by Gavin Maxwell
224 pages, Little Toller Books
Review by Pat Black
Stuck on a picture postcard Scottish island with the birds and the beasties for company? Sounds great.
(Waits for the “but…”)
Gavin Maxwell’s Ring Of Bright Water was a huge bestseller when it came out in 1960. Fifty-eight years later, Maxwell seems like the kind of man who simply wouldn’t exist nowadays.
The son of old-money landed gentry from Galloway in the south-west of Scotland, Maxwell describes himself as a massive snob in his youth, bumbling through higher education, affecting a kilt in a time when people didn’t even wear them at weddings, and generally being many things I dislike. Naturally, he excelled at field sports and was handy with a gun. Something happened to this ace hunter, though, between his teenage years and his thirties, when he took up residence on a remote Scottish island. His experiences there gave birth to this fondly-remembered natural history classic.
Like many nature writers of his social status, Maxwell renounced his propensity for blowing holes in animals, his metamorphosis taking him from a Sir Victorly Blunderbuss type to a modern day equivalent of St Francis of Assisi. This is surprisingly common among today’s crop of nature writers – only John Lewis-Stempel remains unrepentant, shooting for the pot as need dictates on his land. A fair few of them have taken that road to Damascus, going from tweeds, wellies, springer spaniels and outright ecological vandalism to having nothing to do with killing animals. Perhaps this tells us something about the social class of the type of people who write successful natural history books.
The book starts with Maxwell’s travels with the friendly Marsh Arabs in Iraq – this was only sixty years ago, folks – in which he becomes enamoured of the smooth-coated otters he encounters there. He brings one home, which doesn’t live long, but this leads him to import Mijbil, the star of the show.
Maxwell takes a run-down cottage in Sandaig, an island off the Isle of Skye, close to where the author had set up a base for slaughtering basking sharks years before. More on this later.
It is here that Maxwell and Mijbil have their time in the sun, frolicking in wild, beautiful surroundings. We all have our times and places in life where we found little bits of heaven, and this was Maxwell’s. I feel almost as compelled to visit Sandaig as I once was with Loch Ness. It’s one of many gorgeous islands in the Hebrides which are served by the Gulf Stream, producing white sandy beaches and blue water poured straight out of a Cezanne painting, in a place you might not expect it.
In truth, only about a third of this book takes place on Sandaig – which Maxwell calls “Camusfearna”, Scots Gaelic for “The Bay of the Alders”, so as to preserve the island’s purity. Sandaig itself means “The Butt of Squawk” in the ancient tongue.
There, Maxwell lives in a ramshackle cottage, collecting driftwood and tea chests washed ashore for his furniture. He takes a long time to fix the holes and do the place up. It seems he’s been granted use of the house as a favour, having lost all his money in the disastrous shark fisheries venture. He seems to pursue an itinerant, somewhat monastic life out there. He’s a pretend bum, though, splitting his time between Scotland during the good seasons and knocking around London in a vintage sports car. He also has some crazy adventures on the capital’s streets with Mij on a leash, prompting Norman Wisdom-style double-takes from the ragamuffins he encounters.
British eccentric? With frigging bells on.
“British eccentric” is ancient Anglo-Saxon for “person with money”.
All three of the otters in this book are comic figures, who put their love of fun and chaos, not to mention their well-developed forepaws, to good use - ripping, dismantling, disintegrating, and destroying. Maxwell is the Tommy Cannon to Mij’s Bobby Ball.
There are great comic set-pieces, such as one episode where Maxwell has to take Mij on board a plane, on his lap. Try that one nowadays, if you would. Again, you’re reminded that this was nearly sixty years ago. 1960 shouldn’t feel like ancient history, but it’s getting that way.
Maxwell’s name lives on in zoological as well as literary history, as it turned out his otters were unknown to science. He agonises over giving them his own name once the discovery is confirmed, but he does. He recognises the childish drive to stamp his Latinised moniker on one of god’s creatures, outlining the desire beautifully in his own voice from when he was seven: “But can’t I just have it? This one thing? Just once?”
Thus, Lutrogale perspicillate maxwelli has its place in the textbooks to this day.
The comedy involved in these playful animals brings up a key tension for the modern reader, though. An otter from the Iraqi marshes doesn’t really belong in a house, even if it was one on the banks of the Tigris, never mind one off the north-west coast of Scotland. Maxwell resists overly anthropomorphising his animals, but never quite grasps the idea that Mij is out of his element, even though the animal takes to his new home and thrives there.
Maxwell does address the fact that otters are in fact quite dangerous. One of Maxwell’s proteges, the late Terry Nutkins, could have told you this, having lost part of his fingers to one of the otters described in such scampish detail here. Cute they may be. Domestic pets, they are not.
Maxwell’s natural history writing is on a par with his comedic flair, and he outlines the flora and fauna of the bay with some skill – torpedoing porpoises, the menacing six-foot sails of the orcas, the rutting red deer on his very doorstep, and flights of geese come to charm him for a whole season from thousands of miles away. For all I might get sniffy about how and why Maxwell managed to get into publishing, the quality of the prose is beyond reproach. One description of a lemur he adopts before he finds his otters – “his habits were unfortunate, and solitary” – afforded me the increasingly rare joy of having to stifle laughter on a busy train.
Finding out a bit more about Maxwell raised a lot of questions about the book after I’d finished it. His father died in one of the very first engagements of the First World War, when Maxwell was a mere infant. Maxwell slept in his mother’s bed until he was eight, when he was taken away to boarding school. Far from becoming a bed-wetter or a mummy’s boy, Maxwell got into sporty, outdoorsy activities. When the Second World War came a-calling, Maxwell was a trainer for the Special Operations Executive, which is now known as the SAS. Apparently his party trick was to shoot moving ping pong balls out of the air during table tennis matches.
Maxwell reveals nothing of this in his most famous book; nor does he hint at being gay, although to be fair you could expect to be chemically castrated or sent to prison if you did come out of the closet in 1960. Again, sixty years ago, etc.
The book’s title comes from a poem written by Maxwell’s close female friend, Maxine Raine. This is where a dark cloud dapples the sugar beaches at Sandaig.
Raine was hopelessly in love with Maxwell, but Maxwell preferred men – and she cursed him for it.
I mean, literally cursed him. Proper witchy woo stuff.
Misfortune duly befell Maxwell, including one or two things which would count as spoilers for this book. But then, misfortune befalls us all – it’s one of only two absolute guarantees left in life (as some people avoid taxes with little fuss). I was struck by the poet’s rage, and also her oft-expressed guilt when Maxwell started to encounter major problems in his life. Happily, the curse didn’t extend to book sales.
The author’s legacy as an environmentalist has come in for a bit of a kicking in recent years. Maxwell’s a bit class-conscious when it comes to his favourite animals, with fish being well down the pecking order (nibbling order?). He has a lot to answer for in his shark hunting days, when he blithely persecuted immense basking sharks off the west coast of Scotland in order to harvest their livers. The ocean becomes quite literally red with the creatures’ blood, as he spears them with harpoons and drags their 30-40ft bodies onto the beach, where they are hacked to pieces. Some of them might have been still alive.
He was only reflecting the feeling at the time that basking sharks were simply a nuisance, often getting snagged up in fishermen’s nets or providing a potentially life-threatening collision risk on the surface. So, sure, why not slaughter ‘em? And there was money in them thar livers, in those days.
God knows what effect his bloody work – outlined in another book, Harpoon At A Venture - had on the population of these immense, but peaceable plankton-feeders. Like the whales, their numbers have never quite recovered from the days when they could expect a jab with a harpoon from any humans they met.
Maxwell reasoned, as he does again in Ring Of Bright Water, that because these creatures don’t have the same sized brains as whales or dolphins, they simply don’t matter. Basking sharks are now beloved of nature-watchers, and people flock to the Scottish islands off the west coast for the chance to see them in early summer months. The idea of killing one for any reason is abhorrent to most of western civilised society.
Bankruptcy followed this endeavour - this was well before Maxwell was cursed, we should note - but perhaps sweetness came with it, once Maxwell had renounced his man-of-action leanings.
Maxwell was a complex man. Prone to great eruptions and fissures in his mood, he’d almost certainly be diagnosed as bipolar were he alive today. He didn’t seem to lack for company, despite squirrelling himself away on his wild island. Several strapping young lads, having read and adored Ring Of Bright Water, volunteered to take up residency on Sandaig and help out the author with life on the island. Nutkins was one such boy; John Lister-Kaye, who recently appeared on the Wainwright Prize shortlist with his latest book, was another.
Thus the ripple effect continues to this very day.
Drawing a line from Nutkins (how sad to think he’s dead; it’s jarring, in its way, like when you remember Donna Summer, Prince, Rick Parfitt and David Bowie are dead), Maxwell has had a strong influence on many British people’s love and affection for the natural world through the small screen, either with Johnny Morris’s Animal Magic or its successor, The Really Wild Show.
Ring Of Bright Water was a phenomenon in its time, and was all the more remarkable as it viewed nature as sublime, rather than something to be tamed, or murdered for trophies. It certainly struck a chord with people all over the world, and sold millions of copies, spawning a fictionalised movie starring Bill Travers and Ginny McKenna.
I harbour dreams of living somewhere remote. I wonder if it’s truly possible, though. Once I get set up in my remote cottage by the mountains or the sea or the forest, I’d start inquiring about wi-fi passwords and 4G coverage. Then of course I’d have to think about shops and the pub – aside from the basic need to eat, it wouldn’t be good to get totally remote. There’s a law about closed systems. Then I’d need some to get some craftspeople in to fix the place up, because I have no building skills. I’m no farmer either, and while I am of course a total and utter killer, hunting isn’t my thing. I wouldn’t even consider being self-sustaining. It’s too much like hard work. And perhaps there, we gain some understanding over why we are compelled to destroy this planet.
It turns out lemmings don’t jump off clifftops, after all; but humans do. That’s the great big “but” I was talking about, at the top. How to have a modern life, and yet freed from the pitfalls of human civilisation; how to sustain yourself, and yet live sustainably.
Maxwell’s beyond all this, thankfully, his ashes long spread across the bay of the alders. But for all his faults while he was on earth, his spiritual legacy is a good one. Parts of his masterpiece have dated in a bad way, but I try to be kind when it comes to this sort of hindsight regarding art. In case it’s not clear, I adored this book.