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

Country Life Every Week - - BOOKS - Gavin Maxwell: A Life

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.