For so many of us, the books we read during our schooldays make us who we are. In 1995, just some months before he died, Gerald Durrell reflected, ‘if I could give a child a gift, I’d give them my childhood’. And I suppose that in a way he has. For 60 years now, girls and boys all over the world have fallen in love with My Family and Other Animals — the comic immortalisation of the Durrells’ life on Corfu in the latter years of the 1930s.
It must have been 2006. I spent much of that summer nodding along on the sidelines of my classmates’ conversations, pretending I knew just as much as anybody else about the World Cup and all that came with it.
Thursdays brought some respite from the football fever. Right from when breaktime finished until the lunch bell rang, we sat in the English department reading that iconic book. Thoughts of Wayne Rooney were replaced by thoughts of Margot Durrell, the older sister who seemed to be forever sprawled elegantly on the sand, smoking cigarettes in the Hellenic sun. And we laughed together as we read of Gerald’s adventures, a boy with all the freedom we could ever dream of, adventures played out amongst the lakes of lilies and the cherry trees, whose scarlet red fruit kissed the sea, deep cobalt blue.
Retrospectively, though, what struck me more than the beauty of the landscape was the fond portrayal of the island’s people. Most memorably there was Spiros Americanos, a man ‘who had the sort of voice you’d expect a volcano to have’, and whose ‘Dodge taxi honked like a wounded duck’. Spiros became the family’s devoted guide and mentor. His grandson, who died not so many years ago, grew up listening to tales of the Durrells and his grandfather’s part in their extraordinary lives.
While stuck behind my desk on a characteristically bleak June day in Edinburgh, a good friend got in touch to ask whether I’d like to join him on a family holiday to Corfu. Upon confirming that Ryanair were still offering flights so cheaply that even I could afford it, I booked my flights and commenced my usual pre-holiday routine of looking through every jacket pocket in a desperate search for my passport.
After just a morning of wandering around the island, it became entirely clear that the Durrells’ Corfu is dead and gone. That place where fishermen once cast their nets beneath the Ionian waves and priests scrambled along the precipitous coastline to little stone chapels, perched vertiginously on the cliff face, has been destroyed by the British holidaymaker and our relentless cultural colonisation of what increasingly feels like every vaguely pleasant spot in Europe.
During one particularly poignant conversation I remarked to a Greek estate agent that there was surprisingly little fresh produce on the island. ‘That’s because we have no agriculture’ he responded, shrugging his shoulders, ‘anybody who did farm now just works in tourism’. Every shop in every populated cove bore testament to this transition, with row after row of tasteless imported vegetables, and tin upon tin of luncheon meat.
In one such cove, I sat on the terrace of the Whitehouse, once the home of Lawrence Durrell, Gerald’s more literary brother, a home he describes in Prospero’s Cell as ‘a dice on a rock already venerable with the scars of wind and water’. Sixty years on it sells ice cream to bloated British tourists burning in the sun.
As I sat and listened to a chorus of conversations about Brexit, I thought of another holiday I had been on almost a year previously. After a of couple days wandering around Bucharest, looking at those great white edifices thrown up during Ceaucescu’s paranoid premiership, I took the train down to the Black Sea — Vama Veche — a former fishing village which became something of a countercultural oasis during the dark years of communism.
I spent the first evening there drinking in a little café. ‘We’re still not really on the map as a European holiday destination’, a waiter said to me as he passed me another beer, ‘but we’re getting there’. And looking up, I could see that they were. Little shabby eateries serving dumplings, had taken on a sort of vulnerable fragility, overshadowed by a couple of new large glass-fronted restaurants, with signs boasting 50 types of pizza, and British dance anthems drifting out of open glass doors into the night.
Call it nostalgia, call it a romantic objection to the inevitable, but there is something truly horrible about the cultural annihilation of Europe’s islands, cities and countries. I don’t believe it will take us all that long until any individuality has been utterly steam-rollered, leaving each little bit of Europe just as etiolated and uninspiring as the next.