You know how I don’t shut up about Miss Hargreaves? (Have you read it? It’s great.) Well, Hayley is (in a rather better mannered way) equally enthusiastic about Gavin Maxwell’s Ring of Bright Water. Since Hayley and I often enjoy the same books, I’ve been intending to read it for ages – but every copy I’ve stumbled across in charity shops has been rather ugly. I wish I’d seen the beautiful cover pictured. When Hayley lent me her copy (as part of a postal book group we’re both in) I was excited finally to read it.
Well, I say ‘excited’. There was a part of me that was nervous – because I rarely read non-fiction when it’s not about literature, and I have no particular interest in wildlife rearing. If it didn’t come with such a strong recommendation from Hayley, I doubt that I’d ever have considered reading it. And I would have missed out.
Gavin Maxwell doesn’t really structure Ring of Bright Water in a traditional beginning-middle-end sort of way, which I imagine the film adaptation probably does – it isn’t encircled by the life of any single animal, or his occupancy of his remote Scottish home, but instead meanders through many of Maxwell’s countryside adventures.
I’m going to concentrate on the ones which made Ring of Bright Water famous – the otters – although (cover aside) you wouldn’t have much of a clue that they were coming for the first section of the book, which looks at the flora and fauna of the middle of nowhere in Scotland, and such matters as whale fishing (Maxwell is strongly against, despite having run a shark fishery – there is a constant paradox between his love of his animals and his killing of animals). The only cohesion (and it is quite enough) is that it’s Maxwell’s opinions and voice, and connected with marine and rural life.
And then the otters come along.
The first otter only lives for a day or two, but after that comes Mij. He is really the star of Ring of Bright Water, and the high point in Maxwell’s affections. I can’t give any higher praise than to say that someone like me, interested in the animal kingdom chiefly when it concerns kittens, was entirely enamoured and captivated, and briefly considered whether it would be practical to get a pet otter.
Otters are extremely bad at doing nothing. That is to say that they cannot, as a dog does, lie still and awake; they are either asleep or entirely absorbed in play or other activity. If there is no acceptable toy, or if they are in a mood of frustration, they will, apparently with the utmost good humour, set about laying the land waste. There is, I am convinced, something positively provoking to an otter about order and tidiness in any form, and the greater the state of confusion that they can create about them the more contented they feel.
Er, maybe not. Maxwell sets out to tell you how incomparable the otter is as a pet – cheerful, companionable, spirited – and only slowly does he reveal that they are completely untameable, very destructive, and occasionally (if repentingly) violent.
But Mij is still a wonder – or, rather, Maxwell is a wonder for the way he tells his story. He is certainly a gifted and natural storyteller, and the reader is easily lulled into similar levels of affection towards Mij, and a complicit sympathy with Maxwell (and never for a moment what a novelist would subtly ask – that we would pity the loner, or wonder at his isolation.)
I don’t want to spoil the high-jinks (yes, high-jinks – and tomfoolery, mark you) of the book, and I don’t think I can capture Maxwell’s tone – so I will give my usual proviso for books I didn’t expect to enjoy so much: read it even if you don’t think you’ll like it! (And if David Attenborough is your bag, then you’ll probably love it even more.)
It is a beautiful book, for the rhythm and balance of its prose alone, quite apart from the topic or the setting. I’m really pleased that, years down the line, I’ve finally taken up Hayley’s recommendation – even if she had to lend Ring of Bright Water to me to make that happen.