Penguin Editor Anna Steadman introduces an extract from My Family and Other Animals, the story by Gerald Durrell being adapted for ITV as a six-part series called The Durrells
My Family and Other Animals has been a favourite book of mine since I first read it at around ten years old, the same age as Gerry is at the beginning of the book. Re-reading childhood favourites can be dangerous, as they often fail to hold the same spell over you that they did at such a formative age, but when I picked My Family and Other Animals up again last year I enjoyed reading it every bit as much as I had that first time.
The book is, quite simply, a delight: full of characters (both two and four-legged) that you desperately wish were a part of your own family – though, like Margo, I feel that I would have drawn the line at having to share my bed with a pigeon called Quasimodo – and conjuring the Durrells’ life in Corfu so vividly that you immediately want to follow their example and abandon rainy England for a sunnier clime.
Read an extract of My Family and Other Animals below.
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 Noah, 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.
Ten-year-old Gerald doesn't know why his older brothers and sisters complain so much. With snakes in the bath and scorpions on the lunch table, the family home on the Greek island of Corfu is a bit like a zoo so they should feel right at home...
Gerald joyfully pursues his interest in natural history in the midsts of an unconventional and chaotic family life - all brilliantly retold in this very funny book.