?The future's just the past entered in through another gate." One of Victorian dramatist Arthur Wing Pinero's best lines. The story of how my father's remarkable book came to be republished forty two years after it first appeared, is a very good example.
Early in 2005, with the arrival of the Freedom of Information Act, the SS Politician began to surface with news that apart from the 250,000 bottles of whisky, there was ?3m in Jamaican currency on board - ?90m in today's value. Given that the ship was initially bound for the Caribbean in that cold February in 1941, new though unsubstantiated rumours appeared that this was spending money intended for the Windsors, in case Hitler had invaded and they decided not to wait to look the East End in the face. That Winston Churchill was up to his neck in the Politician's preparation. These have yet to be proved, but these reports fed an already growing fascination on what really happened, which had been stoked by regular reports in the press that the film Whisky Galore was being remade. It seems it was time to take a new look at this dusty slice of Scottish wartime history, particularly here in a newly devolved and increasingly self confident Scotland. Yet in all excitement , it was widely acknowledged that though long out of print, Arthur Swinson's Scotch On The Rocks, the original true story of what really happened, had never been surpassed.
One Autumn evening in 2004, I received an unexpected invitation to a supper party at the elegant premises of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society in Edinburgh's Georgian New Town. Local expert Keith Hewitt was displaying his extraordinary collection of SS Politician artefacts from the wreck, followed by two film producers and script writer Bill Bryden discussing the forthcoming remake of Whisky Galore which they promised would centre on the true story. In their hands: rare copies of Scotch on the Rocks!
(Explaining its sudden stratospheric price rise on Amazon). Such was the excitement in the room, there was the extraordinary sight of Edinburgh ?maltocracy' enthusiastically whipping out their chequebooks to back the film.
Islander Duncan McInnes, a remarkable gentleman, then described the weeks he had spent salvaging the whisky as a teenager. How the women islanders would give their menfolk hell, for returning trip after trip, with just more and more whisky, at a time of the severest wartime rationing. When at risk, out there on the rocks, lay the real treasure - food, crockery, furniture and upholstery - just waiting to be salvaged. Men! He described his mother's pleasure when they brought back bales of calico which were used for decade afterwards on the island for curtains, cushions and underwear.
That evening, early childhood memories resurfaced: my father returning to our home in Hertfordshire after weeks of living on, what sounded like, a cold, desert island. He brought back a bottle full of white sand, and a blue and yellow tartan rug which for years afterwards served as a tree house tent or a magic carpet for my brother, sister and me. A second flashback: fresher's week at Edinburgh University and my astonishment on being told by a lecturer, that Scotch On The Rocks had been a best seller, and that everyone I would meet in Scotland aged over forty would have a copy in their bookshelves.
Sir Compton Mackenzie always described Whisky Galore as a modern fairy tale. But the true story, as Arthur Swinson found after weeks researching on the islands, was a grittier, far more textured affair, which curdled into island life with few neat and happy endings. As he writes, ? to anyone who insists on a moral, one can only state I think, that faced with these extraordinary circumstances, the rash became rasher, the drunken more drunken, the avaricious more avaricious, the convivial more convivial, the generous more generous , the treacherous more treacherous, the selfish more selfish, and the commercial more commercial.?
Frankly, it was always a mystery how on earth my father - very much the moustachioed, Sandhurst and public school educated English army officer - could ever have persuaded the islanders to open up. Yet Arthur was no posturing, Captain Waggett, but someone who had grown up through the Depression with few luxuries, winning his way on scholarships. He also loved people and, larger than life, could always create a party with his stories. It must also have helped, he was generous to a fault when buying a dram! But I believe it was principally through his seven years in the ?Forgotten Army', serving in Burma, India, Assam and Malaya, that he found the means to connect to Hebrideans, so many of whom had shared his experience.
Scotch On The Rocks is therefore as much a journey of self discovery, as that of a celebrated ship. Page after page, you can feel that south east English stress slipping off Arthur's shoulders as he encounters the kindliness, prickliness and integrity of island life, and begins to process the trauma of his own war years. Open minded, with a nose for truth and a fine eye for detail, he cuts the islanders some slack, seeing them as neither cut out cardboard thugs or heroes, just real people making ends meet, in an unfamiliar world he must come to know. Scotch On the Rocks remains an extraordinary piece of travel writing, vividly evoking a Hebridean way of life which had changed little since wartime.
The manuscript has not been changed nor updated, but deserves to be seen in its own terms, in its own time. When Arthur arrived at Eriskay in 1962, wartime rationing had ended only a few years earlier, and with the 1960s yet to swing into action, deference ruled. Like all his generation who had lived so intensely through World War Two, he retained a faith in national institutions, the landed Establishment and centralised Westminster government, which may seem strange from today's more cynical perspective , but he did not hesitate to rattle cages and refused to take no for an answer.
Arthur did not have the advantages of the Internet, nor any Freedom of Information Act. War time ?D' Notices still bristled. But this story of how he managed to get round officialdom and solve the mystery of just why the Politician ran off course remains a masterly piece of detective work. Perhaps best of all, Arthur Swinson was a magical storyteller, with an energetic, sparse prose style which remains refreshingly contemporary. As the London Evening Standard observed at the time, Scotch On The Rocks is ?a rattling good read.'
Arthur Swinson died an untimely death from a heart attack aged 54, just seven years after Scotch On The Rocks was published. In total, he wrote over 30 books, mainly military history, as well as 300 radio and TV plays and documentaries, and even a musical. His creative connection to Scotland continued, in writing both the TV and Radio series of Dr Finlay's Casebook.
To those who knew him, he was a human whirlwind, always working on a thousand projects at once, paid and unpaid. In his home town, St Albans in Hertfordshire, he co-founded a still thriving theatre company and poetry society, and would regularly discomfort local councillors with popular petitions to save ancient trees, and period buildings from the bulldozers. In his professional life, he was a leading campaigner for Public Lending Right, and, as an executive committee member of International P.E.N., campaigned energetically for writers imprisoned abroad. He also loved helping ambitious, young people get that first break into the BBC - two of whom were radio presenter Susannah Simons and ?Harry Potter' film producer Mike Newell.
When Arthur Swinson died in 1970, hundreds packed into St Albans Cathedral for his memorial service, unable to believe that this extraordinary, huge, driven, kindly personality had actually left town.
Cold, commercial logic in a world of commoditisation of both books and authors , would suggest that there is nothing quite so dead as a dead author. But thanks to the imaginative vision of Luath Press, Arthur Swinson lives on, in this remarkable book.
His talent also endures for the future: in the lives and potential of his two grandchildren, Rory and Ella Swinson Reid, to whom this new edition is dedicated.
Why not spread the word: use your favourite social network!