The quest for Avalon
James Fergusson welcomes the re-publication of this brilliant evocation of a man who included secret agent, shark fisherman, racing driver and travel writer among his adventures, but is best known for his writings on otters and the natural world
Gavin Maxwell was a James Bond among writers. a crack shot obsessed by fast cars (his Maserati did 160mph), he taught survival techniques to SOE agents during the Second world war, surviving himself on whisky and water and 80 cigarettes a day, and only took up writing after a career as a Society portrait painter. He died of lung cancer at 55 and might now be forgotten except that he wrote one brilliant, moving, sure-footed book that remains a modern classic.
Ring of Bright Water (1960) tells the story of ‘Camusfeàrna’ (‘the Bay of the alders’) in the west Highlands, his ‘symbol of freedom’: a house that he rented from a friend for £1 a year, miles from any road and with no piped water, electricity or telephone; a place of ‘utter silence’ but for the rush of a waterfall and the sounds of the sea. The book is a paean to the natural world, to greylag geese, the brown seal and the roaring stag, to the courage of the elver and the ‘sturdy grace’ of the porpoise. above all, it’s a praise song to the otter, or rather to three otters that the author semi-domesticated: Mij, edal and Teko, perhaps the most famous otters ever.
Mij was delivered by the Marsh arabs to the explorer wilfred Thesiger and thence to Maxwell. The otter was of a subspecies never previously identified and Maxwell was infinitely proud that it was named Lutrogale perspicillata maxwelli—to the irritation of Thesiger, who thought that, if it must be named after anybody, it should have been him.
Thesiger was not alone in being irritated by Maxwell. He was obviously infuriating. Douglas Botting, whose patient and sympathetic biography, running to 600 pages, was first published in 1993, cites the verdict of an SOE medic that Maxwell was a ‘creative psychopath’.
The grandson of grandees— on his father’s side, Sir Herbert Maxwell, 7th Baronet, prolific writer and Conservative MP; on his mother’s, the 7th Duke of northumberland—he never had enough money to live up to what he thought was his station. when Ring of Bright Water made him a small fortune, he spent it instantly.
He was less than three months old when, in October 1914, his father was killed on the western Front; for eight years, he slept in his mother’s bed. Boarding school was a shock; at 16, he was very ill—all his life he was prone to awful accidents, medical and financial. Moody, wilful, needy and extravagant, he nevertheless attracted astonishing loyalty from the many staff needed to keep his establishments going during his habitual absences.
One of these was the young Mr Botting, who was living at Camusfeàrna (in real life, Sandaig, on the mainland opposite Skye) when Maxwell was writing the book that, argues Mr Botting, instigated a worldwide movement for otter conservation. Ring of Bright Water had two sequels—the Rocks Remain (1963) and Raven Seek Thy Brother (1968)—but neither is so well written and the story they tell is much darker: the turmoil of Maxwell’s inner life is reflected in a sequence of casual catastrophes. The poet Kathleen Raine, who gave him the first book’s title, is said to have put a curse on him.
Mr Botting negotiates his subject with tact and verve. His most telling testimony comes not from Maxwell’s own writings, but direct from the protagonists. a rare boyfriend, Tomas, dispassionately analyses Maxwell’s homosexual confusion. equally clear-eyed is lavinia Renton, who briefly and disastrously married him. Terry nutkins, who lost two fingers to a furious edal, reflects, without rancour, on how ‘terribly childish’ Maxwell became in the company of his otters. For Raine, who loved him, his life was ‘a tragedy’.
Maxwell craved an avalon and, in Ring of Bright Water, a work of consummate art, he successfully created it. in real life, it was not so easy. ‘i have always found,’ he told his future biographer, ‘that what you want and cannot have, you can only have when you no longer want it.’
Gavin Maxwell reloads his harpoon gun in the summer of 1946