by Gerald Durrell

Gerald Durrell lived from 1935-1939 (between the ages of 10 and 14) on the  sunny Greek Island of Corfu with his family and other animals - not to mention many eccentric characters and hangers-on.

In this world famous, beautifully written and often very funny, book you will find (amongst many others) the Strawberry-Pink Villa, Daffodil-Yellow Villa and Snow-White Villa; tortoises, olive groves, toads, butterflies, bats, scorpions, geckos, fireflies, ladybirds, porpoises, glow worms; the Magenpies; Ulysses the Scops Owl; Spiro;  Roger and Widdle and Puke and Quasimodo the Pigeon. The extract is from the very beginning ...


The Migration

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, frothchained sea that leapt 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 breath stertorously through open mouth. For my 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 cat-like 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 hag-ridden 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 encyclopedia."

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.

"Why not?"

"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 cases held a couple of roll-top pullovers and a pair of trousers which were wrapped around 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 brief case 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 shifted 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 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. Rounding the cape, we left the mountains, and the island sloped gently down, blurred with the silver and green irridescence 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 engine we could here, faintly ringing from the shore like a chorus of tiny voices, the shrill, triumphant cries of the cicadas.



Cover picture © House of Stratus 2003

A lavishly illustrated edition for young readers and schools (© Oxford University Press 2003)


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