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John Buchan, 1st Baron Tweedsmuir GCMG GCVO CH PC (26 August 1875 – 11 February 1940)

The most forceful exponent of what might be termed the public school ethos in literature was, I think, a Scotsman called John Buchan. He had been to a grammar school himself, but Scottish schools of the better sort had long had a more intellectual tradition than English ones. Having gone on to Oxford, Buchan then joined the imperial enterprise in its most stylized form, as a member of what was termed Lord Milner’s ‘kindergarten’.

Milner, who governed South Africa, surrounded himself with bright young men, generally not aristocrats but those who had graduated through a public school and Oxbridge education into the ruling class. Buchan ended up his most famous product, as a writer who propagated the ethos and also as Governor General of Canada, the office he held when he died. Interestingly enough, he did his best during his tenure to assert a Canadian identity, albeit in the context of the wider British Empire. And he was one of the early proponents of a Scottish Parliament, suggesting that he had understood well that Empire, like the British ruling class, would flourish when it was not restrictive. He was a great proponent of multiculturalism and pluralism, though whether this would have extended to those with skin of a different colour, as Paul Scott was to characterize later the hump that many imperialists could never get over, is not a question that can be answered readily.

Buchan’s most famous creation was Richard Hannay, who appeared first in ‘The Thirty Nine Steps’, which can lay claim to being the first spy adventure story. It has been filmed often, and never ceases to thrill, most dramatically when Hannay believes he has escaped his pursuers because of a kindly old gentleman, who turns out to be the chief villain of the piece. I can still remember how I felt suspense mount, when I first read the book, well over forty years ago, gradually realizing that the relief Hannay felt as he turned towards his benefactor was to vanish with the understanding that he was well and truly captured.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

July 2010
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