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The Literary Dram

A Spirit in one hand, a Book in the other

The Whisky:  Dimple 18 years

www.dimplewhisky.com

The Book:  Her Privates We by Frederic Manning

It’s been a century since the outbreak of the First World War. Dimple whisky first appeared in the late 1800s, so the odd bottle could have made it to the troop depots of France. An uneasy pairing nonetheless, the whisky being made by John Haig and Co, a firm whose family included Douglas Haig, Commander-in-Chief of the British Army, the man who bore responsibility for the catastrophe that was the Battle of the Somme. The same battle that the soldiers have just dragged themselves from in the opening pages of the novel.

THE WHISKY

From the indented, triangular bottle with the gold mesh comes a blend of malt and grain whiskies. It’s a light, golden amber in colour, and offers a mildly sweet, malty nose, showing some pepper, showing some spice. In the mouth it’s firm and smooth, an energetic, rewarding sipper. Ageless, and lasting well into the night. (40% abv)

The distilling history of the Haig family can be traced back 400 years. In the early 19th century John Haig established the Cameron Bridge Distillery, which today stands as the oldest and largest spirit distillery in Europe, said to produce in excess of 100 million litres annually for the multitude of Diageo brands.

It was here, in 1826 that the very first grain whisky (the foundation of all blended Scotch) was distilled, in a continuous still invented by Robert Stein, a cousin of Haig. It was a forerunner of the Coffrey still, which set in motion the expansion and success of the modern-day Scotch whisky industry.

Dimple is one of the oldest and best-selling blended whiskies in the world. In the United States, where it is known as Pinch, it was so popular that in 1958 its distinctive bottle became the first bottle ever to be patented in that country.

Dimple/Pinch no longer has the stature it once held, but it does carry a distinct bit of distilling history.

THE BOOK

This is the unsung classic novel of “the war to end all wars”. I have never been more engaged with a novel of war, and been rarely more moved by a novel’s final few pages. That comes, in part, from having written about the First World War myself. And in part from reading a 1930 edition of the book first owned by a soldier of the Newfoundland Regiment who fought on French soil in that same war, who, as he turned the pages, must have found it all so achingly familiar.

Author Frederic Manning wrote from his personal experience of the war. A native of Australia, Manning had settled in the UK, where, in October of 1915, he enlisted in the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry. The following year he marched as a private to the Battle of the Somme, as did the novel’s central character, Bourne. The two were much alike.

Manning survived the war. A decade passed before he was convinced to combine his writing talents with his experience of the trenches. The result was The Middle Parts of Fortune, released anonymously in a limited edition in 1929. The following year an expurgated version, missing some of the strong language, was published widely as Her Privates We, again authored by “Private 19022”. Manning died six years later, and it wasn’t until 1943 that he was credited with authorship of the novel, and not until the mid-1970s was the book republished in its original version. It appeared once again under its first title, although lately the shorter, more interesting title Her Privates We, has come back into use.

The novel starts and ends with battle scenes, but the long middle section is the focus of the novel — the day-to-day drudgery of the foot soldier and the relationships that hold men together in war, in dread of what will inevitably drive them apart. Bourne is hardly what one would expect of an army private — the intellectual superior of most of the officers he is serving under, a recluse at times, an instigator at others. He speaks some French and is very good at scrounging the luxuries of food and drink (including whisky) that others are forced to do without. He is acutely observant of the war in all its aspects. He befriends a select few that include the obstinate Shem and the under-aged Martlow, with whom he has little in common except a private’s experience of war. For Bourne, that seems to be all he wants, and not the officer commission the higher-ups are pressing for.

No novel of the First World War gives a more intimate experience of the regular soldier’s life. Even so, Her Privates We has remained little known as compared, for example, to All Quiet on the Western Front or A Farewell to Arms. Hemingway himself called it “the finest and noblest book of men in war I have ever read.” It surely deserves renewed attention on this the centenary of the Great War.

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