Wednesday 25 August 2010

Corfu Idyll

'July had been blown out like a candle by a biting wind that ushered in a leaden August sky. A sharp, stinging drizzle fell, billowing into opaque grey sheets when the wind caught it. Along the Bournemouth sea-front the beach huts turned blank wooden faces towards a greeny-grey, froth-chained sea that leaped eagerly at the cement bulwark of the shore. The gulls had been tumbled inland over the town, and they now drifted above the house-tops on taut wings, whining peevishly. It was the sort of weather calculated to try anyone's endurance.'

No, this is not my writing - yet it couldn't more perfectly describe our current 'summer' weather. This is from the opening chapter of Gerald Durrell's 'My Family and Other Animals', which hilariously sets out the conditions that led his family to up sticks for Corfu in the 1930s. Durrell was nine or ten and about to experience a magical sojourn in a land of warmth (of climate and of people), colour, extraordinary eccentricity, natural marvels and the kind of freedom a British ten-year-old can only dream of nowadays. He pootled about in his round and unstable boat, the Bootle Bumtrinket, made for him by his brother Leslie. He drove his brother Larry into paroxysms of rage ( 'That bloody boy!') by filling their various villas with animals, birds and insects of varying degrees of aggression or dependency: a matchbox-full of tiny scorpions, a vicious seagull, a tortoise called Achilles, a hoopoe called Hiawatha, a pigeon called Quasimodo, dogs called Widdle and Puke. He wandered through olive groves in the stunning heat, down to rock pools and beaches. He put up with tutors trying to give him an education - an education he did indeed receive, but a far from conventional one. The 'little English lord' was accosted by peasants who fed him gossip and folklore along with olives, grapes and figs. He spent hour upon hour in contemplation of birds incubating or spiders lurking under trapdoors, with a single-minded concentration perhaps unachievable by modern children, if we are to believe current theories that the internet has damaged our capacity to keep our minds on anything for more than a nanosecond.

Months ago, when we were planning our holiday to Corfu, I blogged that I was going to take Durrell's Corfu Trilogy with me and read it while there - and this is what I did. Absolute joy - first of all the joy of rediscovery, as I'd read it when I was a child. The writing holds true: there are scenes of utter farce which would fit well into 'Fawlty Towers'. There is the capturing of an era long gone, where children could roam free without the frowning disapproval of Health and Safety, where the island was unspoilt, following traditional ways of life. There is the utter lyricism of the style: Durrell has an extraordinary eye for detail and ear for dialogue. He teaches you and entertains you and casts a spell with beautiful and observant images which are pin-sharp.

View from villa to Corfu Town
The second joy was the joy of reading it in the place he describes, though sadly many of those places have now changed considerably and I'm sure he'd be horrified at the transformation. The Strawberry Pink Villa where first the family resided was opposite where the modern airport now is: planes roar down over the sea and the lagoon, past the 'Chessboard Fields', the 'intricate pattern of narrow waterways that once been salt pans in the Venetian days.' However, much remains as it was: the olive groves, the dark spikes of cypresses, the phenomenal jades and sapphires of the sea. One of my memories had been of the Rose-Beetle Man:  a strange, virtually speechless loner, fantastically dressed, playing a shepherd's pipe as he roamed the hills, and round his hat, anchored by lengths of cotton thread, an aerial display of captured rose-beetles: 'glittering golden green in the sun, all of them flying round his hat with desperate, deep buzzings, trying to excape from the threads tied firmly round their waists.' I had never forgotten the picture of the planetary orbiting of metallic beetles round this weird and compelling character.  How wonderful, then, to stand by the railing of our villa, looking out over the olive and lemon trees and hear a deep burr as a gorgeously iridescent beetle droned past, to realise that its emerald glint was that of a rose-beetle.

Wedding party at Agni
We built up our own memories, of course. As the rain comes down I try to hang onto the memory of heat and I picture the snow-white muscular vector of water behind the power-boat that took us across the bay to Corfu Town. I can see the rolled-up black netting under the olive trees, waiting until the fruit will be ripe. I hear the constant rasp of cicadas, an aural shimmer manifesting the heat. There's the wedding party at Agni, the bride and groom arriving by boat and being photographed under a floral arch while the sea turns to milk behind them. There are the terracotta pots of succulents, geraniums and herbs at the monastery at Paleocastritsa. There's the line of silver charms under censers, above the tomb of Saint Spiridion in Corfu Town. I see the moon rise above the hills of Albania while the bright lights of a silent ferry nose past the northern end of the island, seeking passage to Italy. I cherish the hours of reading, reading, reading - for nothing but pleasure - without interruption, without awareness of time. And I'll always remember our two lunches at The White House in Kalami, where that other Durrell lived for a time, Lawrence Durrell, an altogether more challenging writer. What a lovely fantasy: to rent that apartment, look out at the summer pleasure boats bringing people to the jetty so that they can sit and eat and drink for hours into the dusk, and think, and brood, and write, set free from the quotidian world.


Sun loungers at dusk, Agni
Now, forgive me for this extravagance. And please read Gerald Durrell - as a stylist, I think he's under-estimated. I could pick all manner of luscious passages or laugh-out-loud moments - but you need to read them for yourselves.

So, before autumn has us entirely in its clutches, and with the hope that you too found your summer idyll, I'll hang onto the memory of what he describes: 'Gradually the magic of the island settled over us as gently and clingingly as pollen. Each day had a tranquillity, a timelessness, about it, so that you wished it would never end. But then the dark skin of night would peel off and there would be a fresh day waiting for us, glossy and colourful as a child's transfer and with the same tinge of unreality.'

(Gerald Durrell: My Family and Other Animals; Birds, Beasts and Relatives; The Gardens of the Gods)