21 September 2011

Bananas and dried shark

From the ADB biography of Ian Ramsay Maxwell (1901–1979), professor of English at Melbourne University -
Maxwell's bravura performance of Robert Burns's 'Tam o'Shanter' was famous, as was the occasional shedding of an emphatic tear. Only late in the piece did he realize that one could lecture on a poem without knowing it by heart. At informal gatherings he would sing affectingly.

Maxwell held his chair at Melbourne until the end of February 1968, surviving sturdily into the new Leavisite era of literary moralism. He published little, being chiefly famous for his spellbinding lectures and for his latterly acquired enthusiasm for Old Icelandic language and literature. His study in the Old Arts building was legendary for its aged furniture, bookbinding equipment, overproof rum and 'deliquescent bananas', though few colleagues could be persuaded to sample the slab of dried shark which he brought back from one trip to Iceland. In 1966 he was appointed (chevalier) to the Icelandic Order of the Falcon. He derived joy from his remote bush camp at Howqua, whence came the story of his climbing a tree with a knife between his teeth, seeking to cut the throats of cormorants. His enthusiasm for axemanship was pronounced, and in one letter he wrote: 'some swine stole my axe, and I had a mild headache for a day and a half as I thought out what I should like to do to him'.

After his retirement, Maxwell was widely said to spend six and a half days at the university instead of seven. His clubbable, informal reading groups in the Norse sagas continued unabated, and there was a private edition of his useful pamphlet on rhythm and metre, Scansion Scanned (Melbourne, 1967).