It is difficult to return with anything like objectivity to a book that one read and adored as a child. My introduction to it was via the Listen for Pleasure taped audiobook read by the extremely mellifluous Gerald Harper (otherwise best known for his portrayal of the titular Victorian dandy in the sixties fantasy series Adam Adamant), and I know the opening lines by heart: “July had been blown out like a candle by a biting wind that ushered in a leaden August sky…”
While the descriptions of the local wildlife still entrance upon rereading the book as an adult, the personalities of the eccentric Durrells and their social situation on the Greek Ionian island of Corfu are even more interesting. The various biographies of the Durrells make greater sense of their peculiar behaviours, particularly those of Mother, a lovable, vague, and embattled figure. In particular, Michael Haag’s The Durrells of Corfu explains that Louisa Durrell was struggling with bereavement following the premature death of her husband and relying on alcohol to anaesthetise herself, which prompted her eldest son Lawrence to intervene and decide upon a change of scene. The family’s impetuous move to Greece is also more easily explained by the fact that Mother and her deceased husband were Anglo-Indians (that is to say, they descended from English families settled in India) and the children had been born and spent much of their lives in India. It was hardly surprising, then, that the climate of Bournemouth caused the family the medical difficulties lugubriously outlined in the introduction to Part One, “The Migration.” This uprooted family battled with windy, rainy coastal weather and a social system which, in contrast to the elasticity of the Raj’s mores, seemed to be hemming them in. While the Durrells’ Ionian interlude therefore incidentally reveals a surprising amount about the Anglo-Indian experience, the reading public’s wild enthusiasm for the book and the dreams of escape which it has fuelled testify to the trials and sadnesses of the post-war nation, as well as to our total ignorance of twentieth century Greek history and culture —as pointedly suggested by Catherine Brown in a 2017 Standpoint article, “And I Too Have Been in Anglo-Arcadia.”
Many aspects of the book acquire, through adult eyes, a new aspect, such as Mother’s habit of constantly picking out new places in which to be buried, or Larry’s springtime purchase of “a large bottle of strong, red wine,” which he consumes while playing Elizabethan love songs on a guitar and becoming increasingly maudlin to the point where he “would pause to inform whichever member of the family happened to be present that spring, for him, did not mean the beginning of a new year, but the death of the old one. The grave, he would proclaim[…] yawned a little wider with each season.” Heartless nippers find these sorts of passages uproarious, as they are meant to be, but their undercurrent, an extremely English compulsion to cloak trauma in humour, alarms the grown-up reader, suggesting that Mother was not the only member of the family with unresolved grief issues. (It was not the time —and certainly not the class— in which such things were properly discussed.) Then there is Leslie’s enthusiasm for unlicensed firearms and target practice, Margo’s rapid descents into hysterics, passionate infatuations, and forlorn obsession with face creams and dresses, and Gerald’s frantic imprinting on any adult male who smiles upon him —all the children satellites in differing but equally wobbly orbits around a vanished star.
Interestingly, in the book the family’s vulnerability and emotional neediness seem to register far more with some local people than with the various members themselves. Into the paternal void erupts the unforgettable taxi driver Spiro Halikiopoulos (“Hoy!…whys donts yous have someones who can talks your own language?”), a man whose extraordinarily loud voice disguises a sensitive nature and warm disposition. (Tragically, he is said to have died of a broken heart when the Germans occupied the island. His grandson now runs the local tourism company.) Spiro rapidly becomes the family’s sheepdog, fixer, and friend, and the reader discerns that without his devotion, they would not have survived when confronted with practical problems such as finding accommodation or dealing with customs officials. Other locals also register the family’s need for help and guidance, and additional father figures appear throughout the pages: Theodore Stephanides, a shy and urbane natural history expert from a leading Greek family; Yanni, a superstitious peasant who warns Gerry against the dangers of scorpions and falling asleep beneath the black cypress tree; Kralefsky, a bird-obsessed, eccentric cosmopolitan; and, rather worryingly, Kosti, a convicted murderer let out on weekends for good behaviour. (The latter was in fact a friend of Leslie’s, but annexed by Gerald for his memoir.)
However, it must be pointed out that the Durrells were not well-liked in the existing Anglo merchant community in Corfu, and that the local peasants disapproved strongly of their bohemian waywardness. The family did not bother to find out that propriety was in fact just as important to the Greeks as to the English bourgeoisie —sunshine and sparkling sea did not equate to licence— and their remarkable, privileged unawareness permitted them to drift blissfully through their Corfu experience. Spiro’s anxiety over the children’s moral development, frequently expressed in protests at their unkind and disrespectful remarks to their mother (“Donts says that, donts says that….Honest to Gods, if I had a mother likes yours I’d gos down every mornings and kisses her feets”) may also have been prompted by unease over the Durrells’ reputation on the island. Since he was a local, and beneath them in social status, the family seem to have been fundamentally dismissive of his concerns, which are usually played for laughs in the book. (It is typical of the Durrells’ lack of perception that they appear incurious about his American adventures: they do not consider the tenacity and talent that he must have required to emigrate to Chicago, make a modest nest egg, and return with his Dodge Buick and less than perfect but fully functional English.) In any event, his fears for the boys in particular would tragically realise themselves in the cases of Leslie and Larry, who left a trail of destruction behind them.
None of this detracts, however, from the enjoyment of reading this account of childhood bliss on a remote Ionian island. One of the most interesting aspects of the book is the way in which it highlights the adaptability of the very young. Gerald, out of all the children, was the one who rapidly assimilated to the point of turning Greek, as shown by this lovely passage about singing peasant songs with his neighbour, the old lady Agathi:
“Sitting on an old tin in the sun, eating grapes or pomegranates from her garden, I would sing with her, and she would break off now and then to correct my pronunciation. We sang (verse by verse) the gay, rousing song of the river, Vangelio, and of how it dropped from the mountains, making the gardens rich, the fields fertile and the trees heavy with fruit. We sang, rolling our eyes at each other in exaggerated coquetry, the funny little love song called ‘Falsehood.’ ‘Lies, lies,’ we warbled, shaking our heads, ‘all lies, but it is my fault for teaching you to go round the countryside, telling people I love you.’ Then we would strike a mournful note and sing, perhaps, the slow, lilting song called ‘Why are you leaving me?’ We were almost overcome by this one, and would wail out the long, soulful lyrics, our voices quavering.”
Apart from being one of the most delightful and uplifting depictions of expat life, My Family and Other Animals is also a telling portrait of a unique island social ecosystem: all islands are the same in fostering unusual societies, so that all islands are also different from one another. Above all, though, it is also a moving tribute to a landscape and community which enfolded and comforted a lonely foreign child.--Isabel Taylor