Douglas Botting was a trusted friend of Gavin Maxwell in the last 12 years of his life and a fellow explorer-traveller-writer, so was uniquely equipped to understand both the creative and destructive demons that drove him. He has written an empathetic study of a man, which reads like the most bizarre and eccentric adventure story. Here he relates encountering Maxwell for the first time.
The first time I met Gavin Maxwell – poet, painter, shark-hunter, naturalist, traveller, secret agent and aristocratic opter-out – was a shock. ‘Come round for a drink,’ he had said over the phone. ‘Say, about tea time? Take the bus up the King’s Road. Get off just before the World’s End and double back. The square is on your left, between the road and the river. Paultons Square. Number 9.’
I found the house without difficulty, a tall, narrow-fronted terrace house in a large, tree-filled square on the furthest frontier of fashionable Chelsea. There were two bell pushes by the front door: the lower one was labelled ‘G. Maxwell’, the upper one ‘K. Raine’. I pushed the lower one and waited. Nobody came, and after a minute or two I went back to the pavement and leaned over the railings to try and peer through the front window. Behind the net curtain I could make out nothing but a brightly lit glass fishtank standing waterless and fishless on the windowsill. Inside the tank I could see the outline of what I took to be a large stuffed lizard, a sort of dragon in miniature, about a foot and a half long, with a tawny coloured, scaly skin. As I stared transfixed at this Jurassic apparition I saw that it was not stuffed after all but very much alive, for suddenly a long tongue like a snake’s flickered out of its mouth, snatched at an insect that looked like a grasshopper, then just as suddenly retracted. My attention was instantly distracted from this startling reptile by a flash of iridescent wings and a frantic fluttering of brilliant electric-blue and green feathers in the upper window pane. Some kind of tropical bird, wings beating furiously like a humming bird, hovered momentarily behind the glass, then swooped away and was lost from view in the darkness of the room’s interior.
At least the house was inhabited, I decided; no one could stray for long from a menagerie as exotic as this. I went back to the door, rang the upper bell and waited again. After a minute or two the door was pulled fractionally ajar. A keen, wary face appeared cautiously from around the door, eyeing me guardedly with a shy half-smile as I stood there. Gavin Maxwell was forty-three then, in the autumn of 1957, but to me he looked far older, with a face lean and lined and wrinkled as though he had spent a lifetime in the desert. His pale blue eyes stared at me quizzically from under a mop of flaxen hair.
‘Gavin Maxwell?’ I asked. ‘I’m sorry I’m late. If I am late. I must have pushed the wrong bell.’
‘You’re not late,’ he answered. ‘You’re early.’ He spoke with a carefully modulated deepish tenor voice, enunciating his words positively, even authoritatively.
‘I heard the doorbell the first time,’ he went on. ‘I was just checking you out through my binoculars from the other end of the room. Come in and have a whisky. After all, it is tea time.’
He ushered me in. The sitting room ran the whole width of the house from front to back. It was clearly no ordinary sitting room. It was ornate, baroque, even eccentric. Partly this was due to the creatures that inhabited it – the dozen or so tropical tanager birds that fluttered freely around the furniture, the giant Saharan monitor lizard I had already seen skulking in its glass case by the window. Partly it was the opulence of the furnishings – the antique aquamarine tapestry hanging from one wall, the magnificent ormolu clock, the tall lampstand of clear fluted glass, the gilded mirror and luxurious velvet curtains. Partly also it was the eclectic assortment of weaponry that was dotted about the room – the chrome-nickel whaling harpoons and curved Arab daggers with jewelled hilts that hung from the walls, and the brace of expensive-looking hunting guns that stood in a corner. A portrait in oils of an attractive, long-haired blonde young woman, painted by Maxwell himself, hung above a mantelpiece. With an expression of faint sensual bemusement she stared across the room towards a life-size ancient Roman terracotta phallus on top of the bookcase opposite.
When Maxwell went out of the room to fetch water for the whisky I cast a quick eye over the titles in the bookcase. They were a random collection. Some were foreign editions of his own works – one about his shark-hunting venture, another about a Sicilian outlaw and bandit, a third about his travels in the Iraq marshes. Travel books by other authors rubbed covers with volumes on zoology and ornithology, works by Freud on psychoanalysis and Havelock Ellis on the psychology of sex, a book about Salvador Dali, a book by Salvador Dali, and various specialist works including an illustrated monograph on the anatomy of the female human pudenda and a police textbook on forensic medicine and murder in all its forms. When Maxwell came back into the room he said: ‘I had to sell most of my books when I was virtually bankrupted after my shark-hunting business failed. I lost almost everything, my inheritance, the lot. This is all that’s left.’
He sat me down, poured me half a pint of Scotch, opened the drawer of an escritoire, took out a small, ivory-handled pistol and without a word clapped it to my right temple and pulled the trigger.
‘You blinked!’ he cried, laying the pistol down. ‘You’re quite obviously not a born killer.’