BOOK REVIEW / My family and otter animals: 'Gavin Maxwell: A Life' - Douglas Botting: HarperCollins, 22.50

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GAVIN MAXWELL was three months old when his father was killed in the First World War. ''I kept Gavin very much as the child of my anguish,' declared his mother. Melancholy pervaded his life, disappointment ended all his endeavours, but his wild, perverse spirit sustained him, driving him headlong into adventures of ever- increasing eccentricity. One of his final projects was to set up a breeding colony of eider ducks on a Hebridean island furnished with children's windmills, tinkling bells, flag bunting and little tents of pine branches.

Birds were his first love. His early childhood was spent on the moors of his family's estate in Galloway, collecting and studying all manner of flora and fauna. By the time he was sent to boarding school he had met only 10 children, including his three siblings, and he found his new life intolerable. 'You must try to be like other people,' they told him. His education fizzled out when he became seriously ill at the age of 16; from then on he was plagued by ill- health. This prevented him serving overseas in the war; stationed in the Highlands, he became an instructor in the SOE and attracted the notice of the medical officer as a 'creative psychopath'. He enraged his superiors by asking for compassionate leave when his pet flamingos flew out to sea, but he also made a number of close and lasting friends.

After the war he set up a shark-fishing business based on the island of Soay, attracted by adventure rather than commerce: 'We sailed into a dream sea in the dark and the eerie phosphorescence, towed by the wounded shark far below.' Eventually his impracticality and total lack of business sense obliged him to sell up and seek some new way of earning money. In turn he became a portrait painter, a poet, a racing driver at Silverstone and an explorer. His poems were printed in the New Statesman and in 1952 his first prose book, Harpoon at a Venture, established him at once as a brilliant descriptive writer and a cult figure, to some the White Knight, to others Captain Ahab, forever in pursuit of the elusive indefinable.

This myth had some truth, but there were other sides to Maxwell, most of them conflicting. His publishers found him the most tiresome author they had ever dealt with: he was constantly demanding royalties and advances which would be swallowed immediately by his latest series of debts. At the same time he claimed that money was of no real importance to him. He could be wildly generous and absurdly mean. He was reclusive by nature but he found solitude unbearable. He persuaded Wilfred Thesiger to take him on an exploration of the marshlands of Iraq; here he found himself extraordinarily, mystically happy in a desolation of water and sky which seemed to him to exist outside time and space. Thesiger's view of his comapanion was more prosaic: 'Dead baggage,' he commented. And when Maxwell's baby otter, the first of many, died, the extravagance of his grief seemed merely lunatic to Thesiger: 'He should be locked up.'

But now began the lifelong thraldom to otters. Accompanied by a second marsh otter, Maxwell returned to Britain and moved into the house in the Western Highlands which he called Camusfearna, the centre of his dream kingdom by the sea. Although he still travelled, notably to Sicily and to Morocco in search of material for further books, the demands of otters gradually dominated his life. He was no zoologist: his attitude to his animals was entirely anthropomorphic. The otters had their bedrooms, their personal assistants, their crates of eels dispatched from London.

The struggle to support them and Maxwell's series of huge and powerful cars forced him into continuous writing, a task he found loathsome. All his books were rapturously received by the critics, but until he wrote A Ring of Bright Water he earned little money from them. This book made him rich, albeit temporarily, but it also destroyed the private world he had constructed with such labour; it brought literally hundreds of visitors to Camusfearna and immersed Maxwell in a ceaseless whirl of interviews, lectures and lurid publicity. Disasters, previously regular, now occurred constantly and with accumulating seriousness, until the final night when the entire house burnt down. Two years later Maxwell was dead from cancer. His ashes were buried in the rubble of Camusfearna.

Douglas Botting tells his story vividly, with a few lapses into journalese. He is himself an explorer and writer who shares many of Maxwell's interests, particularly his intense love for northern landscapes. Maxwell emerges as a fascinating, difficult and complex man who wrought his own doom and involved many others in it, testing the loyalty of friends to the limit of endurance. They are the quiet heroes of this book, which reads more like a novel than a biography, scattered as it is with poltergeists, ghouls and a sorceress in the unexpected form of Kathleen Raine. Maxwell's life itself is so extraordinary that these presences seem perfectly appropriate - and there are heavenly photographs of otters.