Whisky Galore by Sir Compton Mackenzie

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Whisky Galore by Sir Compton Mackenzie

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Category: Humour
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Ani Johnson
Reviewed by Ani Johnson
Summary: This acerbic look at life in the Hebrides during WWII brings out a wealth of characters and a richness of gentle amusement, plus a couple of outright guffaws. Definitely better than the film and the film was very good.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 288 Date: September 2012
Publisher: Birlinn Ltd
ISBN: 978-1780270920

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The inhabitants of Great Todday and neighbouring Little Todday enjoy embrocation provided by a tot or two of whisky. Unfortunately this is war time. To date the sacrifices in the Hebrides have included their young men and a token black-out (the harbour lights remain on so there seems little point) but more follows. The water of life itself is becoming scarcer and they're approaching Lent. The timing is unfortunate as they don't exactly give it up for Lent, but drink extra as Shrove Tuesday approaches in the spirit of the season. So, as supplies dwindle to extinction, imagine their surprise when a ship containing practically a million bottles of it en route to America founders off the coast. The community launch a covert army-like operation to liberate the alcohol, fighting, planning to outwit not the Germans but the islands' Home Guard, HM Customs and Excise and an inept British Intelligence officer. Easy then? Well, an easier task than that which local headmaster George Campbell has. He wants to get married but his mum won't let him.

Edward Montague Compton Mackenzie (you can see why he shortened it) wrote Whisky Galore in 1946 as a tribute to the Hebridian island of Barra where he lived prior to moving to southeast England two years before. The idea came to him when SS Politician was wrecked off the Barra coast, requiring the rescue of its alcoholic cargo by Mackenzie and his compatriots. He says that the events are unconnected but we can almost see him wink as he writes about the good ship Cabinet Minister and the ensuing events.

As we'd expect, the book is very different from the 1949 movie that regularly appeared on TV during my youth, not focusing as much on the rescue mission and the hidden contraband. We are shown a broader canvas painted in a gentle well-observed humour stylistically akin to early Last of the Summer Wine (when it was funny) and a clever pun or two. (Great and Little Todday to name but two.)

We cringe with poor George Campbell as he tempers his love of local lass Caitriona with his justifiable fear of a mother who threatens to move to Glasgow each time he tries to develop a spine. We warm to Sgt Major Fred Odd, an English outsider brought in to train the Home Guard. He too loves a local girl but his progress is impeded by the alcohol drought itself. (Near the end there's also a wonderful cameo appearance by his mother to whom everyone resembles someone else, even… You'll see what I mean!)

Drifting under the gentle comedy is an equally gentle observation. The rest of Britain is fighting a war to remain free in both will and governance. However the Toddays (and by assumption, the real life Hebrides) are dictated to by military occupiers – the English incomers. Fred's presence is partially accepted but he still has power over the previously enclosed island community that they resent and resist. This is even more evident in the case of an Intelligence officer sent to investigate defeatist talk. Posing with delicious ineptitude and little research (on his part) as 'Mr Brown', a tweed merchant, he comes up against a subtle repulsion and a brick wall that he's too thick to recognise or circumvent.

Compton Mackenzie died in 1972 after a full life, fascinatingly recounted in this edition's notes by Roger Hutchinson. Sir Compton also left us with a full legacy beyond print. His novel Monarch of the Glen spawned the popular eponymous TV series and his novel Keep the Home Guard Turning is rumoured to have inspired Dad's Army. As for Whisky Galore, considering Hollywood's appetite for rediscovering past treasures, aren't we due a remake?

A special thank you to Birlinn Ltd for supplying us with a review copy of this book.

If you've enjoyed this and would like to more fiction about the past Hebrides, try Island of Wings by Karin Altenberg. If it's the quirky characters and the gentle humour that attracted you, we suggest the charming (although non-Hebridian) Harold Fry.

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Buy Whisky Galore by Sir Compton Mackenzie at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Whisky Galore by Sir Compton Mackenzie at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
Buy Whisky Galore by Sir Compton Mackenzie at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Whisky Galore by Sir Compton Mackenzie at Amazon.com.


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