A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
When I was a child, about 11 years old, I remember exactly where I was and how I felt when I first read Gavin Maxwell’s Ring Of Bright Water. I was on a camping holiday in Snowdonia, at the end of a lake with Snowdon as a backdrop, and although it wasn’t the West Coast of Scotland, it was possibly the first time I felt that where I was and the world I was reading about were utterly in tune. It is hard I think now for anyone much younger than I am to understand just what an impact Gavin Maxwell’s otter trilogy had on the national imagination in the 1960s. Although these days a lot could be argued against Maxwell’s approach to bringing a wild creature into his life as a human, at the time, it was a paean to the wilderness, and an optimistic plea for humans and wild animals to live in harmony in their natural environment. He bonded with the otters he took into his care but, until it all started to go wrong, he did not domesticate them as pets or keep them as captives – it was a genuine attempt at a new way of coexisting with a wild animal. Maxwell’s wild refuge, Camusfearna, the Bay of Alders, was his dream of that elusive place. I think I need a fresh visit to the trilogy, to see how it reads now. The real Gavin Maxwell, such a complex and utterly original figure, was well hidden in his own writing, and even better hidden in the famous film, starring Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna (who else?), in which the aristocratic Maxwell becomes the urban escapee Merrill.
But the book I am examining today looks at that story from the outside, and specifically at the final years and the dissolution of Maxwell’s dream. Richard Frere’s book Maxwell’s Ghost is almost unclassifiable. It is at once an autobiography, a biography, a work of natural history and adventure. It was first published in 1976, I remember reading it then, and it created such a vivid impression on me that I was delighted to find that it has been republished and read it again. Even if the character and story of Gavin Maxwell do not mean very much to you, Maxwell’s Ghost is, in my opinion, a classic piece of autobiographical, and biographical, writing that deserves to be rediscovered.
The back story is this: Gavin Maxwell (1914-1969) was the youngest brother of Sir Aymer Maxwell Bt, and grew up in impoverished aristocratic style in South-West Scotland. He served in SOE during the war, and afterwards built a great reputation and a hand-to-mouth financial career as an explorer, naturalist and writer. He returned to his beloved West Coast of Scotland and embarked on a series of risky ventures, the financial disasters of which he rescued in part by writing about them – such as Harpoon at a Venture, the story of his failed shark fishery off Skye. His breakthrough in the public consciousness came after he wrote a classic account of an expedition with Wilfred Thesiger (another fascinating character) among the Marsh Arabs of Iraq, in A Reed Shaken by the Wind. Maxwell brought home with him from Iraq a smooth coated otter called Mijbil, and set up a home in a remote location on the Scottish mainland, facing Skye across the Sound of Sleat. Here, he attempted to create an environment where he and the otter (and the others that later lived with him) could live together in harmony, until Mijbil’s tragic death. He wrote of this experience in A Ring Of Bright Water, published in 1960, which took the world (and me) by storm, and its sequel The Rocks Remain (1963). This success changed his life, and that of his otters, in that he became the focus for huge public attention. Sandaig, the secret site of Camusfearna, was decoded and became a place of pilgrimage, but also essentially a tiny, private zoo. One of Mijbil’s successors, Edal, turned against her human companions, causing life-changing injury to one of Maxwell’s staff (Terry Nutkins), and the otters had to be confined for the safety of all. The money, for once, rolled in, and Maxwell, with his unerringly fallible business sense, attempted to make investments for the future. He bought island properties off Skye and planned to develop them as holiday homes for people to share some of the atmosphere of ‘Camusfearna’. Enter Richard Frere: now read on.
Frere starts his book with a prologue set after Maxwell’s death. Frere bore an uncanny resemblance to Maxwell, especially if wearing the dark glasses that were Maxwell’s trademark. He walks into a pub near Sandaig, a year after Maxwell had died, and is hailed as his ghost. In the early 60s Frere and his wife Joan are drawn into Maxwell’s world, not long after Ring was published, when they agree to help him with the development of these cottages. I suppose the start of this narrative is rather low-key, and could be regarded as a slowly drawn-out episode of SOS DIY in a stunningly beautiful setting. But gradually we learn more about Maxwell, and about Frere (who is ferociously honest about his own failures and shortcomings), about Maxwell’s charm, charisma and fierce intelligence, his flakiness, and ultimately in the face of the dissolution of his dream and his own death, his courage. They become friends, after a shaky start, and in due course Frere takes the role of business manager for Maxwell Enterprises. He tackles this, the worst job in the world, in the face of fluctuating finances from writing (Maxwell suffered from severe writer’s block, though one would never know that from his work), and essentially tries and fails to hold back the tide of disaster about to sweep over Camusfearna. The final tragedy is the catastrophic fire that destroyed the house and took the life of one of the otters, Edal, written about in the final book of the trilogy Raven Seek Thy Brother (1969). By that time Maxwell’s health begins to break down, and the final pages are an unsparing account of his decline with a mystery illness, finally and too late diagnosed as lung cancer.
Maxwell was a complicated, brilliant, troubled man, who essentially left a trail of broken hearts. His Highland idyll is shared by a number of young men, drawn to work with him in such beautiful and adventurous surroundings, but with his smothering egotism and possessiveness he drives them away, one after the other, though all revered and honoured him thereafter – they just had to get away. He is homosexual, and comes out to Frere only once the law has changed (a failure in meeting of minds that is described in a stark passage in this book). He attempts relationships with women, all disastrous. (The best-documented is with the poet Kathleen Raine, and the episode where she curses a rowan tree outside his home is the subject of reciprocal accounts in his Raven Seek Thy Brother and her The Lion’s Mouth. In Maxwell’s Ghost it is the subject of one heavily coded sentence.)
He also made enduring friendships, one of them with Richard Frere (who died in 1999). This book, the stoical and clear-eyed story of that friendship is, I think, a fitting tribute to this forgotten, flawed hero. When it was first published, it was controversial, thought to be disparaging of a hero, revealing scandalous secrets about a man no longer there to defend himself. Now (as it did to to me in 1976), it reads like a tribute of honesty to a remarkable man and a good friend. Gavin Maxwell is firmly lodged in my heart and mind, and I shall never forget just how his books fed my growing imagination. I too, long after his death, made the breathtaking journey from Glenshiel through Kintail, over the Mam Ratagan pass, through mysterious, beautiful Glenelg, the Isle of Skye so close you could almost touch it, and visited Sandaig – Camusfearna – with its two tiny memorials, one to Edal and one to Maxwell. Reading Maxwell’s Ghost only increases my feeling of empathy with this brilliant, difficult man.
Richard Frere: Maxwell’s Ghost. An Epilogue to Gavin Maxwell’s Camusfearna. Edinburgh, Birlinn Ltd, 2011. 256pp
ISBN 13: 9781780270111
First published: Victor Gollancz, 1976.