It has taken me a long time to read Gavin Maxwell’s Ring of Bright Water. I remember the book coming out. I even remember the film with Virginia McKenna and the infernal song! Now that I’ve read it the thing that fascinates me most – more than the story about otters more even than its Walden-esque attempt to hold back the tide of modernity – is the poetry of the writing. I have read a lot of poetry and a lot of the new nature writing but Maxwell’s writing feels different. As if he writes from the inside out, rather than from outside looking in as most do.
I didn’t even know that the title of the work is from one of Kathleen Raine’s poems. Ignorant? Probably. I thought I could dispel my ignorance by reading a biography. There is only one that I could find -that by Douglas Botting – read that I told myself and all will be revealed. Well, no. What is revealed is that Maxwell was an aristocrat – a scion of the House of Northumberland; a wartime instructor in the Special Operations Executive, Guards Officer, adventurer, traveller and fully paid up member of the hero club (albeit of confused sexual identity so perhaps not the model for Bond) there is no shortage of material here. The authorised biography is by Douglas Botting who explains that other would-be biographers of Maxwell came up against the twin obstacles of family and literary estate, but that his own application was granted because he had known Maxwell personally during the last years of the author’s life.
It is clear both from Maxwell’s own work and from Botting’s biography, that this fully paid up member of the hero club was essentially lonely and could be a difficult person to be around, often suffering from ill health and never happier than when alone and freezing on some moorland somewhere with his beloved plants and animals. These aspects of his life being more acutely realised in the work than human relationships at which he generally appears to have been unsuccessful. At least that is what the biography leads us to believe. And yet Maxwell seems never short of a friend to stay with when a bed in a castle is required or a companion for a trip or adventure – there usually seems to be the odd old Stoic, pal from Oxford, or Guards Officer around.
What is not revealed because of course no-one knows is where the writing comes from. Ironic also that the overwhelming success of Maxwell’s book and its two sequels, The Rocks Remain, and Raven Seek Thy Brother contributed to the mass tourism which has placed so much stress on the once lonely Scottish landscapes he so loved.
It is almost as if the difficulties of the life he chose in remote Camusfeàrna – with no made up road no electricity one mile from the nearest house and five from the nearest shop – were a metaphor for his own life struggles. These books were an elegy for a way of life which was vanishing even mid-20th century during the author’s lifetime; but in view of the disastrous habitat destruction which has taken place, they now feel like an epitaph for a failed conservation movement.