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My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell

corfu

Image from here

I took this delightful book on holiday with me, and it was the perfect read for lazy days bathed in the warm Mediterranean sun. I’ve always known about it, but the experience of reading the novel was quite different to what I had expected. I assumed it was going to be a largely comic novel, about the outlandish behaviour of an overly eccentric family, but Durrell is a far more subtle writer than that. While it is at times laugh out loud funny, this is due to his ironic wit rather than a reliance on caricature. The pleasure of My Family and Other Animals is in its understatedness, and how Durrell presents his family’s adventurous and unconventional lifestyle in a manner that makes it seem perfectly ordinary and plausible. He is also wonderful at capturing the stunning landscape of Corfu: land of olive groves, peeling Venetian mansions and sandy beaches lit at night by the soft glow of fireflies. I was certainly sold on the idea of throwing everything to the wind and moving to a Greek island by the time I finished reading!

When Gerald Durrell’s older brother Larry (the novelist Lawrence Durrell) says he is sick of living in the cold, damp climate of a miserably grey England and suggests that they all move to Corfu, rather than laughing at such impetuosity, Durrell’s mother says “Why not?” and shortly the entire family – Gerald, the youngest, Margo, Leslie and Larry, plus Roger the dog – are on their way to a new life in the sun. This is the early 1930s, when Corfu had become fashionable as an enclave of artistic types, and when the Durrells ship up, they soon find they are in good company. Spiro, an eccentric cab driver who speaks hilariously accented English thanks to a spell working in London as a young man, takes the family under his wing and finds them a lovely pink villa with glorious gardens that is nestled amidst the olive groves. Gerald is initially free to roam the island with Roger, finding plenty of intriguing species of insect to study, peasants to befriend and shady trees under which to nap, but soon it is decided that he is getting too wild and needs to be taught something. As such, a number of would-be tutors are sourced from the town, of varying quality and varying eccentricity.

Coupled with young Gerald’s adventures are those of his siblings and mother, who all float around Corfu obsessed with their own affairs. Larry is perpetually entertaining hordes of friends, eventually necessitating a move to a new house to contain them all, and complaining about his wayward younger brother’s unfortunate habit of leaving insects lying around. Leslie is fascinated by guns and hunting, and takes every opportunity to show off his skills by killing whatever animals he can find. Margot is forever trying new diets to cure her acne, and wears as little as possible in order to attract the opposite sex, with often hilarious consequences. Mrs Durrell is wonderfully vague and affectionate, and spends most of her time trying out elaborate new recipes or pottering in her garden. All of them adore life on Corfu, and embrace the people and landscape of their new island home. One of the most magical descriptions of the landscape is when they all go on a night time escapade to a local beach, and swim in the ghostly light of the water’s phosphorescence and the glowing orbs of the fireflies that gather along the water’s edge. It would be difficult to imagine a more liberating and memorable way to grow up, and I rather envied the Durrells and their carefree, sunlit world. I loved every second of the Durrell’s adventures, and reading this has made me get itchy feet again! This is such an inspiring and evocative read – definitely a favourite I’ll come back to time and again.

Naples and Herculaneum

palazzo reale

Naples

‘See Naples and die’ said Goethe, after experiencing the glories of Naples in the Golden days of the Bourbon Kings. Naples was once the wealthiest and most beautiful city in Italy, and  I couldn’t wait to see it. I imagined splendour, pomp, gilding and streetscapes so architecturally perfect that they would send me into raptures. Unfortunately, my first impression was anything but. On disembarking the train at the Piazza Garibaldi, I couldn’t believe my eyes. The building of the train station had obliterated this clearly once majestic square, and all I could see were seedy shops and crumbling stucco. Where was the fine city I had been promised? Walking through the streets to the Duomo, the dilapidation of the architecture all around me became even more pronounced. Glimpses of alleyways filled with hanging washing and mopeds were all very quintessentially Italian, but they weren’t particularly gorgeous. The Duomo, tricky to find, nestled amidst a huddle of flaking apartment buildings and shops, was breathtakingly beautiful inside, but on the outside, it was rather lost in its insalubrious surroundings. I felt very disappointed.

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Palazzo Reale

However, as I walked on, through the maze of ochred buildings with their wrought iron balconies, beautiful french windows, peeling shutters and decorative ceramic tiles, and caught glimpses of intriguing courtyards and alleyways hidden behind arches, I began to fall in love. Then, when I found the long main shopping street, with its pretty piazzas, side streets that climbed steeply up the cliffside, fantastic art deco buildings and glimpses of the sea beyond its shops, I was able to capture the essence of what made this such a gorgeous city. The piece de la resistance, however, was yet to come; at the end of the main street is Piazza del Plebisicito, home of the enormous Palazzo Reale, former palace of the King and Queen of Naples, which dangles over a cliff edge with incredible views across the Bay of Naples to Mount Vesuvius. This Piazza, sadly covered in scaffolding so not a great photo opportunity, is truly beautiful, and I can only imagine what it looked like back in the days of Naples’ eminence. The Palazzo Reale is just as opulent inside as out, and in true Italian style, it is a bargain to visit; just 4 euros to wander the marble and gilded halls, the sumptuous state rooms and galleries, and the formal gardens overlooking the sea. It was the highlight of my visit. I wish I had have had more time to explore; I wanted to get to the archaelogical museum where most of the relics from Pompeii are on display, but it was too hot and too far to walk, so I contented myself with the Palazzo as my token nod to culture for the day. Getting the ferry back to Sorrento was the cherry on the top of a wonderful cake; the view of Naples from the sea, blurring its dilapidation into finery once more, is priceless. It was only later that I found out how badly Naples was bombed during the war, which explains the state of many of the buildings. An astonishing 20,000 civilians died from aerial bombing.

herculaneum

herculeaneum

Later in the week, I hopped back on the wonderfully named Circumvesuviana train from Sorrento to Ercolano Scavi, which is home to the ancient town of Herculaneum, unearthed from volcanic mud mere decades ago to reveal the Roman civilisation trapped at the moment of Vesuvius’ famous eruption. Unlike Pompeii, which is absolutely massive and crowded with tourists, Herculaneum is very compact, nestled amidst the existing city of Ercolano, and not as well known, so much quieter. I couldn’t bear the thought of wandering for miles around Pompeii amidst masses of crowds in the considerable heat, so I decided to visit Herculaneum instead, for a snapshot of what life was like in AD79. I found it fascinating to see how much remains; shop signs hang from walls, wooden doors and shutters separate rooms, the most intricate mosaics and paintings decorate walls and floors, and in the baths, the shelves to put clothes and towels look like they were built only yesterday. It was eerie and rather thought provoking to think that this was a world busy and bustling with people, living lives not dissimilar to ours nearly 2000 years ago. The footprints they left behind show us that we, like them, will soon be ancient history, our customs and habits discussed by people far removed from us in time, and yet in spirit, still essentially the same. I have never before been in a place that showed so clearly how little separates us from the past, and I found it an absolutely brilliant, illuminating experience. If I go back again, I’d like to visit Pompeii, but if you are in the area and it really is too hot to cope with too much walking, Herculaneum is a much more manageable alternative.

A Glass of Blessings by Barbara Pym

50s-cocktail-party

While chuckling away quietly to myself as I read this book, I kept wondering why I don’t read Barbara Pym more often. She writes with a dry, well observed wit that is eerily reminiscent of Jane Austen; I can completely see why Philip Larkin so famously made the comparison between the two. Though her novels are usually set in upper middle class communities that revolve around churches and their congregations, there is nothing old fashioned or elitist about them; the voices of her narrators feel fresh and modern, and many of the situations her characters find themselves in are hilariously recognisable. This being my third Pym, I have to say that I probably enjoyed it the most of all I’ve read so far; there are so many brilliant characters that it is hard to not spend the entirety of the reading experience laughing out loud.

Wilmet Forsyth is an attractive and literate woman in her early thirties, who lives in Kensington with her perfectly nice husband and intellectual, witty mother in law Sybil. Wilmet lives a rather shallow existence; comfortably housed, well off, and with no children or job to occupy her time, she often finds her days empty and rather aimless. Her closest friend Rowena, who lives in Surrey, is preoccupied with her children; Sybil has an all-absorbing interest in archaeology, and Rodney, no longer quite as handsome as he once was, is busy with his unspecified job at the Ministry, and their marriage lacks passion. Naturally, therefore, Wilmet finds herself gravitating towards the local church, where there is always plenty of minor intrigue with which to become involved. A new, handsome priest arrives, much to the joy of the female congregants; Wilmet helps to find a new housekeeper for the clergy house, who turns out to be quite the eccentric, and Mary, a put upon spinster of Wilmet’s age, is crying out for the guidance of a more wordly woman. Amidst all of this drama, Sybil suggests that she and Wilmet attend the Portuguese lessons taught by Rowena’s dashing brother, Piers, and Wilmet finds herself rather more interested in Piers than Portuguese…

There is so much richness to the plot of this novel, so many fascinating and hilarious characters, and plenty of surprises to delight  the reader. I particularly loved the Mr Collins-esque housekeeper, Mr Bason, whose attempts at haute cuisine at the clergy house often go unappreciated, and Keith, Piers’ flatmate, who takes a very passionate interest in home decoration. This is the sort of book you can sink into, get lost in, and laugh out loud at, being reminded all the time of similar incidents and people in your own life that add to the piquancy of Pym’s always so apt observations. Wilmet is an intriguing narrator; she is blind to much of what goes on around her, and cannot always see her own privilege, but this only serves to make her pleasantly flawed, and she is very likeable indeed. I loved every minute in her company, and I already can’t wait to read my next Pym. I think she may have become one of my favourite authors; if you’ve never given her a try, you really are missing out!

Sorrento and Capri

bay of naples

I have just returned from a glorious week in Italy, exploring Naples and the Amalfi Coast. What could be a more perfect way to spend the summer holidays? I had never been to Italy before, and was delighted by everything I saw; it was all I had imagined and yet also so much more idyllic, beautiful and atmospheric than I could possibly have dreamed. I stayed in the hills above Sorrento, with a breathtaking view of Mount Vesuvius and the entire bay of Naples from my balcony. There could not possibly be a finer view to awake to every morning, and, coupled with the sound of church bells and braying donkeys, it really did feel like I was in a timeless landscape where the worries of the modern world had dissipated entirely.

sorrento

Below me was the resort town of Sorrento; a marvellous maze of alleys lined with aesthetically pleasing, slightly decrepit buildings, bustling piazzas and lavishly gilded churches, all perched precariously on a cliff top above the sparkling Mediterranean sea. The main street is lined with fancy shops and gelateries, the air is filled with the smell of pizza and lemons, and everywhere you go, you can see tantalising glimpses of the sea or Mount Vesuvius in the distance. There are palm trees, umbrella trees, colourful flowers and beautiful cloistered gardens everywhere you look, giving it a wonderfully verdant, luscious quality that makes for a vivid backdrop against the faded ochres of the buildings. Down in the marina, a mixture of fishing boats, yachts, ferries and enormous cruise ships bob in the bay, and every inch of the strip of beach is teeming with people eager to soak up the sun. Sorrento is packed with delicious restaurants and amazing food shops, so all of your Italian culinary needs can be fulfilled; I loved getting to eat so much pizza and gelato, both of which are specialities of the region, as well as the rich and tasty local tomatoes and sharp lemons that are often grown in the gardens of the restaurants themselves. Whether shopping in the lanes, gazing up at an intricately painted church ceiling, hiking down the steep steps to get to the marina, having a drink in the piazza or sitting on a bench watching the sunset over the bay, Sorrento provides endless opportunities to people watch, soak up the Italian culture and feel utterly immersed in the slow place of Italian life. I adored every minute.

marina grande, capri

capri from chair lift

One of the reasons why Sorrento is such a popular resort is because it is a transport hub for the entire region. Trains, buses and ferries can take you as far as Naples on one side of the bay and Amalfi on the other, and one of the most pleasurable trips is the ferry to the legendary island of Capri. Capri has been popular with the rich, famous and artistic since the 18th century, and it is easy to see why. Approached from the Bay of Naples, it rises from the sea unexpectedly; a sheer wall of rock and greenery, it initially appears entirely deserted, like something from a Greek myth. As you round the bend, the island lengthens and its craggy slopes reveal hundreds of white houses cascading down the rocks and into the pretty harbour. To get from Marina Grande, the harbour town, up to Capri Town itself, you board a charming funicular railway that takes you up the steep cliffside and deposits you in the town’s main piazza, which has stunning views across the bay and over the island. The winding, cobbled streets of Capri Town are filled with designer shops and expensive restaurants, as befits Capri’s status as a chic holiday resort, but amidst all of this glamour and opulence is plenty of lovely historic architecture, much of it Moorish in style, and absolutely astounding natural beauty, which is added to by the luscious and colourful gardens of residents. My favourite part of Capri, however, was Anacapri, a town perched even higher up on the island, and accessible by the public buses, which are tiny orange tin cans that trundle merrily up and down the island all day like mechanical toys and threaten to plunge you into the sea at every turn. Anacapri is a pleasant maze of much quieter streets, filled with more affordable shops, relaxed restaurants, historical buildings and pretty houses. This little town was once the home of many writers, including Graham Greene, and it’s easy to see why it was chosen as a retreat from the hustle and bustle of city life. Anacapri is absolutely idyllic, and one of its greatest assets is the chairlift that takes you up to Mount Solaro, the highest point on the island. Dangling over rooftops with the sea sparkling infinitely beneath you, it is an experience I will never forget. Capri certainly captured my heart, and I only wish I could have spent more time exploring its wealth of history and natural beauty.

moorish architecture, capri

 

 

Westwood by Stella Gibbons

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When Vintage republished a large proportion of Stella Gibbons’ back catalogue a couple of years ago, I was delighted. I’d read and loved the hilarious Cold Comfort Farm as a teenager, but it was impossible to get hold of any more of her novels and I was very keen to try more. Vintage’s jazzy, retro cover designs promised fun and plenty of 1930s period detail, and I snapped up Westwood as soon as it came out. Obviously because I am a book hoarder, it has taken me two years to get to it, and I was quite surprised by what I found. Westwood couldn’t be further from Cold Comfort Farm: rather than arriving in the depths of the countryside, I was transported to wartime London, and the world of a troubled young woman with a heart full of desire.

Margaret Steggles is a twenty something teacher living in Highgate with her unhappily married parents during WWII. She is earnest and romantic, and longs for a life more exciting than the dull and often disappointing one she lives. Plain and unattractive to men, as her unsympathetic mother often tells her, she despairs of finding the joy and happiness her idealistic and sentimental soul seeks through its love of music, literature and art. She is mocked for her seriousness by her pretty, free spirited and fun loving best friend Hilda, who has a queue of boys outside her front door and is batting off proposals like flies. Margaret, however, can’t help but feel things too deeply, and she can’t face life with the unquestioning and simplistic viewpoint Hilda adopts. Desperate for something more than the miserable existence of her parents, Margaret tries to channel her energies into teaching her students, but this just isn’t enough. She longs for adventure, for glamour, for excitement…but where can someone like her find such things?

On Hampstead Heath, it would transpire. For, one misty afternoon, while enjoying a walk over the Heath, Margaret happens to find a lost ration book belonging to Alexander Niland, a famous young painter who Margaret much admires. Full of all sorts of fantasies of what might happen when she meets him, Margaret goes to his house to deliver the ration book, but finds only his pretty and capricious young wife Hebe at home, who then promptly leaves for a party, asking Margaret to stay and babysit the children. She is relieved by Grantey, Hebe’s mother’s maid, who then asks Margaret to come and have tea with her at Westwood, Hebe’s parents’ mansion in Highgate.

This unlikely event causes Margaret to become drawn into the world of the Nilands and the Challises, Hebe’s parents, who happen to be famous playwright Gerald Challis and his celebrated beauty of a wife. Margaret admires Gerald’s work enormously and can hardly bear to be in the same room as him, so great is her awe. She cannot believe her luck at being welcomed into the Challis’ home, and when she becomes firm friends with their eccentric Jewish emigre maid, Zita, a whole new world of colour, culture and vibrancy is opened to her. Margaret begins to neglect her former life entirely, dropping everything to spend as much time at Westwood as possible, which seems to her the epitome of the life she has always dreamed of. However, the arrogant and philandering Gerald is not as perfect as he seems, and neither are Hebe and Alexander. The more time Margaret spends at Westwood, the more she realises that this world she always longed to be a part of might not be an idyll after all…

This is an absolute doorstop of a book, at around 500 pages, and there are so many sub plots involving a whole maze of characters that it would take me far too long to unpick and explain them all. However, Margaret is at the centre of it all, and it is her journey from ingenue to experienced woman of the world that provides the narrative arc throughout, and she is a fascinating and highly empathetic character to follow. Gibbons is marvellous at character portraits, and the world of the Nilands and the Challises in all of its arrogance and eccentricity is marvellously drawn. The real star of the show however is London, which is beautifully and atmospherically described amidst the background of the Blitz. I loved the focus on my old stomping grounds of Hampstead and Highgate, and Gibbons manages to capture the unique charms of these two neighbourhoods perfectly. Her opening description of a mistily autumnal Hampstead has to be one of the finest depictions of London I’ve ever read.

Westwood is not a perfect novel; it is over long, over complicated, and contains some very questionable morals, especially considering the context of when it was written. It is no Cold Comfort Farm, though it is certainly very funny, and while entertaining and enjoyable, it lacks the gravitas it could have had were it a little more focused. I was pleased to read it and experience a different side to Gibbons, but I’m not sure if I feel particularly compelled to read more. Was she a one hit wonder? I’d be interested to hear other people’s opinions of her back catalogue!