Monday, January 12, 2015

Keep The Home Guard Turning - Compton Mackenzie

Mackenzie is best known for 'Monarch of the glen' (much better than the TV series, or at least nothing like the TV series and very good) and 'Whisky Galore' (made into what is probably my favourite film of all time) but he wrote almost 100 books a few of which I've picked up over the years. After watching 'Whisky Galore' over Christmas and still being in the mood for something Island based after 'A Tangled Web' it seemed the ideal time to search that pile for something appropriate.

'Keep The Home Guard Turning' must have been popular in it's day as my copy is the 5th imprint (1951) of a book first published in 1943, 2 years after 'Monarch of the Glen' and eventually using some of the same characters. It's set on the same (fictional) Todday Islands as 'Whisky Galore' (written in 1947), my guess is it delighted Mackenzie to have the opportunity to go back.

I had some idea that this was a collection of short stories, it's not. What it is, is a meandering  comedy that gently mocks the excesses of war time bureaucracy, and perhaps less gently mocks a certain sort of Englishman. Mr Waggett has taken on the big house on the islands and the sporting rights (to the total indifference of the locals) which gives him the impression that he's the laird. He's also taken on command of the home guard. There is much that could be said to the detriment of Mr Waggett but the most damning point is that he likes his whisky with sweet fizzy lemonade added.

In the end very little happens but it doesn't happen in an amusing enough fashion to make the book very enjoyable, more especially if you have a fondness for the west coast of Scotland. What it has in common with 'A Tangled Web' is a genuine affection for a place and people and a delight in the absurd. For the islanders much of the war is absurd - it's pointless rules and regulations because when all is said and done they're very far away from the frontline. Their sons may be in the merchant marine, their daughters heading off to the mainland for jobs in factories, but back at home everything is much as it ever was - even rationing has a limited impact on people who live off the land (with maybe the odd poached grouse) and the sea (no shortage of lobsters) and are perfectly attuned to that way of life.

For fans of Monarch or Whisky Galore this is well worth picking up if you come across a second hand copy somewhere. It was certainly a very enjoyable way to spend a cold wet January weekend.


  1. Not being familiar with Compton Mackenzie, I've found your post interesting. Mackenzie's name is going on my list of authors whose books I'll be the lookout for when I find myself at a book sale (which is far too often!).

    1. I understand his output was a bit patchy but the 2 most popular, and therefore most likely to be found (Whisky Galore & Monarch of the Glen) are both worth reading

  2. I liked "Whisky Galore". This book sounds pretty similar, including the pompous, rich Englishman. The little I have seen of the "Monarch of the Glen" TV series did not impress me.

  3. Mackenzie recycles characters and setting from this book for Whisky Galore. The Captain Waggett of the film you can almost feel sorry for, but not this one! It's not as good as whisky galore but it's pretty good. With Monarch of the glen book and series have nothing in common at all. The book is much better having a genuine charm and warmth at it's heart. The TV series had some nice scenery. Don't be put off!

  4. I really want to read the two Lesbian satire ones set on Capri (Vestal Fire and Extraordinary Women) but they are hard to get hold of secondhand and a bit pricey new for something that might not be worth the outlay (she says, in a rare instance of parsimony).

  5. I will check which ones I have - there's a small pile of Hogarth press and old penguin copies lying around at home and Vestal Fire rings a bell. Will report back.