Reed Shaken by the Wind (Maxwell)

Author Bio
Birth—July 15, 1914
Where—near Port William, Wigtownshire, Scotland, UK
Death—September 7, 1968
Where—Island of Eileen Ban near Kyle of Lochalsh, Scotland
Education—Oxford University

Maxwell’s schooling, a succession of disasters all the way up to his time at Oxford, gave him a lifelong sympathy for the despised and oppressed. Having already proved himself a loner and a hardy traveller in the Arctic with Peter Scott, he was ideal material for covert operations in the Second World War. He served in the Special Operations Executive, charged with training operatives who would be sent behind enemy lines on missions of sabotage.

It was in this capacity that he spent some time on the west coast of Scotland, where he returned after the war to buy Soay, a small island off Skye and the setting for his first business, a shark fishery, which in turn formed the basis for his first book Harpoon at a Venture (1952). He tried his hand at freelance journalism and painting, and wrote two books about Sicily, God Protect Me from My Friends (1956) and The Ten Pains of Death (1959). In between these projects he took the journey to the Middle East with his friend, the veteran traveller Wilfred Thesiger, which would result in A Reed Shaken by the Wind (1957). Here his exceptional talent was revealed for the first time.

On his return from Iraq he moved into his new Scottish home at Camusfearna, and began to study the otters he had acquired on his journey through the marshes, which culminated in the publication of Ring of Bright Water (1960). With the worldwide success of this tale, and the subsequent film, Camusfearna became a wildlife preserve with a collection of otters at its heart. The Otters Tale (1962), and The Rocks Remain (1963) continue the narrative of a passionate but accident-prone naturalist on the west coast of Scotland.

Maxwell travelled to Morocco several times over the course of the 1960s, researching his history, Lords of the Atlas, which appeared in 1966. This travel book—part history, part investigative journalism, part romance—studied the Berber dynasty, the Glaoui, that acted as regents of southern Morocco for the French colonial power. It became one of the bibles of British orientalism in the late twentieth century and a fitting swan-song to Maxwell’s oeuvre.

Douglas Botting’s definitive 1993 biography, Gavin Maxwell, A Life tells of the ups and downs of Maxwell’s emotional life—possibly affected by an inherited form of manic-depression. While Gavin loved and even married women (the poet Kathleen Raine and Lavinia Renton) he was primarily homosexual. (From the publisher.)

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