Tuesday, 29 May 2007

Rehabilitating John Buchan

There are many things which come back to irritate me at regular intervals, that probably seem trivial to the bulk of the population, but for some reason grate me. One purpose of these 'lead tablets' is to get them out in the open and so lift some of that irritation from myself and to show people my particular perspective on these things, a perspective they are free to agree with or challenge or ignore as they feel fit.

Now, whenever a version of 'The Thirty-Nine Steps' (there were versions made in 1935, 1959 and 1978) is shown on television, someone writes in the review 'based on the book by the anti-Semitic author John Buchan'. I have no time for anti-Semites (i.e. people who hate Jews) and I once dumped a friend immediately when she spouted anti-Jewish views (I stand up equally strongly for Arabs not to be prejudiced against either), but I do have time for John Buchan (1875-1940). In some ways he stood for things I am opposed to, the nobility (he ended his life as Baron Tweedsmuir) and imperialism, but certainly in the novels of his I have read I have not detected anti-Semitism which is why I get irritated when he is labelled constantly that way. He acted as a journalist and as an intelligence officer, being UK Director of Intelligence at the end of the First World War. He was a Conservative MP 1927-35 and ended his life as Governor-General of Canada. He published almost 30 novels, 7 collections of short stories and about 60 historical books, political tracts and even a tax guide. You can find one of his short novels, 'The Power-House' in available in its entirety online and extensive extracts of his other novels are also available if you surf for them.

Buchan is best remembered for his Richard Hannay books, 'The Thirty-Nine Steps' (1914), 'Greenmantle' (1915), 'Mr. Standfast' (1919), 'The Three Hostages' (1924) and 'The Island of Sheep' (1936). These stories drew on his own expertise as an intelligence officer, from South Africa and living in London. They are of their period and exhibit attitudes of the time such as a hostility to foreigners (though this is one that has persisted in the UK into the 21st century). Hannay is a so-called 'clubland hero' but unlike the heroes of other similar authors of the time such Dornford Yates and Sapper, he is more of a self-made man, a mining engineer originally from Scotland, (a country which influenced Buchan's work, for example also in 'Castle Gay' (1930)) who though he has experience in intelligence and warfare from the Boer War (1899-1902) is in fact an amateur who gets drawn into conspiracies. Buchan manages to bring excitement and realism to his plots, including incidents during the First World War which must have been difficult given so many people were affected by it at the time he was writing. The well written adventure of these stories often with themes that chime with us today is one reason why they have outlived many of their contemporaries. Even in 1988, Thames Television produced two series of dramas entitled 'Hannay', set in 1912, two years before 'The Thirty-Nine Steps' and based just on Buchan characters not actual stories, shows the kind of appeal the concepts retained. 'The Complete Richard Hannay' an anthology of the five original books was published as late as 1993.

To some extent, though an amateur, Hannay able to charm ladies (though as was typical of the time he marries and has a son in the later books) and mix in different levels of society he forms a link between Sherlock Holmes and James Bond and his legacy runs on into spy novels of the 1960s and 1970s such as the 'Harry Palmer' novels of Len Deighton and Robert Ludlum's Jason Bourne character recently seen in movies ('The Bourne Identity' (2002), 'The Bourne Supremacy' (2004)). These later characters are professionals but like Hannay are important for readers in an age when we feel we are at the mercy of faceless conspiracies and the machinery of governments and their networks (as people really began to feel for the first time during the First World War, a sense that peaked again during the Cold War), the individual, though at times cynical of what he can achieve, can make a difference through cunning, good humour and with a moral sense too of what is ultimately good and bad for the world.

So, this is really an appeal for television reviewers, next time, do not write 'John Buchan - anti-Semite', read the books and see that he was a man of his age with attitudes of his age, no less attractive than those of many authors today, and see that he wrote exciting but realistic stories that decades afterwards people were keen to film (another screen version, probably for television, of 'The Thirty-Nine Steps' is being discussed, apparently).

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