My Family and Other Animals
By Gerald Durrell
‘Living in Corfu was like living in one of the more flamboyant and slapstick comic operas'. With that unlikely introduction, Gerald Durrell takes his reader on a jolly romp through the sun-drenched Greek Island of Corfu – and the result is this thoroughly funny, wonderful snap-shot of what the island must've been (late 1930's) before everything, everywhere was covered in a layer of concrete. Running away from the rain-splattered, wind-swept shores of Britain, the author's family (and other animals) land in a chaotic, tumultuous heap in the ‘looking-glass world of Greece'. Moving from a strawberry-pink villa to a daffodil-yellow villa to the snow-white villa - all in a mere 5 years, mind – the author deftly paints word-pictures of the beautiful island, its magnificent coastline (‘curved beaches as white as tusks') and most importantly, the local bugs, birds and beasts, which, naturally, don't fail to excite the naturalist in him.
It works because
Throughout the book, Durrell's lovely turn of phrase ensures that you smell the olive-groves, taste the ice-pink water-melon, delight in the spring-blossoms (‘grape-hyacinths lifted buds like magenta-sugardrops'), laugh at the peasant's jokes and of course, feel for the long-suffering family, saddled with an enthusiastic juvenile collector who thinks nothing of housing scorpions in match-boxes. With knowledge that comes from wandering around unattended (but for a motley group of dogs), he takes you to parts of Corfu that surely feature in no tourist book — making acquaintance with such an extraordinary bunch of people (a friendly murderer who gives him a gull!) that you're at once tickled pink, and mildly saddened that Durrell's magical world might now exist only between the covers of this gloriously funny travel book…
And this one remains with you
‘The island dozed below us, shimmering like a water-picture in the heat-haze: grey-green olives; black cypresses; multi-coloured rocks on the sea-coast; and the sea smooth and opalescent, kingfisher-blue, jade-green, with here and there a pleat or two in its sleek surface where it curved round a rocky, olive-tangled promontory.'
(Introducing The Armchair Traveller, a column that will take you on vicarious journeys through travel books)