Saturday, April 23, 2005

Remember Ring of Bright Water?

'Ring of Bright Water', the sentimental 1969 movie classic about one man and his otter Mij. Did you cry buckets over this film when you were a kid? I did too. Read on to find out why this film is so strangely upsetting.

By the way I thought this longish post was quite fitting, as I am off to the Highlands & Islands of Scotland in a few hours. That's my excuse anyway. Hoots!

Remember Mij the Otter?

Ring of Bright Water is an adaptation of Scottish author Gavin Maxwell’s autobiographical classic, about a lonely man's relationship with a wild otter. Released in 1969 (and rereleased this summer on DVD), the movie starred Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers from the African lion epic Born Free; it was directed by Jack Couffer, who did the Born Free sequel, as well as Jonathan Livingston Seagull.

I was seven years old, and my sister ten, when my mother took us to see this film at the local 70s fleapit. Mostly, we loved it. We were thrilled by the playfulness of the otter; we delighted in the scenes where Mij the otter misbehaves: on a fight to London, on a night train to Scotland. Indeed we gurgled quite happily until the final scenes of the film, when, quite suddenly, Mij the otter is killed by a labourer: sliced in half with a spade.

My sister and I stared at the cinema screen, stunned. When it became apparent Mij wasn't coming back, that they really had just killed him, we started crying, really sobbing. My mother urgently hustled us out of the Odeon, along with lots of other mothers with lots of other crying children, but outside, in the car, and all the way home, my sister and I continued to howl. We were wholly inconsolable; it took a good few days for us to calm down. Eventually we seemed to get over it; to move on.

But in a way I don’t think I ever moved on. As with many of my thirty-something, forty-something friends, the emotions induced by Ring of Bright Water remain with me; more than thirty years later I can still taste the bitter shock of my hot infant tears. So how can that be? How can a simple kids’ film do this?

Watching the Ring DVD now, it is not too hard to see, on the face of it, what so upset me as a seven year old. The film is sweet and pretty sentimental: consequently the cruel death of Mij at the end comes as a serious shock.

Yet I don’t think it is just this that makes the Ring of Bright Water story so potent. For a proper answer I think we have to look a bit deeper, into the poignant book behind the film; into the peculiar life of its very unusual author.

According to the wise and compelling authorised biography by Douglas Botting, Gavin Maxwell was a troubled man with a troubled background. Born into the Anglo-Scottish aristocracy in 1914 (his grandfather was the Duke of Northumberland) Maxwell nonetheless felt excluded, for many reasons.

Chief amongst these was Maxwell’s bisexuality. The roots of this are obscure: we know that Maxwell’s father died in the First World War, before the boy knew him; we also know that Maxwell’s mother was, by contrast, only too close, sharing her bed with young Gavin until he was nine. Understandably, Maxwell grew up a little different. These eccentricities were compounded when Maxwell’s mother dispatched her youngest son to a succession of dismal boarding schools.The vulnerably dependant Maxwell reacted by falling desperately ill; further periods of isolated convalescence conclusively moulded the boy into a snobbish, boozy, charming, manipulative, chain-smoking, clever, manic-depressive gay loner.

Not a promisingly stable beginning. Gavin Maxwell seemed slated for an early death, probably on the road - he was fond of drunkenly racing his various sports cars around Britain at up to 150 mph. The saving grace was arguably Maxwell’s love and understanding of the natural world, born of his upbringing on a traditional Scottish shooting and fishing estate. Whenever the young Maxwell could get away from university at Oxford, or the pubs and parties of London, he did: by returning to the moors and lochs of the north. There he knew he could be relatively happy.

It was, nonetheless, a pretty aimless existence, and it was brought to an unlamented end by the Second World War, when Maxwell was made an officer in the Special Operations Executive, training operatives in the remote Scottish peninsula of Knoydart. Maxwell loved this job, mainly because he was in his beloved Hebrides; an added bonus of Maxwel's assignment was that it gave him an idea for his next, post-war role. Inspired by the magnificent sight of some basking sharks off Knoydart, Maxwell left the victorious British army, to fund and run a small shark-fishing industry, on the island of Soay near Skye.

After five years, the enterprise failed, perhaps unsurprisingly. At a loss for what to do next - and feeling the financial pinch - Maxwell decided to put all the recent raw experience, and all those tall sharking tales, into his first book. It was called Harpoon At A Venture, and with its energy and lyricism, and dramatic Hebridean background, it was an immediate best-seller.

The slender blond aristocrat was now a literary celeb. Soon he was travelling the globe, writing about Morocco, Sicily, Arabia. It was in the last place that Maxwell met the love of his life. The year was 1956. The author was boating the marshes near Basra when he came across an abandoned baby otter. With his instinctive gift for animals (Maxwell was apparently able to call birds from the trees), Maxwell swiftly befriended the creature. Perhaps he saw something of himself in the little otter’s inquisitive, mercurial loneliness. For days the baby otter sheltered in the warmth of Maxwell’s jacket. Then it died.

Maxwell was heartbroken, but his lifelong passion for otters was just beginning. Soon he had acquired a new Asian otter: Mijbil, ‘Mij’ for short. Delighted with this new charge, Maxwell opted to take the playful, wilful Mij from Basra to Cairo, and from there all the way to London and Scotland. It was this remarkable and hair-raising journey that became the famous scenes in the eventual movie.

Despite their mishaps, the pair safely attained their new home. This was a house situated on the wildest part of the Knoydart peninsula, devoid of electricity or telephone, at least an hour’s hike from the next human being. In his books Maxwell called the house ‘Camusfearna’ (Gaelic for ‘bay of alders’), in reality it was called Sandaig, and it was paradise for otters - and for a man hoping to keep otters. There was a waterfall at the back, two burns either side, a ribbon of rabbity dune, and a stretch of private coastline endowed with seals, eider ducks, rorqual whales, and lots of fish.

For one long glorious Hebridean summer Gavin Maxwell lived totally alone with what was essentially a wild animal. This was not a human/pet relationship, but a friendship, a partnership, perhaps even a kind of love affair: witnesses speak of Maxwell rolling about on the floor with Mij, man mewing rhapsodically to otter.

The eccentric idyll couldn’t last: human relationships intervened. Although the adult Maxwell had largely restricted himself to casual gay flings, he was also prone to intense, if platonic, heterosexual affairs. One was with the poetess Kathleen Raine, who sometimes came to stay at Sandaig. In the spring of 1957, Maxwell was obliged by business to leave Raine alone at Sandaig, with Mijbil. A few days later Raine lost track of Mij. The wandering otter was killed by a roadmender that same afternoon, in a ditch near Glenelg.

From that horrifying moment, it is fair to say that Gavin Maxwell fell out with Fate. Disaster seemed to pile on disaster. The spurned Raine famously cursed the mourning Maxwell from under a Sandaig rowan tree. Maxwell acquired more otters, but they turned on their keeper - and started attacking Maxwell’s friends and helpers, one almost fatally. In the next years Maxwell took a wife, but there were no children. Not long after this embarrassingly brief marriage, Maxwell crashed a car: the accident left him semi-crippled.

Even Maxwell’s great literary success came at an onerous price. When, in 1960, he published the account of his happy yet tragic time with Mij, Ring of Bright Water (the phrase was Raine’s, a description of the two burns that circled Sandaig) he sold two million copies, making him the biggest selling author in the world. But this fame meant fans, and fans meant that Sandaig’s once splendid isolation was compromised by endless visitors. The final blow came when Sandaig burned down in October 1968. A few months later the weary Maxwell yielded, with dignity, to lung cancer; he lived just long enough to applaud the success of the film adaptation of the famous book.

So what does this poignant and unusual life-story tell us about the strange potency of Ring of Bright Water?

A few years ago a friend of mine bought a tiny island once owned by Maxwell. It is called Eilean Sionnach, and it is just off Skye. It also looks directly over the sea to Sandaig, to ‘Camusfearna’. When I was invited up to this sublime yet troubling place (nothing had prepared me for the piercing beauty of the Inner Hebrides) I took the opportunity to actually read the book of Ring of Bright Water for the first time.

It was there, immersed in Maxwell’s lyrical but masculine prose, with the slate-blue waters of the ‘bay of alders’ visible from my very window, that I realised why this tale, and the movie made from it, has so much resonance. Using the sadness and loneliness of his own life, and the haunting beauty of the Scottish highlands and islands, Maxwell created a new version of the Fall. Through his bittersweet experience with Mij, he had came to see that human beings are creatures in exile, and this was what he allegorically wrote about in Ring: our sense of being somehow abandoned, our savage yearning to be reunited in Eden, the sense of dark loss that permeates the frail beauty of this world.

Far-fetched? Pretentious? Maybe, yet I am sure it was intimations of these very adult ideas that were stirred in my seven year old’s mind, way back in 1970 - and also in the minds of thousands of other children at about the same time. And that is why Ring of Bright Water was one of the most disturbing children's films of all time.

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Dave said...

A billiant summation of a brilliant book written by a man whose pain and brilliance I often refer to.

Anonymous said...

I read the trilogy book which is the whole otter sarga it had a huge effect on me. Im glad Im not alone


seb said...

A brilliant and poignant piece of writing truly fitting
Living on yhe West coast of Scotland I see otters frequently
and always reminded of that extrodinary man

dirtywhitecandy said...

You've probably long ago forgotten you wrote this post, but hopping about the internet on a rainy Saturday in search of Maxwell links, I found it. Love his writing, loved reading your tribute. Deeply envious that you have read ROBW in situ. I read a Maxwell book, or one of the many great books about him, every few years.
Saw your biog in the top corner. Did you ever write that novel?

carl of australia said...

This is a brilliant essay which left me in tears. I first read "Ring of Bright Water" as an unhappy and troubled adolescent who had been forced to move from a much loved and isolated fishing village to a philistine school, and it had a huge impact upon me; an impact that has lsated some 50+ years.

Anonymous said...

Thank G** I did not see this movie growing up. I have the childhood scars of Bambi, Dumbo, Old Yeller, and even this film I cannot find anything on, but has thei little Halem black kid feeding a stray cat. At the end these little bastards show up, start trouble, and the cat runs out into the city street and dies under the wheels of a f'ing car. Why put this stuff in kids movies? You sons of bi***es - you broke our hearts. Damn it.

Anonymous said...

Are you sure Camusfearna was on Knoydart?

Fletcher said...

No, there is a Sandaig on Knoydart, but not THE Sandaig which is a few miles up the coast just south of Glenelg. Both are astonishingly beautiful spots.
I also saw the film as a child when it first came out, so I imagine in 1969. It had a huge influence on me also, to the extent that I went to live on the Knoydart Peninsula for some time and perhaps will return there one day.

Anonymous said...

For anyone who would like to know more about Gavin Maxwell, his books and books by other people who knew him well, there is now a Facbook Group "The Gavin Maxwell Society." New members welcome!

Julia Stephenson said...

I had just started reading Ring of Bright Water and was loving it but knowing the story as I do and knowing I was soon coming to the time when the beloved otter was going to die, I had to shelve the book as it was just too upsetting to go on. Those of us who have lost a beloved pet will find it brings back tragic memories. None the less, I am resolved to find out more about Gavin Maxwell's fascinating life story.

Anonymous said...

I am grateful to you for posting your perceptive and haunting essay.
Your interpretation of the author's own loss as analogous to the fall was beautifully written.

My thanks, though, come from a more personal place. My six year old heart was devastated by the murder of the enchanting otter. I felt betrayed by the entire world of grownups for exposing me to such brutality. To this day I cannot think about it without getting choked up.

I have always tried to slam the doors of this trauma shut to avoid being flooded with sorrow. This strategy fails, though, because it is insight, not isolation, that is called for.

It was so helpful to have my personal feelings contextualized within the universal and primal themes of love and innocence lost.

Luckily, as adults, we are able to use our intellect to balance our emotions. Thanks for that helping me to do that!

Anonymous said...

I haven't read the book but I remember the anger about the film and not being able to watch it on TV because the film was "bad" according to my mum.

In Wikipedia it says:
"However, Kathleen Raine's relationship with Maxwell deteriorated after 1956 when she indirectly caused the death of Mijbil"

So did the real Mij really die in the same way? Even in the 50s you couldn't just go around killing animals. The labourer would have been prosecuted and if this is meant to be a semi autobiographical film they depicted cruelty to animals (without consequences to the perpretator) but they couldn't depict homosexuality in the film because it was illegal in the UK until 1967. Totally dumb ending for a film that should have been better.

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