Sunday, March 11, 2012

Harpoon At A Venture - Gavin Maxwell

On Thursday I was in London for the  Penguin bloggers evening. This is a rare treat for me, train fares are prohibitive, and work hours have to be negotiated but this particular evening was to tempting to miss. One of the unexpected highlights was a conversation with Robert Macfarlane*, I liked 'The Wild Places' which I read long enough ago to not remember much about, and am quietly excited about his new book 'The Old Ways' (and only partly because I managed to grab a proof copy). What was really exciting though was finding that we were both very enthusiastic about Maxwell's 'Harpoon At A Venture', I've never met anyone else who's ever read it, much less loved it before and yet this is a book that deserves classic status quite as much as (if not more than) 'Ring of Bright Water'.

I've been talking about 'Harpoon At A Venture' a bit recently which made me realise it's years since I last read it and a re-visit was long overdue. When I first found this book I was in my early teens and read it as a straight adventure story, one that was particularly attractive because it was set on the west coast. Reading it this time I was surprised by how big a role the war and it's aftermath play. It all starts in an air raid in 1940, the battle of Britain is at it's height and Maxwell is stationed with 2 other officers and 200 men near the Blackwall tunnel and East India Docks. They think their moment has come one night but the bomb fails to explode, out in the crisp autumn dawn after the all clear he finds the bomb in a churchyard where he realises the crypt is being used as a shelter, opening the doors he's "hit by a stifling wave of air so noisome that I retched even at its first impact. The temperature was that of a Kew hothouse, the stench indescribable...One hundred and twelve people had been in that airless crypt for seven hours." The people in the crypt, which has become a cesspit during its occupation, are in no hurry to be disturbed, nothing has ever made the blitz seem more horrible or real to me than that description (much of which I've left out). 

Later on, after a disconcerting (for the reader) encounter with a naked guardsman in the showers, Maxwell and a friend daydream about buying Hebridean islands after the war as suitably clean and fresh alternatives to the rubble and filth of London. It's an idea that stays with him and as the war ends he negotiates to buy Soay. This is where the problems begin, for Maxwell realises from the beginning that a life of quiet retirement won't do - peacetime is dull - Soay needs a project. A chance encounter with a basking shark seems to give the answer, and it's a mark of how good a story teller Maxwell is that when you find his reaction to the shark is to shoot 300 rounds into it you're still with him. This is the start of a mission to kill a shark (the 300 rounds don't do it) and the birth of the shark fishery plan.

What follows is a chase that the sharks win again and again, until finally they succeed and catch one. For Maxwell and his crew it seems to be as much about the thrill of the chase as the catch which is perhaps why in planning terms they mess up again and again. By the time 'Harpoon At A Venture' was written he can admit that failure was almost guaranteed from the beginning of an under capitalised scheme where nobody had a clue what they were doing. It took 5 years for that to really become clear during which time Maxwell lost everything (though almost miraculously it seems he managed to protect the investment of others.)

There are echo's of that first dockland scene - a beach on Scalpay is transformed into a charnel house of dismembered sharks, the sea red with blood but this is as nothing to the contamination of Soay. The factory fails to work efficiently, the harbour fills with scum and carrion - none of the clean escapism planned in 1940, and worst of all a brine tank is tainted. Unfortunately it contained 16 tonnes of shark flesh.
 "For a wave of air so noisome, so active, and evil, it is difficult to find comparison...Ammonia, dense, suffocating, and almost visible...the smell of the Blackwall crypt seven years before was no more than a pale presage of what my illusory Island of Avalon had to offer me now... It was alive, heaving, seething, an obscene sea such as Brueghel might have conceived, alive as the sanctuary of Beelzebub himself, with a million million grubs, twisting, turning, writhing, as though beneath that surface layer of putrescence were the struggling bodies of all the wounded but resurrected dragons that we had attacked and that had escaped us." 

Despite the business failure though there is success of a sort here, it comes in the form of high adventure, life and death struggles with both the sharks and the elements, and escape from austerity Britain. There is a heartbreaking letter from a boy of 22 who finds himself trapped in a marriage to a woman he neither loves or is loved by - he's willing to throw his life savings into the shark venture in return for a job and escape.

As a piece of nature writing it's worth remembering that almost nothing was known about Basking Sharks before the Soay project - scientifically something important came out of this mess. the Hebrides in all there stark, stripped back beauty, and especially its seas are alive on the page. There are continual observations of birds and beasts of every sort, meticulous and poetic at the same time. There is also the conundrum of how to live in and off a landscape without destroying it - a question we still have no satisfactory answer for. It's a tremendous book whichever way you look at it and badly needs to be bought back into print - not least because my copy has now started to fall apart and wants replacing.

*I wish I'd taken notes when I talked to him although that would probably have been a bit off putting... A lot of books were mentioned some of which I remember, some of which I can't quite bring to mind, all sounded interesting and would have born further investigation. Still, the list I have is quite long enough to be going on with and will inevitably lead to yet more books so all is not lost. 


  1. Just found your review, as I was getting ready to publish my own short post regarding it, and was looking for a link to a more detailed account of this book. I completely agree; this book was intensely captivating, though the subject matter at first had me seriously uneasy - killing the placid basking shark. What won me over was Maxwell's descriptions of the prehistoric splendour of the creatures - his own term - and the sense that he rather wishes he'd never started the whole affair, though he forges ahead all full of bullheaded machismo, trying to sort out the practicalities of the harpoon guns and the logistics of actually handling the massive sharks once they're caught. Unthinkable in many ways to us today, though the same thing still goes on, of course - does a hooked tuna or a gillnet-caught salmon differ any in individual suffering from a huge basking shark? Well, perhaps better not even go there...

    1. I can't say how much this comment delights me, this book means a lot to me (it may well be my favourite, not for the subject matter but for something in the writing). I think given when it was written it's possible to overlook the slaughtering of innocent sharks. Not only because it was a different time with different values but because coming straight out of the war like that I guess a more casual attitude to life is hardly surprising. It's the sense of a search to do something with life, the reluctance to let go of the excitement and camaraderie of army life - and a reluctance to grow up, and finally the love affair with place that all attract me to this book. If you're curious about it Tex Geddes' book Hebridean Sharker was reprinted a year or so ago. He's not the writer that Maxwell is, and quite a different personality, but it's interesting nonetheless.

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

  3. Can you tell me the name of the 22 year old who wrote the letter that you mentioned above? I need to track down a copy but until then, wondered if it was given in the book.