A centenary pilgrimage to the world of Gavin MaxwellFeb 2, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 20 • By SARA LODGE
It is autumn and I am making a pilgrimage by sea to a literary gravestone. On my left rise the primeval, groined, and gullied mountains of Skye; on my right is the wild coast of Knoydart, one of the least populated regions of western Scotland. The colors of the land in this season are heart-stoppingly beautiful. Bracken and birch paint the hills gold, ochre, and saddle-brown; the heather is purple as a winter dusk. Light falls differently in this part of the world, where the air is free of particulate matter. It sweeps fast over the knotted ridges of the mountains in dramatic, cloud-shadowed patterns: Sunlight arrows through the heavens like a silver shaft, picking out a single inlet and scattering its water with diamonds.
I am here in search of one particular cove that lies by a chain of tiny islands to the east of the Sound of Sleat, this stretch of sea, which is now flat as a mirror but can roil like an angry dragon. We drop anchor and launch a small dinghy, which we paddle to shore. The water is so clear that I can see tiny crabs on the sea floor, along with many different kinds of pebble—black mica, white and rose-banded quartz—rain-blue mussels, and whelks as big as my hand. We step ashore into absolute quiet, except for the syncopated shush of the waves.
This is Sandaig Bay, perhaps, after Walden Pond, the most famous retreat of any writer who sought to shun the busy haunts of men and seek solace alone in nature. This is where Gavin Maxwell (1914-1969) lived in a cottage and wrote Ring of Bright Water (1959), a book about finding freedom by living with a pet otter: an otter whose mischievous, irrepressible joy in its environment captivated millions of readers.
As we scramble up the beach, the full panorama of the view Maxwell enjoyed becomes apparent. The south-facing bay is like a theater stage, with the whole Sound of Sleat for its audience and the mountains of Knoydart and Skye as its wings. All his life, Maxwell was drawn to drama: fast cars, rough terrain, and narrow squeaks. His writing has a precise physical alertness that excites attention, as in the very first line of Ring of Bright Water:
I sit in a pitch-pine paneled kitchen-living-room, with an otter asleep upon its back among the cushions on the sofa, forepaws in the air, and with the expression of tightly shut concentration that very small babies wear in sleep.
Alas, Maxwell’s cottage no longer exists: It burned down in 1968, killing Edal, one of the otters he loved. But the “ring of bright water,” which consists of sea on one side and a freshwater stream that leaps downhill through a series of waterfalls on the other, remains. And there are two small memorial stones, one to Maxwell and one commemorating Edal, both of which are covered in shells and pebbles wayfarers have gathered from the shore.
Maxwell still attracts visitors. Yet, beyond his association with otters, he is not well known. His 10 other books of political writing, travelogue, and memoir are neglected. This past year, the centenary of his birth, offered an opportunity to remember a fascinating character whose life was galvanized by contradiction.
Maxwell was born into both privilege and loss. He was an aristocrat, a grandson of the duke of Northumberland, and could trace his lineage back to William the Conqueror. (He was also distantly related to Lord Byron.) He grew up on a rambling baronial estate at Monreith in the Scottish lowlands and was able to fulfill the dream of many children: to roam at liberty among hundreds of acres of land filled with birds, animals, and plants that he could collect as specimens—live or dead.
However, his officer father was killed in 1914 in one of the early battles of World War I. Gavin’s birth occurred three months before this tragedy, and the shadow of his father’s uniform hanging in the hall likely contributed to Maxwell’s need to excel at conventionally masculine pursuits: He was a crack shot and a rugged outdoorsman. Meanwhile, his mother’s cosseting and determination that her children should be raised in the moral segregation of her strict Catholic Apostolic faith fostered a strain of solitude and sensitivity that made him instinctively withdraw from the demands of urban life.
What is slang, and where does it come from? Nov 10, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 09 • By SARA LODGE
Charlotte Brontë liked to let her hair down linguistically from time to time. In an unpublished piece of early fiction, she imagines a scene at a horse race in which the owner of the defeated favorite suspects that his horse was doped. Ned Laury introduces an underworld informer, Jerry Sneak—the man who interfered with the horse—but demands: “Who’ll provide the stumpy, the blunt, the cash as it were to pay for the liquor that cousin of mine will require before he peaches?”
Scots debate independence Sep 1, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 47 • By SARA LODGE
If at first you don’t secede, try, try again. This might be the motto of Alex Salmond’s Scottish National party, which since 1934 has been advocating the proposition that Scotland should be an independent country, governed not from London but from Edinburgh and able to make its own policy decisions about defense, immigration, taxation, and spending. On September 18, Scots will finally face a referendum about their future.
The new indoor theater at Shakespeare’s GlobeJun 30, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 40 • By SARA LODGE
There is a new reason to visit London. It is wooden, but lively. Old, but new. Shadowy, but luminous. The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is a reconstruction of what an indoor theater might have looked and felt like around 1600, when Shakespeare was 36 and at the height of his career as an actor, theatrical entrepreneur, and dramatist.
Celebrating the art (and life) of Thomas Bewick. May 12, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 33 • By SARA LODGE
When we first meet Jane Eyre in Charlotte Brontë’s classic novel, she is hiding behind the curtains reading a forbidden book that transports her to the polar tundra:
The English version of civility. Feb 24, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 23 • By SARA LODGE
Two truths tend to strike people around middle age: Money buys less than it once did, and manners are in decline.
Victorian women detectives in life and literature.Dec 2, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 12 • By SARA LODGE
The investigator is chasing a suspect, who has just disappeared through a secret trapdoor. Breathlessly, the private dick follows the masked figure down a ladder into a dark passageway: It turns out to lead from the Belgravia mansion into the vault of a nearby bank. Our hero can see the thief in the act of grabbing the gold and making off—but the trapdoor closes behind the crook, leaving the detective unable to leave the crime scene and about to be apprehended by security guards.
Oh, to be in Holland, now that August’s there . . . Aug 12, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 45 • By SARA LODGE
As my plane drops toward Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport, I can see what look like multiple alternative runways: broad pink, blue, and yellow strips that turn the fields around the coast into the flags of an imaginary nation. They are bands of flowers—tulips, hyacinths, and daffodils—and the plane rushes towards them like an overstimulated bee.
The Chelsea Flower Show celebrates its centennial. Jun 17, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 38 • By SARA LODGE
In his short story “The Occasional Garden,” Saki pinpoints a subject dear to the British heart, but also key to its social anxieties. Elinor Rapsley is about to receive a lunch visit from a woman whom she detests, Gwenda Pottingdon. Gwenda’s garden is the envy of the neighborhood; Elinor’s is a barren wasteland. Gwenda is coming on purpose to crow over Elinor’s pathetic pansies while describing her own rare and sumptuous roses.
The elder brother of Charles I, in pictures and memory.Feb 4, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 20 • By SARA LODGE
Henry IX is one of the most interesting monarchs Britain never had.
‘You’re at the Transylvania station at a quarter to four . . .’ Apr 5, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 28 • By SARA LODGE
Transylvania has, for centuries, conjured images of wildness and danger.
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