Over the last couple of years I've periodically checked amazon for copies of 'Harpoon At A Venture' in the hope that someone somewhere would think to reprint it so that I could replace my much read and finally disintegrating copy. Earlier this year my wish was granted - Birlinn have just reprinted 'Harpoon at a Venture', even better a copy landed on my doorstep in a delightful and unexpected way.
I'm deeply attached to this book, I wrote about it here last year, and thought about it a lot more after reading Hebridean Sharker (also republished by Birlinn). 'Hebridean Sharker' is the book that Tex Geddes who had been part of Maxwell's crew wrote about his experience of shark fishing. Most of it takes place after his time with Maxwell and the two books compliment each other nicely. Geddes was a larger than life character and certainly a memorable element in 'Harpoon At A Venture', 'Hebridean Sharker' is full of great stories and is an entertaining book which in turn shows just how good a writer Maxwell was because 'Harpoon At A Venture' is in a different league.
I've read it many times over the years, each time finding and taking something different from it. At first I saw it basically as a tale of adventure, albeit one that ends badly, later it raised questions about conservation and the ethics of hunting, the last time I read it I thought far more about what it had to say for a generation of young men adjusting to peacetime. Maxwell was a prolific hunter during his lifetime with a youthful passion for shooting in an era where game bags reached near genocidal proportions, the impulse he acts on when he first sees a basking shark is to shoot at it (which he does, and eventually from this inauspicious beginning the idea of the shark fishery is born), even in 'Ring of Bright Water' he's having homicidal thoughts about killer whales, yet it wasn't until Maxwell's fishing operation that biologists got round to taking a really close look at basking sharks.
It is still the war element of the book that fascinates me at the moment however. I find it hard to imagine the impact 6 years of war must have had on young men, because really what would you do with yourself if you'd come out of that to find yourself 30, with no career, and a skill set that probably doesn't fit you for office life? Shark hunting suddenly begins to look like a logical answer. For Maxwell there is also a class issue which in turn I also find fascinating; the pre and post world war for younger sons of the landed gentry must have been very different places - much of the Soay venture looks like an attempt to maintain the role of an officer and a gentleman and was likely a reason that it failed.
'Harpoon At A Venture' brings a time and place vividly to life, regardless of how you feel about hunting sharks it's a rewarding (I think important) read. This new edition has more pictures in it than my old copy which was an unexpected bonus. It's a book I can't recommend highly enough, it's my benchmark for nature writing (and in fact for all non fiction) and is one I know I'll read many more times over the years - perhaps eventually I'll be able to write about it in a way that does it justice.