A Naturalist’s Narrative

DurrellsMy Family and Other Animals
by Gerald Durrell

Available at Amazon

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the publication of Gerald Durrell’s ‘My Family and Other Animals’.  To mark the event,  ITV has adapted The Corfu Trilogy (of which this book is the first part) for television.  ‘The Durrells’ provides delicious Sunday night escapism and has resurrected an interest in the story.  Spurred on by Edith Shaeffer, my husband and I have started reading it to each other.

At the end of 2015, in anticipation of the anniversary, Simon Barnes wrote in The Independent:


‘Joy is at the heart of everything that Durrell wrote, but most especially it is at the heart of My Family and Other Animals. Here is a book that celebrates the wild world more thoroughly and more vividly than anything else ever written. It is at the same time funny and deeply serious; and it is a poor person who believes that humour compromises seriousness. It has reached people and moved them to laughter and other emotions, all [of] them deep, powerful and packed with meaning. It has been a set book for exams and it has taught the joys of reading along with all the other joys. The book tells us that we humans are not complete alone: that without the wild world we are less than ourselves.’

‘My Family and Other Animals’ is perhaps Gerald Durrell’s most well-known book.  Many of us will remember having read it at school.  Few, I suspect, at that time in their lives, will have appreciated the exquisite quality of Durrell’s narrative.  Each sentence is so finely sculpted that an aspiring writer would do well to learn from his style.

Take, for example, the opening sentence of the first chapter:

‘July had been blown out like a candle by a biting wind that ushered in a leaden August sky.’

Metaphor, simile, personification and at least two adjectives to describe the main noun!  However irregular Durrell’s education, he seems to have turned out alright in the literary department.

Durrells 4

Or let’s take a look at some of his descriptions of the animals he adopted.  Achilles the tortoise, for example, is ‘an intelligent and loveable beast, possessed of a peculiar sense of humour.’  At the sight of wild strawberries the reptile becomes ‘positively hysterical…lumbering to and fro, craning his head to see if you were going to give him any, gazing at you pleadingly with his tiny shoe-button eyes’.  More charming still is the description of how, if you were lying out sunbathing, Achilles would approach you, ‘pause, survey you thoughtfully, and then choose a portion of your anatomy on which to practise mountaineering.’

Friends made on the island of Corfu where the family lived for a time during ‘Gerry’s’ childhood, and in the five years leading up to the outbreak of World War Two, are described with comparable detail and memorability.  Such attention to minutiae testifies to the author’s delight in the natural world around him.  He notices everything.  He sees what we, in our rush and bustle, overlook too easily.  He observes, though without realising it, what God has put there for us all to enjoy: ‘wine red roses’, ‘chameleon like crab spiders’, ‘carpenter bees, (whatever they are) like furry, electric-blue bears, zigzag[ing] among the flowers, growling fatly and busily.’

I am reminded of the Welsh poet William Henry Davies’ poem:

What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.
No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.
No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night.
No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance.
No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began.
A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

‘Stand and stare’ is what Durrell excels at and in re-reading his book I am delighted by his vividness of detail in describing humanity and nature.  Though it was not his intention, Durrell’s narrative puts me in mind of the Author of authors who first created ‘every living and moving thing with which the water teems, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind.’ (Genesis 1:21)

How many are your works, O LORD!
In wisdom you made them all;
the earth is full of your creatures.’ (Psalm 104:24)

The natural world is not all that Durrell observes, however.  Humour plays a big part in both the book and the TV series.  Banal family conversations are mischievously recalled and noted down with irreverence.

Durrells 2

‘That’s the trouble with this family,’ said Larry (Gerald’s eldest brother) bitterly; ‘no give and take, no consideration for others.’

You don’t have much consideration for others,’ said Margo. (his sister)

‘It’s all your fault, Mother,’ said Larry austerely; ‘you shouldn’t have brought us up to be so selfish.’

‘I like that!’ exclaimed Mother.  ‘I never did anything of the sort!’

‘Well, we didn’t get as selfish as this without some guidance,’ said Larry.

‘Larry’ is Lawrence Durrell who first encouraged his youngest brother to write and was himself a successful writer, most notable for ‘The Alexandria Quartet’.

The TV version does not pretend to be very faithful to the original text but the photography is wonderfully evocative and the casting delightful which together make for enjoyable evening’s viewing.  And if the series gets people reading the book once again and appreciating the natural world around them, then it’s done a good job.



‘Out of the ordinary every day’

Eric Ravilious
An Exhibition at The Dulwich Picture Gallery

Eric  Ravilious, (‘tweed clad, fair-haired and hesitant in speech’) was a lesser known British artist and designer whose short life (1903 to 1942) ended aged 39 on active service during the height of the Second World War.     Ravilious joined the Royal Navy as one of the first Official War Artists during which time his watercolour technique blossomed.  I came across his work for the first time during a recent visit to The Dulwich Picture Gallery in London where an exhibition of his watercolours was in full swing. A previous exhibition in 2003 at the Imperial War Museum was a turning point in appreciation of the artist.

The Waterwheel

The Waterwheel

His life and works are covered in a beautifully produced catalogue of the current exhibition.  (It runs until the end of August 2015).  Written by James Russell who has already published works on Ravilious, we learn about his background, his brief career and his relationships with fellow war artists such as  Paul Nash with whose style Ravilious has much in common.

Dangerous Work at Low Tide

Dangerous Work at Low Tide

Previously known for his book illustrations, wood engravings,  murals and his designs for Wedgwood ceramics he is now attracting attention with his depictions of the more tangential activities of war and his nostalgic portrayals of an England that the war changed for ever.

The Causeway, Wiltshire Downs

The Causeway, Wiltshire Downs

In an article in The Observer on 14 May 1939, journalist Jan Gordon commented that each work ‘appear[ed] as something magic, almost mystic, distilled out of the ordinary every day.’  His ability to perceive the beauty and significance of individual moments in time is hinted at in a remark made by art critic and writer John Rothenstein.  ‘From time to time he would smile as though at something distant.’

In Eric Ravilious we find an example of how the artist perceives beauty in the seemingly mundane.  This is a gift but it is also a discipline.  The discipline of ‘standing and staring’  instead of rushing about so ‘full of care’ that we miss the visual delights laid before us.

Train Landscape

Train Landscape

In the 1940 watercolour Train Landscape there is one such example how Ravilious notices his surroundings with an almost ‘mindful’ immediacy, an achievement in itself given that the view from the window could have been missed in a moment.  The fabric of the seats is vivid enough to feel as is the leather window strap and the wooden panelling.  Outside the window the chalk figure of the white horse is almost lost from view before the rest of the wintry English landscape fills the carriage windows.  How often do I barely notice my surroundings preoccupied with the invasive lens of distracted thoughts?  A painting like this one makes me envious of the beauty that Ravilious could find in such an un-astonishing scene.  He seems to be inviting us to wake up and notice the beauty of the ordinary that surrounds us.

This beauty that Ravilious perceived and shares with us points to a greater and more perfect reality, one unmarred by the horrors of war or damaged by change.  The beauty of heaven.  Might it be that artists are experiencing a longing for this perfection whether consciously or unconsciously?

C.S. Lewis speaks powerfully of the desires that such beauty stirs in us in his essay The Weight of Glory:

The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located
will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing.
These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers.
For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”
I think this is why I always feel so full of ache after leaving such exhibitions.  The longing for heaven has been stirred again, if I could only recognise it.   What I need to do is to remember not to fall into the trap of worshipping what I’ve just experienced but to remember that it is not the thing itself; only ‘news from a country’ I have yet to inhabit.

‘The most reluctant convert in all England’

999999C.S. Lewis – A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet
by Alistair McGrath

Reviews of this most recent biography of C S Lewis published early in 2013 abound, so why bother reading another? Because this is not a review in the typical sense but rather an overview, such as one might share with a friend, accompanied by some personal comments on how  the book impacted my own thinking.

Given that Alistair McGrath is at times critical of A.N.Wilson’s own 1990 biography of C.S. Lewis, it is striking that the front cover of the new edition includes this deferential comment from the earlier biographer: ‘There have been plenty of biographies of Lewis…but I do not think there has been a better one than Alistair McGrath’s.’  What humility!  I’ve not read A N Wilson’s biography but I wholeheartedly agree with his verdict on McGrath’s.

Tim Keller is also spot on when he says that the book is ‘filled with information based on extensive scholarship but is nonetheless extremely readable’.  It is exactly that.  In fact, I could hardly put it down.  But this was perhaps due to the fact that in this biography, I finally found that the two worlds that I love, literature and Christianity could be happily reconciled instead of fighting with one another as they have done in my mind since my own reluctant conversion at university. Continue reading