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My Family and Other Animals
'I read a book one day and my whole life was changed.' The opening sentence of Orhan Pamuk's The New Life, as the madness and glory of words on a page totally alter life’s possibilities. It’s a universal experience, but one usually cured days or even hours after reaching The End. Not for Pamuk’s character: he abandons his old life and goes wherever the book leads him.
I did that once.
A pair of magpies swooped across the meadow in the manner of paper aeroplanes thrown across the back of an unruly classroom - just like the pair who, 'sleek and elegant in their black and white suits, would stare down and chuckle like a pair of city slickers who have successfully duped a crowd of bumbling and earnest villagers'.
These are the 'Magenpies', the dedicated troublemakers from Gerald Durrell's masterpiece, My Family and Other Animals. Among other crimes, they trash Larry Durrell's room: 'Those scab-ridden vultures come flapping in here like a pair of critics..."
I read Gerry’s great book one day and my whole life was changed. I was 10 at the time. It was first published in 1956, has never been out of print, has been an examination set text, a BBC film and a 10-part television series ... and now it’s back on telly again. The entire Corfu trilogy has been adapted and comes to our screens today as The Durrells.
Human animals have been making stories about paradise for thousands of years, and ever since Genesis the theme has been loss. But My Family and Other Animals is Paradise Found: not just in the love of an impressively eccentric family, not just in a school-less childhood, but also and mainly in the wild world.
The commonplace but dim view of life is that the wild world is something we grow out of. The truth is that losing the wild is a tragedy too many people live with. Durrell’s life and legacy make it plain that the wild world enriches adults as much as it does children.
The truth is that losing the wild is a tragedy too many people live with
So they locked me in with the bats. A couple of hundred of them, with wingspans not far from 5ft, and most of them in flight as I walked very slowly from one end of the 50yd flight pen to the other. I was at the Durrell Wildlife Park on Jersey, the non-literary part of his extraordinary legacy, and the bats were Rodrigues fruit bats and Livingstone’s fruit bats, both under threat in the wild.
In these joyously surreal circumstances I could feel the uproarious spirit of the man. I was sharing the bats with his widow, Lee, honorary director of the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust. 'People think I'm just trying to look after nice fluffy animals,' Durrell once said. 'What I'm actually trying to do is stop the human race from committing suicide.'
'The instant I met him it was as if a 1,000-watt lightbulb had been switched on,' Lee said. 'The power, the energy, the charisma - you knew at once that you were in the presence of someone.' He died 21 years ago, and it's a deep regret that I never met him. Except that I did, time and again, by reading and rereading his books; by reading and rereading his books to my son; and by finding joy and solace in the wild world as a child and as a grown-up.
Durrell's book steered me gently away from Mowgli's jungle, from Robin Hood's Greenwood, from Ratty's Riverbank, from Doctor Dolittle's Puddleby-on-the-Marsh and from Narnia and revealed the still more fabulous nature of the wild world that lay before me. The Magenpies were real: the slickers I saw paper-darting across the sky in their co-respondent coats are just as real.
All children need the wild world just as all children need to love and be loved. The same is true of all adults: it just gets a bit more complicated as you grow older. And brings in the frightening concept of responsibility.
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