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Jim Crumley, Gavin Maxwell, SF 70

What We Have Lost

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Ring of Bright Water caught me off guard. Gavin Maxwell’s memorial to a year of his life shared with an otter and glorious secular hymn to the West Highland seaboard of Scotland hit me between the eyes, thumped me in the solar plexus, then threw a bucket of cold water over me. So I sat up and read it again.

I was about 20. I had been working as a trainee journalist since I was 16 in the epicentre of Scottish journalism which is Dundee, home to D. C. Thomson, and where I was born, grew up and lived for the first twenty-one years of my life. It was an upbringing as solidly East Coast and un-Highland as red sandstone cliffs and Arbroath smokies. But I had dipped a toe in West Highland waters on family holidays, and it’s fair to say that I craved immersion.

I was idealistic, impressionable, addicted to an intoxicating broth of a fantasy Highland idyll and the dazzling journalism of such as James Cameron, John Rafferty, Michael Frayn and Michael Parkinson (and yes that Michael Frayn and Michael Parkinson; it was fifty-something years ago). I was ripe for exploitation by something life-defining. It would turn out to be Ring of Bright Water (1960), which I picked up in the first place only because I liked the title. By the time I had read the Foreword, in particular a passage I have read so often in the intervening decades that I know it by heart, I was smitten:

For I am convinced that man has suffered in his separation from the soil and from the other living creatures of the world; the evolution of his intellect has outrun his needs as an animal, and as yet he must still, for security, look long on some portion of the earth as it was before he tampered with it.

By the time I reached the end of the book – twice – I no longer wanted to write like Cameron, Rafferty, Frayn or Parkinson. Instead, a single idea had coalesced in my scrambled brain: ‘I want to look long on some portion of the earth.’

It took

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Ring of Bright Water caught me off guard. Gavin Maxwell’s memorial to a year of his life shared with an otter and glorious secular hymn to the West Highland seaboard of Scotland hit me between the eyes, thumped me in the solar plexus, then threw a bucket of cold water over me. So I sat up and read it again.

I was about 20. I had been working as a trainee journalist since I was 16 in the epicentre of Scottish journalism which is Dundee, home to D. C. Thomson, and where I was born, grew up and lived for the first twenty-one years of my life. It was an upbringing as solidly East Coast and un-Highland as red sandstone cliffs and Arbroath smokies. But I had dipped a toe in West Highland waters on family holidays, and it’s fair to say that I craved immersion. I was idealistic, impressionable, addicted to an intoxicating broth of a fantasy Highland idyll and the dazzling journalism of such as James Cameron, John Rafferty, Michael Frayn and Michael Parkinson (and yes that Michael Frayn and Michael Parkinson; it was fifty-something years ago). I was ripe for exploitation by something life-defining. It would turn out to be Ring of Bright Water (1960), which I picked up in the first place only because I liked the title. By the time I had read the Foreword, in particular a passage I have read so often in the intervening decades that I know it by heart, I was smitten:
For I am convinced that man has suffered in his separation from the soil and from the other living creatures of the world; the evolution of his intellect has outrun his needs as an animal, and as yet he must still, for security, look long on some portion of the earth as it was before he tampered with it.
By the time I reached the end of the book – twice – I no longer wanted to write like Cameron, Rafferty, Frayn or Parkinson. Instead, a single idea had coalesced in my scrambled brain: ‘I want to look long on some portion of the earth.’ It took me another twenty years of newspaper life before circumstances permitted the required leap of faith and I sailed to St Kilda with a commission to write my first book. Now I have just written my fortieth, and my awareness of an unpayable debt to Ring of Bright Water only deepens. The book has travelled the world and sold 2 million copies. Generation after generation has been inspired by the possibilities it offers, by the dreams it ignites. Ask them what they think the book is about and most people will say ‘otters’, and of course it is, but Ring of Bright Water is two books in one, or perhaps even three. Yes, the word ‘otter’ appears in the first line of the first chapter, but it doesn’t appear again until p.74, more than a third of the way through the book. For the first third, Gavin Maxwell is setting the scene, telling stories and, especially, painting landscape pictures, for he was an accomplished artist and his book is written with a painter’s eye. By the time otters enter the narrative, you are captive in his landscape of unfurling wonder. Ring of Bright Water is what the poet and illustrator Margiad Evans called ‘earth writing’, exalted to literature, a book about one man’s relationship with a truly wild and beautiful landscape and the creatures that frequent it simply because they need to be there, and these (you will agree long before the end of the book) would have to include Gavin Maxwell. Then there are the creatures he added to the mix, some young greylag geese he more or less taught to fly; some otters. When Maxwell arrived at Sandaig on the West Highland coast opposite Skye in the late 1950s, he was a man who had suffered in his separation from the soil and the other living creatures of the world, who needed to look long at some portion of the earth as it was before he tampered with it. His first response to the place he called Camusfearna is like a rapidly executed watercolour: eyes flicker from house to islands . . . white sands to flat green pasture round the croft . . . wheeling gulls . . . pale satin sea . . . snow-topped Skye Cuillin. Then he begins to fill in the principal details. The result materializes before your eyes, beautiful and breathless and yes, painterly. Then the pace changes and it suddenly all comes to a dead stop at one of those remarkable writerly flourishes with which the whole book is peppered:
Even at a distance Camusfearna house wore that strange look that comes to dwellings after long disuse. It is indefinable, and it is not produced by obvious signs of neglect; Camusfearna had few slates missing from the roof and the windows were all intact, but the house wore that secretive expression that is in some way akin to a young girl’s face during her first pregnancy.
The intimacies of the landscape and Maxwell’s responses to it are revealed bit by bit. The third chapter is pivotal, for this is when the writing shifts up a gear and at the same time (it is surely no coincidence) you are left in no doubt that the character of the place is determined by water on the move. There are two pages about the waterfall that live with you for weeks after you finish reading, and just as Maxwell called it Camusfearna’s ‘soul’, you may consider that those two pages are the soul of Ring of Bright Water. But you may consider later that it has more than one soul. It is followed almost at once by three pages about seashells, which you might think excessive, but if you like your earth writing knee-deep in tidepools, you are sorry when the chapter ends, for it is a little masterclass you have just waded through. Maxwell introduces it thus:
There is a perpetual mystery and excitement in living on the seashore, which is in part a return to childhood and in part because for all of us the sea’s edge remains the edge of the unknown . . . The adult who retains wonder brings to his gaze some partial knowledge which can but increase it, and he brings, too, the eye of association and of symbolism, so that at the edge of the ocean he stands at the brink of his own unconscious.
Otters, when they finally move centre-stage, make a very low- profile entrance. In 1956 Gavin Maxwell had been in the marshes of southern Iraq with Wilfred Thesiger (a foray that would produce a quietist masterpiece of travel writing, A Reed Shaken by the Wind). The trip was at least in part an attempt to divert his mind from the death of his dog, a loss so profound that he vowed never to have another. With no preamble, Maxwell wrote:
By then it had crossed my mind, though with no great emphasis, that I should like to keep an otter instead of a dog, and that Camusfearna, ringed by water a stone’s throw from its door, would be an eminently suitable spot for this experiment. I mentioned this casually to Wilfred . . . and he, as casually, had replied that I had better get one in the Tigris marshes before I came home, for there they are as common as mosquitoes, and were often tamed by Arabs.
Near the end of his stay, and in the improbable setting of the Consulate-General in Basra (he was nothing if not well-connected), Maxwell returned to his room to find two Marsh Arabs squatting on the floor with a sack that ‘squirmed from time to time’ and a note from Thesiger that began ‘Here is your otter . . .’ ‘With the opening of that sack’, wrote Maxwell, ‘began a phase of my life that in the essential sense has not yet ended. And may, for all I know, not end before I do. It is, in effect, a thralldom to otters, an otter fixation . . .’ And so Mijbil – Mij – entered his life and heart, and thus were the seeds of literature sown and fertilized. The thirty pages that deal with Mij at Camusfearna are as brief a part of the book as the otter’s life in that landscape had been – barely a year, by which time he had taken to wandering widely and was killed in a ditch by a road-mender. But such is the quality of the writing in those few pages, so unlike anything else in the literature of the land before or since, that I believe it cemented the book’s reputation and won its millions of admirers. And perhaps that is the book’s second ‘soul’. Its essence is the relationship between a man and a wild animal, elevated to a pitch which most of us would have thought was im- possible. A kind of rainbow moment sets the writer’s seal on that rela- tionship. Mij had been missing overnight for the first time and Maxwell had feared the worst. He had searched all night and all the following day, and when Mij finally walked back into the house, the reunion had been boisterous and ecstatic. Then there was this:
I am aware that this scene of reunion, and the hours that for me had preceded it, must appear to many a reader little short of nauseous. I might write of it and subsequent events with a wry dishonesty, a negation of my feeling for that creature, which might disarm criticism, might forestall the accusation of sentimentality and slushiness to which I now lay myself open. There is, however, a certain obligation of honesty upon a writer, without which his words are worthless, and beyond that my feeling for animals that I adopt would, despite any dissimulation that I might essay, reveal itself as intense, even crucial. I knew by that time that Mij meant more to me than most human beings of my acquaintance, that I should miss his physical presence more than theirs, and I was not ashamed of it. In the penultimate analysis, perhaps, I knew that Mij trusted me more utterly than did any of my own kind, and so supplied a need that we are slow to admit.
There it is, Gavin Maxwell’s single most telling ‘for instance’ of that crucial sentiment in the Foreword, not so much about man- kind’s relationship with the soil (echoes of which are in almost every page), but rather about the other creatures of the earth, and especially about mankind’s own needs as an animal. Ring of Bright Water has a threefold legacy. First, it stands as a high-water mark in the literature of the land – whether Scotland or elsewhere. Second, it transformed the fortunes of otters throughout Britain. When it was written, otters were still widely regarded as vermin, which is unarguably one of the most obnoxious words in our language, and is shorthand for a concept that excuses the routine killing of wild creatures because they happen to be inconvenient for some perversion of land use. Ring of Bright Water established the otter as a creature worthy of our highest endeavours in the field of nature conservation and led directly to its legal protection. And third, permit me one final reference to the Foreword’s observation that man has suffered in his separation from the soil and the other creatures of the earth . . . Is that single idea not exactly what is at the heart of the ‘rewilding’ movement in Britain today? The option of looking on some portion of the earth as it was before we tampered with it is more or less lost to us now. But not a moment too soon, we have woken up to the possibilities of taking land that we ruined by tampering with it, and thought- fully tampering with it again, this time to serve nature’s ends rather than our own, so that it will once again resemble its former self. I never wanted to keep an otter, far less share my bed with one; but to write of a closer, hand-in-hand walk with nature, that seemed to me an enlightened task. More than anyone else, Gavin Maxwell taught me that.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 70 © Jim Crumley 2021


About the contributor

Jim Crumley is a Scottish nature writer. His newly completed quartet based on the seasons – The Nature of Autumn, . . . Winter, . . . Spring and . . . Summer – was published in 2020. He is also a columnist in The Scots Magazine.

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