The Maggie by James Dillon White

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The Maggie by James Dillon White

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 3/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: A straight retelling of the Ealing film regarding the canniest small ship captain of the Western Isles, and his dealings with an increasingly frustrated magnate.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 208 Date: August 2014
Publisher: Birlinn Ltd
ISBN: 9781780272498

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Once upon a time, a Puffer in Scotland was not someone with too many deep-fried Mars bars and too much Bucky under his belt, but instead a small steamer, running errant cargo routes in and out of the great port of Glasgow, and taking small industrial output from one place to another – especially lesser, shallow-drafted harbours the bigger ships couldn't ply their trade in. McTaggart is Skipper to one Puffer, and a particularly rundown one at that. He and his three crewmates are in need of drinking money, as well, so when the rare chance comes of a job, he leaps at it. The job in hand, taking a special consignment to a remote island for a visiting American magnate, should be easy – but all of them, from Marshall the businessman down to the cabin boy, are surprisingly great at conspiring to make it the most drawn-out voyage The Maggie has yet to face…

It's easy to see why this story, in film form, was a standout for Ealing Studios. In those days, I'm sure, it was Ealing Does the Exotic, to have a film made so evidently on location off the coast of Scotland – and with an American in the lead, to boot. They could show a social commentary side to their humour that some films might have lacked – the hard-bitten and hard-done-by businessman, forever at the behest of needing contact, pressures, contracts and telephone business, as opposed to the whimsical, seen-it-all skipper who can drink anyone under the table and never appear less than sober, and forever land on his feet. But there's also a basic comedic trope at play – the cheering of the underdog. As one character helpfully explains it, The Puffer's the little chap. The public always likes the little chap.

So it may have been a good film. But does it bear revisiting on the page? Well, it's evident to say this book is from an age when book-to-film novelisations were not going to achieve literary greatness. Beyond Graham Greene working on film and book in parallel there was the basic adaptation that survived right up until the 1980s, if not beyond – simply putting the script down on page, with added he said, she saids and a bit of description. White does that himself – sometimes with very flowery description. As it stands, the transliteration he gives us is very basic, with only a few pages – principally towards the end, as Marshall's problems are internalised – that would add anything to watching back a DVD copy.

And that's the book's problem. I don't object to this lost piece of whimsy being made available in book form, sixty years after it was first (last?) published. In being so basic a retelling it shows up the canny inevitability the plot was foregrounding, and while some jokes just went whoosh over me there was a sense of the original humour on the page. I just think that with the passing of time that has made the ethos of so much of the humour – particularly the blatant culture clash – so ironed out to the point of becoming an anachronism, this book is not as essential as those fondly welcoming its arrival would hope. It's a vivid look through a keyhole, and a time-travelling look at that, but no' much more.

I must thank the publishers for my review copy.

In a different universe, I could see Ealing making a treasure out of books such as The Collected Works of A J Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin. Certainly, the studio made use of the subject of Alastair Sim: The Star of Scrooge and the Belles of St Trinian's by Mark Simpson. You might also enjoy The Witness by Juan Jose Saer.

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