‘Frothy, but witty’: Fillets of Plaice

Over the next few posts, I’m going to look at some of Gerald Durrell‘s lesser talked about books, i.e. those outside the “Corfu Trilogy”.

I’m going to start with Fillets of Plaice, collection of short autobiographical stories published in 1971, even though that is one of the later books. Mostly, though, I want to look at Gerald’s tales of his animal collecting expeditions, which he started to write after his marriage to Jacqui Wolfenden in 1951. Gerald and Jacqui, who had eloped, were living in a tiny bed sitter in Margo’s Bournemouth guest house and the couple needed a way to make money. It was Jacqui who persuaded Gerald to write, as well as his brother Lawrence, who helped connect him with a literary agent.

There seem to be several reprints of Fillets, with a large variety of covers. The latest shows a photograph of Gerry as a boy on Corfu, with Roger the dog; the edition I have inexplicably shows a large white parakeet.

Lawrence Durrell’s influence on Gerald and the close relationship between the two brothers is also apparent in Fillets, whose title is a parody of Spirit of Place, a collection of Lawrence’s letters. The two brothers decided upon that title, explains Gerald in the preface, as they shared a drink of retsina (of course) on Corfu (also of course).

The first four Fillets stories are chronological in order. The first, and I think the most successful, deals with the family’s misadventures during a cruise to mainland Greece during Gerald’s now-famous childhood on Corfu, and it really could have been taken from any of the Corfu books.

The next story, ‘A Transport of Terrapins‘, is set in 1939 London immediately after Gerry, his mother and brother Leslie returned from Corfu. In his typical manner, Gerald includes a dialogue with Larry, in which his older brother backs up his decision to take a job in a pet store, although Larry did not return to London with his family.  For me at least, the sense of magic realism with which Gerald imbues his stories of Corfu (where anything can happen!) works rather less well in a London story. The row of shops tucked away off Kensington High Street and all resolutely not selling anything sounds rather unlikely, although it makes for a nice yarn. (And there is not, to my knowledge, a Potts Lane near Kensington High Street.)

The next stories deal with Gerald’s adventures in Africa and his sojourn as a patient in a nursing home after being diagnosed with “overwork and over-worry”.

The final story, ‘Ursula’, jumps back in time to Gerald’s life in Bournemouth after returning from Corfu, where the late teenage Gerry is surprisingly sophisticated when taking his girlfriend, Ursula Pendragon-White (the Miss Malaprop of the South Coast) to restaurants and concerts.

A contemporary review of the book in a 1971 copy of the Sydney Morning Herald describes Gerald’s style as “frothy” but says his “story line is starting to wear a bit thin”. I can see where that attitude is coming from, for while Fillets is definitely laugh-out-loud in parts, some of the stories (particularly the Africa one) are less successful.

“He has been smart enough to realize that his slightly oddball family are a viable writing proposition too,” the reviewer continues. “And he has been an able enough writer to make his light-hearted verbatim reports of family activities into best sellers.”

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One thought on “‘Frothy, but witty’: Fillets of Plaice

  1. The bird on Fillets of Plaice is a Sulphur-Crested White Cockatoo ( Cacatua galerita). It may have been a random choice, but there is ‘a white cockatoo’ named ‘Mabel’ in ‘A Transport of Terrapins’.

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