Friday, 10 November 2000
Compton Mackenzie: Whisky Galore (1947)
Edition: Penguin, 1983
Review number: 679
The best known of Compton Mackenzie's novels formed the basis for a classic Ealing Comedy - which is, of course, why it remains so well known. Like another of the popular films produced by that studio just after the war, Passport to Pimlico, it is essentially a satire attacking the absurdities of rationing, which continued in Britain for some years after the war.
One of the strange events of the war was the export of virtually the entire production of Scotch whisky to the USA, to the point where there was a shortage in Scotland itself. This was particularly hard felt on the fictional Todday islands, which ran dry of their traditional drink, until the US bound vessel the SS Cabinet Minister ran aground of Little Todday, making the thousands of cases of whisky aboard available for illicit salvage. (This is actually based on a true story, the wreck of SS Politician off Eriskay.)
The wily islanders ha cross to bear, in the shape of officious Home Guard commander Paul Waggett. He is forever trying to inspire them with his own ideas of efficiency and the right attitude to the War. He is one of those people who spend ages telling you how they could have won the war in no time - if only he had been consulted. Hurt by the authorities refusal to make guarding wrecks the business of the Home Guard, he tries to stop the pilfering of the Cabinet Minister; it is hardly surprising that he has little effect.
Less happens in the novel than in the film; like Monarch of the Glen, Whisky Galore is a gentle comedy. Mackenzie is described on the cover of The Highland Omnibus, in which these and a later novel The Rival Monster are reprinted, as "the forerunner of Tom Sharpe"; while there are parallels in their humour (ludicrous situations getting out of hand, subversion of establishment and authority figures), Mackenzie does not have the scatological edge that Sharpe has. It would be hard to see a way in which condoms or blow up dolls could appear in a Mackenzie novel, even if it were updated to the year 2000; his writing is more genial and not as aggressive.