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.

Hannay of course lived to fight another day, going on in ‘Greenmantle’ to act as support to the theatrical Sandy Arbuthnot, who I may have confused with T E Lawrence in remembering him riding at the head of Arabs against the Turks in the First World War. ‘Mr. Standfast’, the third book in the series, was also set in the war, and had a dour hero who duly died, while the fourth book returned to intrigues in England, with a theatrical villain called Dominic Medina, who took three hostages for ransom. I believe there was an element of anti-semitism in the book, highlighting the different approaches to the post-War situation of different elements in the British establishment. The paternalism imperialists, such as Curzon, Milner’s Indian counterpart, lost out to the more ruthlessly self-interested such as Balfour and Churchill, who realized the importance of the great Jewish financial houses, and the role they ironically could play in a world order to be dominated by Anglo-Saxons.

The last Hannay adventure retreats to a distant Scottish island where Sandy Arbuthnot reclaims his position as a Scottish laird. Meanwhile Buchan had developed two other distinctively Scottish characters who were the heroes of two other series. One was a Glaswegian grocer called Dickson McCunn, who has at his beck and call a group of street urchins known as the Gorbal Die-Hards. After their first appearance in Scotland, they migrate to Eastern Europe, to a world of castles set on mountain crags and royal families riven by rivalries which can only be resolved by British interventions. The prototype was Antony Hope’s ‘The Prisoner of Zenda’, which gave the name Ruritania to this world. Buchan, it should be noted, took the genre to splendid heights of absurdity, when Dickson McCunn appeared swathed in purple as a substitute for a Roman type emperor, in ‘The House of the Four Winds’.

Buchan’s other hero was as unlikely, an elderly lawyer called Edward Leithen, whose most famous exploits were as a poacher, in ‘John MacNab’, which is about three such respectable gentlemen taking bets that they can get away with illicit game shooting on the country estate of an acquaintance. The book was also a vehicle for Buchan to write loving descriptions of Scottish highland scenery, a task in which he excelled, as I realized again when I was on a writing residency at Hawthornden Castle and thought the walks on the estate familiar – though in reality I am sure those comparatively modest slopes were nothing like as dramatic as the high hills on which Sir Edward Leithen pursued stags.

The other book which featured this strange hero that I remember was called ‘The Gap in the Curtain’, and was about a psychic who used his powers to enable five men to see a year into the future. The effort was so intense, that the psychic died in the process, and two of the men saw in the Times of a year hence notices of their own deaths. I cannot remember what was foreseen by two of the others, but the last man saw the increased usefulness of a particular metal, which he then proceeded to buy up so that he had a monopoly – only to see his efforts wasted and his money lost when a young American chemist produced a synthetic variety.

Of the two men who saw their own deaths foretold, one was so upset that he wasted away and duly died. The other nearly went the same way but, fortified by love, decided he would live on manfully, and was rewarded when the notice turned out to refer to a cousin of the same name. Such plotting suggests why Buchan cannot really be described as a great writer, but the tale was gripping in the telling, and recalling my involvement while reading them – this particular book I read in the Government Agent’s Lodge in Kandy, a large rambling house which now alas is used for office as well as residence for the Governor – I feel it a waste that his novels are hardly known to new generations.

It was Penguin I think that decided in the sixties to reissue ten of his books, the five Hannay ones, the three involving Dickson McCunn, ‘John Macnab’ and, not ‘The Gap in the Curtain’ which I found in a separate edition, but Buchan’s autobiography, which is called ‘Memory Hold the Door’. I read that up on Kirk Oswald Estate in Bogawantalawa, all alone in one wing of the large L-shaped bungalow, while my host and his family were in the other wing, and I stayed up till nearly four to finish it. The book was a fascinating account of a life of continuing effort and imagination, which took him from a modest Scottish childhood through the educational excellence of a grammar school to Oxford and the immense opportunities that opened up.  He wrote too of Milner’s proconsular world, of journalism in London and then a stint in the war, and then an administrative career that culminated in his being the King’s Representative in Canada – which involved some nifty public relations work when Edward VIII had to abdicate and be replaced by his comparatively dull brother.

I have no doubt that it was because of his writing that I have included John Buchan here. But it is nevertheless fascinating that he should also have lived a life that exemplified so much of what he celebrated in his books.

Island 28 July 2010