear as I saw them. To explain some of their more curious ways, however, I feel that I should state that at the time we were in Corfu the family were all quite young: Larry, the eldest, was twenty-three; Leslie was nineteen; Margo eighteen; while I was the youngest, being of the tender and impressionable age of ten. We have never been very certain of my mother’s age, for the simple reason that she can never remember her date of birth; all I can say is that she was old enough to have four children. My mother also insists that I explain that she is a widow for, as she so penetratingly observed, you never know what people might think.
In order to compress five years of incident, observation, and pleasant living into something a little less lengthy than the Encyclopædia Britannica, I have been forced to telescope, prune, and graft, so that there is little left of the original continuity of events. Also I have been forced to leave out many happenings and characters that I would have liked to describe.
It is doubtful if this would have been written without the help and enthusiasm of the following people. I mention this so that blame can be laid in the right quarter. My grateful thanks, then, to:
Dr Theodore Stephanides. With typical generosity, he allowed me to make use of material from his unpublished work on Corfu, and supplied me with a number of dreadful puns, some of which I have used.
My family. They, after all, unconsciously provided a lot of the material and helped me considerably during the writing of the book by arguing ferociously and rarely agreeing about any incident on which I consulted them.
My wife, who pleased me by laughing uproariously when reading the manuscript, only to inform me that it was my spelling that amused her.
Sophie, my secretary, who was responsible for the introduction of commas and the ruthless eradication of the split infinitive.
I should like to pay a special tribute to my mother, to whom this book is dedicated. Like a gentle, enthusiastic, and understanding Noa
h, she has steered her vessel full of strange progeny through the stormy seas of life with great skill, always faced with the possibility of mutiny, always surrounded by the dangerous shoals of overdraft and extravagance, never being sure that her navigation would be approved by the crew, but certain that she would be blamed for anything that went wrong. That she survived the voyage is a miracle, but survive it she did, and, moreover, with her reason more or less intact. As my brother Larry rightly points out, we can be proud of the way we have brought her up; she is a credit to us. That she has reached that happy Nirvana where nothing shocks or startles is exemplified by the fact that one weekend recently, when all alone in the house, she was treated to the sudden arrival of a series of crates containing two pelicans, a scarlet ibis, a vulture, and eight monkeys. A lesser mortal might have quailed at such a contingency, but not Mother. On Monday morning I found her in the garage being pursued round and round by an irate pelican which she was trying to feed with sardines from a tin.
‘I’m glad you’ve come, dear,’ she panted; ‘this pelican is a little difficult to handle.’
When I asked her how she knew the animals belonged to me, she replied, ‘Well, of course I knew they were yours, dear; who else would send pelicans to me?’
Which goes to show how well she knows at least one of her family.
Lastly, I would like to make a point of stressing that all the anecdotes about the island and the islanders are absolutely true. Living in Corfu was rather like living in one of the more flamboyant and slapstick comic operas. The whole atmosphere and charm of the place was, I think, summed up neatly on an Admiralty map we had, which showed the island and the adjacent coastline in great detail. At the bottom was a little inset which read:
CAUTION: As the buoys marking the shoals are often out of position, mariners are cautioned to be on their guard when navigating these shores.
There is a pleasure sure
In being mad, which none but madmen know.
– DRYDEN, The Spanish Friar, II, i
July had been blown out like a candle by a biting wind that ushered in a leaden August sky. A sharp, stinging drizzle fell, billowing into opaque grey sheets when the wind caught it. Along the Bournemouth sea-front the beach huts turned blank wooden faces towards a greeny-grey, froth-chained sea that leaped eagerly at the cement bulwark of the shore. The gulls had been tumbled inland over the town, and they now drifted above the house-tops on taut wings, whining peevishly. It was the sort of weather calculated to try anyone’s endurance.
Considered as a group my family was not a very prepossessing sight that afternoon, for the weather had brought with it the usual selection of ills to which we were prone. For me, lying on the floor, labelling my collection of shells, it had brought catarrh, pouring it into my skull like cement, so that I was forced to breathe stertorously through open mouth. Formy brother Leslie, hunched dark and glowering by the fire, it had inflamed the convolutions of his ears so that they bled delicately but persistently. To my sister Margo it had delivered a fresh dappling of acne spots to a face that was already blotched like a red veil. For my mother there was a rich, bubbling cold, and a twinge of rheumatism to season it. Only my eldest brother, Larry, was untouched, but it was sufficient that he was irritated by our failings.
It was Larry, of course, who started it. The rest of us felt too apathetic to think of anything except our own ills, but Larry was designed by Providence to go through life like a small, blond firework, exploding ideas in other people’s minds, and then curling up with catlike unctuousness and refusing to take any blame for the consequences. He had become increasingly irritable as the afternoon wore on. At length, glancing moodily round the room, he decided to attack Mother, as being the obvious cause of the trouble.
‘Why do we stand this bloody climate?’ he asked suddenly, making a gesture towards the rain-distorted window. ‘Look at it! And, if it comes to that, look at us… Margo swollen up like a plate of scarlet porridge… Leslie wandering around with fourteen fathoms of cotton wool in each ear… Gerry sounds as though he’s had a cleft palate from birth… And look at you: you’re looking more decrepit and hagridden every day.’
Mother peered over the top of a large volume entitled Easy Recipes from Rajputana.
‘Indeed I’m not,’ she said indignantly.
‘You are,’ Larry insisted; ‘you’re beginning to look like an Irish washerwoman… and your family looks like a series of illustrations from a medical encyclopædia.’
Mother could think of no really crushing reply to this, so she contented herself with a glare before retreating once more behind her book.
‘What we need is sunshine,’ Larry continued; ‘don’t you agree, Les?… Les… Les!’
Leslie unravelled a large quantity of cotton wool from one ear.
‘What d’you say?’ he asked.
‘There you are!’ said Larry, turning triumphantly to Mother, ‘it’s become a major operation to hold a conversation with him. I ask you, what a position to be in! One brother can’t hear what you say, and the other one can’t be understood. Really, it’s time something was done. I can’t be expected to produce deathless prose in an atmosphere of gloom and eucalyptus.’
‘Yes, dear,’ said Mother vaguely.
‘What we all need,’ said Larry, getting into his stride again, ‘is sunshine… a country where we can grow.’
‘Yes, dear, that would be nice,’ agreed Mother, not really listening.
‘I had a letter from George this morning – he says Corfu’s wonderful. Why don’t we pack up and go to Greece?’
‘Very well, dear, if you like,’ said Mother unguardedly. Where Larry was concerned she was generally very careful not to commit herself.
‘When?’ asked Larry, rather surprised at this cooperation.
Mother, perceiving that she had made a tactical error, cautiously lowered Easy Recipes from Rajputana.
‘Well, I think it would be a sensible idea if you were to go on ahead, dear, and arrange things. Then you can write and tell me if it’s nice, and we all can follow,’ she said cleverly.
Larry gave her a withering look.
‘You said that when I suggested going to Spain,’ he reminded her, ‘and I sat for two interminable months in Seville, waiting for you to come out, while you did nothing except write me massive letters about drains and drinking water, as though I was the town clerk or something. No, if we’re going to Greece, let’s all go together.’
‘You do exaggerate, Larry,’ said Mother plaintively; ‘anyway, I can’t go just like that. I have to arrange something about this house.’
‘Arrange? Arrange what, for heaven’s sake? Sell it.’
‘I can’t do that, dear,’ said Mother, shocked.
‘But I’ve only just bought it.’
‘Sell it while it’s still untarnished, then.’
‘Don’t be ridiculous, dear,’ said Mother firmly; ‘that’s quite out of the question. It would be madness.’
So we sold the house and fled from the gloom of the English summer, like a flock of migrating swallows.
We all travelled light, taking with us only what we considered to be the bare essentials of life. When we opened our luggage for customs inspection, the contents of our bags were a fair indication of character and interests. Thus Margo’s luggage contained a multitude of diaphanous garments, three books on slimming, and a regiment of small bottles, each containing some elixir guaranteed to cure acne. Leslie’s case held a couple of roll-top pullovers and a pair of trousers which were wrapped round two revolvers, an air-pistol, a book called Be Your Own Gunsmith, and a large bottle of oil that leaked. Larry was accompanied by two trunks of books and a briefcase containing his clothes. Mother’s luggage was sensibly divided between clothes and various volumes on cooking and gardening. I travelled with only those items that I thought necessary to relieve the tedium of a long journey: four books on natural
history, a butterfly net, a dog, and a jam jar full of caterpillars all in imminent danger of turning into chrysalids. Thus, by our standards fully equipped, we left the clammy shores of England.
France rain-washed and sorrowful, Switzerland like a Christmas cake, Italy exuberant, noisy, and smelly, were passed, leaving only confused memories. The tiny ship throbbed away from the heel of Italy out into the twilit sea, and as we slept in our stuffy cabins, somewhere in that tract of moon-polished water we passed the invisible dividing line and entered the bright, looking-glass world of Greece. Slowly this sense of change seeped down to us, and so, at dawn, we awoke restless and went on deck.
The sea lifted smooth blue muscles of wave as it stirred in the dawn light, and the foam of our wake spread gently behind us like a white peacock’s tail, glinting with bubbles. The sky was pale and stained with yellow on the eastern horizon. Ahead lay a chocolate-brown smudge of land, huddled in mist, with a frill of foam at its base. This was Corfu, and we strained our eyes to make out the exact shapes of the mountains, to discover valleys, peaks, ravines, and beaches, but it remained a silhouette. Then suddenly the sun lifted over the horizon, and the sky turned the smooth enamelled blue of a jay’s eye. The endless, meticulous curves of the sea flamed for an instant and then changed to a deep royal purple flecked with green. The mist lifted in quick, lithe ribbons, and before us lay the island, the mountains as though sleeping beneath a crumpled blanket of brown, the folds stained with the green of olive groves. Along the shore curved beaches as white as tusks among tottering cities of brilliant gold, red, and white rocks. We rounded the northern cape, a smooth shoulder of rust-red cliff carved into a series of giant caves. The dark waves lifted our wake and carried it gently towards them, and then, at their very mouths, it crumpled and hissed thirstily among the rocks. Rounding the cape, we left the mountains, and the island sloped gently down, blurred with the silver and green iridescence of olives, with here and there an admonishing finger of black cypress against the sky. The shallow sea in the bays was butterfly blue, and even above the sound of the ship’s engines we could hear, faintly ringing from the shore like a chorus of tiny voices, the shrill, triumphant cries of the cicadas.