#1956Club – The Drunken Forest by Gerald Durrell

Gerald Durrell’s animal collecting trip to Argentina, Tierra del Fuego and Paraguay may not have gone to plan, but his amusing narration and wonderful illustrations by Ralph Thompson saved the day.

Returning to reading Gerald Durrell – any book by him, because I’m not sure which ones I read years ago – is a joyous experience. His stories about both animals of all sorts and the people he meets are invariably amusing.

Cover illustration by Ralph Thompson for Gerald Durrell’s The Drunken Forest
Cover of The Drunken Forest by Gerald Durrell

Perfect illustrations by Ralph Thompson

This is Gerald Durrell’s account of an animal collecting trip to Argentina, travelling on to Tierra del Fuego, then back to Paraguay. Due to bad planning and political disruption, it turned into a chaotic trip that wasn’t entirely successful. As always in in his books, in The Drunken Forest, Durrell gives the animals and birds such character and that is perfectly reflected in the line drawings by Ralph Thompson. Both of them capture the essence of a creature or an incident. Durrell’s obvious enthusiasm spills over into his descriptions. Thompson complements this by sketches that show the animals at their most appealing, with their head at just the right angle: a fawn wrapped in a shirt, a raccoon opening the catches on its cage, a page and a bit of adorable burrowing owl fledglings.

Ralph Thomson: burrowing owls
Illustration by Ralph Thompson of burrowing owls (from The Drunken Forest by Gerald Durrell).

Durrell’s text is so alive because he describes the process of observing and capturing the animals so well. His dialogue is lively and peppered with well-bred expletives, the sort even my non-swearing mother couldn’t object to. Even though his expedition was nowhere near as successful as hoped, the book certainly is.

A pink penguin

My copy is a 1961 Penguin edition with a pink cover that originally cost 2’6 (two shillings and sixpence); it would have taken me three weeks saving up my pocket money to buy that as a child. I’m familiar with orange and green Penguins, so this is rather an anomaly; non-fiction, perhaps? I suspect this is also one of Durrell’s books that I haven’t read before as I bought it in a secondhand bookshop in Eindhoven in 1987 or thereabouts. It was the first time I’d ever lived anywhere with a proper bookshop (i.e. not W.H. Smiths), so I was a regular visitor there, delighted by the choice. In any case, this book is a keeper and I recommend it to everyone. And it’s perfect for reading in 2020 as it’s great medicine; it’s impossible to read this without a smile on your face.

Illustration of the jungle by Ralph Thompson for The Drunken Forest by Gerald Durrell.

#1956Club – Blundering around the bookcase: finding books published in 1956

Searching for books for the #1956Club book challenge, I found various candidates, some more appealing than others. This is what I found on my own shelves.

Whilst reading a book blog I follow, I recently saw a reference to the 1956 Club challenge, which involves reading and reviewing one or more books that were first published in – surprise, surprise – 1956. Did I have any books that fit the bill on Mount TBR, I wondered. How would I find them?

Apart from physically opening up any books that I thought were of the era on my own physical shelves (and discovering I have an inordinate number published in 1986 that I opened up, just in case they were older than I thought), I also decided to do a little speculative ferreting for likely candidates on Goodreads. Any author that I could think of who wrote in the 1950s seemed like a good bet, including the children’s authors I enjoyed in the 1960s and ‘70s. I also tried to think of the people who would have been on television back then.

Books that might have appeared in 1956

For me personally, one of the most important things that happened was that my parents got married, as did Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier of Monaco. Rock and roll was taking off, with Elvis’ first appearance, the first Tefal pan was produced, the first nuclear power station opened in Britain, the first interstates in the US, there was the Suez crisis, The King and I was on Broadway. One thing I realised was that the 1950s was an era of exploration, with the first climbing of Everest in 1953 and other mountaineers and explorers also blazing a trail through the world’s more remote corners. Nevertheless, the Everest books, Annapurna and the Kon-Tiki expedition were too early. Elsbeth Huxley’s Flame Trees of Thika was published in 1959, Joy Adamson’s Born Free in 1960. The only book of that ilk I did find was The Drunken Forest by Gerald Durrell, describing a 1954 animal collecting expedition to Argentina and Paraguay. Fortunately for the purposes of the 1956 Club, his book telling the tale wasn’t published until 1956, followed by his most famous book, My Family and Other Animals, set on Corfu. I read that as a child and was captivated, but no longer have a copy. Sadly, I also never seem to put on the television at the right time to watch the dramatization of the Durrells’ chaotic family life. I am entirely willing to read The Drunken Forest this year, however, but probably not within the confines of the 1956 Club timescale.

Children’s books in 1956

Children’s books are another likely suspect for discovering books published in a certain year, especially those authors who publish many books in a series. As such, I suspected Noel Streatfeild might fit the bill and I was right. However, I have neither of the books which she had published in 1956: Dancing Shoes and a book called Judith that I have never come across. Dancing Shoes is part of the so-called ‘Shoes’ series that started with the wonderful Ballet Shoes, a book I still possess. When I looked up Streatfeild’s books on Goodreads, I was surprised that there were so many in this series, because I didn’t know many of them. I remember one of my favourites being Apple Bough, but had not remembered it as being connected in any way, but Goodreads tells me it was also known as Traveling Shoes. The clue is in the spelling: as Ballet Shoes (1936) had been so successful, Streatfeild’s American publishers decided to rebrand the books as the Shoes series, even though the stories were virtually unrelated. Hence another of my childhood books, Party Frock became Party Shoes. In the Frock version, the children decide to arrange a historical pageant for the whole village, simply because the girl staying with them for the summer has been sent a parcel containing a marvellous party dress (cream organdie with a blue sash) and they need to find a reason for her to wear it. I can almost physically feel the beauty of that dress, even though I read it in my very early teens, or earlier, in my ‘longing to be a ballet dancer’ stage.

Prolific authors

Another likely way of finding books published in a particular year is to think of prolific authors; the sort who publish series of books or who seemed to churn out a book every year. One of these was James Michener with 150 distinct works on Goodreads, starting with Tales of the South Pacific in 1947, then publishing new books in 1949, two in 1951, two in 1953, one in 1954 and… his next three in 1957. As already discussed on , another author who used to reliably produce a good novel every year or so was Ian Fleming and, indeed, he wrote Diamonds are Forever, his fourth James Bond novel, in 1956. My husband owns a copy of this, but it remains on my ‘maybe I’ll read it one day’ list.

I then realised that my next best bet was Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason mysteries. Gardner was horribly prolific. My husband collects his books (as did his father before him) and two entire shelves in our bedroom are taken up with them. I’m rather fond of the TV series starring Raymond Burr, especially the later ones, when his secretary Della Street is finally credited with a brain. Della was played by the phenomenally gravelly-voiced Barbara Hale, who was a movie star in her own right before switching to television roles. 

I believe I once read one Perry Mason mystery, possibly The Case of the Fan Dancer’s Horse, but don’t quote me on that. Even though my husband was so enthusiastic, I was put off straight away by the ridiculous names and the sexism; Perry always had to explain everything to his secretary Della. No matter that I often need mysteries explained to me at the end, I objected on principle! I had no idea that the first ones had already been written in the 1930s, which obviously makes me look upon the attitudes with slightly more understanding.

Since he was writing for a television series, whilst remaining a practising lawyer, Gardner published several books a year. In 1956 he published:

The majority of his titles are similarly alliterative, which I love, but I much prefer watching the television show to reading the books. Especially the later ones. I might have a peek at one of the Erle Stanley Gardners, just to see whether I dislike it as much as I thought.

Likewise Ian Fleming’s Diamonds Are Forever, one of my husband’s books. I am not really a Bond fan, though watching those early films is amusing just to see the decor. I’ve never attempted any of the books, though I have read his brother Peter Fleming’s account of travelling on the Silk Route, News from Tartary, which was fascinating (and is available online).

My candidates for the 1956 Book Club

Obviously I wasn’t able to read all of those within a week, especially as I didn’t even come across the concept until the week had already started. I have skimmed The Drunken Forest and will try to post a review very soon. I have started The Rosemary Tree and will post something about it as soon as I have something to say. I spotted a review on Goodreads of an Elizabeth Goudge fan who mentioned reading a chapter of The Rosemary Tree per night. In theory that is a wonderful idea, but inevitably I will get distracted. As Elizabeth Goudge is one of my mother’s favourite authors, I will try to read it this week, in honour of her birthday week. We shall see. As for the rest, time will tell. They are now earmarked for a skim and brief comments. Watch this space; I hope this will kickstart my return to more active blogging. Thank you for the inspiration, kaggsysbookishramblings, stuckinabook and thank you also to Liz at librofulltime.