One of my favourite reads from a couple of years ago was Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals (1956). It was so funny and delightful that I was cross with myself for having missed out on its joys for so long. And so I was thrilled to discover, after finishing, that there were two sequels – which nobody seems much to talk about? Or perhaps I’ve missed it? I made it my mission to find them in the wild, rather than the ease of getting from the internet, and thus it was that Birds, Beasts, and Relatives (1969) ended up in my hands at the Bookbarn last year.
Basically, if you liked My Family and Other Animals – this is more of the wonderful same.
You’ll notice from those dates that there was quite a gap between the two books being published – 13 years – and it was another nine years before the third in the trilogy made its way to print, by which point the halcyon pre-war days spent in Corfu must have seemed a far-off memory. Looking back from 2017, it seems an almost impossible dream – but a lot of that is connected with the way in which Durrell crafts a dreamlike world of nature, humour, and the eccentric foibles of his brothers, sister, and (to a lesser extent) mother.
The book kicks off with a preamble that I can only assume is fake – in which his family (in the 1960s) look back at the horrors that ensued when the previous book was published: ‘The bank writing to ask you if you will kindly remove your overdraft, the tradesmen looking at you askance, anonymous parcels of straight-jackets [sic] being left on the door step, being cut dead by all the relatives’. Unmoved, Gerald decides to write the sequel…
I haven’t been watching the TV series about this trilogy, mostly because I want to make sure that I finish reading it before I start watching it – so the stories may be familiar to those who are watching. There are plenty of set pieces – one of my favourites comes near the beginning, where they go back to London to seek weight-loss solutions for Margo (who was suffering from a glandular condition). Not only does this introduce us to Prue and Aunt Fan – the latter a deaf and kind lady who carries on her own conversations, entirely unrelated to everybody else’s, while being quietened by her daughter – but it also shows us Margo’s attempt at spiritualism. It is all hilarious, and some of Durrell’s best comic writing comes in this section. Never has the word ‘faintly’ had such amusing impact (now there’s something to entice you).
As with the previous volume, I was more interested in the family than the animals; though there were some very interesting moments concerning a camouflaging crab, I don’t think Durrell can expect everybody to share his fascination with dung beetles. Predictably, my interest hit its peak when the animal chat met etymology. Etymology over entomology, say I. (Excuse me while I retire on the back of this glorious moment.) Gerry is talking to Theodore, a man who shares his naturalist preoccupations, about the collared dove…
“In Greek,” Theodore said, munching his sandwich methodically, “the name for collared dove is dekaoctura, eighteener, you know. The story goes that when Christ was… um… carrying the cross to Calvary, a Roman soldier seeing that He was exhausted, took pity on Him. By the side of the road there was an old woman selling… um… you know… milk and so the Roman soldier went to her and asked her how much a cupful would cost. She replied that it would cost eighteen coins. But the soldier only had seventeen. He… er… you know… pleaded with the woman to let him have a cupful of milk for Christ for seventeen coins, but the woman avariciously stuck out for eighteen. So, when Christ was crucified the old woman was turned into a collared dove and condemned to go about the rest of her days repeating dekaocto, dekaocto, eighteen, eighteen.”
I don’t know if this the commonly-accepted etymology, but I want it to be so much that I refuse to look it up.
What else? There are some wonderful moments with Roger the dog, there is a wedding and a birth, there is an ill-fated sea quest or two. Basically, it’s full of the same sort of anecdotes that made My Family and Other Animals such a joy. And, while I fully empathise with the longsuffering family who don’t want (say) a turtle dissected on their patio, I still continued to enjoy the optimistic and spirited Gerry as our narrator.
If I didn’t love the sequel quite as much as the original, I think that might be the effect of novelty rather than anything else. This was returning to old friends, and it certainly didn’t feel like a second-rate set of stories. I think I might need to race on to the third in the trilogy which, as luck would have it, I have waiting for me…