It’s hard to imagine a more British family than the Durrells. Mother Durrell, born in India. Gerald, the naturalist, raised in Corfu before the Second World War. Larry, the novelist, sarcastic and scathing but unfailingly polite to foreigners and strangers. Leslie, the gun-crazy older brother, slightly deaf and slightly near-sighted but who refuses to get glasses. And Margo, well-meaning, but vague. As completely incapable of mastering a simile or a metaphor as a trash compactor pushing up the daisies.
While teaching English at the NOVA conversation school in Tokyo in the late 1990s, I was introduced to Gerald Durrell’s classic memoirs by my British friend Julia. My Family and Other Animals features English children growing up wild on the island of Corfu. Their friends and neighbors are rural Greeks who delight in what Gerry calls SITUATIONS…and always, always, manage to make a bad situation worse, in a genuinely hilarious way.
In The Picnic and Suchlike Pandemonium, brother Larry returns to England after 10 years away – years which have been taken up by World War II and other depressing events. In her inimitable fashion, Mother decides to have a picnic on the beach in a remote area. Predictably, everything goes wrong.
I read the first chapters out on my deck on a delightfully hot summer’s day last week, Gin and Tonic in hand. Soon I started laughing so uncontrollably I was afraid the neighbors would breach our perimeter to make sure I wasn’t sobbing hysterically. It was that funny.
Yes, It Was That Funny
“Larry came over to where we were sitting and sniffed again. “No wonder *you’re* not complaining, he commented bitterly. “There’s hardly any smell over here. It seems to be concentrated where Mother and I are sitting.”
He went back to where Mother was sipping her wine and enjoying a Cornish pasty, and prowled around. Suddenly he let out such a cry of anguish and rage that everybody jumped, and Mother dropped her glass of wine into her lap.
“Great God Almighty, look!” roared Larry. “Just look where that bloody fool Leslie’s put us! No wonder we’re being stunk out; we’ll probably die of typhoid!”
“Larry dear, I do wish you wouldn’t shout like that,” complained Mother, mopping up the wine in her lap with her handkerchief. “It’s quite possible to say things in a calm way.”
“No, it isn’t!” Said Larry violently. “No one can keep calm in the face of this…this olfactory outrage!”
“What outrage, dear?” asked Mother.
“Do you know what you’re leaning against?” he asked. “Do you know what that back-rest is, that was chosen for you by your son?”
“What?” replied Mother, glancing nervously over her shoulder. “It’s a rock, dear.”
“It’s not a rock,” said Larry, with dangerous calm, “Nor is it a pile of sand, a boulder, or a fossilized dinosaur’s pelvis. It is nothing remotely geological. Do you know what you and I have been leaning against for the past half-hour?”
“What, dear?” asked Mother, now considerably alarmed.
“A horse,” replied Larry. “The mortal remains of a ruddy great horse.”
“Rubbish,” said Leslie, incredulously. “It’s a rock.”
‘Do rocks have teeth?” inquired Larry sarcastically. “Do they have eye sockets? Do they have the remains of ears and manes? I tell you – owing either to your malevolence or stupidity , your mother and I will probably be stricken with some fatal disease.”
Leslie got up and went to have a look, and I joined him. Sure enough, from one end to the rug protruded a head which undeniably had once belonged to a horse. All the fur had fallen off and the skin, through a motion in the sea water, had become dark brown and leathery. The fish and gulls had emptied the eye sockets, and the skin of the lips was drawn back in a snarl, displaying the tombstone-like teeth, a discolored yellow.
“How damned odd,” Leslie said. “I could have sworn it was a rock.”
“It would save us a considerable amount of trouble, if you had invested in some glasses,” remarked Larry with asperity.
“Well, how was I to know?” asked Leslie, belligerently. “You don’t expect a bloody great dead horse to be lying about on the beach , do you?
“Fortunately, my knowledge of the habits of horses is limited, answered Larry. “For all I know, it may have suffered a heart attack while bathing. This in no way excuses your crass stupidity in turning its rotten corpse into a chaise lounger for Mother and me.”
“Bloody nonsense,” said Leslie. “The thing looked like a rock. If it’s a dead horse, it should look like one; not like a damned great rock. It’s not my fault.”
“It not only looks like a dead great horse, it smells like one,” Larry said. “If your nasal membranes hadn’t been, like your intellect, stunted from birth, you would have noticed the fact. The rich, ambrosial smell alone would have told you that it was a horse.
“Now, now, dears, don’t quarrel over the horse,” pleaded Mother, who had retreated up-wind and was standing with a handkerchief over her nose.
“Look,” said Leslie angrily, “I’ll bloody well show you.”
He flung the cushions aside and whipped away the blanket to reveal the horse’s blackened and semi-mummified body. Margo screamed. Of course, when you knew it was a horse, it was hard to see it as anything else – but to do Leslie justice, with its legs half-buried in the shingle and only its blackened, leathery torso showing, it could be mistaken for a rock…
And the Misadventures Continue…
As the Durrell family finishes their picnic away from the pong of dead horse, they rest secure in the knowledge that the radio (in which Mother believes implicitly due to its fidelity during WWII) – the radio has forecast fine, warm, sunny weather. They wake from a nap to find the skies as dark as midnight and a thunderstorm upon them. Walking back to the car, they find that Margo’s husband Jack has left the top down on the Rolls and the car is awash with water.
Driving slowly to the nearest village, the car eventually breaks down. They find a farmer in a field who agrees to loan them his horse and cart. “Molly” has an uncanny knack of returning to her owner, it seems, no matter how late he’s been out at the pub. Unfortunately after a few hours it becomes clear to the Durrells that no matter what they wish, Molly is returning to the farmer post-haste: Sans pub and telephone where they might potentially have called for help…
Brother Larry’s comments must only be imagined, if you don’t wish to laugh yourself into a jelly.
Each of the 6 stories in this book is delightful save for the strangeness of the last one – Some sort of haunted tale that reads like fiction Gerry wasn’t able to publish elsewhere? Never mind, it’s worth a read for The Picnic alone.
Jolly fine, chaps, carry on!