#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.