GERALD DURRELL: ‘My family and the tortoise who nibbled them alive’ 

GERALD DURRELL’s memoir continues with ‘My family and the hungry tortoise who nibbled them alive’

Leaning heavily on his brown olive-wood stick, the goatherd stopped in his tracks and stared at me. ‘Good afternoon,’ he said gruffly. 

‘You are the foreigner — the little English lord?’

After several weeks in Corfu I had by now got used to the curious idea held by the locals that all British people were members of the aristocracy. I admitted who I was.

Gerald Durrell is pictured with his pet tortoise 

The shepherd turned and roared at a goat which had reared on to its hind legs and was tearing at a young olive tree. Then he turned back to me.

‘I will tell you something, little lord,’ he said. ‘It is dangerous for you to lie here, beneath these trees.’ 

I glanced up at the cypresses underneath whose sheltering branches my dog, Roger, and I had taken refuge from the heat. I asked him why they were so perilous.

‘Ah, you may sit under them, yes,’ said the goatherd. 

‘They cast a good shadow. But that’s the trouble: they tempt you to sleep. And you must never, for any reason, sleep beneath a cypress.’ 

He stroked his moustache and waited for me to ask why.


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‘Why? Why?’ he said. ‘Because if you did you would be changed when you woke. 

Yes, the black cypresses, they are dangerous. 

While you sleep, the roots grow into your brains and steal them, and when you wake up you are mad, your head as empty as a whistle. So be warned, little lord, and don’t sleep there.’

He nodded briefly, gave another fierce glance at the branches of the cypresses, as if daring them to make some comment, then picked his way carefully through the myrtle bushes to where his goats grazed scattered about the hill, their great udders swinging like bagpipes beneath their bellies.

His name was Yani and I got to know him very well after that. 

We would often meet during my early explorations of the island’s wildlife, and occasionally Roger and I would visit him at his house, where he would ply me with fruit and give me advice and warnings to keep me safe on my walks. 

Gerald Durrell (pictured above) was a British naturalist, zookeeper, conservationist, author and television presenter who founded the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust

Roger was my constant companion in those days. 

To me, he was the perfect friend and helper for an adventure: affectionate without exuberance, brave without belligerence and full of good-humoured tolerance for my eccentricities.

If I found something that interested me — an ant’s nest, a caterpillar on a leaf, a spider wrapping up a fly — Roger would sit down and wait until I had finished examining it. 

If he thought I was taking too long he shifted nearer, gave a gentle, whiny yawn and then sighed deeply and started to wag his tail.

If the matter was of no great importance we would move on, but if it was something absorbing that had to be pored over, I had only to frown at Roger and he would realise it was going to be a long job. 

His ears would droop, his tail slow down and stop, and he would slouch off to the nearest bush, flinging himself down in the shade and giving me a martyred look as he did so.

During these trips, Roger and I came to know and be known by a great number of people in parts of the surrounding countryside: farmers, shepherds, weavers, fruit pickers. 

Perhaps the most fascinating of them all was the Rose-Beetle Man — so called because of the stock of insects he always carried with him.

I first saw him on a high, lonely road leading to one of the remote mountain villages. I could hear him long before I could see him, for he was playing a rippling tune on a shepherd’s pipe, breaking off now and then to sing a few words in a curious, nasal voice. 

As he rounded the corner, both Roger and I stopped and stared in amazement.

His coat was dark and shapeless, its pockets bulging with an assortment of combs, pictures of saints, olive wood carvings and long twisted rolls of bread. 

Shell shock: Durrell as a boy with his beloved mischievous tortoise — and two baby birds. Inset, his family, as seen on the ITV show

On his back he carried bamboo cages full of pigeons and young chickens, several mysterious sacks and a large bunch of fresh leeks. 

When he saw us the Rose-Beetle Man stopped, gave a very exaggerated start, doffed his large, wide-brimmed hat and swept us a low bow. Roger was so overcome that he let out a volley of barks.

The man gazed at me reflectively for a moment. 

Then he swung a small sack off his shoulder, undid it and, to my delight and astonishment, out tumbled half a dozen tortoises into the dusty road. 

Slowly and ponderously they unpacked their heads and legs from their shells and set off down the road.

I watched them, fascinated. 

One that particularly took my fancy was quite small with a shell about the size of a tea cup, coloured chestnut, caramel and amber. 

Its eyes were bright and its walk was as alert as any tortoise’s could be.

I convinced myself that my family would greet its arrival at our villa with tremendous enthusiasm — even, perhaps, congratulating me on finding such an elegant specimen. 

The fact that I had no money to pay for it did not worry me in the slightest, for I would simply ask the man to call for the money the next day.

It never occurred to me that he might not trust me. 

The fact that I was English was sufficient — the islanders had a love and respect for British people out of all proportion to their worth.

The new arrival was christened Achilles, and turned out to be a most intelligent and lovable beast. 

He learned his name in a short time, and we had only to call out once or twice and he would appear, lumbering along the cobbled paths on tip-toe, his head and neck stretched out eagerly.

He would sit regally in the sun while we held out bits of lettuce and dandelions. Like Roger, he adored grapes, so there was always a rivalry between them. 

Achilles would sit munching the grapes, the juice running down his chin, while Roger lay nearby watching him with agonised eyes.

As well as his passion for grapes, Achilles also developed a passion for human company. 

Let anyone come into the garden to sit and sun-bathe, to read, or for any other reason, and before long there would be a rustling among the sweet williams, and Achilles’s wrinkled and earnest face would poke through.

If you were sitting in a chair, he contented himself with getting as close to your feet as possible, and there he would sink into a deep and peaceful sleep, his head drooping out of his shell, his nose resting on the ground.

If, however, you were lying on a rug, sun-bathing, Achilles would be convinced you were lying on the ground simply in order to provide him with amusement.

He would surge down the path and on to the rug with an expression of bemused good humour on his face. He would pause, survey you thoughtfully, and then choose a portion of your anatomy on which to practise mountaineering.

Suddenly to have the sharp claws of a determined tortoise embedded in your thigh is not conducive to relaxation, and after many complaints and threats from the family, I eventually had to lock him up whenever we lay in the garden.

Not long after Achilles’s arrival I obtained another pet from the Rose-Beetle Man — a baby pigeon. 

He was the most revolting-looking creature, his feathers pushing through his wrinkled scarlet skin mixed with a covering of horrible yellow down. Owing to his repulsive appearance, my brother Larry suggested we called him Quasimodo, and, I agreed.

Because of his unorthodox upbringing, and the fact that he had no parents to teach him the facts of life, Quasimodo became convinced that he was not a bird at all, and refused to fly. Instead he walked everywhere.

If he wanted to get on to a table or a chair, he stood below it, ducking his head and cooing in a rich contralto until someone lifted him up. 

He was always eager to join us in anything we did, and would even try to come for walks with us.

This, however, we had to stop, for either you carried him on your shoulder, which was risking an accident to your clothes, or else let him walk behind.

If you let him walk, then you had to slow down your pace to suit his, for should you get too far ahead you would hear the most frantic and imploring coos and turn round to find the pigeon running desperately after you, his tail wagging and his iridescent chest pouted out with indignation at your cruelty.

For some time the Rose-Beetle Man would turn up at the villa with some new addition to my menagerie: a frog, or a sparrow with a broken wing. 

One afternoon Mother and I bought his entire stock of rose-beetles and, when he left, let them all go in the garden.

For days the villa was full of the insects, crawling on the beds, lurking in the bathroom, banging against the light at night, and falling like emeralds into our laps. But to me, it was a price well worth paying for their freedom.

With March came our first spring on the island — flower-filled, scented and a-flutter with new leaves. 

Waxy yellow crocuses appeared in great clusters, and even the ancient olives, bent and hollowed by a thousand springs, decked themselves in clusters of minute, creamy blossoms. Spring affected my family in a variety of ways. 

My brother Larry bought himself a guitar and a large barrel of strong red wine. He interspersed his bouts of working on his novel by playing haphazardly on the instrument and singing Elizabethan love songs in a meek tenor voice, with frequent pauses for refreshment.

This would soon induce a mood of melancholy, and the love songs would become more doleful, while between each Larry would pause to inform whichever member of the family happened to be present that spring, for him, did not mean the beginning of a new year, but the death of the old one.

One evening the rest of us had gone out and left Mother and Larry together. Larry spent the evening singing more and more dismally, until he succeeded in working them both into a fit of depression.

They attempted to alleviate this state with the aid of wine, but unfortunately this had the reverse effect. 

When we returned we were somewhat startled to be greeted by Mother, standing at the door of the villa with a hurricane lantern. 

She informed us with lady-like precision that she wished to be buried under the rose bushes.

When left undisturbed by Larry, however, spring for Mother meant an endless array of fresh vegetables with which to experiment, and a riot of new flowers to delight her in the garden. 

There streamed from the kitchen a tremendous number of new dishes, soups, stews, savouries, and curries, each richer, more fragrant, and more exotic than the last.

It was at around this time that Larry began to suffer from indigestion. 

Scorning the simple remedy of eating less, he procured an immense tin of bicarbonate of soda, and would solemnly take a dose after every meal.

‘Why do you eat so much if it upsets you, dear?’ Mother asked.

‘It’s your fault,’ Larry said unreasonably. ‘You will keep tempting me with these aromatic delicacies. You’re driving me to ulcers.’

Margo was always badly affected by the spring. 

Her personal appearance, always of absorbing interest to her, now became almost an obsession. 

Singing shrilly and untunefully, she would drift about the villa, carrying piles of flimsy underwear or bottles of scent.

For Leslie, meanwhile, the coming of spring meant the soft pipe of wings as the turtle-doves and wood-pigeons arrived, and the sudden flash and scuttle of a hare among the myrtles. 

So, after visiting numerous gun shops, he returned to the villa one day proudly carrying a double-barrelled shotgun.

‘Isn’t she a beauty?’ he crooned, his vivid blue eyes shining. ‘Isn’t she a honey?’

Tenderly he ran his hands over the weapon. Then he whipped it suddenly to his shoulder and followed an imaginary flock of birds across the ceiling of the room. 

‘Pow! . . . pow!’ he intoned, jerking the gun against his shoulder. ‘A left and a right, and down they come.’ He gave the gun a final rub with the oily rag.

‘We’ll have a try for some turtle-doves tomorrow, shall we?’ he asked me. ‘That little hill across the valley is a good place.’

So at dawn he and I hurried through the misty olive groves, up the valley where the myrtles were wet and squeaky with dew.

Suddenly the pale morning sky was flecked with dark specks, moving as swiftly as arrows, and we could hear the quick wheep of wings. 

Nearer and nearer they flew, until it seemed that they must fly past us and be lost in the silvery, trembling olive tops behind.

At the very last moment the gun leaped smoothly to Leslie’s shoulder, the beetle-shiny barrels lifted their mouths to the sky, the gun jerked as the report echoed briefly, like the crack of a great branch in a still forest. 

The turtle-dove, one minute so swift and intent in its flight, now fell languidly to earth, followed by a swirl of soft, cinnamon-coloured feathers.

We returned through the sun-striped olive groves where the chaffinches were flashing like a hundred tiny coins among the leaves. Yani was driving his goats out to graze.

His brown face, with its sweep of nicotine-stained moustache, wrinkled into a smile; a gnarled hand appeared from the folds of his sheepskin cloak and was raised in salute.

‘Chairete,’ he called in his deep voice, the beautiful Greek greeting ‘chairete, kyrioi . . . be happy.’

The goats poured among the olives, uttering stammering cries to each other, the leader’s bell clonking rhythmically. 

A robin puffed out his chest like a tangerine among the myrtles and gave a trickle of song. The island was drenched with dew, radiant with morning sun, full of stirring life.

Be happy. How could one be anything else in such a season?

Adapted from MY FAMILY AND OTHER ANIMALS by Gerald Durrell, published by Penguin at £8.99. © Gerald Durrell. To order a copy for £7.19 (offer valid until August 28), visit mailshop.co.uk/books or call 0844 571 0640.

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