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Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Compton MacKenzie, Rockets Galore

Planning a trip to the Outer Hebrides, I came across Rockets Galore, the sequel to Whisky Galore, the story of what happened to a cargo of whisky wrecked on the Toddays near the Uists that was riotously filmed. Rockets Galore is a farce, true, but also a political satire. I will be brief with the story so I can comment on the satire. The government of the day (1957) wishes to set up a a rocket base and training camp in the Hebredean islands of Todday (Erisay). Such a base was set up in the Uists. To do this they must terminate the tenancies of crofters and resettle them elsewhere. Some locals can see a profit in it, others (such as those about to lose their homes) are opposed. There are public meetings, visits by bureaucrats and politicians. It is actually a fait accompli, and consultation is for no purpose. Nevertheless, government plans are thwarted. The locals realise that they become number one targets for Russian missiles; and also that their way of life would be destroyed. Readers are reminded of other imperial disasters - Nasser in Egypt, Archbishop Makarios in Cyprus.

There is a history in Scotland of clearance from crofts, often by burning families out. The politicians are unaware of people as people - they are just pawns to be moved around. Politicians are depicted as basically stupid and self-serving, hearing only what they want to hear. This is largely still true, as politicians are obsessed with their political futures. The hero of the book, Hugh changes sides and realises that politics is not an ethical way to earn a living. Sectarian religion (Catholics and Protestants) comes together, symbolised by the marriage of Hugh to a Catholic Irish folksinger. The Catholic priest sets an ethical position: rockets, praised as deterrents by governments, are designed to kill en masse. As all sides build deterrents, the chance of world disaster is increased. It is much better to talk.I remember the period well through boyhood memories in Lincolnshire. A nearby WW2 aerodrome became the base for Bloodhound surface to air missiles produced by the Bristol Aircraft Company with Ferranti's help. About 2 dozen stood pointing east, the central missile warhead clustered around with rocket burners. MacKenzie describes them as obsolete, so that the government wanted to sell them to NATO.  By the end, it is clear that political decisions can and ought to be challenged. Civil disobedience works. (Machinery is sabotaged, food and accommodation are refused). But finally, it is not the justice of the case which wins, it is the human obsession for rarity, as hordes descend to find rare birds.