One dram below par

Pondering the return to a school burdened by Covid restrictions, the return to wearing a mask and rushing through corridors between lessons because Years 7 and 8 are expected to pass their days confined in single classrooms, to continuing to implement the many measures expected by the government, there is a heavy heart, a feeling of being below par.

Reflecting on feeling recalled the use of the term “below par” in Compton McKenzie’s Whisky Galore. “It is a well known medical fact that some men are born at least one dram below par,” says Dr McClaren of the schoolmaster George Campbell in the 1949 film version of the book. The schoolmaster is a man who has lived his life in fear of a domineering mother, particularly in fear of her disapproval of intoxicating liquor.

In the story, the shipwreck of a freighter carrying 50,000 cases of whisky on the tiny Hebridean island on which they live, at a time during the Second World War when the whisky supplies have run out, provides an opportunity for Campbell to break free from maternal domination, and it brings a change in the attitude of his mother.

It is a light hearted comedy, but the point made by McClaren, played by James Robertson Justice who would go on to play various medical roles in films, is a serious one. The adjustment of the chemical balance in our brains has the capacity to make us different people. In the 1940s, when the film was made, psychiatry was still at the point where hospitals were carrying out damaging brain surgery in the hope of addressing mental health problems; lobotomies were performed as being thought the least worst way of dealing with difficult patients.

Dr McClaren tells us something that was known for centuries: change the chemistry and you change the person, or you at least change them temporarily. The schoolmaster Campbell becomes a lively outgoing person after partaking of whisky saved from the wreck, but when the effects of the alcohol wear off, would he not return to being the same George Campbell he always was?

Similarly, doesn’t the medication used in mental health have only a temporary effect? If the use of the medication is interrupted, don’t people revert to their former selves?

Having had bouts of depression since childhood years, there has always been the temptation to go to the doctor and ask for a prescription for something that might provide a “lift,” a temptation to say to the doctor that ordinarily I am “at least one dram below par” and that a suitable corrective would be welcome. But does one end up being something other than oneself? A friend talks of there being a uniform flatness when he takes the medication that he is prescribed, that the deep troughs into which he might sink are avoided; he also talks about there being what he calls a “greyness.”

Isn’t it better to be George Campbell as himself? There are days that are below par, but there are other days as well.

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