Some books arrive out of the blue and virtually save one’s life, and Douglas Botting’s biography of Gavin Maxwell was one such book for me. I was lying in my hospital bed after an unscheduled operation, and had implored my sister-in-law to bring me a novel by Trollope, as nothing had cheered me so much during a previous illness as The Small House at Allington. I had rarely felt more in need of cheering up.
She arrived with the news that she had ransacked two airport bookshops for Trollope to no avail, but produced instead a fat biography of Gavin Maxwell. Other than that he was the author of Ring of Bright Water, I knew little about him and at that point frankly cared less. Privately dismayed, I tried hard to sound grateful.
I had exhausted all other reading matter, however, and wasn’t feeling up to seeing more visitors, so there was nothing else for it. I took a deep breath and dived in, and from the first page I was utterly, hopelessly hooked. The stifling hospital ward seemed to evaporate, I lost all track of time, my cantankerous mood lifted, and I could hardly bear to be dragged back to reality. I was enthralled – by Gavin Maxwell, by his otters and by the extraordinary world he created.
Douglas Botting first encountered the subject of his future biography – ‘poet, painter, shark - hunter, naturalist, traveller, secret agent and aristocratic opter-out’ – while himself a student at Oxford, scouting around for interesting speakers for the Oxford University Exploration Club, of which he was chairman. He had just read Maxwell’s account of his journey through the Tigris marshes of southern Iraq with Wilfred Thesiger (a journey incidentally on which Ma x well acquired his first otter, an encounter that would change his life) and he was sufficiently impressed by the brilliance of the writing and intrigued by the character of the author to write immediately with an invitation to speak. Thus began an
The full version of this article is only available to subscribers to Slightly Foxed: The Real Reader’s Quarterly. To continue reading, please sign in or take out a subscription to the quarterly magazine for yourself or as a gift for a fellow booklover. Both gift givers and gift recipients receive access to the full online archive of articles along with many other benefits, such as preferential prices for all books and goods in our online shop and offers from a number of like-minded organizations. Find out more on our subscriptions page.Subscribe now or Sign in